Achill Island Global Story
Telling a story to the world
Local people see an object floating in the sea off the coast at Doega village in Achill island. They discover it is an explosive mine, large enough to destroy the village. They go out in currachs and with their oars they keep the deadly mine from hitting the rocks and exploding until the army bomb disposal team arrives and safely deals with it.
The story goes that the village had to be evacuated during this incident and in the commotion a baby was born. Forever since she has been called the mine-baby.
No image of Slievemore, Keem Bay or the Atlantic Drive or all the other majestic sights around Achill is complete without the stories of the people who lived there. It is as if the landscape is a reminder of heroic struggle just to survive, to resist oppression to overcome tragedy and ultimately to show how the human spirit thrives.
A small sea faring boat sets off with its human cargo of people escaping poverty and hardship to a safer land across a treacherous sea. A larger ship passes too close and all aboard are drowned. These are the similar circumstances of two sea tragedies one off the coast of Mayo in 1894 and the other off the coast of Africa in 2016.
So many celebrations of our past have become encrusted in museums where the signs say don’t touch. We can build far more lively, more inspirational and interactive experiences from the rich social histories of local areas. I had occasion recently to be taken on a tour of what remains of the Edward Nangle mission colony in Dugort in Achill. Here we can still see the buildings which once housed: an infant school, post office, print room, dispensary, orphanage and private dwellings, together with a grand central garden and hotel in this colony built there in the mid 1800s. What extraordinary potential such a place has to yield up living stories from that time through a project developed with local people and through conservation-led local planning measures.
We have stories to tell and when we do the listener learns to tell his or her own story. This is what the West of Ireland can bring to the world.
The child roars
A German artist Rene Böll mounted his exhibition entitled Cilliní in the Halla Acla in Achill Sound in Spring 2015. It was dedicated to his study of the special burial grounds on the island. These burial grounds “Cilliní” were for babies and children who were not baptised and adults who committed suicide or who were executed.
Rene’s work has powerful resonance for contemporary Ireland and Europe. In the words of local historian and writer Sheila McHugh, his work is a “powerful statement of what is hidden barely out of view … bringing back into memory and membership” people who were tragically lost and forgotten.
The exhibition we are looking at in Achill Sound was also opened in 2014 in Bonn in Geramny. Every country has shameful secrets lying half hidden. Rene’s father Heinrich Böll came to Achill in the 1950s to escape from persecution in Germany. His outspoken admission of the Nazi years was still not something German society could accept. In Achill Heinrich could, by contrast, find inspiration in the story filled beauty of the landscape, he could celebrate the rich biodiversity of an unspoilt natural island and he could enjoy the freedom to give expression to his ideas. He also made it his life’s work to publicise other artists living in countries especially in Eastern Europe who did not enjoy freedom of expression. Rene told me that for his family Achill was a place of freedom by comparison with what his family had witnessed on the continent in his father’s time.
In recent years in Ireland we have witnessed our own shame in this country’s treatment of its children and those who are vulnerable. The discovery of the children’s burial ground in Tuam, County Galway was a stark reminder of this. Rene has visited no less than twenty five Cilliní in Achill alone. Every age throws up serious questions and we can never face up to them too soon.
The small group of visionary people that founded the Heinrich Böll Weekend and who manage the artist’s cottage in Achill is holding up a wonderful possibility. The Böll name is celebrated in different parts of the world as a symbol of creativity, biodiversity and freedom of expression and connects Achill to the world in a most authentic way.
Old treasures coming of age
Community ventures such as the Heinrich Böll Memorial Weekend show how long established grassroots creations can speak eloquently to a new generation of enquiring people from all over the world.
According to the World Trade Organisation, 35 – 40% of people going on holidays do so for cultural reasons and this trend has now been growing at 15% each year. These people want immersion in real cultural experience. Those people in Achill who are working out of the cultural heritage of the area are connecting the island with the world. They are connecting Ireland’s heritage to people who are seeking something beyond the majestic landscape to the stories it shares for questioning times.