Baile na hAilte


The History and Landscape of a

Nineteenth Century Irish Village




Daniel Pettit Junior

Parts of a Thesis

Submitted to the Division of Social Sciences

of New College of Florida,

in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree

of Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology


Sarasota, Florida

April, 2003





Revisions made by Hugh O’Donnell  April 18, 2007














Several people have provided me with guidance and support. My thanks to Thomas Johnston and James Kilbane for sharing their personal knowledge and research of the area with me, as well as Anthony Kilbane for kindling my interest in the area originally. I owe a great amount of gratitude to SarahJayn for help with surveying, photos, and various drafts. Also, Aaron, Toril, Emma, Claire, and Stewart for equipment and expertise. Financially, the project would not have been possible without the generous aid of the New College Alumni Association, New College Anthropology Association, New College Foundation, and my parents. Last but certainly not least, thanks to my sponsor, Uzi Baram, and everyone else whose name isn’t on this page but who has helped through various drafts and stages.




This study reconstructs and examines life in a nineteenth century village in western Ireland. By using historical documents, local folklore, research, and the landscape, this study attempts to examine the history, daily lives, and interaction of the area’s tenants, and to look beyond the strict dichotomy of ‘landlord versus tenant’ that characterizes much of academia’s current understanding of the subject. In order to do this, it was necessary to establish the background history of Ireland and the west, including colonialism and the notorious Irish landlord. A more localized view at nineteenth century life was then conducted, centered in Achill Island and the deserted area of Baile na hAilte. Finally, the site of one of the areas former villages was surveyed, and the landscape was compared to the history of the area in historical resources and folklore.







‘See,’ said she, pointing through a window in the stern, ‘there are the headlands of Achill, only a few miles from Clare Island,’ and I looked out and saw those black ramparts of rock upon which the ocean hurls itself in vain. (Machray, 1898: 10)



Figure 2 – Cliffs in Southern Achill




Inked over a hundred years ago, Robert Machray’s words go far towards explaining the awe and trepidation that greets visitors the first time they see Achill’s mountains. The island’s foreboding cliffs are among the highest in Europe, and for centuries they have held its western guard against the brutality of the northern Atlantic’s waves. The ocean touches everything on the island. Winds roll off it that strip trees and reshape shorelines. Thick mists ensconce the island and conceal any outside world. Frothy seas deliver dark storms that blanket the island in premature night, saturating fields and turning small streams into dangerous torrents. The weather has robbed the land. Rain has deprived the soil of minerals. Winds have stunted the growth of infant forests.


Figure 2 – Lithograpgh of Achill Island by the Society of Irish Church Missions, 1852. Achill Island is in the southeast corner of the map.



Despite its barren landscape, however, life is alive everywhere on Achill. Dolphins can be heard playing off the shores, passed by fishermen out of Achill Sound. Birds nest in the islands few trees and foxes hunt in its damp fields. Sunny days during the short summer bring flower blossoms of every color imaginable to the island and gardens of every variety spring up in backyards.

When mists clear, an assortment of green hues coat Achill’s mountainous horizon. Ancient potato ridges appear in the background with their vertical lines climbing the hills. Occasionally breaking through the ridges is the gray stone of ruined houses and crumbling walls. The fields and empty homes are at once both a remnant and remembrance of Achill’s residents from past generations, lending a perception of age to the island. Achill’s ancient monuments and grand mountains confer a sense of mortality, and even insignificance, to visitors.

Its inhabitants appeared used to living with the ghosts of their ancestors on the landscape. They had incorporated the buildings into local stories and folklore, they had turned former towers and villages into tourist sites, and they had strung new wire fences on top of more ancient stone ones. The former inhabitants of the land were at once something to both look up to and to pity. They had transformed the entire landscape, but what young generation ever remembered their history, or the lives of those who lived it? They had accomplished so much and were yet gone… the legacy of much of western Eíre in the nineteenth century.  

Rarely have Ireland’s many historians and archaeologists examined the lives of these former agrarian inhabitants. Archaeology, especially, has been mute on the subject. Until the last decade most authors in Ireland and across Europe have chosen to focus on grand landscapes and distant glories to the detriment of common voices from the past. The archaeology of Ireland has been an archaeology of megalithic tombs and medieval castles. The lives of subsistence farmers and the common people were left to folklorists and local historians.

This has been perhaps the most detrimental to medieval studies in Ireland. Today, authors who have sought to connect Ireland’s recent agricultural past with a more distant one have consistently found themselves bound by a lack of written records and sites. This was echoed by Thomas McErlean in his own work on the history of Ireland’s agriculture, leading him to conclude that, “[i]ronically, perhaps more is known about features of Early Christian agriculture than that of the later medieval time in the Gaelic parts of Ireland” (1983: 331). The seemingly endemic problem of ‘castle’ archaeology has also left a gap in the more recent history of the country. A much greater proliferation of documents as well as living memories have made this problem much less acute as in the medieval period. Nonetheless, it still exists.

Historians and archaeologists cannot be completely blamed for their shortcomings on the subject. Ireland has always had a preoccupation with its lower classes and its great Catholic majority that was subjugated to centuries of foreign domination. Unfortunately, it was a collective memory that was so strong that it was typically thought of as something that could be entirely studied through folklorists and living memory. Historians looked at the larger concepts of landlords and Anglo-Irish government and relations while archaeologists were concerned with a more glorious Gaelic past. Nearly a hundred years and the vast changes that have griped the land, meanwhile, have disconnected much of the country from a clear antecedent in its recent past and slowly eroded this memory. An increasingly small population has been left who can answer these questions and give accounts of life in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Ireland. Only now that this has come to pass have people begun to realize how many questions have been left unanswered.

Like it’s now barren and curious mountains, Ireland’s recent history is haunted by colonialism. It is tied to records that were left by English lords, and any history of the country that does not focus on their profound influence seems lacking. The history that has been focused upon has been these landlords and the relationships that they have had with the country. It has not been a forgiving history- there are no national heroes that were Irish landlords. There are no American founding fathers/plantation owners or more continental European barons that have had atrocities overlooked because of their so-called national or heroic personalities. Irish landlords have leached from a greater understanding in another way, because Irish history cannot seem to get over the role that they played in destroying the land.

It is of course a necessary story to tell and it would be appallingly untrue to deny the role that England and English landlords had in shaping the Ireland of either yesterday or today. In some ways it is to even be respected- Ireland’s historical view of its landlords and colonizers is decidedly more honest than many other countries’ views of its former ruling classes. On the other hand, overly focusing on them has only helped to extend their colonial influence into modern times. Ireland’s poor farmers and laborers had a rich history in their own right. It was shaped by millennia of development and adaptation into a Gaelic culture that not only refused to die, but actually evolved and thrived on the poor plots of land that its bearers made home.

This is something that has been long understood by folklorists that have sought to record the rich oral history of Gaelic groups. Surprisingly, it has been ignored by the majority of national or popular historians on the subject and left to only the most local historians to document. Archaeology, likewise, has had a poor track record for looking at either the most marginalized groups or more recent history. Recorded history has, however, showed its weaknesses in reconstructing life out of biased and colonial documents and folklore is becoming increasingly too distant from its subject to go it alone. Recent historical and archaeological work has begun to reevaluate itself in terms of this, not only in Ireland but also on an international level.

These issues go far beyond historical archaeology and its situation as a field. In any event, longer literary periods in European countries have blurred the strict separation of history from prehistory that is so prevalent among American scholars. The larger question in Ireland and Europe is the reconstruction of not only events, but also of past life ways. This method, according to Kathleen Deagan, “de-emphasized historic structures and foundations, and the ‘Barnum and Bailey’ syndrome”, in order to focus on everyday objects- the “by-products” of behavior (1982: 25). One of the most significant results, she wrote, “has been the documentation of historical disenfranchised groups in our own culture, providing alternative images of national identity” (1982: 25).

The issues presented by Deagan have been problems in Irish as well as American archaeology, and it is only now beginning to be addressed. Archaeology, however, is not always the only or even preferred avenue of inquiry. For a long time in Ireland, folklore has been another very intriguing and well-studied ‘by-product’ of behavior. Additionally, historians can and have been able to question the documents at their disposal and to highlight some of the hidden narratives in their own resources. Reconstructing the past life ways of Gaelic Ireland will never be complete without academic support between fields.

The goal of the researcher has been this reconstruction of the Gaelic farmers who struggled to meet a day-to-day existence and at the same time managed to continue their own traditions and create a society among their selves. It is not meant as another strict look at the colonial relationships and the role of the landlords, or any internal wars on the island between its Gaelic inhabitants and colonial settlers, though these have not been left out. In order to find such a quiet voice every source available has been used, ranging from original documents and the work of local historians to the folkloric tradition that still survives among some of Upper Achill’s inhabitants. These various approaches and sources have been combined, as much as possible, to look at the setting of a western Irish village in context. While some voices are more apparent than others, the final result will hopefully be some small insight into the life and environs of a small group of marginalized, disenfranchised, but ever culturally rich farmers and laborers.

The site chosen was a settlement near the southeastern tip of ‘Upper’ Achill Island. Called Baile na hAilte (town of the mountainside) by locals, it was once one of the largest settlements on the island. Today it sits empty- a series of stone heaps strewn across a green and barren hillside. Deserted sometime following the famine and with obscure origins in the past, it is a relic of long gone days. Outside of local history papers and the intimate knowledge of nearby villagers virtually nothing is known or remembered of Baile na hAilte.

          During its height, however, it was a teaming series of clustered homesteads and small villages that stretched across hundreds of acres and boasted at least eighty buildings. The inhabitants farmed, fished, and permanently transformed the landscape around them. Beyond simple means of subsistence, they also worked, traveled, and played. Many of them spent summer months in temporary villages or worked in Scotland, and they celebrated social events in the local church or shebeen (an unlicensed publican’s house), and around fires in their homes. The many visitors to Achill often wrote about these customs, both subsistence and otherwise. Their tales, and more contemporary research, is explored in the second chapter. Though few visitors ever made it as far south as Baile na hAilte, the traditions of the wider island will hopefully offer some insight into reconstructing the lives of its nineteenth century inhabitants.

          Those who did brave the horse-trails to map and write about Baile na hAilte are examined in the third chapter. Combining their stories with a developed background and wider body of local histories and folklore the site is explored in more detail. Maps and the personal knowledge of the areas’ descendants are used to show a picture of the townland that has almost disappeared from common knowledge.

          Many of these locals will say that as much about the former inhabitants of Baile na hAilte is told through the landscape that they depended on as in any folkloric tradition or history book. The fifth chapter is dedicated to a survey of a small, but self-contained, portion of Baile na hAilte. Today it is nearly the only example of the former society left. In this area, the use of space and landscape are explored to analyze past systems and beliefs. It is done under the assumption, provided by Mark Leone and others, that the landscape is a portal for viewing the ideologies of a people. Leone defines this ideology as “being neither worldview nor belief, is ideas about nature, cause, time, and person, or those things that are taken as given,” and the final chapter explores such beliefs through the visible remains left behind (1996: 372).

          In the end, however, the survey is only a small portion of the entire work. It was a documentation of how the people built and arranged their homesteads. It gave some insight into their daily lives, a viewpoint that cannot be neglected. At the same time, it was far from the only source of information. Very little would have been accomplished without the help of local historians, and the memories of those islanders’ whose ancestors once transformed the island’s boggy landscape.




II Colonial Ireland: 1169-1887




          Before it is possible to look at Ireland’s nineteenth century agriculturalists, it is important to understand the colonial background of the country. This began as early as 1169, when Anglo-Norman landlords began occupying the country during the reign of Henry II. At the time both countries were decentralized and predominately Catholic, and the intrusions were over land and lordly titles rather than beliefs or nationality. Over the course of the next several centuries, however, events drastically altered this situation. By the nineteenth century England had completely conquered Ireland and subjugated its overwhelmingly Gaelic Catholic population. England’s lords and barons, now Protestant, had become Ireland’s landlords, and a clash of cultures and beliefs resulted that would permanently alter the future of both countries. It was not until the twentieth century that the people of Ireland broke free from English rule, and by this time the influence of Ireland’s landowners was so great that history books and scholars had become obsessed with them.

The history and influence of Ireland’s landlords began at least as far back as the sixteenth century, when Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth led a Protestant reformation in England and spearheaded its development as a European power and modern state. In Ireland, this alienated Catholic clan chiefs as well as Catholic Norman lords that had settled from England. The movement towards a modern state had additional, and more immediate, effects in Ireland that included increasingly centralized conquest and control by England. It was not until the end of the Nine Years war in 1650, however, that Ireland truly became a colony.

Immediately following the Irish clans and Catholic Norman lords humiliation and defeat in 1659, England’s parliamentarian leader Oliver Cromwell began a new campaign to assimilate the land and people. Catholics that participated in the rebellion had their ranks and lands confiscated. Some were allocated new, reduced holdings in Ireland’s boggy and agriculturally marginal west. Most, once pauperized, were simply forced to relocate without new property into western Ireland. Catholic ownership had fallen from sixty to a mere twenty percent of Ireland by 1660.  The confiscated lands were given to a mixture of English soldiers, speculators, and war donors- opening the majority of the countryside for plantation estates and the immigration of new groups of tenant laborers.

After the death of Oliver Cromwell, Charles II and later James II, both Catholics, ascended to the English Crown. Despite the horrendous costs of the Nine Years War in life and land, the next few decades brought about some of the most relaxed tensions between the two islands in over a hundred years. What few concessions were made, however, permanently ended with the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the rise of William III and Mary II as the joint Protestant Monarchs of Great Britain. James II fled to Ireland and a new rebellion quickly emerged. After a year of initial success it was just as quickly defeated in two decisive battles at Boyne in 1690 and Aughrim in 1691. Catholic power in Ireland and England was crushed, and this was to be the last rebellion in Ireland for over a century. The Protestant Ascendancy had won. By 1695 only fifteen percent of the land in Ireland was still owned by Catholics.

When the now solely Protestant Parliament of Ireland met in 1695 it passed two new measures that declared the effects of its victory. The first was a prohibition on sending children abroad to be educated- so that they could not partake in foreign Catholic seminaries. The second was a bill declaring it illegal for Catholics to possess weapons. In its next session in 1697 the same parliament passed an act banishing all Roman Catholic Bishops and regular clergy. J. C. Beckett summarized:


Thus within a decade of the Boyne, the character of the new protestant ascendancy had declared itself. The practical toleration long enjoyed by the Roman Catholics was to come to an end, and they were to be deprived of every means by which they might threaten the position of the dominant minority. The era of Penal Laws had begun (1977: 152).


Anti-Catholic fervor continued to expand in the first quarter of the eighteenth century. A new series of laws, passed between 1704 and 1727, cemented their inferior status and had a profound influence on the subsequent history of the island. Catholics were banned from purchasing land or otherwise obtaining it from a Protestant through inheritance or marriage. They were first forced to swear an oath of allegiance to the Anglican Crown, followed by their complete disenfranchisement from parliament. Barred from public office and the military, even their right to vote was revoked. Finally, Catholic landlords were not allowed to bequeath land at will but only by gavelkind, or the equal division of land among all male children. This insured that the few large Catholic estates that had survived confiscation would be divided up within a few generations unless their owners converted to Anglicism.

Irish Catholics became second-class residents in their own homeland. The muddled lines of English, Irish, Anglo-Irish, Protestant, Catholic, Loyalist, and Parliamentarian that had crossbred and dominated politics over the previous centuries were simplified into the first clear use of the terms ‘Protestant Hierarchy’ and ‘Papists’.

          Nevertheless, the reality of the Catholic/Protestant dichotomy was not nearly as clear as it had been formulated in the Penal laws. Had they been followed strictly, there could not have been a Catholic left in Ireland after two generations because their would have been no priests left to baptize the population (the penal laws made it illegal to study as a priest- either in Ireland or abroad). Rather than decline, however, the Catholic population actually grew considerably in the first fifty years of the century. Catholics outnumbered Protestants by at least four to one, and large riots were often the result of enforcing penal law. England’s own monetary problems meant that its parliament was more concerned with making Ireland self-sufficient than dedicating the sizeable and expansive force necessary to annihilate Catholicism.

In any event, the plurality of Protestant interests muddled the debate. Sizeable non-Anglican groups such as the Ulster-based Presbyterians were subject to many of the same abuses as Catholics. They agitated for reform and became a gray area in the otherwise black and white religious divide. The majority of these were economically closer to the Catholic tenantry than the Anglican leadership. Radicals and the Protestant middle/merchant class also asserted a more liberal view towards acceptance and equality, particularly in the later half of the eighteenth century (Bartlett 1992).

          Justification of this entire hierarchy of Anglican, Dissenter, and Catholic came from a moral worldview, but fear was often the driving force behind the legal subjugation of Penal law. Most landlords in Ireland controlled confiscated estates that had belonged to Catholics less than fifty years ago. Memories of both the Nine Years War and the 1688 rebellion remained fresh in people’s minds, and popular books commemorated the bravery of Protestants while amplifying the savagery of the Irish during these campaigns (Bartlett 1992). As late as the 1790s conservative members of parliament spoke out against reform stating that if Catholics were re-enfranchised they would immediately try to retake their former holdings.

          What resulted was a mixture of motives and movement. A rising Anglican middle class had less to fear from rebellion but found itself more at odds with the English Parliament and its various tariffs destroying infant industries in Ireland. Presbyterian tenants in Ulster were denied office but given the right to buy property and sell improvements on their land. Catholic clergy still roamed the countryside of an established Anglican Church but were forced to give mass in caves and other hidden areas. A small Catholic middle class also arose during the time, composed of families who were able to make a successful transition from land ownership to business and merchant management.

The breakdown of this seemingly clear dichotomy is more apparent in retrospect. Officials could not enforce every penal law in every instance, and non-Anglican protestant groups blurred Catholic and Anglican lines. Finally, the birth of capitalism and a new middle class allowed many wealthy Catholics an outlet by which they could maintain fortunes and influence even without land. In a recent work, Thomas Bartlett has even questioned the assumption of a landless Catholic population (1992). Based on the fee simple, a term for the outright ownership of land, Catholic propriety of Ireland had been reduced to only five percent by 1776. Despite this, he wrote:


There were other types of land ‘ownership’ besides the fee simple, and there is some evidence to suggest that Catholics took advantage of these where they were assured of good return… Since Catholics were permitted to take leases of land for up to thirty-one years, the way was open for Catholics to indulge in lease speculation, and some did so. Such speculation was perfectly legal; less legal but still common was Catholic possession of thirty-one-year perpetually renewable leases, which in effect gave the leaseholders a near permanent interest in the land in question (1992: 47).



Some Irish Catholics also moved their holdings out of the country by purchasing land in France. Others converted to the Anglican Church but still continued to practice Catholicism in the home. All these means of bypassing seemingly strict Penal laws led Bartlett to conclude “[t]he Catholic interest in the larger sense actually increased in the heyday of what has been described as ‘Protestant Ascendancy’” (1992: 48). 

Events in the 1750s and 1760s radically altered the political situation in Ireland. Originally they centered upon the new middle class, both Anglican and Catholic, but quickly broiled over into a larger debate involving old alliances and the entire structure of Irish society. The dispute arose over English control of Irish markets, and soured relations between the landed Protestant aristocracy and merchants within and between both islands.

As early as 1663 England had enacted colonial trade laws against Ireland to bolster its own economy.  These laws barred trade between Ireland and the American colonies and stopped the exportation of Irish cattle and colored linens to England. Increasingly hostile, the issue erupted in 1753 when members of the Irish parliament sent a bill for review to England that asserted Ireland’s right to free markets. The English parliament rejected the bill, and nationalist riots erupted among both Dublin and Ulster based Protestants. Simultaneously, England’s own monetary problems led it to submit a separate bill calling for the creation of an Irish militia that would be open to Catholic recruits, and this only further infuriated the situation.

Though it quickly failed in the Irish parliament, the fact that a gesture of reform had been made was anything but overlooked by Ireland’s Protestant and Catholic populations. In its wake, members of the Catholic middle class responded by forming the Catholic Committee in 1756. Their first act was to address the fears of Protestants by submitting an oath of loyalty to the English government. This dispelled fears of Irish Catholics rising to support France or the Pope during the Seven Years war, and when it was finally submitted in 1774 it won support from many similar minded members of the Protestant middle class.

The Catholic Committee and the Oath of Allegiance were initially welcomed by the Catholic clergy in Ireland, but this relationship eventually soured (Beckett 1966). Before the Catholic Committee, the clergy represented the only unified voice of Catholics, and by the later half of the century the laws against Catholic education, bishops and regular clergy, and unregistered priests were increasingly ignored. The bishops recognized the challenge to their authority as well as the more liberal middle class ideology in the Catholic Committee. At the same time they did not care about free markets and unlike the middle class they did not want to challenge the Penal Laws and risk any retribution. Following the first relief bill in 1778 the clergy became increasingly contradictory towards the Catholic Committee.

Protestant riots in the 1750s were a sign of increasing separation of thought between English Protestants and their colonial counterparts in Ireland (Bartlett 1992; McBride 1998). The decades that followed also showed the fragmentary nature of Irish Catholics. The middle class, especially as represented through the Catholic Committee, became just as concerned with economic as religious freedom. Based on this and a new liberal ethos that de-emphasized religion across Europe at the time, lines of communication and a new solidarity between Catholic and Protestant members of the middle class arose. While middle class consciousness was becoming increasingly united across religious lines, the upper levels of Catholic Clergy were also becoming more cautious and reactionary in their approach. By the 1790s they had also crossed strictly religious lines and begun working with the English government in Ireland to curb rebellions and rising nationalism.

At the same time that these events were transpiring, the great majority of Catholics- now poor farmers, laborers, and transients, remained completely astride of their upper-class co-religionists’ movements. Class distinction, as it arose, separated religious groups at the same time that it opened cross religious communication. It underscores the fact that in the eighteenth, and even through the nineteenth century, Ireland was not simply a matter of Catholic Ireland fighting against Protestant colonizers.

As new questions of economic freedom arose among the Middle class, Penal law reforms swept Ireland. They were the result of concerted action and liberal petitioning across Ireland and the United Kingdom, but they were also a sign of more fundamental and wide ranging changes that were taking place across Europe. Between 1778 and 1793, four major Catholic reforms were sporadically passed.

Collectively, these reforms removed every penalty against Roman Catholics except for their right to hold office. They were once again allowed to open schools, bear arms, purchase land, and, with certain qualifications, vote. In exchange, Catholics who were to be eligible for these reforms had to sign the Oath of Allegiance originally submitted by the Catholic Committee and promise not to file grievances to regain their original lands. Just as fundamental, the reform bill passed in 1782 also separated the Irish and English Parliament, enabling Irish Protestants to rule their selves for the first time. Ireland still shared the executive branch of the English crown as well as a local executive branch (the Lord Lieutenant) appointed by England’s monarch, but the ability to rule within its own borders had finally been asserted.

After the reform bill of 1782, the next and final law was passed in 1793 under the leadership of William Pitt. By the time it had passed, Ireland and England had entered into a dangerous new period of relations. England had just entered into a war against Napoleonic France, and in Ireland there were increasing reports of sectarian violence.

The new guerilla wars in Ireland were the work of various Protestant and Catholic societies such as The Defenders. They were always local and always fought over grievances pertaining to one or a small group of specific landlords. Still, the English government feared that the spread of French Republicanism would cause a more general Catholic rebellion in Ireland. This was partially realized with the foundation of the non-denominational and nationalist United Irishmen in 1792.

Amidst these trends a period of oppression set in during the final decade of the eighteenth century, and the increasing militarization of the English government inflamed the situation. As tensions grew, the Protestant Orange Order and Peep O’ Day Boys were founded in 1796. Both quickly grew to memberships of over 100,000, and small-scale guerilla violence erupted across Ireland. Finally, in 1798 the United Irishmen and Catholic Defenders declared open rebellion. They were quickly overwhelmed by superior forces and defeated, but not before horrid atrocities had been committed on both sides.

This was the first rebellion in Ireland in over a hundred years, and it was far different from the Catholic uprising that Protestants had always feared. The majority of the United Irishmen were actually Protestant, and had allied themselves with the Catholic based Defenders in order to revolt for the complete independence of Ireland. The Irish yeomanry, though predominately Protestant, likewise boasted of Catholic recruits. The failed landing of 1796, the rebellion of 1798, and the constant local violence of the decade were more a result of republican sentiment, nationalist movement, and local grievances than it was a unified Catholic revolution. Despite this, the overall remembrance and representation of the violence in the immediate period that followed was along completely religious lines (Bartlett 1992; Haydon 1998)).

The rebellion signified the beginning of a great many changes in Ireland (Bartlett 1992; Beckett 1977). After facing rebellion in the midst of a war against France, both the Irish and English Parliaments passed the Act of Union in 1801. This bill dissolved the Irish Parliament and instead gave Ireland a proportional representation in the English Parliament. The governments of the two countries, in contrast to middle class Ireland’s original hopes of separation, were thus completely merged into the United Kingdom.

At the same time, the Catholic Clergy gained an increasing voice in Irish affairs. This was largely because of their vehement stance against the Rebellion of 1798, but it was aided by the disbandment of the Catholic Committee during the violence of the 1790s. In the following years, however, the Catholic Clergy became increasingly opposed to English dominance when, year after year, Catholic Emancipation bills were rejected in parliament. The failure of England to recognize Catholics’ equal status brought an abrupt end to the long period of reform.

Local priests had always acted as an arbitrator for disputes and a religious authority in their immediate community. Their acceptance by the Protestant Community gained a new significance when the priest also became the mediator between the villagers and their landlord as well as their representative for larger political affairs. Lawrence J. Taylor took this farther and described how it was played out on a local level:


The mediator between his parishioners and all sacred power, the priest, particularly in the far west of Ireland, may have been an important secular mediator as well. Where absentee landlords were the rule, local life was interrupted only by the occasional appearance of rent-collecting agents. This left a power vacuum for which the priest was a natural candidate. Not only were locals likely to use his special position to adjudicate disputes, but the landlord- Protestant as he typically was- often remained content in the knowledge that the priest could be relied upon to keep a general order on his estate. For the priest’s part, of course, he, and indeed his whole national Church, had grown comfortable under the protection of the Protestant ascendancy (1985: 704).


The final passage of Catholic Emancipation did not occur until 1829. The furious debate that had preceded it saw not only the rise of mass politics and the politicalization of the Catholic peasantry; it saw the rise of the Catholic clergy as the medium of communication for this political movement. By destroying the Catholic middle class voice and associating with the conservative clergy and gentry in the 1790s, the Protestant Ascendancy had begun a process of religious empowerment that would greatly influence the course of events in Ireland to the present day.

The clergy’s role in this movement was profound (Bartlett 1992; Taylor 1985). The large local organization of the Catholic church and it’s influence among the peasant class allowed a dissemination of similar ideas throughout the countryside to an otherwise illiterate class that was relatively uninfluenced by other political events. In itself, the Catholic Church probably would not have become a political force, but the destruction of any surrogate voice and the acceptance of Catholic Bishops for the role by the Protestant establishment insured that they would fill the gap.

This power was first exercised when bishops and priests began to organize the vote of forty-shilling freeholders in the early 1820s election. The purpose of this was to put pressure on the English Parliament for emancipation. As the only Catholic authority over so many groups of poor, uneducated peasants it is easy to see why they were so successful. Though the end of the vote for the forty-shilling freeholder came with Catholic Emancipation (largely as a result of this election), the final outcome was that the Catholic clergy not only maintained religious authority over the majority of the population, but also gained a political authority among the general populace. This was expanded even further by the Protestant Hierarchy’s acceptance of the clergy at the time. Their role as mediators to Dublin castle has already been established. The local sectarian warfare that had become so common in the 1820s and 1830s had been quelled by the time of the famine by an alliance of police and priests (O’ Grada, 1999).

This new political side of the church and its role in mediating between landlords and the peasantry made the clergy a influence for the development of nationalism in Ireland. Since the Irish Catholic establishment was centralized through the edicts of its archbishops, it became a great force for unifying thought and even action among local populations. Though religion in Ireland was closely tied to nationalism, however, the success of nationalism in Ireland does not necessarily contradict views such as those put forth by Benedict Anderson (1991). According to him, national movements only arose after the decline of religion and religious communities in Europe (1991). Even though the power of the Catholic clergy increased in Ireland at the time, the overall ideological coherence of Catholicism across different countries (through a central authority in Rome) was weakening. Catholics in Ireland were no longer necessarily ‘papists.’ Nor, since 1766, were Bishops in Ireland still being appointed by the Stuart family in France. Bishops were being appointed by Irish clergy and Catholicism in Ireland was no longer synonymous with Catholicism in France or Rome. The Priesthood was becoming a more middle class profession in Ireland that was increasing in both sectarian strength and religious authority at the same time that the overall power of religion was waning, and this allowed the development of a political, even nationalist, Irish clergy. Taylor adds, “If officially the power of the priest came to him from the institutional Church, that external institution was not so importantly manifest in local religious life” (1985: 703).

The events of the 1840s were to dramatically alter the landscape of Ireland and the question of land rights. The role and authority that had been bestowed upon local priests was to be both magnified and challenged after the Famine, especially in the question of tenant and land rights (Taylor 1985).

The formation of the issue, grievances, and its eventual solution was historically characterized as a late nineteenth century phenomenon that grew out of the Great Famine. The tragic loss of life, which is estimated around a quarter of the population through death and emigration, and the failure of the landlords and the English Government to stop it dealt a severe vote of no confidence to the ruling interest at the same time that it opened the land for new groups of investors. According to Donald Jordan:


The famine of 1846-50 marks a major turning point in the economic and social development of modern Ireland. Famine depopulation and Post-Famine land clearances and emigration accelerated a trend, established before the famine, of consolidation of holdings into larger, more profitable ones. The reduction in the number of subsistence producers that the Famine brought about allowed for a larger market surplus for those who survived the blight with their land holdings intact or enlarged, and cleared the way for the fuller commercialization of Irish agriculture. A rise in livestock prices, stimulated by a growing British beef market, further encouraged the consolidation of holdings and a switch from tillage to livestock farming. These demographic and economic changes brought new wealth and prominence to those with sizable holdings of good pasture land. Within the agrarian community the balance between the various classes of farmers shifted markedly to the advantage of the larger farmers, whose agricultural, inheritance, and marriage practices became the norm for Irish society (Jordan 1966 35).



The overall view of the landlord during the time was certainly negative. Obviously, his tenants despised him, but he was also despised by many of his English counterparts (Curtis 1980). The Irish landlord was viewed in contemporary writings as an absentee and a glutton that lived off of the poverty of his tenants. In reality, it was a sad cycle of events that was as much the result of English policy.

Out of control population booms had resulted in an island of over eight million people by 1841. They vast majority was overwhelmingly dependant on the potato for its ability to grow in marginal environments and produce high yields on small plots of land. Tenant right (the right of the tenant to be paid for improvements made to the soil or land at the expiration of his or her lease) did not exist in Ireland outside of small pockets in Ulster.

Logically, Irish tenants had no reason to invest money and time into improving their lots for other crops when landlords could easily and legally force them off the property and lease the improved land at a higher rent. At the same time, English landlords had been benefiting from such schemes for nearly a hundred years. Reimbursing tenants for improvements, in the long run, had resulted in more modernized agricultural methods, better soils on farms, and wider crop diversity. England also did not have Ireland’s endemic problem of rent arrears, which averaged as much as two years per tenant in some areas, because any rent arrears owed to a landlord were easily repaid by deductions from improvement payments when the tenant left. At the same time that Ireland did not benefit from this system, its landlords found their selves under increasing pressure to raise rents in order to pay debts and maintain the status quo set by their wealthier English counterparts. The Irish landlords simply had no interest in their tenants’ lands, and the English government had neglected to provide any legal impetus, such as tenant right, for it to ever occur. 

          This became tragically apparent during the famine. As rents decreased and tenants defaulted, landlords found themselves unable to keep up with their family debts. Banks foreclosed on property owners, and in 1849 the English government was forced to set up the Encumbered Estates Court to facilitate the auction of these estates, causing as much as one seventh of Ireland to change ownership over the decade.

The new landlords that arrived were very distinguished from their predecessors (Hoppen 1991; O’Grada 1999). They were primarily from a middle class Protestant background, which included many English purchasers, and they brought new notions of improvement, modernization, and industrialization to their estates. Many of the new owner’s favored pasturage or other non-intensive industries over rents. Their ideology was a mixture of English Enlightenment, Victorian Order, and a perceived failure on the part of the older generation of landlords who had brought the Great Famine to Ireland.

One of their most intrusive acts was their increasing tendency to take up residence on the properties they had bought. Unlike the old gentry, these were not wealthy aristocrats that lived as absentees in Dublin or England, or controlled vast estates that they could not simultaneously control. Many lived directly adjacent to their pastures and tenants. They were a part of the local scene, and both their proximity and their rationalization of an estate social structure challenged old lifestyles and the authority of the priest. They were also more likely to employ paid legal agents who enforced these beliefs and laws and actively intruded into local affairs (Taylor 1985).

The struggle between landlords and priests during and after the famine has been well documented in the period newspapers and folklore. The priests had become the political agents of the people in the first half of the nineteenth century, and the challenge of this social order by a new age of Victorian landlords in the later half of the century solidified it into a national movement in which Catholicism became synonymous with nationalism, as opposed to the foreign born, rational landlord.

At the same time, the Catholic born middle class was also beginning to reassert a political strength that it had not possessed since the demise of the Catholic Committee in the 1790s. The dramatic decrease amongst the population that was brought about by the famine allowed many members of this class to consolidate their holdings into larger leases or even purchase small farms outright. Theodore Hoppen (1991) wrote that by 1870 only six percent of the population rented two-fifths of all tenant land.

The Irish middle class was responsible in large part for founding societies such as the Land League and Fenian Brotherhood in the 1870s and 1880s. They were primarily lease speculators, large-scale tenants who made money by subletting their farms, local shopkeepers, or small property-owning farmers. They agitated for a more equitable distribution of land and for the right to purchase their holdings from the landlords. As both Catholics and generally respected members of the local community they held an authority almost equal to the priests that they used to incite disobediance and even rebellion against Ireland’s largest property holders.

These uprisings were no longer just a question of tenant right but of who had the right to own the land in the first place. Theodore Hoppen explains the situation:


Thus, although Irish landlords invested less in improvements than their English counterparts, it was often those who tried hardest to secure better agricultural practices, by means of grants for fences, the squaring of fields, drainage and fertilizers, who incurred the most opprobrium. It was often by contrast (as astonished observers uncomprehendingly reported) the most neglectful proprietors who were the most popular- for at least they eschewed minute interference and patronizing zeal (1991: 171).



          This was intimately bound with an ideological conflict between Gaelic Ireland and Victorian landlords. At the same time, Ireland in the eighteenth and nineteenth century was more than a strict dichotomy of Protestant and Catholic. It could best be described as a plurality of landlords, merchants, English Loyalists, and Parliamentarians legally segregated into Catholic and Anglican but blurred by their own internal differences and various external dissenter groups. At the height of English Penal law, the Catholic population of Ireland not only failed to decline, but actually grew, both numerically and proportionally, amongst the bitter struggle between these various groups. As the population of Catholics grew larger, however, its economic share dwindled. Though many Catholics maintained middle class status, leased land interests, and held clerical positions, the vast majority formed an underclass in Ireland about which relatively little is known.



Land Use, Social Structure, and the People of Ireland


          By the nineteenth century, the Irish hierarchy was dominated at the top by Protestant and a very few Catholic landlords. This was followed by factory and business owners who formed the upper middle class in the few modernized areas around Dublin and Belfast. In rural Ireland, merchants, small free-holding farmers, shopkeepers, and tenants constituted the majority of the middle class (Clark 1982). At the bottom of the Anglo-Ascendancy and Irish hierarchy was a population that rarely made it into property rolls or lease rosters. This underclass was composed of vagrant agricultural laborers and sub-tenants who made informal and generally short leases with tenants who in turn rented directly from the landlord. They farmed small plots and sold crops and livestock to make rents, often starving through bad seasons and constantly owing property arrears. When evicted, they would work harvesting cash crops in exchange for small potato patches, or traveling abroad to labor in English and Scottish factories. These landless laborers and sub-tenants were the bottom tiers of Irish society and the great majority of the ‘people of Ireland’.

In some of the poorest parts of the country the disparity between economic groups became even more acute. In many parts of western Ireland lands were rented to a collective group rather than any single tenant. They shared this small plot of land communally and lived a daily existence much like sub-tenants in other parts of the country. Often, they supplemented farming income by migrating seasonally to Scotland or other areas where they worked on larger farms.

The exact number of such tenants, sub-tenants, and landless laborers in Ireland is impossible to gauge, but must have represented the overwhelming majority of the population (Clark 1982). J.C. Beckett states that eighteenth century statistics were at best approximate, “but it seems likely that the population [or Ireland] was around two-and-a-half million at the beginning of the century, that it had risen to three million by the 1750’s, and to four million by the 1780’s” (1966: 173; parenthesis added). The 1821 census gives the population at roughly 7,700,000, and the census of 1841 gave a count of 8,175,000 on the eve of the Great Famine.

          At the same time that the population was growing, less and less land in the country was being dedicated to tillage. A Roman Catholic tenant could hold a lease of no more than thirty-one years until 1778. When a lease was up the landlord often let it out to public auction for the highest bidder. The situation of sub-tenants were much worse- they could rarely hope for a lease longer than one-year, or ‘at will.’ Ever increasing rents ensured a lack of capital and without even land security most tenants favored pasture farming over crops. Animals could be easily relocated and required little investment in the soil, and most of Ireland was well suited for cattle grazing. Unfortunately, the profits of pasture went into a very few pockets, and the increasing popularity of husbandry resulted in an ever-decreasing area of land for subsistence (Beckett 1966: 172-173).

          The high yield and resilience of potatoes made them the solution to growing demands for land and food, and the island’s acidic soil and damp, temperate climate was well suited for their growth. Cormac O’Grada (1999) quoted contemporary sources as giving an average yield of nearly six tons per acre at the dawn of the nineteenth century in Ireland. By the early 1840s daily human consumption of the crop had reached about five pounds per capita, and ten to twelve pounds per adult male in the bottom third of the population. This was compared to only six ounces in France in 1852 and twenty in Norway in the 1870s. Other countries relied less on potatoes because they were both expensive to transport and impossible to store for a long period, and there can be no doubt that the greater poverty of Ireland helped to ensure the success of a crop that was otherwise considered inferior. Prices also influenced their popularity in the poorest classes. The Corn Laws that had set up a sliding scale of tariffs to protect farmers from low cost wheat, rye, and oats from Eastern and Central Europe meant that potatoes were not only a plentiful but also particularly cheap food in the countryside.

As agriculture became more advanced in Ireland the potato was used for the same role in crop rotation as the turnip was in England, Holland, and other countries: it prepared the crop for grain and allowed livestock to graze. Because of Ireland’s poverty and the potatoes’ extensive use a system of conacre developed that was unique to the island. In conacre, landlords and tenants eschewed cash wages and instead paid their landless field laborers with small fields that had been fertilized with potato seeds. The majority of the population was thus almost completely dependant on the potato for subsistence. As long as they worked they would be allowed a small cottage and potato bed of an acre or less in size. They could continue to hold this property for as long as they were able to satisfactorily labor in their boss’s field, or until their services were no longer required. Since they were never paid cash wages they had no hope of ever being able to purchase their own plots or to ever elevate their status- they were given only bare subsistence. Many English travelers looked upon the Irish system of conacre in contempt. Writing in 1850, Sir Richard Caird stated that,




Nothing has contributed so much to the entire dependence on the potato, and the consequent increase in a miserable, half-fed, naked population, as the system of CON-ACRE LABOUR… It encourages a tenant without means to offer an exorbitant rent for land, which he pays by exacting one still more oppressive from his labourer. Its two-fold action is to raise rents, and depress wages, by over-competition. Enormous rents are exacted for the patches of potato ground, which are paid by the very lowest scale on nominal wages. It compels an entire reliance on the potato, inasmuch as the labourer can get potatoes only for his food, no money-wages being ever paid. It encourages the landlord to expect a high rent for his land, without demanding from him in return any outlay for its permanent improvement (Caird 1850: 139).



Conacre gave the tenant a larger cash surplus by exploiting the laborer. The tenant did not have to use wages because he could barter small and otherwise unproductive plots of land as payment. Since land was generally leased by an open auction to the highest bidder, the majority of the tenant’s cash surplus in turn went to the landlord in the form of increased rents.

 The large population growth in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century was the catalyst for the dramatic increase in competition and the deteriorating condition of the lowest classes. A landlord was not going to deny the largest offer for a piece of property, and this resulted in a spike in rents, increased evictions, and local agitation movements. The government would have been the most obvious fail-safe to regulate the spiraling economy, but it was dominated by both free trade ideology and landlord aristocracy. Laws to regulate rent were not passed until 1881. By that time the famine and emigration had already depressed rents and ruined conacre. Sir James Caird tried to document the deterioration of living conditions for the poorest class. He quoted Arthur Young’s description of Ireland in 1779:











A Cottar,’ says Young, ‘With a middling family, will have two cows: there is not one without a cow. All of them keep as many pigs as they can rear, and some poultry. Their circumstances are rather better than twenty years ago. Their acre of garden feeds them the year through: nine months on potatoes, and the other three on oaten bread from their own oats… A family of five persons will use and waste forty-two stone of potatoes in a week… I have been in a multitude of cabins that had much useful furniture, and even some superfluous; chairs tables, boxes, chests of drawers, earthenware, and, in short, most of the articles found in a middling English cottage; but, upon inquiry, I very generally found that these acquisition were made within the last ten years, a sure sign of a rising national prosperity’ (Caird 1850: 128).



Sir Caird states that by 1849, “their descendants, instead of showing any continuance of that ‘rising national prosperity’ mentioned by Young, have fallen into a state of the utmost wretchedness. Their mud hovels are worse; their wages nominally a little more: but as wages are usually paid by con-acre, and as con-acre rent has increased in a still greater degree, the condition of the cottar is really much worse than in 1779. This is, of course, without considering the failure of the potatoes; for that has completed their ruin” (Caird 1850: 129).

          The state of the tenant and sub-tenants in nineteenth century Ireland was anything but enviable. A tenant’s surplus was devoured in rents. The conacre he paid his laborers was in turn subject to nominal rises and an overall decrease in real wages. Any improvements made on the land were subject to a harsh new lease for the tenant who thus had no way to partake in the rising status of farmers in other European communities. Without agricultural intensification his only option to increase his holdings was to take on more land and laborers at increased cost. Short leases and rent arrears lead to evictions that affected not only the tenant but also all the sub-tenants and laborers.

          The actual rate of evictions has been questioned. Few records on evictions prior to the famine survive, but O’ Grada draws a bleak picture:




The mass of evictions or clearances continued into the early 1850’s. In the early stages evictions were more selective, and some proprietors offered tenants a subsidized passage to America in return for free possession… But as the crisis deepened, the option of compensation for possession was withdrawn, and in many areas the evictions targeted communities rather than individuals. Landlords evicted tenants, and tenants got rid of lodgers and laborers (1999: 45).



Following the famine there were vast numbers of notices to quit at any given time, but according to Theodore Hoppen the number actually put out was relatively few, “running in the quarter century beginning in 1854 at an average annual rate of 1.36 per 10,000 holdings above one acre in size” (Hoppen 1991). Unfortunately, these statistics easily hide a larger population than they report. Many tenants had a status far above their field hands, especially among the six percent that together controlled two-fifths of leased land in the country. The number of laborers that controlled conacre potato plots under an acre from the estate landlord, and the rate of eviction among them, is not calculated in the government figures.

          Eviction was probably also much higher among the sub-tenants who held land at will. Whether or not a notice to quit was carried out, it was probably an effective warning to tenants that they needed to cut costs and get rid of laborers to make arrears. Short leases also allowed landlords to evict law-abiding tenants in more subtle ways. James Kilbane quoted from an interview he conducted on Achill Island, “that people would be removed by high rents after the land had been cultivated. People were allowed to take off the roof and go some place else, only for this to happen again” (2002: 34; the interviewee was Anthony Kilbane, a local of the area in his nineties).

          The average tenant and (especially) the laborer’s situation was precarious from one moment to the next, and that was very much interwoven into the folklore and mindset of the people. Stone cottages were constructed with thatch roofs that were tied down, and, in the case of eviction, could be removed and tied onto another cottage. The agrarian peasant’s only aid or alternative to such a life was temporary periods in a poorly funded and sickness ridden poorhouse, the charity of the local priest, or, if the tenant could afford (very few laborers could), emigration. James Kilbane described this mindset in an interview, “These People would turn around and say right, were being evicted, we’ll take the roof with us, we’ll go to another place. That’s very much still within the people’s knowledge. When people would be evicted; it was such a regular occurrence, [that] it would be off with the roof, take it with us, and go someplace else” (2002, personal communications).

          The social and organizational structure of the common people in nineteenth century Ireland reflected their situation in a colonial Ireland, mixed with Gaelic and medieval traditions that had persevered. Unfortunately, such a large gap of knowledge exists about medieval Ireland that it makes it hard to draw many concrete conclusions about the islands agricultural evolution (McErlean 1983). On the other hand, Thomas McErlean writes that,


Slightly more is known or can be deduced about the pastoral side. An important practice influenced by climatic and physical factors is that of short distance transhumance called booleying. This was encouraged by the damp Irish summers, which made it difficult to conserve the summer flush of grass as hay for winter food. An alternative strategy was to ensure a year long supply of pasture. This was achieved by making maximum use of seasonal grass especially that growing during the summer months on the upland above 600 ft. This left the lowland pasturage for winter consumption. Exploitation of these pastures involved movement not only of the dairy and other stock but also people (1983: 331).



This summer transhumance to a temporary highland settlement for livestock grazing was called booleying. After the crops had been sewn in the spring or early summer the village inhabitants would move themselves and their livestock to open grazing lands on mountains or other non-cultivatable areas. Unlike the immediate townland the booley was not subdivided but was characterized by common grazing rights among all the village members. Though separated from the permanent settlement, it was generally close enough to allow daily transportation so that farmers could still tend their crops.

Following the seventeenth century ‘commonage’ became an English term for these open grazing lands (Kilbane 2002). As with everything else it became the property of the landlord, but the poorly drained areas and their traditional role in agriculture was rarely infringed upon, and finally guaranteed in the reform bill of 1871. Most estates in English maps reflected the existence of booley villages by being arranged in such a way that they contained a portion of land above six hundred feet.

          Summer transhumance was merely a single part of a much wider agricultural phenomenon that was practiced in Ireland. This system, commonly known as Rundale agriculture, was practiced throughout western Ireland from unspecified origins until periods as late as the twentieth century in some areas. In essence it was an agricultural practice well suited to the harsh climates and fringe soils of much of the countryside (Johnson 1958; McDonald 1997). In practice it was also an entire system of organizing society and sharing community among Ireland’s Gaelic under-classes (Kilbane 2002; McErlean 1983).

Spatially, the system involved a permanent settlement that was immediately surrounded by an area known as the infield, and beyond this was the outfield. The temporary Booley village and highland commonage that was associated with a Rundale farm formed the outfield. The infield was composed of the cropland and farming plots that immediately surrounded the nucleated central settlement. This settlement, or clachan, generally consisted of a group of homes and associated outbuildings, and was inhabited by an extended family or group of families. The entire property, including the infield and outfield, was often rented collectively, giving rise to the communal leases of many poor tenants in western Ireland.

Whereas the outfield was undivided and shared equally among the families’ livestock, the infield was extremely subdivided into a multitude of small, unfenced plots (Cárthaigh 1999; Kilbane 2002). In extreme situations one individual may have held as many as thirty or forty different plots in a village- some as small as a quarter of an acre in size.

The infield/outfield system of Rundale agriculture was a method of occupation, not ownership. Incoming tenants would take over the various plots of an outgoing tenant and may have subdivided them even further before moving on themselves. It was characterized by a communal spirit, lifestyle, and shared responsibility. A clachans’ inhabitants lived in extremely close proximity and often harvested and laid fertilizer and planted fields as a team (McErlean 1983). At the same time, Rundale could also be the cause of much disharmony. If someone’s cow was allowed to graze on their potato patch and not watched carefully it could easily stray into a neighbor’s unfenced hay or oats field and wreak havoc. An unfamiliar relative or laborer could easily sow or harvest beyond their unfenced field if not supervised carefully. 

Despite this and the negative review the system often received from unfamiliar travelers, the rundale system was actually well adapted to the climate of Ireland. James Kilbane quotes Kevin Wheelin on the subject,


Obviously in marginal physical situations such a flexible and supple land use system was in close harmony with the rhythm of environmental exigencies, which dictated that limited areas were available for sowing, while there was a large area surrounding it suitable only for seasonal rough grazing, on a communal basis. The infield/outfield system could be therefore interpreted as an ingenious adaptation to marginal physical circumstances (Kilbane 2002: 58).



Rundale only became outdated when population pressures destroyed the delicate balance of land division. As families grew and new tenants moved into already occupied land the various strips of property became increasingly subdivided, often to a complicated, inefficient extent. Despite this, the lack of large scale improvement on land and the persistence of tradition meant that little was done until the land commission was founded in the 1870s to reorganize family plots into single, ordered ladder farms, so called because of their appearance on mountainous landscapes.

In colonial Ireland such English and Gaelic terms as clachan, village, townland, and baile, were muddled together and lost what individual distinction they once may have possessed. Though Rundale never existed in England, similar means of organizing the landscape were far from unheard of across the United Kingdom and other continental counterparts. Thomas McErlean states,


The general impression that townlands are uniquely Irish is false. They are the same type of small land units as the vills, trefs, towns, and townships, etc. of Britain. All are basic units within a larger context of territorial organization, originating in a pre-medieval chronological horizon and having similar levels of social and economic organization. What is perhaps unique about the Irish Townland is its survival into the 20th century, not just as a cadastral unit, but as a strong focus of social identity in Ireland (McErlean 1983: 333).



These settlements were often as small as four or five houses and under a kilometer away from the next village. The small sizes and proximity meant that multiple villages sometimes shared a single booley, church, and/or public house, which gave these places important functions for bringing larger communities together. The relative closeness as opposed to the landlord’s distance was also a large part of the continuance of local tradition, especially when priests were the closest available agent to a representative between the groups.

The significance of these distances could also be underestimated. Many areas designated as multiple villages by the local inhabitants were lumped together as single entities by English surveyors, either out of simplicity or misunderstanding. The problem has become more compounded with modern conceptions of distance and towns. Even within a few hundred meters slopes could radically change gradients and the composition of rocks and mineral beds in the soil could change. A population that had few means of travel or transportation of goods beyond walking; who based their entire subsistence on the land immediately around them, had to adapt to every minute peculiarity of their immediate surroundings. This made the history of each village separate, and the great majority of Ireland’s recent history a very local and muddled history.





III     Achill Island in the Nineteenth Century



Achill Island is a paramount to the local nature of Irish history. It is part of the rural province of Connacht that is west of the Shannon River, and it is separated from even this by a thin strip of Atlantic Ocean. The island is a beacon off the rocky coastline of Western Ireland; the largest of over three hundred sixty-five islands that stretch north from Galway. Among the dozens of names for modern day Achill in maps, sea charts, and lore, one can find Oighle, Acla, Achuill, Aicill, Eacaill, Eacuill, Eacla, and Eccuill to name just a few. When the surveyor John O’ Donovan visited in 1838, he noted a similarity between these names and the Latin Aquila albicilla, for the sea eagles that once thrived on the islands shores. More recent historians have discussed its similarity to the Irish pagan gods Oc and Eochais (Falvey 1997).

Just as the nomenclature associated with Achill, the inhabitants of the island have been known as many things. The barren glacial niches of the island have been the home of many peoples throughout the ages. The first written reference appeared in the medieval Annals of the Four Masters. According to the annals it was the hiding place of Manus O’ Connor, the son of the last high king of Ireland, when it was sacked by English soldiers in 1235 (O’ Donovan 1838: 175, 176). Over the centuries, its few visiting artists, explorers, and academics have spoken of its many megalithic tombs, Iron Age forts, ancient graveyards, and deserted villages (O’ Donovan 1838; Kingston 1988).

          Today, this ominous landscape is the home of a small population of sheepherders, fishermen, shopkeepers, and summer tourists. They are connected to the Corraun Peninsula and the rest of Ireland by a short bridge that was constructed in 1886. The last hundred years has witnessed a continuous drain of the islands’ youth across this bridge, leaving an aging population of only two thousand five hundred.

Those that remain remember the unique history of Achill that was played out in the small cabins and empty fields that paint its landscape. The shallow yet swift sound, unique geology, and extreme western location of the island have created a cultural barrier from the rest of the world that has persisted through time and affected every aspect of its inhabitants’ lives.





Achill Island lies at a latitude and longitude of fifty-four degrees north and ten degrees south. It constitutes fifty-seven square miles (over thirty-six thousand acres) at the westernmost tip of County Mayo, Ireland, and Europe - abruptly ending in a thousand foot plummet into a rocky and unforgiving portion of the Atlantic. Miles beyond, the North Atlantic Drift churns the piercing west and northwestern winds that howl over the island’s coastal mountains. These strong, moist winds blunt its weather extremes. The temperature fluctuates between five and fourteen degrees Celsius and brings an average rainfall of only forty to sixty inches. Compared to the rest of Ireland it has warmer winters, colder summers, and less rainfall, but the winds also bring these lighter rains more often- on an average of two hundred fifty days a year. This reduces sunshine on the island and in particularly rough years can retard the agricultural season of late spring and summer  (McDonald 1997).

A geological fault divides Achill into two distinct bedrock foundations that have heavily influenced agriculture between the two regions. It also roughly corresponds to a cultural divide between upper Achill (the southern branch) and lower Achill. These two areas are composed of an array of gneiss, mica-schist, schist, semitic schist, quartz, and quartzite. There are also smaller patches of feldspar, granite, limestone, and schistose conglomerates (McDonald 1997). 

On the most northern portion of lower Achill lies Slievemore Mountain and its rich pockets of quartz that were mined in the early twentieth century. Directly west of Slievemore is Croaghaun Mountain, terminating into the ocean with some of Europe’s highest cliffs. Several Corrie lakes (glacially carved lakes that rest above sea level) on the two mountains were the sites of past booley villages.

The geological fault begins directly east of Slievemore. The ground above and directly east of the fault is generally sandier, better drained, and lower than in other parts of the island. South of this area is Upper Achill- flanked by the Atlantic on its western side and the Sound on its eastern. It terminates in a dull southern point directly north of Achill Beg, a smaller island that was connected to Achill in the distant past. Minaun and Knockmore are the two largest mountains in Upper Achill. At three hundred thirty seven meters Knockmore is the lower of the two. It contains large schist deposits that give it a rounded appearance with several peaks. Directly south are beds of quartzite, an orangish stone popular for construction. According to interviews with local inhabitants, in the early twentieth century a mine was established on one of these quartzite peaks over the former village of Kildavnet.

To the west of Knockmore and beyond the sound lies the Corraun Peninsula. Laced with red sandstone, it shares much of Achill’s geology. Nearly as desolate as the island itself, the two were connected before the construction of a late nineteenth century bridge by various footpaths and fording points accessible at low tide.  

As much of Western Ireland, the rocky geology of Achill is poorly suited for intensive agriculture. Except for a few deposits of rich sea sands in lower Achill the majority of its soils are acidic and deficient of many nutrients. The shallow soils and common rainfall have resulted in heavy leaching. As various minerals and metals coagulated on the schist and quartzite bedrocks thick iron pans formed. In the areas where this occurred the drainage of water was inhibited and the drenched soils became unproductive except for the rain-fed algae and peat that formed vast blanket bogs. Today, two-thirds of the island is covered in this bog.



Achill in the eighteenth and nineteenth century


          In medieval times Achill Island was part of the Barony of Burrishoole in County Mayo. Along with Counties Galway, Roscommon, Leitrim, and Sligo, Mayo was part of the ancient province of Connacht, one of the four Dark Age Kingdoms of Ireland. Burrishoole and much of the rest of Mayo was controlled by the O’ Malley family clan until the late sixteenth century when it was passed to the De Burgo family (also known by their English surname Butler) through marriage. On Achill, the O’Malley family tower house (Figure 3) that had once controlled shipping on the sound had long since been abandoned by the time the Ormond family took control of the De Burgo properties in 1585. The Ormond family showed little interest in either Achill or Corraun, and in 1696 the family sold the Barony of Burrishoole to Thomas Medleycott, the deputy steward of County Mayo.           

Text Box: Figure 3 – The O’ Malley Family Tower House in Upper Achill.



While still under the control of the Ormond family, the result of the Nine Years War forced an influx of Irish Catholics into the area. After the settlement of 1653 the Cromwellian Parliament confiscated the lands of Catholic proprietors and rebels across Ireland and reallocated them new lands in this boggy and undeveloped west beyond the Shannon River, giving rise to the maxim to hell or Connacht’. At the time, a large body of Ulster-based Catholics moved into eastern Achill. These new immigrants spoke a different dialect of Gaelic than the original inhabitants and must have also brought other new traditions to the island. Their arrival was the beginning of the cultural division between modern day upper and lower Achill. Many tenant families followed their landlords into exile, leading to what JG Simms summarized “As the most remote and the most Catholic part of Ireland” in the eighteenth century (Simms 1958-59: 116). It had also become the poorest. He continued,


These two qualities gave the region a very individual character, and the few travelers who ventured to cross the Shannon had the sensation of entering another world… When the eighteenth century began, several hundred catholic landholders were in occupation of a substantial part of Galway and Mayo and, to a lesser degree, of Roscommon…. It was said that Catholics in Connacht outnumbered protestants by fifty-to-one and that in some counties there were so few protestant freeholders to serve on the juries that the region could scarcely be held to acknowledge the authority of the government (Simms 1958-59: 116).



The history of Connacht was obviously unique in many ways from the rest of Ireland. The Catholic population was overwhelmingly rural and Connacht as a whole could boast of even less industrial development than the rest of Ireland. Until the nineteenth century there was little road access into the countryside outside of the medieval port-city of Galway. When road construction had begun to make inroads Simms wrote that “it was said that Connacht had gone to the devil, and that good roads only encouraged strangers to outbid the local people” (Simms 1958-59: 121).

Given such contemporary views, the poor road access and lack of communication probably retarded Ireland’s population pressures in Connacht, for a while at least. Old traditions such as Rundale Agriculture and local relations were allowed to survive longer, and the combination of fewer immigrants and poorer land probably helped kept rents comparatively lower. Simms continued,




Until the population began to press on the land available, the peasants do not seem to have found their lot as intolerable as in some other parts of the country. Their houses and clothes were very primitive, but they seem to have had enough to eat and their relations with their landlords were comparatively good. Tithes were less oppressive in Connacht… The Whiteboy movement of the 1760s and 1770s seems to have had little effect, and right up until the French landing in 1798 the province was regarded as the quietest part of the country (Simms 1958-59: 123).[i]



          Unfortunately, by the nineteenth century this had begun to change. The population had been steadily growing throughout the previous century, albeit at a slower rate than in some other parts of the country (O’Grada 1999). The creation of new roads obviously added to the pressures. Achill shared in Connacht’s growing population pressures and Catholic dominance. By 1841 the island had a population of six thousand three hundred ninety two- nearly thrice its current size (Census 1851).

There is no doubt that Achill was a world apart from the intentions of its mainland-situated landlords at the time. This was insured by its location in western Connacht, distance from large cultural centers, lack of a resident landlord, and poor road access. Nevertheless, the existence of communication between Achill and an outside world should not be underestimated. Traveling merchants frequented the area while its inhabitants made regular journeys across the footpaths of the sound to the nearest markets in Newport, Westport, and Castlebar. Later in the nineteenth century colonial powers were to make it a much larger center of discussion far beyond the waters of Ireland. However, the history of the island is tied into the separate traditions and background of its people at least as much as it is with the various immigrants who came at odds with the local culture. Its western location and the natural barrier of Achill Sound made it remote for even Connacht at the time.

          The island and the Barony of Burrishoole continued to be owned by the Medleycott family until 1777 when it was leased to Neil O’ Donnell, a local magistrate who resided in the mainland town of Newport. In 1785 he purchased the entire barony for £33,598.[ii] Following Sir Neil O’ Donnell’s death in 1811 his son, Neal Beg, inherited the estate. The O’ Donnell family’s properties were already in decline by the time Sir Richard O’ Donnell, Neil’s grandson, received them in 1827. He managed to hold onto the lands until 1851 when Achill and several other O’ Donnell estates were auctioned off in the Encumbered Estates Court (McDonald 1997). By the time this happened the O’ Donnell family controlled properties throughout Mayo, Roscommon, and Northern Galway.

Like his grandfather, Richard O’ Donnell continued to modernize farms and build flax mills throughout the twenty-four years of his tenure. There were varying accounts of Sir Richard- from a developing businessman and gentleman to an exploitive and absentee landlord (Caird 1987; Curtis 1980; Joyce 1910; Trotter: 1819; Tuke 1848). Like most landlords with similar reputations he was more than likely a bit of both. His modernization schemes brought new business to Mayo but would have also increased tenant competition and rents. Additionally, with such large estates most tenants were under the control of various middlemen and bailiffs who often did not act of a high character. When Tuke wrote about his travels in 1848 he condemned the Mayo landlords for exacting high rents and for allowing their bailiffs to enforce them by the practice of canting: the selling of seized crops by auction in lieu of rent arrears. Achill was anything but immune from this treatment. He recalled one instance on the island when the auction was followed by the tenants’ evictions. The roofs of their houses were destroyed to prevent reoccupation after the agent left,


Whilst upon the island of Achill, I saw a memorable instance in the course of proceeding, at the wretched fishing village of Keel, belonging to Sir Richard O’ Donnell. Here, a few days previous to my visit, some twenty families had been evicted, making, as I was informed, with a previous recent eviction, about forty evictions… One gray-haired old man bearing his bed-ridden wife in his arms pointed to his now roofless dwelling, the charred timbers of which were scattered in all directions. He said that he owed a little over one year’s rent and lived in the village, which had been home to his forefathers, all his life. Another man, with five motherless children, had been expelled and their boiling-pot sold… From this village alone one hundred and fifty persons had been evicted, owing from one half to one year’s rent (Tuke 1848: 10, 11).



When Sir James Caird (1850) visited Newport in the late 1840s he made a more positive note of O’ Donnell’s recently constructed flax farms and manufacturing plant. According to Sir Caird this mill gave employment to about three hundred townspeople throughout the year, and several hundred acres were dedicated to growing flax. The tenants were paid between six and nine pounds per acre of the crop as compared to the market price of fifteen to twenty pounds. Sir Richard defended the rates on the grounds that the marginal quality of the land, high expenditure, and late growing season all shrunk profit margins (Tuke 1848). Even if this was true the disparity in the two prices is at the least very curious. Sir Caird (1850) gave a much poorer estimate of the management of land and state of agricultural improvement around Newport and Westport. O’ Donnell may have been more interested in manufacturing ventures than in improving the backwards state of agriculture that was so prevalent throughout Connacht.

Whatever his intentions, by the 1830s Sir Neal had fallen deeply into debt. Three generations of family loans had accumulated, beginning with his grandfather and the purchase of the estate (McDonald 1997). Declines in revenue associated with periodic famines in the 1830s and the Great Famine of 1845 to 1851 could not have helped. Nor were the heavy reliance on bailiffs and large lease holding middlemen that was so common of large landholders the most efficient means of running the properties. In terms of such debt and extended and loosely controlled properties Sir Richard O’ Donnell gives a stereotypical impression of the landlords during the time.

Despite Newport’s comparative proximity to Achill, Sir Richard does not appear to have been a common visitor to the island. Nonetheless, this did not stop his Protestant Darbyite ethic from having a profound influence on the island’s inhabitants. In 1833 O’ Donnell leased one hundred thirty acres of Lower Achill to the Reverend Edward Nangle and to the Achill Mission Society for the nominal rent of one pound. The construction of the Protestant missionary village of Dugort began the same summer.

Controlled by the Reverend Edward Nangle and a Dublin based board of trustees, the Mission survived on the island until 1886 and continued to control properties there as late as the twentieth century. At its high point directly before the great famine it boasted of a church, orphanage, hotel, doctor’s office, shop, forge, printing press, mills, stables, and protestant schools established across ten villages (Slievemore, Dugort, Keel, Cashel, Dooega, Bunanioo, Polranny, Mweelin, Cloughmore, and Dereens). By 1841 it had a

fair population of three hundred nineteen individuals (Census 1851). It even had its own newspaper entitled The Achill Missionary Herald and Western Witness with subscriptions and donations from as far away as England, India, and Canada (Ghiobuin 2001). Through the nineteenth century this and other Irish missions put forth not only the religion but also the ideology of colonial English occupiers, as Raymond Gillespie stated:


The Achill Mission, founded by the Reverend Edward Nangle, was not unique but was part of the wider movement by evangelicals to convert the Roman Catholic population along the western seaboard, through the medium of their own language, to the Protestant faith. Underlying this movement was a serious attempt to change the nature of the existing peasant culture, which was both Roman Catholic and Irish. At the time, Irish evangelicals were combining ideas of evangelicalism and imperialism and pursuing a proselytizing policy among the Irish Catholics that sought to bring them the twofold blessings of a reformed faith and British Civilization (2001: 4).



In the long term the mission’s success was dubious at best. Few Protestants remain on Achill today and the population is still overwhelmingly Catholic. Dugort is nearly a ghost town and the mission is remembered more for the conflict it inspired than any deeds it may have accomplished. Its founder was the center of controversy even during the mission’s heyday.

Part of its ambiguity lied in the commercial success and wealth it was able to accumulate. The mission was the biggest employer on the island. It also sublet many portions of its lands. It was an economic power that had the backing of Achill’s landlord and Mayo’s Protestant courts. Whether realized or not its many Catholic workers and tenants must have feared for their security if they did not conform.

Not surprisingly, rather than curtail Catholic influence the Achill Mission actually challenged and expanded it. As Ghiobuin wrote,


Initially, there appears to have been friendly relations between the local people and the newcomers. However, when schools were opened and the catholic children began to be taught in those run by the mission, the catholic clergy quickly realized that this was a serious threat to their authority and they opposed them with vigour. A system of ‘exclusive dealing’ was introduced which had serious consequences for the Mission. The local people were forbidden to work for the settlement or to supply it with goods, and parents were told not to send their children to the Mission schools. It was alleged by Nangle, no doubt with some truth, that those who defied these prohibitions were ‘cursed from the altar’ (Ghiobuin 2001: 17,18).



          The mission was definitely subjected to more than a fair share of abuse during its forty-year campaign. The Achill Herald often complained of having its parishioners verbally and physically assaulted. A copy of court proceedings in the August 31, 1852, edition of the Mayo Constitution included a lengthy hearing about a priest-incited riot against the mission. Despite these and other examples the extent of the crimes behind the allegations have been questioned. The Achill Herald was a propaganda machine for the mission while the Mayo Constitution was known for its Protestant and landlord friendly voice (Ghiobuin 2001).

          The ideological conflict did also take other, less destructive, forms. The National Board of Education that had been established in Ireland in 1831 largely bypassed the west because of the Catholic Archbishop Doctor John McHale’s opposition to the non-denominational and British ethic of their schools (McDonald 1997). Because of this and Achill’s remoteness, before the mission there was only one private pay school on the island. When the first free Protestant school opened in 1834 it was met with instant popularity and was attended by forty-three children on the very first day. John McHale quickly reversed his decision (for Achill at least) and began to actively work for the construction of National schools on the island. In 1840 three were commissioned, all built as close as possible to their protestant counterparts (Gannon 1990).

The mission’s opportunistic response to the Great Famine also had fair consequences, even as it strove to advance its cause and increase the number of converts. The mission allowed the government to use one of its buildings for food relief storage and worked to provide meals to orphans and school children. It imported several tons of Indian meal, grain, and seed to help alleviate the destitute and elderly. Reverend Nangle personally took control of the local work relief committee and commissioned public works projects on the island. Similarly, his influence off the island was probably instrumental in gaining the amount of funds that the public works received.

The archbishop and local priests accused him of using these government grants and the financial position of the mission to entice conversions. Corresponding to such claims, the famine was by far the most successful years for the mission. In addition to large amounts of conversions, the great majority of improvements made by the work relief committee directly benefited the Mission and its satellites. Nonetheless, Achill was one of the lightest areas affected in County Mayo during the famine and the Mission played a very important role.

As the famine was continuing to rage among the people of Achill it was also having severe consequences for the island’s already encumbered landlord. In October of 1850 the Proceedings of the Encumbered Estates Courts listed Sir Richard Annesley O’ Donnell, among seventeen other petitioners, for encumbrances of £76,665 (Bole 1850). Over the next several months various ads ran promoting the auction of several of Sir Richard’s estates. Achill Island never appeared in any of the auctioned properties lists but the ads always carried a disclaimer of certain ‘other’ properties that had already been privately sold (1850).

The Achill Mission had much to fear from the possibility of a new landlord. Not least among these were various rumors by the mission that the Catholic archbishop intended to purchase the island and rid it of Protestants. In order to secure its future the mission began a massive fund raising drive, and eventually purchased the island in partnership with three sympathetic Englishmen- William Pike, Samuel Holme, and Thomas Brassy (Ghiobuin 2001). The payment of £17,500 was rendered in April 1851, but because of some delays the new owners did not receive their titles or right to rent the land until August 1852 (Nangle 1852). The Achill Mission became the owner of three-fifths of Achill. William Pike almost immediately bought out the shares of Holme and Brassy and took control of upper Achill (Ghiobuin 2001). Catholic Archbishop John McHale purchased a small tract in Lower Achill and the Marquis of Sligo retained an equally small tract in Upper Achill that he had owned separately from the O’ Donnell estate.

Despite its success purchasing the estate the Achill Mission slowly declined after the famine. Once food was no longer scarce most of its converts drifted back to Catholicism or emigrated from the island. Outside donations also decreased steadily after the famine and Edward Nangle’s departure from the island in 1857. Achill’s lands were too poor for the mission to ever survive on its rental income alone and its influence subsequently dwindled. The passage of the 1881 Land Act finally made the mission untenable. In the 1770s its orphanage closed and in 1886 it relinquished control of the schools to the Irish Society for the Promotion of Education. Unable to raise even the minimum expenditure needed per annum the missionary work went into almost total abeyance. Few Protestants remained in either Achill or Dugort by 1901 (Census 1901). The landlord responsibilities of the mission were finally transferred to its board of trustees in Dublin.

Even if it did not succeed in its crusade against ‘papacy’ the mission obviously had a great affect on Achill’s inhabitants. The English-style architecture and ordered square gardens of Dugort were a stark contrast to the alien culture of Rundale that completely surrounded it. Achill’s horse tracks were now regularly visited by the mail service and had been expanded into a road stretching across lower Achill and over a bridge onto the mainland. Though the lifestyles of its people did not rise they were brought into a closer communication with the outside world and into direct conflict with a new ideology. The priests had also gained authority as the tenants’ spokesmen. Contrary to the Mission’s goals this actually reinvigorated Catholicism on the island, parallel to similar movements across Ireland.

The direct influence of the mission was greatest in Lower Achill. The roads were not expanded on the journey south of the village of Achill Sound into Upper Achill until the construction of the quartzite mine later in the century. Few visitors dared the paths and instead chose to follow the road through Dugort, Keel, and Slievemore. The mission did establish some connection with the area. A Protestant school was established in Dereens and another in Cloughmore on the southern tip of the island. Interestingly enough a National school was apparently built in CarrickKildavnet, near the local church and only a couple kilometres north of Cloughmore (Office of the Ordnance Survey [O.O.S.] 1838).

The new landlords that took control of the island during the famine brought changes that had severe consequences for the islanders. The mission, its board of trustees, and William Pike were all from urban and/or English backgrounds. They had strong connections with the order of a Victorian society that was far from the minds of Gaelic Ireland. William Pike was an especially entreprenial landlord who was well known as the former Chairman of the Committee of Birkenhead Improvements in England (McDonald 1997).

All of the new landlords were improving gentlemen who chose to take advantage of rising agricultural prices in the 1860s and 1870s. They accomplished this by introducing new methods and tools and by altering the landscape with the construction of drainage canals, roads, and walls. In so doing, landlords across Ireland and Scotland in the nineteenth century transformed their new landscapes into angular, organized Victorian styled farms and plantations. Often, they accomplished this by moving out tenants and replacing their income with personal farms of cash crops and cattle. Rapidly expanding husbandry was especially devastating in the marginal agricultural lands of western Ireland, where an increasing amount of scarce tillage land was dedicated to grazing. This was extremely devastating to the inhabitants of Achill. Their case was not lost among the various agitation groups in the turn of the century. In the pamphlet The Problem of the West: The Evil and Its Remedy, William O’ Brien highlighted Achill’s case:


Public attention has… to be directed to the fact that the natural provision of land for the subsistence of the people is even more scandalously misapplied in these impoverished regions than in any other portion of the Union. The Achill Division has an area of 36,346 acres, being 7 acres per individual, or 35 acres per family, even of the present large population. Nevertheless, the enormous majority of the occupiers are at or under £4 valuation, representing in general one or two arable acres at the utmost, with a mountain run, while all the choice portions of the island are in the hands of four graziers. For example- Achill Mission Estate- 75 occupiers under £4; 1,919 acres grazed by the trustees. Pike Estate- 366 occupiers under £4; 2,046 acres grazed by two graziers and the landlord. M’Donnell Estate- 47 occupiers under £4; 1,350 acres grazed by the landlord (1902: 15).



The fact that the Achill Mission was not only a Protestant community but also a major landlord could not have helped its views in the eyes of the people. It was a colonial overlord that controlled their families’ lands and challenged their beliefs. Because of this, even after the decline of the Mission’s proselytising activity it continued to be at odds with the Catholic establishment on the island, albeit for different ideological reasons. The Achill chapter of the Land League became strongly associated with the Catholic mass of people, and in Upper Achill the local priest Father Henry was actually one of the leagues organizers.

Despite a long precedent of agitation and exclusive dealing on the island little was accomplished there until the twentieth century. The Land Commission did not actively begin purchasing and redistributing its property to the tenants until the 1920s. Its work continued well into the 1960s or early seventies, making Achill one of the last places to have its lands redistributed. These mid-twentieth century inhabitants were still quoted as some of the poorest and most remote in the country. Because of its long isolation, neglect by landlords, and late intrusion by the Land Commission, agricultural traditions that had long since ceased in other areas continued on the island until well into the twentieth century.



The People of Achill in Memory and Writing



          The recent demise of Booleying, Rundale agriculture, and other traditional practices has meant that many of these traditions remain very much a part of the islanders living memory. Because of this a good body of knowledge about the daily life of Achill’s farmers has been preserved in common knowledge. What they ate, grew, and made, and how they lived and socialized. These accounts provide a rich oral tradition that provides a counterpoint to the observations of nineteenth century English travelers and surveyors. No matter how good the intentions, these foreigners had hard times understanding the intricacies of Gaelic Society as opposed to their own. The inhabitants of Achill Island were poor in possession but not in livelihood, morality, or dignity- a dichotomy that many upper class Victorians failed to distinguish.

The majority of accounts of Achill’s population before the famine come from these foreigners through their published travel journals and the Achill Missionary Herald. While such travelers provided a first hand account of the people, the accounts provided through local folklore and through more recent history is just as valuable and often more honest to the beliefs and traditions of the subjects. Both are useful for the information they convey, the different aspects they focus upon, and the things that they omit as much as include.

Until the early nineteenth century there were only small paths to use as roads on the island. Besides the occasional trip by traders and the landlord or agent there appears to have been few visitors prior to the establishment of the mission. Even after an east/west road was built across Lower Achill (and extending into the mainland as far as Newport) during the famine there were still comparatively few accounts of the island’s southern branch. There were no large towns, urban centers, or even markets anywhere on the island. The various settlements instead took the form of networks of rural villages along the coastline and mountainside (Gillespie 2001). The inhabitants were universally regarded as impoverished farmers and laborers, but different authors looked at the surroundings and people through various lenses. These views ranged from Victorian disgust, to Romantic preconceptions of the islanders natural innocence, to the politically motivated writing of social commentators.

          Until after the famine, and even up to the 1920s, most of the dwellings in Achill were small, single roomed cabins. Though crowded, these houses required less rye to thatch the roof and held in the heat much more efficiently (Johnson 1958; Kilbane: 2002). This was especially important for Achill’s climate but also because firewood could only be had through labor-intensive turf cutting. The buildings were generally chimneyless dwellings, constructed of dry stone and sod with thatched roofs. They held few furnishings, usually limited to homespun clothing, straw mattresses, a boiling pot, and perhaps some dishes. Though most were rectangular a few permanent, and many more booley, houses were of a more ancient circular, beehive shape (Kilbane 2002). When J.B. Trotter visited the island in 1817 he explained the sight before him,


Achill forms a small republic in itself; and the peacable manners of these simple and good people render them happy under their own customs. They have small and bad roads; and several hamlets, chiefly on the sea-shore, whose houses, built with round stones and without gables, have a very singular appearance. They are free from the parties or factions of other parts, and rarely see strangers among them. They have neither physician nor lawyer, yet are healthy, and submissive to the laws. They are exceedingly hospitable; marry young, and have comfortable dwellings…. They have abundance of sea-manure, and would bring cultivation to the greatest perfection; but a bad system, common to much of Connaught, reigns here. The fertile grounds are let in a sort of tenancy in common. The hamlet divides a small portion of land among its inhabitants, and all are bound in one lease to pay the rent. If one family is less industrious, and cannot make out their share, the rest must supply it.  The happy plan of each small farm having its garden, lands, and boundary independent of another, is not practiced here. Accordingly, there is less improvement, and there exist continual causes of discord in the small community (Trotter 1819: 473, 474).



Rundale was predominant on Achill just as it was throughout western Ireland in the nineteenth century. The various unfenced strips of property were sewn with a myriad of crops in the late spring and early summer. According to Trotter (1819) the people cultivated oats, barley, flax, and potatoes on their property. Rye was also grown and along with hay, oats, and potatoes was one of the main crops in the late nineteenth century (Kilbane 2002). Oats were used to feed cattle, potatoes were the main staple of the farmers, and rye was used to make the thatch for roofs. The flax may have been sold or offered directly as rent.

Rundale had a long tradition on Achill that heavily affected the people’s lifestyles. Trotter explained the system from the bewildered eyes of a foreigner:


One portion of the divided land may be better soil than another, and the latter pay the same rent; a stranger may come in to inherit a part, having belonged to a relative, and call for a new division, which the landlord may grant, and the whole hamlet be thrown into confusion by a fresh partition… The inhabitants of it are too much in the power of a landlord, and are pledged for one another in a way quite destructive to rural independence. The landlord does not get as much rents thus, as he would from small independent farms; and has more trouble than they would occasion. The custom, however, is very ancient, and in no manner to be ascribed to modern landlords, or their agents. It is, perhaps, coeval with primitive times, and may have suited pastoral or agricultural life of more simplicity than the present, and a state of property less rigidly defined or valued than now (1819: 475).



Despite such negative views Rundale was actually very well adapted to Ireland’s rugged west. Especially on mountainous areas and in Upper Achill there was little fertile soil and vast tracks of bog that was expensive and labor intensive to remove. The large areas of bog that were reclaimed in the nineteenth century testify to the size of the population and the use of cut and dried bog turf as firewood. Even after reclaiming the bog lands, the acidic soils were not well disposed to intensive agriculture. The infield/outfield structure of Rundale coupled with booleying was a subsistence pattern that brought the people together for collective labor while also allowing them to open wider areas of poor land for dispersed cultivation.

In Upper Achill, plots were first fertilized around March with cattle manure or seaweed and then left fallow until spring. After planting the fields in spring the inhabitants would move their livestock to the booley village for summer grazing. Booleying and cattle tending was necessary because the household cow produced milk, created fertilizer, and contributed to the household’s income by giving an annual calf for sale (Kilbane 2002). Booley houses were crudely constructed, and in lower Achill surviving examples are predominately small ovular huts. One booley was often shared between multiple villages, bringing together a much larger social community. James Kilbane interviewed Catherin Carton, an inhabitant of upper Achill, who recalled late-nineteenth century summer life in the booley,


I remember it as good as seeing you there.  It was lovely; we had a lovely life (at the ‘booley’).  There was a crowd of us, girls and boys, as you know.  And every family would take a field from the farmer behind (at Slievemore).  They would rent out a field for their cattle, from Dooniver.  And one or two out of each house would go back watching the cattle in Slievemore.  We would go to this little ‘booley’, a nice little ‘booley’.  We would have a fine turf fire.  A fine big bag of straw for beds, and there used be Valley ones too with us.  We would lie there. Some people would have four or five head of cattle and others maybe two or three, suck claves.  There would be two or three milkers in every family, milk cows...  [In the Booley Cabin] Windows and doors, ah ya, one window and one door, and a little hole on the roof to let out the smoke. There was no chimney, but it didn’t bother us, it was made for that. Thatch roof. The owner would thatch it every year, before the cattle would be coming up. Yes, four or five girls. We used to be sleeping on a big thick of straw and our fine fire. An it would be on our turn to get up every morning to see the cows and calves. We would all look after the same cattle. All the cattle would be together. There were eight or nine houses… [On Dancing] We used to have a great time, I can assure you! The fellows from back the village would come back, the Burn’s, Tomie Vaesey, Patrick Burns, all them fellows. I remember them so well. They used come from Slievemore, back the end of the village. They would come back for the dancing, and we used dance. We had the accordion and fiddle and sure what harm (Kilbane 2002: 48-50).


The rich lifestyle expressed by Catherin Carton contrasts sharply with the view afforded by outsiders. She downplayed the chores and poor furnishings that were simply a way of life to her. The sense of community was what was taken into memory- the dancing, collective herding, and gathering around the fire. The bringing together of people into this community was both necessary for Rundale to succeed as well as one of its greatest contributions. When outsiders such as Trotter came to Achill from their largely English or urban backgrounds they noticed this sense of community and civility. At the same time, English visitors could not forget their own heritage- only exacerbated by the language barrier between them and the local Gaelic dialect. Because of this the memories that they took with them focused on the unbridgeable gulf between the two groups values.

Similar to Rundale systems elsewhere, agricultural methods and lifestyles did not always bring the people of Achill together in such a closely-knit community. Disputes obviously arose and they were not always solved on good terms. Different crops were harvested at different times and could be a source of various ill feelings. The first crop harvested was hay in July and August while the last crops, such as potatoes, would not be ready until September or October. In the meantime a villager’s cattle would be set to graze on the fallow hay fields where it could easily stray into a neighbors un-walled crop. This was necessary to increase the cow’s milk yield, but losing a field to another household’s cattle could be devastating for a poor farmer (Kilbane 2001). Because of this family members would often spend hours tending cattle that were feeding in the planted areas surrounding the permanent village. Travel between the booley and permanent village would occur regularly so that the fields could be tended and the cattle could feed on any rich after grass from harvested plots.

Sheep were also popular on the island, though, unlike cattle, they were almost exclusively grazed on the mountainside. According to Tuke (1848), when he visited in 1847 the average number of livestock per household was only two cows and three sheep. This was far less than in neighboring Corraun though through the end of the century and well into the twentieth the average amount of livestock per family remained fairly stable in Upper Achill, at least partially as a result of its more marginal mountain lands (Kilbane 2002).

The Coarsely woolen sheep that were herded were used to knit clothing for the inhabitants as well as stockings that were sold to visiting traders. The weaving of socks was a household-based industry with a long history. Pockoke first mentioned its existence on the island after visiting Newport in 1752, and J. B. Trotter (1819) made a seperate note of it in 1817 (Tuke 1848). Trotter also wrote that the islanders were angered by the low prices they received for their stockings as well as linen webs and butter. Because there was no market on the island there was little choice but to accept the offered prices (Trotter 1819).

According to James Kilbane (2002), women and children were often responsible for the herding and tending of the livestock during summer months. At times this interfered with the children’s education, and this dependency was further increased by the yearly migration to England of the fathers and adult males that took place between late spring and early fall.

Seasonal migration for labor in upper Achill apparently began sometime after the 1830s and was quite common by the end of the century. The work generally involved harvesting large commercial fields in Scotland to help bring income into the island. Though participation by teenagers and adult males was widespread at least some married men stayed behind to harvest and fish (Kilbane 2001).

          By the late nineteenth century fishing had also become a staple, though until that point its role on Achill had vacillated through various decades and local crises. Until at least the turn of the century, when and where it did exist it was primarily a subsistence activity. The only exception to this was “Sporadic herring booms and Edward Hector’s salmon fisheries in the lower parts of the island from the 1850s” (Kilbane 2001). Periodical recessions and a lack of investment capabilities by the villagers slowed the growth of commercial fishing, though a small pier was built in the village of Cloughmore on the southern tip of the island in 1822. A government inquiry into the state of Irish Fisheries was published in 1836 and had the following to say of Achill,












At Achill, twenty-eight years ago, when Gallagher first resided there, the Herring fishery was very great, and it continued so yearly, for eight years. During the fishery, generally sixty vessels were loaded in about ten days. There were large quantities salted on the land in temporary curing houses. Frequently there was a want of salt; so much so, that salt water was boiled to make it… For a few years, the quantity taken in each year was less, until 1829, when they entirely left the coast. There we have not seen any from 1829, until this year. There is now every appearance of a productive fishery; but there are very little means of fishing in Achil, as the inhabitants are considerably reduced, from the frequent distress which they have suffered. There may be about one hundred boats in the parish; but half of them are not fishing for want of nets (Anon., 1836: 80).[iii]



The ‘frequent distress’ referred to were periodical famines that recurred throughout the 1830s. The severest and most commonly noted was in 1831, but others occurred in 1835, 1836, 1837, and 1839. During these years storms frequented western Ireland and destroyed crops or delayed harvests (O’ Shea, 1996). A similar situation occurred during the Great Famine just over a decade later. As James Tuke wrote,


Whilst standing on the magnificent cliffs of Achill, overlooking the wide Atlantic, I saw deep inlets and bays of that island literally filled with shoals of mackeral and herring, indeed the whole surface of the sea seemed completely alive with them. Around me stood groups of hungry creatures, who looked down upon this inexhaustible supply of food, wholly unable to procure it to allay their cravings (1848: 34).



According to him there was only one boat and three curraghs involved in fishing, at least in the coastal village of Keel. When the Famine occurred “the poor fisherman… sold by degrees his fishing-tackle and nets, and even the oars of his boat; and when this was gone, he was left, it is true, the owner of a boat, but really deprived of the means of using it” (Tuke 1848: 32). In 1893 the Congested Districts Board reported, “Very few of the people (on Achill) can be called fishermen. I doubt much if there are half a dozen bona fide fishermen in the entire district.” (quoted in Kilbane 2001: 26; orig. 1892) There were no facilities for the sale of fresh fish.  Besides small quantities of salted fish sold in Westport the catch went to local consumption only.

          The great majority of fishing ships used in Achill were either curraghs or yawls. [iv] Curraghs were long boats built out of hides and used for shallow water fishing. Yawls were constructed from wood and able to fish in somewhat deeper waters than their counterparts. Both ships were light enough to store on the shore and could be manufactured locally and relatively cheaply.

The Achill Yawl was specially tailored to local needs and was exclusive to Upper Achill. Though its exact age is unknown it predated the nineteenth century and continued to be popular until the mid-twentieth (Kilbane 2001). The yawl was much more than a fishing ship to the local inhabitants. It was often used for transportation around the island before good roads existed and could haul large quantities of cut turf between different areas.

Ship transportation was also important for the islands agriculture. Islanders collected bird droppings from ocean rock outcroppings to spread on their fields. Seaweed, another important fertilizer, was collected by ships as well as from large rocks set along the shoreline. The yawl was first cited with this role in the early nineteenth century, and seaweed continued to be used as fertilizer until it was gradually replaced after the Second World War (Kilbane 2001). Harvested seaweed was mixed with lime (where available), manure, guano, and soot and spread on top of lazy bed ridges before the crops were sewn.

So-called lazy beds were actually a very labor intensive and environmentally strategic means of potato cultivation in Rundale agriculture. They were especially popular in western Ireland and, according to Sile Nic Aodha, “are synonymous with a place like Achill” (1996: 13). Today their fallow and overgrown ridges are the most blatant feature of the landscape, covering almost every arable inch of the land.

The construction of lazy beds involved the effort of the entire community. Fertilizer first had to be placed on the ground in lines followed by seeds spread on top. A team of eight to sixteen men then dug shallow trenches to either side of the lines and heaped the soil onto the seeds. The final result was a system of parallel ridges between three and five feet in width with trenches dug to either side (Aodha 1996). Different crops were sewn depending on the season and the farmer who owned the particular strip. Rye, oats, and potatoes were all grown using the lazy bed system (Devon Commission 1847).

Text Box: Figure 5 – 
   Distant lazy bed     ridges beneath 
Strál peak in 
Upper Achill


Despite the negative connotation the system was actually an ingenious and complicated form of horticulture that had been practiced in Ireland since at least 3,000 BC (Aodha 1996). Críostóir Mac Cárthaigh and Kevin Whelan described its adaptation to potato crops on neighboring Clare Island,











When the potato crop is dug out in the autumn, the harvester is careful to heap the loose earth onto the centre of the ridge and leave the sheugh intact. The position and shape of the ridge are retained because it will be sown with oats the following year. In the second year, only a little seaweed is spread and the ridges are dug in early spring in preparation for the sowing of corn at the end of April or early May. The ridges are then remade in the third year. This rotation is repeated until the yields begin to decline, and a new patch of ground is then broken up and ridged. The major factor governing the shape and size of both ridge and sheugh is drainage, an especially important consideration in a region of such heavy rainfall- averaging 1100 millimetres annually. But islanders, in common with farmers in other districts of west Mayo where this type of spade ridge occurs, also point out that the rolling bow shape significantly increases the surface area of the land for grass and cereal cultivation and maximizes its grazing potential. Wide ridges of this type, designed originally for cereal growing in wet climates and poorly drained soils, were later applied to the cultivation of potatoes (1999: 51).



  In order to aid drainage, the ridges were dug to conform to the contours of their mountain slopes rather than to a straight line. Since the communal team of villagers dug them uninterrupted and without demarcating walls between fields large quantities of water were able to drain off the mountain without damaging the elevated plants. They also allowed the inhabitants to routinely turn the deep soils in the trenches without the use of heavy ploughs. This inhibited the formation of iron pans and the bogs that followed. Many of these once arable fields returned to bog as emigration and eviction emptied the island in the later half of the nineteenth century.

The steady decline of the island’s population began with the Great Famine. Though mortality was comparatively lighter in Achill than in most other parts of Connacht, it still left a heavy mark. On the eve of the Famine in 1841 the population of Achill was 6,392. Through death and emigration this had dropped to 4,950 by 1851 (Census 1851). Evictions were commonly cited throughout the period, including the one in Keel that was witnessed by James Tuke (1848). When O’ Donnell was forced into the Encumbered Estates Court during the famine another spate of evictions followed in Upper Achill. Between 1841 and 1851 the population of the townland of CarricKildavnet dropped from one hundred forty eight to a mere eight. The events behind this decline have been popularly remembered and recounted in local history and folklore as the evictions of Baile na hAilte (Carty 1997; Gannon 1990; Falvey 1999; O’ Brien 1996). Evictions were further exacerbated after the famine by the creation of large grazing areas. This was the beginning of the end for a traditional way of life on Achill Island.

          The evictees and the ways of life that were lost belonged overwhelmingly to the islands large underclass of landed labourers. They held small plots that yielded little beyond subsistence and they found labor through emigration when money was needed. As such, the relationship between small farmers and landless labourers was blurred. Evictions regularly stripped Achill’s Rundale farmers of their lands, while even landed farmers relied on transitory work to supplement their annual incomes.

The great majority of Achill’s native inhabitants were not specialists of any single field but instead fished, planted, herded, and cut turf as to their needs at the moment. It is easy to focus on past relationships in terms of such rigid class settings. But it is also important to recognize the lifestyles of the ‘common’ person in their own right. Their lives were more than agitation against a landlord and their farms were more than neglected holdings. They were a people who lived and thrived on their lands; who fed distant countries and prayed for their own. They warmed the nights of Eíre with shadows singing and dancing upon fire-lit stone walls.

They were self-sufficient, but like all of Connacht greatly suffered through periodical famines and harvest failures due to the lack of any strong networks with an outside world. This continued in Achill well into the twentieth century, though by the 1890s some inroads had been made into the island. A bridge was constructed in the late 1880s and a railroad, quartz mine, and quartzite mine followed in the next two decades. The later three were all closed down by the 1940s and Rundale and booleying continued well into the century, but Achill was slowly being brought into a modern context.

Today, the great majority of houses and villages line the two or three main roads through the island. If one gazes beyond the modern dwellings they can see their precursors on the mountainsides above. Old potato ridges and stone shells dot the landscape where their ancestors once lived. These ancient dwellings hug the sides of the mountains, searching, as their inhabitants did, for some small respite from the winter winds and summer rains.





Baile na hAilte in Memory and Writing




A kilometer from the ocean, Knockmore Mountain rises in three rolling peaks. It’s green pastures and abandoned potato ridges slowly ebb toward the sea as they approach the southernmost tip of the island. To all but a few aging inhabitants who can remember the Gaelic titles used in the past: dog a Duín, Leachtaí, and Strál; the peaks are nameless. Cloughmore and Baile na hAilte and a half dozen other villages sprouted up along the shelter of these ridges. Their origins obscured, the villages thrived until the nineteenth century when evictions and emigration forced their abandonment.

          Cloughmore, once two distinct villages on the southernmost tip of the island, is today inhabited by the descendants of local agrarian peasants. Many residents can gaze up and see the ruins of their parents and grandparents’ houses jutting out from the mountainside. However, less than a kilometer to the north, the houses gradually decline along the roadside until they reveal and almost unbroken field. The only notable population is that silently residing in Kildavnet Cemetery, but even the church protecting these souls is now dilapidated. To the west of the road and cemetery is Leachtaí, centered beneath dog a Duín. Baile na hAilte rests on the two slopes- Formerly one of the largest villages on the island, the inhabitants of Ailt, unlike Cloughmore, were not so lucky, and so their ancestors’ spots alongside the road remain desolate.    

          The demise of these people is a popular story of folklore. Few remember the many villages now missing from the landscape, but everyone remembers the events that transpired for their abandonment. A former islander and priest, Patrick James Joyce, gave one of the earliest written accounts:

Passing over to the east side of the island to Kildownett, and looking over the Sound to the mainland, we find Ailt, which was once perhaps the largest village in Achill, completely in ruins. The remains of as many as eighty cottages, which were snugly situated in the shelter of the mountain in the background, speak most feelingly- one would say with a cry for vengeance- of the cruelties of the now, happily disappearing Irish landlord. The sight of so much desolation in that deserted village, where the brave fisherman built his sheltering cot, where the roof-tree rang with the laughter of fireside meetings, where happy children once gamboled on the green, makes one’s blood boil in one’s veins. Could the owner of the dismantled castle yonder, wake up when these cottages were razed to the ground, and many other horrors perpetrated,


‘Her corpse, long dead, from its narrow bed

In anger and shame would rise again.’


Old Pyke was the evictor, we learned that when the edict was published many of these peasants had hurriedly built themselves in the bogs and bleak mountainside, without lime or cement, the masonry of new houses. On the day of the eviction, when the snow was on the ground, they covered these houses with the roofs of the old ones, and slept within them that winter’s night. The evicted scattered themselves to other parts of the Pyke estate, Breanaskil or Sraheens, some to the valley, and some across the Sound to Belfarsad (1910: 91-92).



Other sources provide equally detailed yet cryptic accounts. The most general reference was simply that, “Baile Ailt… was deserted in the mid nineteenth century when the landlord, William Pike, is said to have evicted some of the tenants” (McDonald 1997: 329). Various sources provide conflicting dates, but the event is always the same (Falvey 1999; Gannon 1990; O’ Brien 1996). Some eighty families of Ailt were forced into the cold snow to find a new life in neighboring villages or off the island. Their houses were knocked in or burnt. What the landlord William Pike lost in rents he was able to make up in pastureland and infamy.

          The story is told to visitors by the island’s inhabitants and in local books and magazines. It is the one thing that everyone remembers about Baile na hAilte, as Noreen Gannon curtly recounted:




In Ailse where the Kildownet quarry is today one of the biggest villages on the island existed. Story has it that Pike and his men came hunting. The dogs of the village came down barking. Pike was not amused. On Christmas Eve 1854 while people were celebrating he tried to evict them. When they would not leave he had the village burnt to the ground (Gannon 1990: 14).



Forced out of their homes and onto the snowy winter fields, some were fortunate enough to move into nearby villages. Many completely left the island to find a new life on the mainland or beyond (Carty 1997). In a short article published some years later, Anna Carty echoed Gannon’s disturbing story:


Let us not forget Kildamhnait quarry, on the hill to your right as you go towards the graveyard. Throughout the 1800s evictions were inevitable if one did not pay one's rent. On the site of Kildamhnait quarry there once existed a rather large village called Ailse. It is claimed that the English landlord, Pike, tried to evict Ailse's villagers on Christmas Eve, 1854. Apparently Pike's decision to evict was sparked off by his being disturbed by the barking dogs of the village whilst hunting. Pike had the village burned to the ground (Carty 1997). [v]



Though Pike’s hunt is a central theme to these two tales, other common motifs are also found. One is the story of two widows who successfully staved off the eviction. According to Norreen Gannon:


Story has it that when he came to a house of two women, the women were not dressed in their full attire so therefore he could not evict them. It was the law at the time that no tenant could be evicted without his or her clothes on (Gannon 1990: 14).



Anthony Kilbane (Personal Communications: July 2001), a local resident whose family was from the evicted area, recounted that the women were guided by the local priest. When the evictions became inevitable, Father Henry informed the two to go into their homes and strip because an English law provided that no one could be evicted without ‘the clothes on their back.’

          Another, perhaps related, story involving widows was given by Theresa McDonald, “Along a laneway leading to Kildavnet quarry is a house called Teac na mBaintreac (widow’s house) (Figure 25) where a group of widows from Baile Ailt were housed after the eviction, because ‘it was cheaper to house then here than pay for them in the Poorhouse!’” (McDonald 1997: 329). Today the ruins of a single building still stand next to the quarry, and whether the widows once lived there or the story grew out of these remains is not known. The site name Baintreac, however, has a more definite connection with the area.

          Stories of Pike’s dogs and the widows bring an element of folklore to the history of the village and connect its various accounts. Burning the village over a failed hunt betrays the landlord as an evil individual and antagonist to the story. On the other hand, the widows are proof that, even devoid of any physical power or authority, the villagers were able to use ingenuity to defeat their enemies. Henry Glassie writes that such wit was a common theme of many Irish folktales because, “Intelligence balances power…. The tenant of the story is the master of the landlord. The victory of the humbler brother proves that poverty and weakness tell nothing of wisdom or courage” (1985: 28).

Any outsiders who inquire about the deserted hillside buildings of the Atlantic Drive are sure to hear such stories of Baile na hAilte and its eviction. The local historian Anna Falvey looked for answers beyond the evictions and folktale stories,


Evictions continued unabated in Mayo throughout the century. The eviction of the Pike Estate tenants on Achill Island took place a few days before Christmas in 1896 because of two to eight years rent arrears. These tenants had holdings of between one and five acres. Happily, the evicted were reinstated on the same day upon payment of two years rent plus costs… Several evictions had taken place in the previous few years on the Pike Estate but in most cases the evicted tenants had been reinstated when they paid off their arrears. The remainder lost their land and homes (Falvey 1999: 35).



Her research fits rather tenuously with other accounts of the eviction. She never explicitly mentioned the village Ailt and the eviction that she described occurred in 1896 rather than 1854. Significantly, this version goes beyond the immediate eviction and her story ends very differently from most others, in which the entire village was permanently abandoned. Yet, what could easily be construed as an entirely separate event is drawn back into a larger narrative of Baile na hAilte with another common theme- the evictions of Ailt near Christmas.

Such discrepancies are an important part of any folklore surrounding an area. Even written accounts provide few sources and it is plausible that the majority are based on islanders’ oral narratives and folk memory. They are recounted to inquisitive outsides and are concerned with placing characters and showing the tenants wit as much as they are with any empirical realities. The tales often become more generalized than the rich personal history that is carried by those who grew up on the island.

At the same time that it can over generalize or have a bias towards the extraordinary, folklore and popular stories can also be much more vivid and living than historical documentation. It is a view of the common farmer that is missing or distorted in colonial accounts. Post-medieval Irish history is not only a question of memory versus writing; it is also a question of English versus Irish. There are not one but two histories of Baile na hAilte. There is the history that was written by its landlords, cartographers, and magistrates; and the history that is remembered by its people.



Situating Baile na hAilte in time and memory


          The history of Upper Achill that was written by English visitors alternates between the cold observation of lords and magistrates and the Romanticism of Irish peasants’ simplicity and innocence. In these accounts, there are few stories of the peoples’ daily lives- only a recurring feeling of poverty. Not even the names given to the area by its people were used. There was no Baile na hAilte or any other local title on maps or sea-charts of Achill. In its place was a village by the name of Kildavnet. By the nineteenth century this had been further classified into the village of Kildavnet and two townlands of Derreen and CarrickKildavnet. The townlands were actually nothing more than arbitrary lines on the Ordinance Survey maps, useful for easy clarification but full of discrepancies and contradictions with local landscapes (O.O.S. 1838). Neither Dereens nor CarrickKildavnet had any true social centers or town-sized populations. Instead, the areas were a series of decentralized clachans and small villages that were in no way represented by the two townland boundaries.  The village that appeared as Kildavnet on the nineteenth century Ordinance Survey maps was listed in Derreen but was actually shown crossing the border and existing nearly equally in both townlands.

The origin of Kildavnet’s name is just as obscured as the villages’. The title is Gaelic and translates as the ‘Church of Saint Dympha’ or ‘Davnet’, vaguely referencing the ancient Roman Catholic Chapel and the virgin saint who is said to have drank from its holy well. Despite such a specific title, in various documents and charts the name was routinely given to the entirety of Upper Achill, to the O’Malley Tower House on the island, to a supposed town in the area, and even to a small island directly south of Upper Achill (known as Achill Beg today) (McDonald: 1997; Petty: 1683). Whether or not its Gaelic inhabitants originally used the title, Kildavnet became the only name for the area for the English.

Text Box: Figure 6 – Remains of Kildavnet church and cemetery          The roofless and abandoned Church of Saint Dympha (Figure 6) that stands in CarrickKildavnet today was constructed sometime in the eighteenth century on the foundations of an older church. It was used until 1834 when a new church was built to the north in Derreen. The only surviving indicator to the church’s age is the nearby holy well from which it presumably got its name. These wells were said to be the drinking places of saints, in this case the virgin Saint Davnet, and are usually attributed to the early Christian period (circa 500 to 800 AD). Without any documentation of the wells history, however, it is impossible to conjecture such an early site date on it alone. Because of this, the first Ordinance Survey map in 1838 is the earliest evidence of the church and associated village (O.O.S. 1838).

          The only evidence for earlier habitation in Kildavnet is the Tower House that rests on a strip of coast directly south of the church. The Tower House belonged to the O’ Malley Clan of Connacht and, according to local folklore, was briefly used by the famed pirate Grace O’ Malley in the sixteenth century (Carty 1997; Chambers 1998; Kingston 1998). Windows on its ground floor betray the purpose of a typically defensive structure and suggest a relatively late construction, probably in the early to mid sixteenth century. The existence of the Tower House meant that there must have been a local lord or chieftain family living in the area as well as a significant enough population to support them, though not necessarily in Kildavnet.

The earliest direct reference to the village was a map made by the English cartographer William Petty in 1683. According to his work ‘Kildanmit’ was one of three villages hidden within the rugged coastline of Achill. Along with Donkinally and Slievemore it must have been one of the more substantial settlements on the island. Of course, immigration into upper Achill after Cromwell’s campaign in the 1640s could still have easily accounted for its foundation only forty years earlier. However, a road was also drawn on the map that ran between the Tower House and Kildanmit, or an area slightly north, that suggests the two were associated.

          Sometime later the Strafford Inquisition of County Mayo was published, and it listed a castle and town within the ‘four quarters of Ackill,’ under the ownership of the Earl of Ormond. Unfortunately, since the town’s name was never specified it could have easily been Slievemore or elsewhere. Even more problematic is that the date of the Strafford Inquisition has never been suitably determined and may have been anywhere from the late sixteenth through late seventeenth century (O’ Sullivan, 1958: 24). It wasn’t until 1830s that the next overt reference to Kildavnet was made when William Bald published his map of County Mayo (Figure 8). Conducted between 1809 and 1817, the map shows five different clusters of buildings labeled collectively as Kildavnet. A road was again drawn running from the Tower House, but on Bald’s Map it traveled directly north for over a kilometer until its termination in the village of Derreen, passing but never bisecting Kildavnet (Bald 1830).

          Less than twenty years later, in 1838, the Office of the Ordinance Survey published their first map of Ireland. For the first time, Upper Achill was divided into townlands on a map. These included CarrickKildavnet and Derreen as well as Claggan, Cloughmore, Carrowgarve, and several others (Figure 8). The map also distinguished between the village called Kildavnet and a larger townland of CarrickKildavnet for the first time. In fact, the village Kildavnet was placed in the townland of Dereens, on the peak of dog a Duín and just north of the border between Dereens and CarrickKildavnet.

The Mayo County Ordinance Surveyor John O’ Donovan made multiple trips across the area while collecting information for the work. Many of these survived in a series of letters that reported his findings. Among them are various references to CarrickKildavnet, Derreen, and Kildavnet:


Carraig Cille Damhnaite (CarrickKildavnet), the rock of Davnet’s church. In the Southeast of the island… It contains one hundred eighty-four acres, three rods, and two perches. It is the property of Sir Richard O’ Donnell, and is held at a yearly rent of £30, on leases of lives, by seventeen families living on it. They are Catholics, and apparently very poor. It is in general very rocky; but about seventy acres are cultivated, producing oats, potatoes, and rye. The houses are of stone, badly constructed. In this townland, close to the sound, stands Kildavnet Castle; but no information could be obtained about it (O’ Donovan 1838: 25).


Later in the letter he spoke more of the area,


In Kildavnet are a graveyard and a well, called after Saint Damhaid, the virgin patron of the place. The church has been remodeled, and converted into a Roman Catholic Chapel. Also in this townland is the castle of Kildavnet, which is said to have been erected by the famous sea-queen, Graine Ni Mhaille. The present inhabitants of Achill are mostly descendants of members of the Cineal Conaill, who emigrated here with O’Donnell, some two centuries ago. They are a shrewd and intelligent people (Bray 1927: 178; orig. 1838).


Finally, concerning Derreen and Kildavnet he wrote:


Doirin- little oak wood… It contains One-thousand Seven-hundred acres, two rods, and one perch. This townland belongs to Sir Richard O’ Donnell, and it is held by tenants, who have leases of lives and pay £60 per annum for the townland, paying so much per sum. Their rent is in proportion to the number of cattle they have grazing on the mountain. The part that is cultivated is held in divisions or stipes. About 230 acres are reclaimed, part around Breakaskil village and along the Sound. The inhabitants all live in two villages, Breanaskil and Kildavnet, the former in the North, the latter in the South of the townland. Round the latter the mountain is very rocky; but further North and Northwest it affords tolerably good pasture (O’ Donovan 1838: 25).



The single townland of Kildavnet that O’ Donovan referred to actually stretches north and south a kilometer or more on the map, and, like Bald’s earlier map, included multiple clusters of buildings that were located in Derreen and CarrickKildavnet (Bald 1819; O.O.S. 1838). In total there are over seventy-four buildings drawn for the village labeled Kildavnet, not including the ones that cross south into CarrickKildavnet. Multiple roads were also shown in the village clusters, as well as a national school listed in the densest area, on the slope of dog a Duín.

          It is unclear why the townland lines bisected this long chain of buildings directly south of Kildavnet, since no significant group of buildings existed in CarrickKildavnet that would have merited a separate village. However, virtually the only remains today are from these few houses. The main settlement in Kildavnet, home to the National School, was completely demolished by quartzite mining in the early twentieth century.





CarrickKildavnet. The new boundary pushed Derreen further south and replaced the former jagged townland line with a completely straight boundary. The redistricting placed the entire chain of village clusters, including today’s few standing remains, into the territory of Derreen with the rest of Kildavnet village. Despite this, it is doubtful that this was the reason for doing so, since by 1855 the townland of CarrickKildavnet had already been deserted.


Rather, as Tomas McErlean states of the mid to late nineteenth century Ordinance Survey maps, “the tendency to straighten borders is an observable trait in some parts of the country” (McErlean 1983: 316).

          Ordinance Survey and earlier English maps provide a useful snapshot of Baile na hAilte. At the same time, they show only a synchronic landscape. Though the village was documented, its history was forgotten. Census Data and land valuations from the mid nineteenth century create a similar phenomenon, but one that was more regular in occurrence. Arranged by townland, the census data in 1841 for Derreen listed a population of three hundred forty-three. By 1851 the there was a significant decline to three hundred two. At the same time, the population in CarrickKildavnet dropped from one hundred forty-eight individuals to only eight (Census of Ireland 1851: R2). In Griffith’s 1855 valuations the only occupier listed for CarrickKildavnet was the landlord William Pike, and the description of the land was summed up with a herder’s house, office, and associated land.

Text Box: Figure 7 – William Bald’s 1830 Map of the Maritime County of Mayo. This section shows the southern portion of Upper Achill and the Currane Peninsula. A road is drawn that runs between Kildavnet Castle and Derreen. North faces away from the binding.

Figure 8 – 1838 Ordinance Survey Map of (North to South) southern Derreen, CarrickKildavnet, and Cloughmore. The townlands are separated by fine dotted lines, and the village of Kildavnet appears in southern Derreen.






Questioning Maps: Baile na hAilte and Gaelic Organization


There was no explanation listed for the dramatic decline in CarrickKildavnet’s population during the famine, but folklore and the circumstances of Upper Achills’s sell make eviction by far the most likely culprit. The statistical records never mentioned a striving village or its inhabitants, only a small track of boggy fringe land. It was the townlands of Derreen and CarrickKildavnet, owned by a single landlord and held on a communal lease. Its value was measured in acres and pounds, rather than in its inhabitants’ livelihood. In order to discover what happened to the people of Baile na hAilte, it is first important to find and situate them in the documentary evidence of the site.

The accounts of traveling Englishmen like J.B. Trotter (1819) and James Tuke (1848) describe Achill’s inhabitants as poor but hospitable, active and more concerned with daily survival than the vices of greed or capitalism that were so prevalent in the authors’ own worlds. The people were not different because of any inherent qualities, but because of their remoteness in distance and culture from the travelers who curiously looked upon them. Upper Achill’s citizens were far removed from centers of public activity. They were subsistence farmers striving to survive in an oppressive and partially foreign system. Had they had lawyers and doctors, capital to invest or more modern means of communication with an outside world there is no doubt that they would have resembled more the gentlemen or proletariat of any other area.

However, Baile na hAilte’s inhabitants did not have these things and were not part of the dominant society that wrote about them. CarrickKildavnet and Derreen probably did not exist in its inhabitants’ minds or language. In their eyes, it was not even a single village. By the nineteenth century, and perhaps for generations earlier, the various clusters that were popularly called Kildavnet were actually a series of small villages and hamlets. Even the term Baile na hAilte appears to simply be a modern generalization in the local folklore. A few people living in Upper Achill today still realize this important part of the area’s history. However, it rarely becomes apparent to the casual visitor.

The term Baile na hAilte is problematic because of the various spellings and translations that have become associated with it. In an interview with the local historian Thomas Johnston (Personal Communications, July 2002), he translated Ailt as a ‘craggy area,’ ‘steep slope,’ or ‘mountainside’. According to him, the term ‘Ailse’, often mistakenly substituted for Ailt by local writers, was actually a phonetic misspelling that translates as ‘sickness’ or ‘cancer’.

According to the historian L. Price (1963), ‘Baile’ has a much more ambiguous history and meaning. Originally the term was a general word for an area of land, akin to the term ‘place.’ By the late medieval period Baile had come to be denoted as a general term for ‘townland,’ a translation that is still predominant today. Thomas McErlean (1983) expanded this into a regional dialogue and asserted that Baile was also used as a term of land assessment (similar to acres or hectares) in western Ireland, a use that continued well into the seventeenth century. While the size of a Baile was generally much to large to be associated with the area of Upper Achill in question, it is nonetheless important to note its possible contexts as a much more general descriptive term than merely a townland.

In such a context, Baile na hAilte could be described almost as the modern Irish equivalent to English CarrickKildavnet and Derreen- an area of arbitrary designation for easy classification. Whereas the English equivalent was based on perceived geographic and regional boundaries, however, Baile na hAilte is based on a more cultural boundary that encompasses not only a group of villages but also an event. Baile na hAilte designates the area that was taken by all those villages which were deserted or evicted in the nineteenth century. It does not include the villages that are still inhabited to the north or south, only the empty area in between. It also does not adhere to the English ordering, as it includes both CarrickKildavnet as well as the southern half of Derreen, ignorant of the supposed townland boundary. The term Baile na hAilte is not useful to describe a village, because it was not a village. It is only useful as a designation for an area of land that encompassed multiple villages that shared a common event in local folklore. These villages’ inhabitants had no sense of CarrickKildavnet, Derreen, or possibly even Baile na hAilte. They had no sense of the area with a single unifying name because they had no sense of the area as a single entity. Rather than viewing the landscape as a whole, they saw it as a series of autonomous clachans and villages. 

Out of all the brief references to Baile na hAilte in modern writing, only a single author was able to make this distinguishment between Ailt and the multiple villages that actually composed it. Breege O’ Brien wrote:


The Change in ownership (of Upper Achill) in 1852 signaled the end for the large village which lay due east of Tur Ríabhach, through Leachtaí, in the south of the townland of Derreen. This settlement was situated in that part of Derreen now generally referred to as Ailt. It was really a series of smaller villages running one into the other, uphill along Sruffaunnahaltia, northwards, and then eastwards towards Gubadruma. Here were the villages of Ailt tSagairt, Ailt a’ Mhianaigh, Ailt na Mántrach and Baile Úr. O’Donovan tells us there were 79 families here in 1838 (O’ Brien 1996: 19; Parenthesis added).



The local names given to these places by their inhabitants often described some intimate knowledge of the village. In an interview with Thomas Johnston (Personal Communications, July 2002) he was able to confirm most of these names and provide some translations. Ailt a’ Mhianaigh means ‘Mountainside of the mine’ and referred to a small soapstone mine in the village. Ailt na Mántrach means ‘Crag/Mountainside of the Widow’, but Johnston stated that it may have actually been Ailt na Mantrach, a similar term that means ‘Old Ruins.’ According to his local informants the village was located on or near the site of some old ruins or a stone outcropping that resembled some.

Saigart is Gaelic for priest and Ailt tSagairt was the name of the village for the local parish father. Patrick Joyce echoed this when he wrote that the local parochial residence was in ‘Kildownett’ until the mid nineteenth century (Joyce 1910). The local priest would have been based at Kildavnet church since its reconstruction in the mid-eighteenth century, and Ailt tSagairt’s name or origins may stem out of the period. Presumably, it would have also been located close to the church and cemetery.

          Groups of small clustered hamlets such as these were common across the Irish landscape. They were part of a historic tradition that was intimately tied to booleying and kinship. The small series of irregular villages that ran across Upper Achill’s peaks are much more characteristic of western Ireland than any single large townland, despite what English cartographers thought they witnessed. James H. Johnson noted a similar phenomenon during his work in County Donegal,


Modern dispersed settlement in Donegal was in fact preceded by ‘clachans’- clusters of farm buildings and their associated outbuildings, usually grouped without any formal plan and in the early nineteenth century often consisting of as many as 30 to 40 houses. Although these clachans normally lacked both inn and church, communal life and the exchange of services were characteristic, and as a rule their inhabitants were related by blood’ (1958: 554).



Each clachan was its own autonomous or semi-autonomous unit, a hamlet surrounded by other hamlets. Rundale fields separated the clustered villages from one another and, before the population declines of the later nineteenth century, expanded across the landscape until every arable inch of land on the island was under cultivation. Undoubtedly, there was travel and communication between these hamlets, but in their inhabitants’ minds they were obviously autonomous enough to be warranted their own names and designated their own properties. If proper village names had been included on rent rolls and censuses, it would not have been surprising to find that the communal leases (so often referred to by contemporary travelers) corresponded strongly to such familial and village boundaries.

However, such a Gaelic cultural history and ordering of clachans was foreign to English settlers. The idea of separate villages, without social centers or business, and based almost as much on kinship as on distance obviously did not come across them as they charted the ‘wilds’ of Ireland. As James Johnson stated,


A clachan was just a group of farm buildings, usually without any other function and without any plan, and hence it would not have appeared ‘village-like’ to an Englishman’s eyes, though its total population could have approached that of a village in lowland Britain (1958: 558).



The sizes of the villages in the area of Ailt varied greatly. According to the 1838 Ordinance Survey map the northern ones were far larger than their southern counterparts in CarrickKildavnet, the smallest of which had only five buildings. By far, the largest clachan was the one located on the current site of the Quartzite quarry. A count from the map shows over thirty dwellings in the area of the quarry, bordered closely by smaller clachans to the north and south. The village was also listed with its own national school in both the 1838 Ordinance Survey map (Figure 9) as well as the 1852 Lithograph of Irish Church Missions (Figure 1), though it failed to appear in subsequent maps or records from the 1850s (Commissioners of National Education in Ireland 1854; Griffith 1855). Kildavnet was the most southern village in Derreen townland, bordered directly to the south by CarrickKildavnet.

This may have been the central village of the area, in so far as one existed, surrounded by smaller hamlets to the north and south. It had the only school in the area and may have also been the location of an unlicensed Publican’s house, called a shebeen, that was ran during the 1850s. Baile na hAilte was specifically mentioned by O’ Keeffe on the subject, though the source is not clear:


An establishment in the old, now deserted village of Ailt, was run by a man called Edward Lavelle. He was a shoemaker (originally from Newport), who in the early 1850s was accused by the local landlord and magistrate, William Pike, of running a shebeen. In reply to the accusation Lavelle said, ‘Yes, I may have, but you didn’t refuse my hospitality when you were going the way’ (O’ Keeffe 1999: 19).



Even if the village under modern Kildavnet Quarry was the social center of the area of Ailt, it could not have been the only gathering place. The church of Saint Dympha was probably also an epicenter of activity until its abandonment in 1834. The summer booley was also a seasonal place for social interaction, and on probably on a larger scale than a schoolhouse or church since the inhabitants of several areas often co-inhabited single boolies (Kilbane: 2002). Unfortunately, the location of the booley for the inhabitants of Ailt is still unknown. Because the clachans expanded nearly to the top of dog a Duín and Leachtaí peaks in this area they could not have been located on the mountainside. There are many fording points across the sound in Upper Achill and its possible, though by no means definite, that they built a booley on the Corraun Peninsula mainland (James Kilbane, Personal Communications, June 2002). Other, though less regular, social events presented themselves off the island. At the least this included an annual fair held on November 1 in Westport, where families could sell their calves. Additionally, smaller and more distant fairs were held each year on May 1 and October 1 in Louisburgh (Cárthaigh and Whelan 1999).

The networks of social interaction among the inhabitants of the various villages of Baile na hAilte are obvious. They shared a church, a school, a shebeen, and probably even a booley. Various maps show the small roads and trails that linked the villages, and much of the spring and summer work harvesting seaweed and digging lazy beds probably also involved a larger community (Aodha 1996).

At the same time that there was obviously a larger community of shared responsibility, the area should not just be viewed as one large village, as its colonial visitors did, but as a series of interlocking yet independent clachans. The small hamlet framework of a clachan could allow members of an extended family or other social group within it to share fishing ships and harvest duties. It was a close unit that was easily expressed in the surrounding unfenced Rundale fields that its members shared. The clachan was a support group that aided its many individual families’ survival. It was also demarcated from other clachans by separate farmhouses and croplands. For nine months out of the year the inhabitants performed their own daily tasks, probably with little regard to neighboring communities outside of school and church (which, until the later nineteenth century were only sporadically attended by most populations). Even viewing the spatial relationships of the villages, the distance of a kilometer or more that separated the most northern from the most southern houses probably ensured some relative distance. Each hamlet was its own entity and their size and relative wealth could vary substantially even in small areas such as Ailt.


The Decline of Ailt


          On the dawn of the Great Famine, the 1841 Census gave a population of one hundred forty-eight in CarrickKildavnet. By 1851, this number had declined to eight. Derreen had also declined by fifty individuals, and its possible that some immigrants from CarrickKildavnet had softened this number. Even allowing the toll that the famine must have had on the inhabitants, it appears that evictions can be the only explanation for the total desertion of CarrickKildavnet in the 1840s. Despite this, no eviction was ever recorded in contemporary documents and even local folklore places the evictions of Ailt later, in 1854 or 1896.        

However, this does not mean that the folklore and historical documentation of Baile na hAilte are irreconcilable. On the contrary, what documents and foklore collectively being to illuminate is that the eviction of Ailt was not a single event, but rather a set of multiple evictions that took place over as much as fifty years. In concert with contemporary newspaper articles and other sources, a clearer picture emerges.

 The overwhelming sense of the newspaper articles and folklore is that William Pike cleared increasing amounts of his land in the later half of the nineteenth century. While his motivation for doing this is not clear in the documentary record, it probably revolved around the 2400 acres of personal grazing land that he had accumulated out of former agriculturally marginal and tenant lands by 1902 (O’Brien 1902). Beyond this, other evictions may have been based on rent arrears, as stated by Anne Falvey for those in 1896 (Falvey 1999). Still others, including the apparent eviction of Father Henry, may have been of a more personal nature.

By looking at the deserted villages of Baile na hAilte it is possible to see a microcosm of a larger struggle that was taking place across Ireland. It was defined on one hand by a Victorian landlord and their new notions of improvement and consolidation, including an increasing reliance on personal farms and grazing rather than tenant incomes. On the other side was the rise of a political clergy and the local work of national tenant action groups. By looking at these parties in upper Achill it is possible to see the rise of the dualism that has come to describe relations and people in post-famine colonial Ireland. At the same time, once it is understood it is possible to begin deconstructing this dualism and looking at the villagers separately - defined by their own culture rather than just by their relations in the Irish colonial hierarchy.

          The first eviction in Baile na hAilte actually occurred in CarrickKildavnet prior to the 1851 census. The eviction appears to have been by far the largest, but it occurred before William Pike had gained his title to the land. Since the entire townland was evicted rather than any single group of arreared leases it is likely that the Encumbered Estates Court affected it after gaining control of the island from Sir Richard O’Donnell. These mass estate-clearing evictions were a relatively common procedure that the courts held the right to exercise, based on a ‘right of uninhabited estate’ for the incoming landlord. This right gave the court the power to nullify leases and clear lots in order to entice more favorable sales. Whether or not the incoming owner, William Pike, requested the eviction is questionable.

          When Pike did take control of Upper Achill he obviously took advantage of the situation. Rather than re-letting the property, he quickly established it as pastureland. By 1855, when Griffith published the Land Valuations for the country, only a single herdsman’s house and associated offices were listed in CarrickKildavnet. It is possible, though by no means clear, that the eight people still remaining in CarrickKildavnet in the 1851 census were this herdsman and family, meaning that the pasture had already been established by the Encumbered Estates Court, with or without the consent of the incoming owner.

          Only two years after Pike secured the deed, in September 1852, he presided over another eviction in the area, this time in the northern portion of Baile na hAilte in southern Derreen. Unlike the earlier eviction this one was definitely the work of William Pike. It became an ongoing event of notoriety for Pike throughout the county because of the work of a local parish priest, Father James Henry.

          Father Henry was appointed to Kildavnet Church in Derreen in the mid-nineteenth century. He was apparently well known for his outrageous tendencies towards Protestants even before coming to the island, and this may have been behind his appointment. Either way, there is not doubt that he had a large influence on the Achill Mission’s relative weakness in Upper Achill. Random court cases, charges of brutality towards Protestant ministers, and accusation of inciting anti-Protestant riots added to the legendary status of Father Henry.

          In 1854 the ongoing battle between Henry and the Protestant owners of the island was manifested through a series of newspaper articles that concerned evictions threatened by William Pike. On September 19, 1854, Pike’s bailiff served notice on tenants in Derreen that they were to be evicted by October 30 if they had not peaceably given up their lands. Father Henry responded with a letter to the Castlebar Telegraph that was published on October 18. The letter called Pike a bigoted landowner who was endeavoring to get rid of Catholic Tenants (Henry 1854).

          The situation intensified in late November when Pike received a letter, from ‘Captain McGuire, Tyrawley Lodge’ that stated,


You are hereby required to take notice that unless you quit your tyranny and persecution in Achill by wasting the lands and compelling poor Roman Catholics to leave their homes and lands for their religion that your death warrant is signed and sealed by a judge and jury of Molly McGuire (Bracken 1992: 81; orig. 1854).



On December 19, 1854, a letter in which Pike responded to these allegations and threats was published in the Mayo Constitution. Besides republishing Father Henry’s original letter he replied, “As to the turning out of tenants I have ejected neither Protestant nor Roman Catholic, although I have had in my possession for two years an injunction by which I might have turned out eighty four families” (The injunction that he was referring to was the right to vacant possession that he received from the Encumbered Estates court) (Pike, 1854). He went on to say that, “I certainly shall eject some of the worst characters who have ever been ready to listen to bad advisers and who contaminate the neighbourhood in which they reside” (Pike 1854).

          At this point, according to Anne Gannon (1990) and Anna Carty (1997), Baile na hAilte was evicted on Christmas Eve. This seems unlikely, however, since no mention of evictions in December was made in the ongoing newspaper debate between Father Henry and William Pike, which continued for several months into 1855. Certainly, neither made any mention of evictions over barking dogs or the village being burnt to stave off its inhabitants. An eviction did take place slightly later, however, as Father Henry eloquently wrote in another letter, published in the February 5, 1855 edition of the Freeman Journal:


The brave and hardy islanders, whose brethren fought so nobly for their country at Alma, Balaklava, and Inkerman, must fly their ancient native mountains, and cross the Atlantic to feed the strength of other nations- to make way for the goat and the game- though a loyal, peaceful patient, well-disposed tenantry, not owing one shilling rent. The sheriff and a posse of police were brought a few days ago, to eject and entire district of Achill. Some, it is true, were allowed to remain in their houses during the landlord’s pleasure, while the crowbar did its work levelling the houses of several families who were drifted on the world in this very inclement season when frost and snow cover our bills; and it is painful for me to add, that the parents of some of the evicted refused a night’s shelter to some of their children, lest, by so doing, they might incur the landlord’s displeasure… The weeping of mothers and the cries of the children overpowered the hearts of fond fathers in beholding their houses unroofed, and their black gables giving way to the crowbar. But they were Catholics- they were attached to the faith of their fathers, and there was no home for them… We have at this moment some families who were evicted living in the chapel of Kildavnet and in the schoolhouse adjoining it; and as their friends dare not shelter them from the inclemency of the weather, they must remain in the present position until an all-merciful God open for them a door in some more Christian land (Pike 1855).



          William Pike again republished Father Henry’s letter with his own response in the Mayo Constitution. The article, entitled “Father Henry on Evictions,” stated that eighty families were thrown out, but only two permanently:




We, on the authority of the Sheriff and every person who was present when the lands were taken possession of, fearlessly declare that of the eighty families being thrown out, only two were disturbed, and these because they were persons whom the landlord could not safely leave on his estate, from the turbulence of their characters,- and to evict whom it was necessary to bring a police force to preserve the peace; the remainder of the tenantry were merely formally removed and let back into possession; but to create a grievance, Father Henry put one fellow named Lavelle, into the chapel, and the other into the national school-house (Pike 1855).



At this point the ‘fellow named Lavelle’ that William Pike mentioned also joined into the newspaper debacle. In an article published February 21 he wrote that the affected evictions were based on frivolous reasons and were really prompted by a bigoted desire to get rid of Catholic tenants. Pike replied,


I shall feel ever grateful for the manner you have upheld me when right, as one of a class of recent purchasers in this country whom it has been sought to intimidate and annoy by every species of threats and calamnity. I again state I am not the person to be influenced by such means. Every possible effort has been made by Reverend Mr. Henry to create a bad impression in the minds of my tenants on against me. Has he not in the Mayo telegraph declared that he would find a home in the Currane for any that I should eject, and has he not a hundred times told the people to set me at defiance and he would get them land elsewhere… Were it not for his teaching I do believe I should not have been obliged to eject a single man, if I may except Lavelle (a shoemaker from Newport) who has always distinguished himself as an agitator, a shebeen house keeper (for which he was fined £2), and a troublesome neighbor. In fact the people have told me they had no peace in the village with him. He has, I am informed, now entered on a course more dangerous to himself, of which I expect the public will soon hear.


He concluded by saying that,


In spite of all the opposition and begging letters (who benefits by them?) of Mr. Henry, I find the people of this place show more good feeling towards me each day and from one end of the land to the other the same remark is make to me ‘We wish Mr. Henry would mind his own business and not be setting the gentlemen and the people against one another’ we wish we had never seen him’ (Bracken, 1992: 81, 82; orig. 1855).



          Edward Lavelle is, of course, the shebeen keeper mentioned in an earlier section. In the same issue of the Mayo Constitution another letter appeared from a Hugh McCann, which stated “We don’t like that Ned Lavelle or any other person should interfere between our landlord and ourselves anymore” (Bracken, 1992: 82; orig. 1855). Ned Lavelle replied two weeks later, retorting that no such tenant existed on the Pike estate and that the letter was nothing more than the creation of a Mrs. Harris, one of Pikes retainers (Bracken 1992: 82; orig. 1855).[vi] Lavelle’s letter was the last in over four months of arguing.

          The newspaper battle between Father Henry and William Pike would have been humorous if not for its heavy subject. Whether Pike’s Catholic tenants saw their lives or relationships with the Protestant landlord as a dichotomy of ‘us against them’, their literary representative, Father Henry, obviously extolled such a viewpoint. On the other hand, William Pike asserted that they lived in peace with him, and both authors used the inhabitants to advance their own cause. Unfortunately, neither author’s statements were ever reconciled or validated by a third party- leaving open the questions of how tenants and labourers interacted with the landowner as well as how many people were actually evicted. Historically, the Catholic priests of Ireland in the nineteenth century have been viewed as the voices of the peasants, and the modern day remembrance of Father Henry on the island is no exception (Bartlett 1992; Taylor 1985). In many ways, however, the inhabitants of Ailt, as in other areas, were merely the pawns of an infant national movement led by priests and more often middle class tenant and shopkeeper land agitators that rose against English aristocratic interests. When landlords began selling properties to leaseholders in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it was often these middle class tenants who became the new landlords (Hoppen 1991).

During the remainder of the 1850s Pike continued to expand his properties on Achill, and by 1861 he had bought out the remainder of Upper Achill from Thomas Brassy and William Holmes. According to Anthony Kilbane (Personal Communications, July 2001), a local inhabitant, he also eventually succeeded in evicting Father Henry- a statement that was somewhat echoed by Father Joyce, writing of Father Henry in 1910, “The parochial residence was at Kildownett, but the appearance of an enemy later on in another part of the island rendered a change of position advisable” (Joyce 1910: 86). A Father Michael Gallagher replaced him, who folklore has generally remembered as more sympathetic to the landlord.

The 1870s brought a period of recession and declining livestock prices throughout Ireland, and William Pike was undoubtedly affected by dwindling returns on his pastureland. It was during this time, according to Anthony Kilbane, that poor soils and rocky pastures forced the landlord to curtail some of his cattle drives (Personal communications, July 2001). By the census of 1881 the population of CarrickKildavnet had climbed from eight to fifty-eight, perhaps showing that Pike had reopened some portions of his pasture for tenants.

If this was the case, it did not endure. By 1891 the population of CarrickKildavnet had again declined to only thirteen individuals. According to the census of that year, “The decrease was attributed to emigration and removals” (Census of Ireland 1902: 78). Evictions continued through the 1890s, according to Anne Falvey, and the supposed eviction of the Pike Estate on Christmas Eve, 1896, was only one of several that took place throughout the decade (Falvey 1999). Surprisingly, there was not a significant decline in population and no evictions were listed on the census of 1901 for upper Achill. Nevertheless, if most of the inhabitants were allowed to return after paying rent arrears, as Falvey suggested, then the evictions may have been more of a scare tactic than a means of clearing tenants for more pastureland (1999). Since the 1890s were plagued by crop failures and recession in Ireland, it is not surprising to find that tenants were having troubles making rent payments.

Unlike CarrickKildavnet, the decline of the Baile na hAilte’s clachans and villages in Derreen are harder to illuminate. Besides the evictions in 1854 and 1896, no others are apparent. There are no instances of evictions or sudden population declines in the census returns. The reasons for this vary. Nearly the entire townland of CarrickKildavnet was cleared, walled, and used use as a pasture by Pike. Derreen, on the other hand, was a much larger geographic area, and even if part of the land was used as pasture, the decline of inhabitants in one area could be offset by their emigration into another portion of the townland. The evictions of the area known as Baile na hAilte are especially complicated, since it includes all of CarrickKildavnet but only the southern third of Derreen. English records kept tract of entire townlands, but never accomplished the same feat for individual settlements.

It seems likely, however, that the villages of Derreen were in decline if not completely abandoned by the turn of the century. Except for a brief respite in the 1870s, CarrickKildavnet’s villages had already been cleared since at least 1851. The construction of the Atlantic Drive during the famine, and its later expansion, probably hastened the mountain villages’ decline and the movement of houses towards the coastland just as much as any evictions. By 1921, construction of the quarry had begun over the former village of Kildavnet (O.O.S. 1921). In Ordinance Survey Maps from the era, nearly twenty houses are still shown, though not necessarily inhabited. They are noticeably more spread out down the hillside than the earlier nineteenth century maps, and today the great majority of even these are completely removed from the landscape (1921).

The recession of the 1890s and the early twentieth century was highlighted by the rapid expansion of the Irish Land League throughout Western Ireland. By the end of the decade this involved several individuals from Achill who attended meetings in the mainland town of Westport as well as on the island. These meetings were directed against fellow tenants just as often as they were against the island’s landlords. In 1899, for example, two tenants were forced to go to court after a heated League debate in which they accused one another of being land grabbers (Falvey 1999). In 1904, tensions rose when some inhabitants of Upper Achill accused other locals of fencing off common lands, and the event climaxed with a brawl in the local church (1999).

More than anything else, such events show that tenants were not always united against the landlord. There was a large enough disparity between tenants for some to be the focus of the land league as much as the estate owner. Shopkeepers and William Pike’s herdsmen, for example, were tenants who were obviously more wealthy than most of their agrarian counterparts. Poorer tenants and labourers were often indebted to the local shopkeepers for planting supplies. In many parts of Ireland the shopkeepers and largest land-holding tenants were the most outspoken proponents of the Land League, because they were in the best position to purchase large estates if the landlords property was divided and sold (Higgins and Gibbons 1982). According to the historian Pádraig Lane, the poorest labourers were often the most alienated class from land agitation groups (2000). Though there is no evidence of this among the communal leases in Upper Achill, at least prior to the close of the nineteenth century, shopkeepers and wealthy tenants in other areas were often already landlords- dividing and sub-leasing their own leased lands (Higgins and Gibbons 1982).   

          William Pike was only one of many new and old landlords across Ireland that favoured a new hands-on-approach towards his property. He did this by holding a permanent residence on the island and by subsidizing his income from rents with income from personally operated cattle ranches. This shielded him from an over-reliance on tenant rents, but at the sacrifice of traditionally tenant lands.

Beyond Pike, however, there was a diverse population of herdsmen, shopkeepers, communal tenants, and seasonal labourers that all lived on his properties. These tenants probably interacted with one another more than with the landlord, who, though resident, still lived in a manor far removed from most of the properties. Though it has been possible to look at Rundale agriculture, Gaelic organization, and the lives of Achill’s farming tenants, the interaction between various tenant groups is more lacking in both historical and contemporary documents and sources.

Large economic discrepancies between tenants were less apparent in Upper Achill than in most other parts of Ireland, and the great majority of these tenants appear to have shared communal leases and lives in their Clachans. Nonetheless, discrepancies did exist. Herdsmen were not only tenants but also agents of the landlord who guarded his property from other inhabitants and straying cattle. Shopkeepers vied with the landlord, especially in poor agricultural seasons, for tenants’ scarce income (Higgins 1982). The majority of the tenants, agrarians and labourers, had to interact between themselves and with these immediate upper classes much more than with any landlord. This lifestyle continued in Upper Achill throughout the nineteenth century, and, afterwards, only gradually dissipated.      



Figure 9 – Part of a clachan in northern CarrickKildavnet. This house and dilapidated road are some of the few remains of Baile na hAilte.












V       The Past Landscape of Baile na hAilte




The demise of Baile na hAilte occurred earlier than many other similar villages in Upper Achill. By the early twentieth century, over fifty years of evictions, emigration, and relocation to more coastal settlements along the Atlantic Drive had emptied the area of its inhabitants. Since then, a hundred years of change has eroded most of the past landscape, leaving little hint of the size of the population that once inhabited the stretch of mountainside. Some of the most northern settlements simply disappeared, deconstructed into new pasture walls or reclaimed by bog. In southern Derreen, the village of Kildavnet was completely demolished through three decades of quartzite mining (Figure 10). Today, only the ruins of Baile na hAilte’s smallest clachans survive, all located within the former pasture of CarrickKildavnet.

Despite the loss of most of the clachans and houses, evidence of the area’s nineteenth century inhabitants still blanket the landscape. Vast tracks of lazy bed ridges curve towards the mountain peaks, unhindered by more modern walls that divide the landscape. Above the ridges and at the top of the peaks are dark horizontal lines of peat, signs that the land’s former inhabitants had once reclaimed all but these highest rocks from the bog that is once again forming over now fallow potato ridges. From the road near the cemetery, the ruins of five of Baile na hAilte’s houses can be seen in CarrickKildavnet. To the southeast are the less evident remains of another of Baile na hAilte’s clachans, nearly leveled and buried beneath grass and rushes. According to Thomas Johnston (Personal Communications, July 2002) one of these two villages was Ailt tSagairt, once the site of Kildavnet’s parochial residence.




Figure 10 – Viewed from the south, a shot of the quartz quarry where Kildavnet once stood. In the foreground are Pike’s wall and the remains of a small clachan in CarrickKildavnet- the only one in Baile na hAilte that still stands today. Leachtaí rises in the background, with still visible ridges from nineteenth century bog cutting.






The only other features on CarrickKildavnet’s mountainsides are a large circular stone pound (Figure 11) and larger stone wall (Figures 10, 12) that encloses most of the townland. The wall demarcates one of William Pike’s pastures, and probably has an origin around the time of CarrickKildavnet’s eviction, near 1851. In order to find signs of the evicted inhabitants, one probably need look no farther than the remains of the two small clachans located within the wall’s boundaries. The fact that the wall bisects some of the houses and gardens in the northernmost settlement, where the five ruinous buildings still stand, shows that the village was at least empty before the pasture’s construction. Likewise, the buildings of the southeastern settlement were recycled into the circular pound that rests adjacent to some of their former foundations.



Text Box: Figure 11 – Stone enclosure/pound in CarrickKildavnet. The pound was built into a house that is in the bottom right corner.




Hidden in this silent and serene mountain landscape is evidence of the past life-ways and various cultures of the areas nineteenth century inhabitants. The dilapidated walls and terraces of the clachans Gaelic settlers follow the curves and features of the natural landscape with an almost organic flow. Pike’s wall overruns both the earlier walls and natural features. It is a perfect rectangle that runs,

artificially straight, across the mountain (Figure 12). Over four feet tall and nearly a kilometer long, it towers over the villages’ short garden walls and terraces. Stone spikes jutting out from the walls top, a useful deterrent for animals, adds a sinister appearance to the already imposing structure.

Text Box: Figure 12 – William Pike’s pasture wall in CarrickKildavnet



The ethos behind the pasture’s appearance is obviously at odds with the earlier settlements. It is an ordered, Victorian structure that must have required an expenditure of work far beyond local inhabitants’ means. The resident herdsmen that would have inhabited the pasture must have also brought new challenges to Baile na hAilte’s inhabitants who were still living in southern Derreen. He was at once a tenant and employee of William Pike, wealthier than his agrarian counterparts, and both he and Pike’s cattle that he tended were a direct link to the landlord as well as target for retribution. At the same time, various cattle drives as well as the construction and repairs of the pasture wall may have also given the status of employer to CarrickKildavnet’s herdsman. He was an intermediary between the landlord and common tenant, and his spatial relation to nearby villages meant that his interaction with tenants probably occurred on a much more regular basis than with their Victorian landlord.

The eight inhabitants of CarrickKildavnet listed in the 1851 census may have been the herdsman and family that was mentioned, “With associated outbuildings,” in Griffith’s 1855 Land Evaluations. There is a fair possibility that the northernmost clachan in CarrickKildavnet (Figure 10) was, following its eviction, the home and associated outbuildings that were mentioned. No evidence of any other standing buildings from the period is apparent, and this would explain why the five buildings of the northern settlement were not leveled, unlike their counterparts in the townlands other clachan. The relatively well-preserved nature of some of the buildings would also suggest that they were inhabited more recently than one hundred fifty years ago.



Overview of the Village


The buildings of this clachan, whether the home of the resident herdsman or not, are the only standing group of structures left in Baile na hAilte (Figures 10, 29). They were arranged in a standard clachan type settlement- a disorganized nucleus of buildings surrounded by a fenced Rundale infield, on the eastern slope of dog a Duín and less than a kilometer west of Achill Sound. The area in and surrounding the settlement is relatively steep and very rocky, and some of the buildings appear to rest directly atop a buried schistite boulder or outcrop. Only the remains of six of the buildings survive today, though in the earliest Ordinance Survey maps eight structures originally appeared (1838). Out of the six, the smallest building has only a foundation, and its missing walls were presumably used in the construction of Pike’s nearby wall. The remainder of the buildings are in various states of decay and, including walls, encompass an area of approximately five hundred meters north/south and two hundred fifty east/west.

The growth of Peat Bog and the collapse of various walls hide many of the clachans features, but still leave a sense of the original inhabitants. The dwellings are miniscule by modern standards- all but two have only a single room. Furthermore, the room was usually separated into a dwelling space as well as a pen for cattle by a small drainage channel that ran through the house. Críostóir Mac Cárthaigh and Kevin Whelan described the layout,


In this arrangement animals were penned into the end of the kitchen farthest away from the hearth and sleeping quarters. A transverse drain that continued out under the front wall carried the waste away. This byre-dwelling arrangement was once a typical feature of vernacular architecture in the extreme west and north of Ireland, as it was also in other parts of the European-Atlantic fringe (1999: 49).


 The walls of most of the five buildings, even where they are not collapsed, are also noticeably short, and there is no evidence of a chimney or other permanent outlet for smoke. The houses were primitive by most nineteenth century English standards, earning the condemnation of many travelers. James H. Tuke described his experience with a house on another island in Western Ireland,


Stoop low enough, or you may carry away the door-post; it is perhaps safest to enter on all fours, as I have had to do- the darkness and stifling turf-smoke for awhile prevent the use of the eyes, and unable to distinguish whence comes the welcome which accosts you, of ‘God speed your honour,’ you instinctively grope forward; beware, however, of too suddenly regaining an erect posture, or your hat may appear through the roof; for in no parts does this height exceed five or six feet. Accustomed by this time to the darkness, which the inmates in vain endeavour to dispel, by lighting small reeds or the pith of rushes, you are able to discern the size of this human burrow: and in a space from seven to ten feet square (I have measured them even less), you may find a family of six or eight persons, men, women, and children, in this filthy stinking hole, kneeling or squatting round the peat fire, or lying on the damp ground. As for furniture there is none- one or two broken stools and the ‘boiling pot,’ and in some a slightly raised space, upon which is spread a little damp dirty straw, oftener upon the cold ground, and a ragged coverlid, constitute in many cases the whole (1848: 21).


The house that Tuke wrote about may have actually been a booley house. These were generally smaller and more ramshackle than the buildings of the permanent village, since they were only inhabited during the summer months. Nevertheless, booley houses shared many elements with their more permanent counterparts, including smoke filled rooms and low roofs.

Despite their dismal description by Tuke, these single or double-roomed cottages were prevalent among farming classes throughout large parts of Western Ireland. Perhaps a sign of the areas poverty in the nineteenth century, they were also well adapted to the harsh living conditions of the area and period. Many of the buildings features (and outside of CarrickKildavnet sometimes the buildings themselves) continued to be utilized well into the twentieth century. 

Besides their size, lack of chimney, and low roofs, these buildings also shared thatch roofs and were, as a rule, built out of local construction materials. Taken together, the construction methods meant that relatively little work had to be placed in each house. This was especially important since the immediate family or local community performed all the work. It also aided the transient lifestyle of the poorest peasants, who always had to fear eviction.


Figure 13 – 1900 six inch to one mile Ordinance Survey map of Southern Derreen and CarrickKildavnet. The original townland boundary was marked in black, while the 1855 boundary revision into a straight line was also highlighted.  The area surveyed (Figure 10) is inset into a box between the two boundaries. Most of the buildings and roads visible on the 1838 map (Figure 8) are missing from this later survey, though Pike’s wall is now clearly visible running through the surveyed area.










Finally, small houses without chimneys held in heat as well as smoke from the fire very effectively, an important adaptation to Western Ireland’s harsh weather.

The six standing buildings in the clachan in northern CarrickKildavnet were all constructed in a similar fashion. They were also all constructed perpendicular to the mountains slope and with the shortest side facing towards the peak. This east/west alignment followed the mountains falls and reduced natural drainage into the house.

Internally, most of the buildings had two opposing doors that allowed air to circulate through the house, and many still had evidence of a drainage channel that ran between the doors. At least one window was apparent in every house where the walls had not collapsed beneath the window level. Windows were also tapered so that only a small slit opened towards the outside. This allowed more sunlight into the house while minimizing the loss of heat.

Stone-lined semicircle or square pits for the collection of manure and other organic fertilizer were present outside the doors of many of the houses. In addition to the manure pits, every house was also lined on at least one side by a small walled garden. This was perhaps the one place where any crop, herb, or spice might be grown independently of the larger communal clachan. Beyond the personal house garden, the fields between and immediately beyond the houses opened into a myriad of curving walls and small terraces that linked the individual buildings. Their walls twisted along the mountainside, following natural rises and even boulders. At points, the walls became short terraces, less than a meter tall, that gave a more even slope to portions of the land.

The terraced and walled fields between and beyond the immediate houses and gardens were the infield of Rundale’s infield/outfield system. Their size ranged between a few hundred square meters to over a half-acre, but it’s impossible to know how many unmarked property divisions may have occurred within each field. Beyond the infield, lazy beds surrounded the clachan, running down the mountainsides and carefully following the natural falls of the land. If nothing else, the vast tracts of Upper Achill that are covered with these ridges today testify to the population that the area once boasted.

Though the houses and fields were arranged with no apparent plan, according to the earliest Ordinance Survey map (Figure 8) at least four of the original seven or eight structures were located along a short east/west road that, after leaving the village, turned north and ran into the neighboring settlement (where the quarry is located today). Whether the road or houses came first is not clear on the map, but given that the road leads to no other area beyond the houses and in fact appears to curve around them makes it appear likely that the settlement was first, or at least near contemporary, to the road’s construction.

All of the buildings were made using local stone, in this case primarily schistite- a flaky and layered conglomerate. The houses were all built in uncoursed random rubble (Figure 14), meaning that the stones were not a uniform size, showed virtually no signs of being worked, and were not horizontally coursed or laid out in any apparent pattern. Some of the houses showed signs of rough or near coursing, but it was not refined. According to Patrick McAfee (1997), an Irish Stonemason, such elements of near coursing are common in older structures because it is quicker to build with stones of a similar height and because occasional coursing makes it easier to break vertical joints. There was also no sign of external plastering in any of the buildings, but most of the structures had the remains of a dirt, possibly limestone, fill in the cracks of the internal walls.

Figure 14 – South wall of structure three, an example of uncoursed random rubble.


One Meter






The only major exception to the uncoursed random rubble construction techniques and use of local schistite were the stones used to frame windows and cubbyholes (Figures 14, 15). In all cases where these structures were apparent they were framed with large red sandstones that had been worked into a semi-rectangular shape. Red sandstone was an easily malleable local rock that may have been found and cut by the inhabitants. It is also possible that it was scavenged from an ancient promontory fort over a kilometer south of the village. Unlike windows and cubby holes the doorways were not lined by sandstone, possibly owing to a wooden frame and door, and their footstones were all larger schistite pieces.

The houses were comparable in size to ruins of another deserted village on Slievemore on the other side of the island. Of the five structures that were probably houses (the sixth being far too small for habitation) in CarrickKildavnet, only one of them had an area significantly less than thirty-five square meters, and the largest was forty-five square meters. Compared to a similar survey of the Slievemore village that was conducted by Bob Kingston (1990), this would have placed the houses of CarrickKildavnet in the upper-medium tier of house sizes. Excluding a few particularly large and multi-roomed buildings in Slievemore, that may or may not have been used as homes, the houses in CarrickKildavnet are actually in line with some of the largest of Slievemore. Despite this, most had a width of only four meters, and the largest building was only ten meters long. Keeping in mind that these single and double-roomed structures were all probably home to families between five and nine people in size, it is still apparent that they were on the bottom of any colonial social hierarchy.     


House Surveys


Though the six buildings of CarrickKildavnet’s northernmost clachan share many similar features, they also vary in size and layout. The windows, storage niches, and other features in any given building are numerous, and vary widely between structures. With the exception of structure two, all of them appeared to have been homes, at least initially. Besides items already mentioned, all of them also had earthen floors. Other features included recesses built into the wall for beds, platforms for beds or fires, tethering fixtures for animals, gable supports for a half loft, and protruding wall stones used to hold a boiling pot. These elements were almost always simple objects that were incorporated into the walls of the houses. At least one building also had secondary construction in the form of blocked off windows and doors as well as a secondary wall.

Table One is a summary of the features that were located in each house. As quickly becomes apparent, the lack of a feature being listed does not mean that it didn’t exist, only that it wasn’t readily visible in the remains. This was especially problematic in regards to roof or gable features since structure four was the only building to have an uncollapsed gable. Additionally, rubble and missing portions of the second and third buildings made it impossible to even find a door (Figures 17 and 21).

Of the six structures, Structure One and Two were by far the smallest. The second was so small and close to the first, in fact, that it was probably an outhouse or storage facility. Despite the close quarters of the first structure, the construction methods and associated garden walls appeared in no way inferior to the other buildings.



Text Box: Figure 15 – Structure One, looking northeast




Structure One was in a heavy state of decay and the majority of the west-facing wall was almost completely collapsed (Figures 15, 16). In all parts the wall level was far below the point at which the gable supports would have been. Similarly, any cubbyholes that may have existed in this area were also collapsed. Possibly because of the large amounts of rubble, no bed or fire platform was evident. There was, however, a recess in the northern wall that may have served for either of these purposes. Despite its size, structure one was only two of the six with a recessed wall.



Table 1 – Building Features






              BUILDING NUMBER





















Area (Meters)









Bed Platform









Bed Recess







16, 22


Corbel Stone









Door Blocked Off









Door Facing North







16, 22, 27, 29


Door Facing South







16, 22, 26, 27, 29


Drainage Channel









Fire Platform









House Platform









Half Loft Gable Support









Internal Flagstones









Manure Pit







16, 21, 26, 29









16,22,26, 29











Pot Support Stone









Stepped Gable









Storage Niches









Tethering Fixtures



















































































































































The walls were made primarily out of small to medium sized stones. Outside of the southern door there were remains of a sidewalk platform that was built with larger stones. Unfortunately, it quickly became submerged under rubble and peat. A manure pit was evident a few meters southwest of the stone walkway, and the northern door opened up into a large walled garden area.

Not quite a meter west of Structure one was the foundation of Structure Two (Figure 17). This was by far the smallest building in the site and may have been an outhouse or storage facility. Structure Two’s lack of walls or rubble piles and its proximity to Pike’s wall (about a meter further west) suggest that the building was recycled into this feature. Because of even the foundations poor condition, not even a door was apparent.

Around five meters south of Structures One and Two were the remains of the third building (Figure 21). In juxtaposition to the earlier two, Structure Three measured nearly eleven meters in length and was divided into two separate rooms. Strangely, the easternmost and largest room of the building was completely missing, and, similar to the second structure, had comparatively few remains of rubble. The simplest explanation would have been that part of the building was stripped to provide rubble for Pike’s wall. However, the portion that was left standing was actually closer to the pasture wall.          


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Figure 16 – Structure One (Top of page is north)


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Figure 17 – Structure Two (Top of page is north)



Because of its incomplete state, there were very few features of note in Structure Three. One of these was a shelf that was constructed on the eastern side of the internal wall, facing into the now demolished room (Figure 18). This four-tiered cubby was by far the most complicated of any of the houses. Just north of the missing portion of the building were the remains of a manure pit. A garden wall was also built off of the north side of the building and later turned west where it was bisected by Pike’s wall. The eastern end of the house had obviously been built up to level the building.


Text Box: Figure 18 – Storage Niche in Structure Three




In stark contrast to the other buildings, Structure Four (Figure 22) was not nearly as dilapidated. It rested some meters south of Structure Three and was raised on a boulder or large schistite outcropping. Structure Four was nearly as large as structure three, though it wasn’t divided into separate rooms. The building possessed a north and south door, connected by a stone pathway that extended outside, as well as two windows in the south side. Besides Structure One, this was the only other building to have a wall recess, and it Structure four the recess was in conjunction with a stone bed platform. The northwestern corner had a low area that may have served as the fireplace, and it was denoted on either side by shelves. Two near ground level holes on the eastern side were possibly the place of a tethering ring- now missing. The walls of the building were in excellent condition, and in the eastern side the holes for corbel stones (protruding stones used to tie down roof timbers) or roof beams for a half loft were still visible.

The garden walls that immediately surrounded the Structure Four were also in relatively good condition as opposed to much of the rest of the site. The ground had been leveled prior to construction, and the western end of the house was built onto a terrace. A small garden wall was built around the north of the building, and what appeared to be a lined walkway led out from the southern door. The area surrounding the house was much steeper, owing to a rise of several meters on the schistite outcropping. Several small terraces built beyond the western-side of the house compensated for this. Two of these were noticeably small and one may have functioned as a manure pit, which was otherwise not apparent.

Because of the Structure Four’s remarkable preservation as well as its complicated features in and beyond the house it is not unreasonable to assume that this may have been the home of Pike’s herdsman. The building’s location on a rise also gave it a commanding view of the entire pasture, including the pound. It was also not scavenged for stones for Pike’s wall, despite the fact that the wall is less than a meter to the west of the house.



Text Box: Figure 19 – East wall of Structure Four with half loft gable supports (holes in stones). Holes for a possible tethering ring are concealed by ferns.





Text Box: Figure 20 – Storage niches in the west and north walls of Structure Four





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Figure 21 – Structure Three


Figure 22 – Structure Four


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Despite its good condition, Structure Four did not appear to have a more recent origin than the rest of the site. A building in its exact location, as well as other nearby structures, appear on the earliest ordinance survey maps of the area (1838) (Figure 8). Additionally, Structure Four shared the unique motif of red sandstone lined windows and storage niches with all of the other buildings in the settlement. To the east of the house, its terraced walls were built into walls that extend into the sites main road (Figure 29), and the joint between the terraces, field wall, and road wall is not broken or suggestive of secondary construction. 

          Structure Five (Figure 26) is directly west of Structure Four. Even though the building has only a single room, it is relatively large. Strangely, Structure Five actually meets the pasture wall. Where Structure Five and the wall intersect, the wall briefly stops and the eastern side of the building continues in its place until the wall resumes where the building ends. Despite their proximity to one another, Structure Five shares none of the preservation of Structure Four. In fact, the entirety of Structure Five appears to have been leveled to just under a meter and a half, presenting a uniform height with Pike’s wall. Beyond leveling there was little collapse of the building, but many features were nonetheless missing. A manure pit was located beyond the door to the south of the building, while a shelf on the northern wall had been partially leveled with the rest of the wall. No windows were evident.


Text Box: Figure 23 – Facing southeast- Structures Four (foreground) and Five, separated by Pike’s wall. The cattle enclosure is visible in the distant background, as is Pike’s wall and Achill Sound.



          Structures Five (Figure 26) and Six (Figure 27) were the only buildings that were actually outside of the pasture, both west of the boundary wall. Structure Six was far north of Structure Five and nearly equally west of Structure One. It was only the second building to have multiple rooms. Structure Six showed obvious signs of extended or secondary habitation, including a blocked doorway in the north wall (Figure 24). Interestingly, the blocked doorway was an oddly wide, measuring over a meter. The internal wall partition of the building also showed an obvious joint from the external wall, and in the western room a window had been blocked off. The internal wall was badly collapsed but the remainder of the building was in fair condition. None of the gables had survived and there were no shelves. There was also no sign of a manure pit though there was a terraced garden running into the south of the building.



Text Box: Figure 24 – Structure Six. Pike’s wall and Structure One are visible in the background. Facing east.




The six buildings within the clachan shared similar features, though they were not distributed equally between the houses. Despite this, some of the largest houses, such as Structures Five and Six, had few cubbies or original internal features that even the smallest building possessed. This data and examples from other studies of Irish rural settlement (Kilbane 2002; McErlean 1983) suggest that the original inhabitants of the village shared a relatively equal status. Because of the sites small size and the common customs of clachan settlements, it is likely that the settlements founders and later inhabitants may have even been related. According to Thomas McErlean (1983), it would probably be surprising if they did not share kinship bonds.



Text Box: Figure 25 – Facing northwest, a view of the village from Structure Four. Structure Three is in the bottom left corner and Structure One is on the right. The foundation of Structure Two is directly south of One (Not visible). The background shows the Quartzite quarry and the only visible remains of the larger village that once existed there. The remains are now called Teac na mBaintreac, or widow’s house, based on a local folklore story (see Chapter Four).





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Figure 26 - Structure Five (Top of page is north)



Figure 27 – Structure Six (Top of page is north)



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The Past Landscape


The most surprising element of the deserted clachan in northern CarrickKildavnet was not the features of any of the buildings, but their strange and uneven distribution of wear. Structure Five was obviously leveled during construction of Pike’s pasture wall, and it is likely that Structure Two shared a similar fate. Other buildings appear to simply show the erosion of time, but the remarkable preservation of Structure Four denies the age that is apparent in the other buildings. Its conditions suggest that the building was used for a considerable period following the rest of the site’s abandonment.

Like the buildings themselves, the surrounding landscape of the settlement shows damage that was a mixture of both time and human intervention. The stone walls that stretch the farthest out from the settlement eventually end in abrupt termini. Where the walls stop, they are replaced by sporadic rubble heaps. The growth of bog on the heaps gives them a sense of age, and locals such as Thomas Johnston (Personal communications, July 2002) attribute them to Pike, who wanted to clear obstacles from his pasture.

Sixty meters east of Structure One, the road that leads out of the village is also interrupted and replaced with rubble heaps for a considerable distance. According to the 1838 Ordinance Survey map the road makes a ninety degree turn at this point and continues north into what would have been the next settlement. Halfway between the two it forked and a new road ran eastward toward the chapel and Achill sound. Today, directly north of where the road was destroyed this fork is still visible. While the road that continued north is destroyed, the eastern path resumes at the fork and continues south until it is obscured by bog.

While Ordinance Survey maps are useful for reconstructing the sites partially destroyed roads, they also have features that are at odds with the landscape. According to the maps, the only road in the area ran west through the village and terminated shortly beyond the last walled field. Today, however, there are clear remains of a second road which forks off of the east/west road near Structure One and runs south through the village.


According to the map, there was also a seventh building in the clachan that was directly east of Structure Four. Not even the foundations of this building are apparent today. Whether these were inaccuracies in an incredibly ambitious project or simply evidence of change is questionable. The missing house may have been completely uprooted and incorporated into Pike’s or other walls, and the second road may have been built between 1838 and the sites desertion around 1850.



Either way, these few remaining houses are the sole testament of a once large and thriving community that spread across an entire mountainside. The clachan in northern CarrickKildavnet was only one of many that were grouped together by visitors and descendants as Kildavnet and Baile na hAilte, respectively. The anomalies in maps as well as other features such as secondary construction in structure six show the movement of the area’s former inhabitants through a period of years and perhaps even lives. They give a sense of time to a site that otherwise has lost even its name.






Text Box: Figure 28 – A view from the site southeast to Achill Sound and the Curraun Peninsula







Figure 29 – Survey of Village in Northern CarrickKildavnet













The most prominent feature on the landscape of CarrickKildavnet is Pike’s Wall. Neatly dividing the mountain with no regard for the many crags and bumps that defined the Irish villagers’ fields, furrow lines, or building locations, it is a lone monument of the orderliness and ideology of the Victorian age that transformed the landscape of Ireland. Mark Leone described its parallel on the other side of the Atlantic, writing that “it not only expresses hierarchy but also disguises it” (1996: 375). He continued,


The disguise is composed of the ability to make aspects of human nature and the human past look as though they are organized into commensurable orders and units with those of the observer. The disguise hides the arbitrariness of the social order and, when believed and acted on, perpetuates that order. (1996: 375)


This fulfilled the purpose of more than just Victorian order. It also belied the nature of all ideologies. They hide the uneven distribution of resources, and, as a definition, “reproduce rather than transform society” (1996: 372).

The use of order to masquerade social inequalities was especially true in Ireland following the famine. No doubt as part of a perceived failure, of either themselves or (more likely) the caricatured Irish Landlord, the English bureaucracy set to create a more modern and fair Ireland. This was partially accomplished through an extension of Victorian ideology, which had worked so well in England, across the Irish Channel. New middle class English and Irishmen began purchasing large estates out of bankruptcy, and they brought notions of Victorian social order to replicate on their new estates. At the same time, the Encumbered Estates Court provided the legal means to evict tenants and start with a clean slate, so to speak.

English colonialism and ideology had also manifested itself in other ways both prior to and after the famine. Maps, surveys, and censuses since the early nineteenth century had been laying the formal groundwork for a Victorian Model, and they had begun the process of neatly dividing Ireland’s countryside. As put by Benedict Anderson, “The fiction of the census is that everyone is in it, and that everyone has one- and only one- extremely clear place. No fractions” (1991: 166). This was perhaps not done at first with such rigid definition as was obvious in other colonies to what was, after all, part of the ‘United’ Kingdom. Nonetheless, whether dividing terms like Catholic, Protestant, Gaelic, Civilized, and un-Civilized made it into official documents they were already in the minds of many by the nineteenth century. As early as the second decade of the nineteenth century the Achill Mission had already been founded to highlight religious division on Achill Island by the moral conquest of the perceived lesser.

Pike’s construction of a pasture wall following the evictions that took place in Upper Achill thus did not only destroy a small settlement. It was also part of a larger destruction of history and a former way of life. He rewrote the Rundale system and centuries of its evolution in the face of English Imperialism. It was not a subtle event- the size of the project would have required a large taskforce of workers who were sent out to destroy one and build the other, in full view and possibly even with the paid labor of similar clachans only a stone’s throw to the north.

Academic discourse has found itself entranced by these and other issues of colonialism in nineteenth century Ireland. They are stories that need enumeration. Understanding the landlords and their culture and worldview is not only interesting, but also a necessary part to reconstructing Ireland in the nineteenth century.

At the same time, there is a history of the people of Ireland that is largely missing from academic literature. It can only be found in the tumbled stones and whispers of wind that echoes through empty buildings across the countryside. It is in the minds of an aging population who lived through the transformation of post-revolutionary Ireland. It is something that is slowly slipping away with the ravages of time, remembered only in occasional songs performed at local pubs.

The history of Gaelic Ireland that lived in the fields and houses of farmers during the height of English colonialism will quickly disappear if more attention is not only paid to the relationships between colonizers and colonized, but to the individual lifestyles that filed in every other aspect of the rural Irish peasants life. Bruce G. Trigger discussed the role of colonialist and nationalist archaeologies, “While the colonizers had every reason to glorify their own past, they had no reason to extol the past of the people they were subjugating and supplanting. Indeed, they sought by emphasizing the primitiveness and lack of accomplishments of these people to justify their own poor treatment of them” (1996: 620). In Ireland it has been possible to witness the extension of this into post-colonial archaeology and history. In the latter scenario, the former people were glorified in light of their past subjugation. The peasant workers of the country were upgraded while their English landlords were subsequently downgraded as barbarous and thieves of the true peoples’ lands.

This has changed some in the last few decades with a new body of literature that has tried to re-explain the landlord, not as a beast, but as a tragic result of the cultural worldview he could not help.[vii] He became a victim of cultural forces that included debt driving personal prestige, laissez fare economics, and colonial views of his ‘Irish Barbarian’ tenants. This resulted in a roundabout of sorts, from describing the tenant as a hero against their landlord’s oppression to now defending the landlord for what he did to his Irish tenant. Nonetheless, a colonial legacy remains. Even after the English landlord was defeated, defiled, and then forgiven, he still remains the focus of literature. The story of the nineteenth century Irish peasant has been a story of their struggle against this landlord and in relation to this landlord. Rarely does the poor farmer get to stand alone. This has been reiterated in literature, a complex of “us against them.”  

Of course, there is a rich history of the Irish peasant in Ireland, but it resides in local tales and legends, and in the ruins of crumbling stone houses. Many have realized the importance of these local histories to Ireland, and it is unlikely a coincidence that the Irish Free State’s first president was also a folklorist. At the same time, this history needs to be brought into a more public and academic sphere. Henry Glassie (1975, 1985), and undoubtedly other folklorists, has been working to disseminate the local and personal histories of Ireland to a wider audience for decades. The closest historians and archaeologists have come, until the last few years, have been a few studies on Rundale and Irish rural settlement (Johnson 1958; McErlean 1983). While important, such work still fails to incorporate the true history of a people, and focuses instead on only a synchronic process of deconstructing their landscape. This has slowly begun to change with a small but growing body of researchers who have sought to incorporate elements of folklore, history, and archaeology into a more complete model. Charles Orser (1996; 199?) has spent nearly ten years reconstructing the life of agrarian tenants in Strokestown, County Roscommon, and James Kilbane (2002) has recently concluded a similar project in Cloughmore on Achill Island.

The role of historical archaeology in such an endeavor has been questioned (see Deagan 1996). More generally, even the role of historical archaeology as a field has been called into question. Kathleen Deagan’s response to the subject was that “The basic point of view of the historically oriented researchers in this debate was that the best questions and most reliable answer in historical archaeology research were those organized around the need to ‘fill in the gaps’ in history” (1996: 21). Of course, it is necessary to ask ‘what are the gaps?’, and recent history does not always make that clear. Much can be understood about the colonial relationships between two groups while little is understood about one or both of the groups themselves. Irish archaeology has looked at this relationship for years, and has only recently turned itself towards looking at the Irish landlords as an individual entity. The question as to who were the Irish peasants is something that has been assumed to be understood by locals in taverns and grandparents over tea, but it is not something that has ever been explicitly stated. 

Perhaps this private understanding of recent Irish history was influenced by the search for a national identity in early twentieth century Ireland. The proponents of this search focused upon a retreat to the distant past, before a modern period that was scarred by British colonialism. Certainly, the importance of a national identity has been long understood, and its development was a necessary component of an Irish revolution that was perceived as a rising of the Irish Catholic tenant against English Protestant colonialists. However, most of young Ireland did not look towards its poor and rural class for identity, but rather searched for its own heroes beyond a modern culture that had been both suppressed and influenced by a foreign power. 

It found those heroes in the names of revolutionary leaders and nationalists such as Wolfe Tone and John Stewart Parnell. Beyond these freedom fighters, however, it also looked to reassert the historical independence and dignity of its people - things perceived to have been taken by the island’s English masters. Even prior to the revolution, a ‘Gaelic Revival’ swept Ireland. It looked towards its distant past - the megalithic tombs of the ancients and the literary tradition of Ireland in the Early Christian period.

This behavior was not confined to Ireland. Benedict Anderson called it a common component of Old World revolutionaries in general, “In Europe, the nationalisms almost immediately began to imagine themselves as ‘awakening from sleep,’ a trope wholly foreign to the Americas” (1991: 195). Ireland was no different in searching for validation from a distant past. The Gaelic revival also sought to distinguish Ireland by language, a very major theme to the movement that never quite succeeded over hundreds of years of English intrusion.

At the same time that it found national heroes and heroic rebellions, the history of local Ireland was increasingly forgotten on a national level. The Irish Folklore Commission (1935-1971) and its successor, the Department of Irish Folklore in University College, Dublin, attempted to combat this through the intensive collection of Irish oral traditions. Today this is the premier resource for the legends, beliefs, and even day-to-day accounts of nineteenth century peasant life. The stories show something that is missing from even a post-nationalist academic literature - the voice of the people. Most scholars have chosen to focus on certain events such as the Great Famine, national groups like the Irish Land League, or Landlords and English institutions. In some ways these have opened up new dialogues into the role of the poor Irish farmer and laborer. Michael Higgins and John Gibbons (1982) pointed out that the Irish Land League was primarily run by well to do shopkeepers and farmers, and that, contrary to popular belief, the poorest echelons of society had relatively little to do in the leadership or direction of such agitation groups. Cormac O’Grada (1999) has made the point that the vast majority of emigrants during the famine were not laborers, but small and even relatively comfortable farmers who could afford the trip or subsidize it by selling farms. The laborers, according to O’Grada, were represented much more in the Famine’s mass graves.

Rather than shed light on the subject, however, these studies instead show how little is actually understood of Ireland’s lowest classes. Thomas McEarlean (1983) said that, ‘ironically,’ perhaps more was known about Early Christian agriculture than later medieval times in western Ireland. In many ways this is no less true today, and not only in the medieval period but through most of the nineteenth century. Though Ordinance survey maps, records of the Congested Districts Board, and historical accounts have given a better sense of agriculture than is possible for the late medieval period, it is still of a nature that is often generalized and distant. Maps can show the spatial division of the land, but they do not take into account the dynamic forces behind it. All of these documents also share the same English viewpoint, and taken as a whole they often fail to understand their subjects. Comparatively few authors have taken local history into account to try and compensate for generalizations with specific examples, or to give individual voices to the people that they try to describe.

These local histories are not intangible either. Local newspapers and other documents exist that describe the events and struggles of an area. In some cases, such as the letters between Father Henry, Edward Lavelle, and William Pike published in the Mayo constitution, they can even provide first hand accounts of the villagers and their interactions with one another.  

Baile na hAilte and the people that once inhabited it are a small part of this local history. The evictions of tenants over a period of fifty years were fairly well documented in local sources, publicly available to any who put forth the time to look. The history of the site, however, was much richer than simply the evictions. Field remains, walls, and terraces give a sense of the inhabitants’ work and thoughts. They were agriculturalists with a name for every crag that they worked, but they were also weavers, fishermen, and herders. They planted crops in early spring, migrated to Scotland during the summer months or moved to temporary residences to tend cattle and live in more populated settlements, and spent fall days on long trips to the nearest market in Westport. The local chapel as well as a school and shebeen in a neighboring village gave the members of the clachan something to do when not farming. Though their life was poor, it was full of much more than simply digging potatoes and paying rent. They had a much richer history than just a duality of struggle against the other. They had a culture unto themselves that was both ancient and constantly adapting through time and local circumstances.

 Looking at Gaelic Ireland and most marginalized tenants in this way can help to tease out another important component for understanding the history of Ireland’s laborers. Even though it is hard to see the clachans of CarrickKildavnet without the wall and enclosure built through and over its features, it is necessary to try in order to understand its former inhabitants. They did not build their scraggly walls and uneven roads in response to the straight lines of Victorian order. They were there first and they did it simply because it was their way.

It is both impossible and counter-to-reality to deny the great role and struggle of landlords, English (and both were not always the equivalent to one another), and Irish in shaping Ireland and Irish culture. Despite that, it is also necessary to study the Irish farmer and other subjugated classes beyond the restraining framework of their colonizers. Settlement research, folklore, history, and archaeology can all be used to reconstruct the lives of the poorer peasant classes. They were more than paupers and thieves, but they were also more than agitators and heroes. Their culture and beliefs were not something created simply to be antagonistic to a colonial class, but rather it was something that existed beforehand, responded, adapted, and yet remained original in light of a foreign power.

If Pike’s wall was an example of Victorian worldview, then the Irish walls built before it were just as much of an example of another worldview. Their builders subsisted on and with the fringe lands of Upper Achill. Their sense of order was built into the natural shapes of the land and not into arbitrary units and strict borders. It was a viewpoint that was certainly not easy for English cartographers to grasp when they tried to map Ireland’s many small villages and hamlets. Given the struggle of modern authors to come to terms with clachans and the Rundale system it is perhaps no easier today.

Baile na hAilte is only one of many local histories, all waiting to be told. Even the history of this site is but a brief sketch of many unconnected parts held together by unanswered questions. An aging population on the island is making the answers increasingly hard to find, and without personal memory and a folklore tradition it is impossible for any archaeology to fully understand the spirit of a past people. This is only slightly remedied by colonialist documents and travel accounts, and even the Gaelic names of the area are quickly becoming the knowledge of a privileged few.











Survey and Technique




I first visited Achill Island during the summer of 2001. While attending Achill Island Field School’s six-week program, I became aware of Baile na hAilte and some of the folklore that surrounded it. Eventually, I was able to visit the small site in Upper Achill, perched on the mountainside above the Atlantic Drive. While there, I was introduced to Anthony Kilbane, and during a short interview he told me about the history of the site, its eviction, and subsequent use as a pasture by William Pike.

After the interview, I began searching the local historical magazine, Muintir Acla, and other sources for any references to the site beyond the few scanty ones that I had already retrieved. Beyond the story of its eviction little of the area was ever mentioned, and at the time I had no idea that Baile na hAilte was actually not one, but several villages that stretched across two townlands.

In the summer of 2002, I returned to Achill to survey the small clachan in northern CarrickKildavet. By this time, I had already read Breege O’ Brien’s article (1996) that described Baile na hAilte as several villages. However, it was not until I was in Ireland and had found a copy of the nineteenth century maps of the area that I actually realized the full extent of Baile na hAilte. Despite its original size, the clachan in northern CarrickKildavnet constituted its only remaining standing structures.

In 2002 I was simultaneously surveying the site and working as a volunteer at the field school on the opposite side of the island. The survey of Baile na hAilte was conducted by myself with the help of my roommate. Because of time constraints, it was conducted by establishing a north/south base line and a single parallel grid line fifty meters west of the first. No attempt was made to expand these two reference points into a working grid (i.e. there were no east/west lines). Since Pike’s pasture wall and the areas steep gradient inhibited sight and slowed movement, the decision was made to establish the baseline in the center of the village rather than above or below it. This placed all but the northernmost fifty meters of the three hundred meter baseline east of Pike’s wall, and shortened the distance necessary to measure most points.

The second north/south line was established fifty meters west of the first, with the majority running west of Pike’s wall. Because of the sites layout, it was only necessary to construct the second gridline two hundred fifty meters long. Between the two lines, the entire village except for the corner of one southern field wall was within the survey’s boundaries (Figure 29). Once both gridlines were established, points were taken off them using a compass and measuring tape. An electronic measuring device was used, when weather permitted, in order to minimize the effects of wind and obstacles on accuracy.

Upon completion of the village survey, an individual survey of the structures was also conducted during the final week. In each case, the internal size of the building was measured as well as its wall thickness in various points. Features such as windows, doors, storage niches, and otherwise were noted, measured, charted, and sometimes photographed.

Beyond the survey, some interviews were also conducted in the area. This included two interviews with James Kilbane, an undergraduate Archaeologist who had recently completed work in another portion of the island, and another with Thomas Johnston, a local teacher and historian. I was not able to contact Anthony Kilbane during my stay in 2002, an unfortunate event since he knew the area so well and was descended from some of Baile na hAilte’s former residents.

In addition to interviews and research on the island, the Mayo County library proved to be a valuable source for local information and documents. After leaving Achill, I spent the seventh and final week of my stay near this library in Castlebar, County Mayo, and in Dublin where I was able to access the National Archives and several old newspapers and documents from the era.






















[i] The tithes referred to were a tax by the official Anglican Church of Ireland and were levied on such items as corn, sheep, milk, eggs, and chickens, regardless of the owner’s religion. During the rebellion of 1798 that was mentioned, a small force of French soldiers successfully landed in County Mayo and joined with detachments of Irish Rebels. They quickly captured the town and barracks of Castlebar in the battle ‘The Races of Castlebar’ and held it for nearly three weeks before being completely routed. Of course, the Catholics that participated faced a much harsher fate than the French soldiers.


[ii] Neil was the descendant of a Northern Irish Catholic family that had immigrated in the mid-seventeenth century. He was an important figure and entrepreneur in County Mayo. In 1763 he converted to the Church of England, in 1776 he became the sheriff of the county, and in 1780 he was granted the title of Baron. He continued to live in his family’s properties in Newport, near the Corraun peninsula, and he spent considerable energy trying to manufacture tobacco and encourage merchant interest in the area. By 1788 he was making nearly £4,000 a year from his Newport estate alone (Simms, 1958-59: 128).


[iii] The report also said that Skad, Mackerel, Lobsters, Oysters, Cod, Ling, and Turbot were plentiful in the area. Skad and Mackerel were taken with lines: “A net has never been used here for taking them, The fishermen would not know how to use one, even if they had it.” (Anon., 1838: 81). Turbot were fished on the beaches with pikes while Lobsters, Cod, and Ling were rarely fished at all.


[iv] In 1893 The Congested Districts Board reported that there were three hookers- second class, eleven hookers- third class, two hundred and twenty six yawls, and thirty-five curraghs on the island.


[v] Anna Carty went on to state “Survivors of this tragedy such as Cattigans and Campbells moved to Corraun whilst other families such as Veseys moved to Dookinella, and the O'Donnells arrived in Cloughmore.”


[vi] Whether or not the letter was forged, two Hugh McCann’s were actually listed as living in Derreen by Griffith’s Land Valuation, published in the same year (1855).


[vii] This most noticeably began to occur contemporary to what Bruce Trigger described as the new archaeology of the 1970s, and it fitted well with the general concept:






During the 1970’s, however, this view gave way to a pessimistic and even tragic version of cultural evolution that sees the population growth and other factors constraining cultural change to take place along lines that most people do not regard as desirable. The development of food production and urbanism… is now widely viewed as a response to forces beyond human control and which throughout history have compelled the majority of the people to work harder, suffer increasing exploitation and degrade their environment… Humanity is imagined to be a victim of forces that lie beyond its understanding or control. (1996: 627)   




Table of Contents




ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS                                                                                                ii


TABLE OF CONTENTS                                                                                                iii


LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS                                                                                             iv


LIST OF TABLES                                                                                                        vi


ABSTRACT                                                                                                               vii


CHAPTER I: INTRODUCTION                                                                                        1

CHAPTER II: COLONIAL IRELAND 1169-1887                                                               10

CHAPTER III: ACHILL ISLAND IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY                                        37

CHAPTER IV: BAILE NA HAILTE IN MEMORY AND WRITING                                           65

CHAPTER V: THE PAST LANDSCAPE OF BAILE NA HAILTE                                             95


CHAPTER VI: CONCLUSION                                                                                      121

APPENDIX: SURVEY AND TECHNIQUE                                                                        130


ENDNOTES                                                                                                             133


BIBLIOGRAPHY                                                                                                       135














List of Illustrations



Figure 1     View of Southern Achill’s Cliffs from the Atlantic Drive                              

Figure 2     Lithograph of Achill Island by the Society of Irish Church Missions, 1852    

Figure 3     The O’ Malley Family Tower House in Upper Achill                                   

Figure 4     Lithograph of the Achill Missionary Settlement in Dugort, Achill Island     

Figure 5     Lazy bed ridges beneath Strál peak in Upper Achill                                  

Figure 6     Remains of Kildavnet church and cemetery                                              

Figure 7     Section of Map of the Maritime County of Mayo, 1830                            

Figure 8     1838 Ordinance Survey Map of Upper Achill                                                 

Figure 9     Remains of a nineteenth century road leading towards Structure One      

Figure 10    Quartzite quarry and former site of Kildavnet                                         

Figure 11    Stone enclosure in CarrickKildavnet                                                        

Figure 12    William Pike’s pasture wall in CarrickKildavnet                                       

Figure 13    1920 Ordinance Survey map with townland boundaries                         

Figure 14    Section of south wall in Structure Three                                               

Figure 15    Structure One, from south                                                                    

Figure 17    Structure Two survey map                                                                    

Figure 18    Storage Niche in Structure Three                                                          

Figure 19    Half loft gable supports in Structure Four                                              

Figure 20    Storage niches in Structure Four                                                           

Figure 21    Structure Three survey map                                                                 

Figure 22    Structure Four survey map                                                                   

Figure 23    Structures Four and Five from northwest                                              

Figure 24    Structure Six facing east                                                                       

Figure 25    View northwest from Structure Four                                                     

Figure 26    Structure Five survey map                                                              

Figure 27    Structure Six survey map                                                                       

Figure 28    Achill Sound and the Crohhaun Peninsula                                                

Figure 29    Survey of Deserted Village                       




List of Tables



Table 1    Building features in surveyed houses                                                       107










Anderson, Benedict

1991   Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Verso. New York.


Aodha, Sile Nic

1996   The Potato in Achill’s History. Muintir Acla, 3. Spring 1996.


Bald, William

1830   Map of the Maritime County of Mayo.


Bartlett, Thomas

1992   The Fall and Rise of the Irish Nation: 1690- 1830. Barnes and Noble Books. Savage, Maryland.


Beckett, J.C.

1977   The Making of Modern Ireland: 1603-1923. Alfred A Knopf. New York.


Caird, Sir James

1987   The Plantation Scheme; or, The West of Ireland as a Field for Investment. William Blackwood and Sons. London. Original 1850.


Carty, Anna

1997   Rambles in Achill: The Atlantic Drive. Muintir Acla, 7. Summer 1997.


Census of Ireland

1852   The Census of Ireland for the Year 1851. Part I. Alexander Thom. Dublin.


1902   The Census of Ireland for the Year 1901. Part I, Volume IV, No 3. Alexander Thom. Dublin.


Chambers, Anne

1998   Granuaile: The Life and Times of Grace O’Malley: circa 1530- 1603.  Interlink Publishing Group.


Clark, Samuel

1982   The Importance of Agrarian Classes: Agrarian class structure and collective action in nineteenth-century Ireland. In Ireland: Land, Politics, and People. (P.J. Drudy, ed) Cambridge University Press. New York.


Commissioners of National Education in Ireland

1854   The Twentieth Report of the Commissioners of National Education in Ireland, for the year 1853. Alexander Thom. Dublin.


Commissioners of Inquiry into the State of the Irish Fisheries

1836   First report of the Commisioners of Inquiry into the State of the Irish Fisheries; with the Minutes of Evidence, and Appendix. Alexander Thom. Dublin.

Cárthaigh, Críostóir Mac and Whelan, Kevin

1999   New Survey of Clare Island. Volume I: History and Cultural Landscape. Royal Irish Academy. Dublin.


Curtis, LP.

1980   Incumbered Wealth: Landed Indebtedness in Post-Famine Ireland. In The American Historical Review. 85 (2): 332-367.


Deagan, Kathleen.

1996   Avenues of Inquiry in Historical Archaeology. In Images of the Recent Past: Readings in Historical Archaeology (Charles Orser Jr., ed): 16-42. Altimira Press. Walnut Creek.


Devon Commission [Great Britain, Commissioners of Inquiry into the State of the Law and Practice…]

1847   Digest of Evidence Taken Beofre Her Majesty’s Commissioners of Inquiry into the State of the Law and Practice in Respect to the Occupation of the Land in Ireland. Part I. Bigg and Son. London.


Falvey, Anne

1997   Priests, Pagans, and Place-Names. Muintir Acla, 6. Spring 1997.


1998   The Cross Roads to Irish Education. Muintir Acla, 9. Spring 1998, 11-14.


1999   Reactions to Evictions and Land-Grabbing in Mayo. Muintir Acla, 14. Winter 1999.


Gannon, Noreen

1990   Achill’s Past. Manuscript. On file at the County Mayo Library, Castlebar.


Ghiobuin, Mealla Ni.

2001   Dugort, Achill Island 1831-1861: The Rise and Fall of a Missionary Community. Irish Academic Press. Portland.


Glassie, Henry

1975   All Silver and No Brass. Indiana University Press. Bloomington.


1985   Irish Folktales. Pantheon Books. New York.


Griffith, Richard.

1855   County of Mayo, Valuation of the Several Tenements in the Union of Newport Situate in the County Named Above. Alexander Thom and Sons. Dublin.







Haydon, Colin

1998   I Love my King and My Country, but a Roman Catholic I Hate: Anti-Catholicism, Xenophobia, and National Identity in Eighteenth-Century England. In Protestantism and National Identity: Britain and Ireland c.1650-c.1850. (Tony Claydon and Ian McBride, ed) Cambridge University Press.


Higgins, Michael D. and Gibbons, John P

1982   Shopkeeper-graziers and land agitation in Ireland, 1895-1900. In Ireland: Land, Politics, and People. Cambridge University Press. Bath, Great Britain.


Hoppen, K Theodore

1991   Landownership and Power in Nineteenth Century Ireland. In Landownership and Power in Modern Europe. (Martin Blinkhorn and Ralph Gibson, ed): 164-180. Harper Collins Academic. London.


Irish Manuscripts Commission

1958   The Strafford Inquisition of County Mayo. (William O’Sullivan, ed) Stationary Office for the Irish Manuscripts Commission. Dublin.


Johnson, James J.

1958   Studies of Irish Rural Settlement. Geographical Review. 48 (4) (Oct 1958), 554-566.


Jordan, Donald

1996   The Famine and its Aftermath in County Mayo. In Fearful Realities: New Perspectives on the Famine. Edited by Morash, Christopher and Hayes, Richard. Irish Academic Press. Blackrock.


Joyce, Parick Joseph

1910   A Forgotten Part of Ireland. Tuam, Ireland.


Kilbane, James

2001   The Heritage of Mountain Grazing In Achill. The ‘Booley’, Land Use, and Commanage. B.A. Thesis. Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, Castlebar.


2002   The Achill Yawl. Presented to Doctor Sean Lasaght, Achill.


Kingston, Bob

1988   Map and Guide: Achill Island. Turner’s Printing Company.


1990   Achill Island: The Deserted Village at Slievemore. Cashin Printing Services. Castlebar.


Lane, Pádraig

1992   Currane Mountain, Mayo, and the 1850’s: A Socio-Economic Study. Cathair na Mart. 12 (1).


2000   Agricultural Labourers and the land question. In Famine, Land, and Culture in Ireland (Carla King, ed): 101-116. University College Dublin Press. Dublin.

Leone, Mark P.

1996   Interpreting Ideology in Historical Archaeology: Using the Rules of Perspective in the William Paca Garden in Annapolis, Maryland. In Images of the Recent Past (Charles Orser jr., ed): 371-392. Altamira Press. Walnut Creek.


Machray, Robert

1898   Grace O’Malley, Princess and Pirate, as Told by Ruari Macdonald, Redshank and Rebel.  F.A. Stokes Company. New York.


Mayo Constitution

1850   Proceedings in the Encumbered Estates Court . Mayo Constitution. (Alexander Bole, ed) October 22.


1851   Island of Achill. Mayo Constitution. (Alexander Bole, ed) September 9.


1852a  Final Notice to Claimants: In the Matter of the Estate of Sir Richard Annesley O’Donnel, Bart. Mayo Constitution. (Alexander Bole, ed) February 17.


1852b Achill Petty Sessions- Friday August 27. Mayo Constitution. (Alexander Bole, ed) August 31.


1855   Father Henry on Evictions. Mayo Constitution. (Alexander Bole, ed) February 13.


McDonald, Theresa

1997   Achill Island: Archaeology, History, Folklore. Turner’s Printing Company.  Longford.


McAfee, Patrick

1997   Irish Stone Walls: History, Building, Conservation.  O’Brien Press.  Boulder.


McBride, Ian

1998   The Common Name of Irishman: Protestantism and Patriotism in Eighteenth-Century Ireland. In Protestantism and National Identity: Britain and Ireland c.1650-c.1850. (Tony Claydon and Ian McBride, ed). Cambridge University Press.


McErlean, T

1983   The Irish Townland system of Landscape Organization. In Landscape Archaeology in Ireland. (Reeves-Smyth, T.E. and Hammond, F.B.A.R, ed): 315-340.  British Archaeological Reports.


Nangle, Edward

1852a  Purchase of the Achill Estate, and New Arrangements of the Achill Mission. The Achill Missionary Herald. September 1852.


1852b  To the Friends of the Achill Mission. Achill Missionary Herald. February 21.



National Monuments and Historic Properties Service

1996   Recorded Monuments: County Mayo. The Office of Public Works. Dublin.


O’Brien, Breege

1996   Deserted Villages of Kildownet. Muintir Acla, 3. Spring 1996.         


O’Brien, William

1902   The Problem of the West: The Evil and Its Remedy. M & S Eaton. Dublin.


O’Donovan, John

1927   Letters Containing Information Relative to the Antiquities of the County of Mayo. Bray. Dublin. Original 1838.


O’Keeffe, Mary J

1999   Smugglers and Smuggling. Muintir Acla, 14. Winter 1999.


O’Grada, Cormac

1999   Black 47 and Beyond: The Great Irish Famine in History, Economy, and Memory. Princeton University Press. Princeton.


O’Shea, John

1996   Deserted Villages of Kildownett. Muintir Acla, 3. Spring 1996.


Office of the Ordinance Survey

1838   Ordinance Survey: County Mayo. Parish of Achill. Map. Ordinance Survey Office. Dublin.


1900   Ordinance Survey: County Mayo. Parish of Achill. Map. Ordinance Survey Office. Dublin.


Orser, Charles

1996a  In Fearful Realities: New Perspectives on the Famine. Edited by Morash, Christopher and Hayes, Richard. Irish Academic Press. Blackrock.


1996b  A Historical Archaeology of the Modern World. Illinois State University. Normal.


Petty, William

1683   Map of Ireland.


Price, Liam

1963   A Note on the Use of the Word ‘Baile’ in Place-Names. Celtica. 6, 119-126


Society of Irish Church Missions

1852   Island of Achill, County of Mayo. Lithograph.


Simms, J.G.

1958-1959     Connacht in the 18th Century. Irish Historical Studies, 9:116-133.


Taylor, Lawrence J.

1985   The Priest as Agent: Social Drama and Class Consciousness in the West of Ireland. Comparative Studies in Society and History. 27 (4) (October 1985), 696-712.


Trigger, Bruce G

1996   Alternative Archaeologies: Nationalist, Colonialist, Imperialist. In Contemporary Archaeology in Theory. (Robert Pruecel and Ian Hodder, ed) Blackwell Publishers. Malden.


Trotter, John Bernard

1819   Walks Through Ireland in the Years 1812, 1814, and 1817; Described in a Series of Letters to an English Gentleman. Sir Richard Phillips and Co. London.


Tuke, James Hack

1848   A Visit to Connaught in the Autumn of 1847. C Gilpin. London.