Mixed news from Mayo
An Irishman’s Diary about emigration and tourism in Ireland’s far west
“The Tuke scheme emigrants were remembered at a festival on the peninsula this week, as part of the year-long Gathering. The focal point was Ionad Deirbhile Heritage Centre in Eachléim, which hosted events including a re-enactment of one family’s farewell and the unveiling of a superb online database of the Tuke participants.”
Blacksod, at the bottom of Mayo’s Belmullet peninsula, must once have been about the last place in Europe to hear news from the Continent’s main population centres. But it could work both ways, on occasion. Because of its location, Blacksod was also ahead of the curve sometimes – hearing rumours of Atlantic storms, in particular, before anywhere else.
So it was on one now-famous Sunday in 1944, when the local weather station picked up signs of a cold front coming in. Under a reciprocal arrangement reached post-independence, the information was relayed by phone to London. And the man responsible, Ted Sweeney, was surprised when London asked him to recheck.
But he did, anyway, unaware of the extent to which Europe was hanging on his words. It was June 4th, 1944, and plans were afoot that depended on a full moon, low tide at dawn and benign weather conditions. Partly because of the news from Mayo, D-Day did not happen on Monday 5th, as first planned, but 24 hours later.
Blacksod’s remoteness might also, paradoxically, have turned it into a major transatlantic port once. A key thing here was its bay, one of Europe’s finest natural anchorages. Which, combined with the last-stop-before-Boston location, saw it proposed as a hub for British and Scandinavian passenger ships.
There were plans for a rail link and terminal. Then the first World War intervened and after that came the decline of passenger shipping. The transatlantic terminal never happened. And so Blacksod’s importance as a departure point from Europe continues to revolve around a series of remarkable events in 1883-4 – the Tuke Fund assisted emigration scheme.
James Hack Tuke was an English businessman and Quaker, with the philanthropic impulses typical of his religion. He witnessed the Famine in Connacht during 1847 and the scenes never left him. More than 30 years later, seeing similar conditions threaten the west, he devised a relief plan.
The Tuke scheme was unusual, and enlightened, in that it allowed whole families to travel together, which circumvented the heart-rending farewells of other departures. Participants were also directed towards rural parts of the US and Canada, rather than crowded city ghettoes. The scheme proved popular, with almost 3,300 people leaving from Blacksod over the two years.
THOSE EMIGRANTS were remembered at a festival on the peninsula this week, as part of the year-long Gathering. The focal point was Ionad Deirbhile Heritage Centre in Eachléim, which hosted events including a reenactment of one family’s farewell and the unveiling of a superb online database of the Tuke participants.
Ionad Deirbhile is named after a saint whose associated well is reputed to cure eye problems. But the only obvious miracle when I was there on Wednesday was the still-glorious weather.
Belmullet’s remoteness remains a mixed blessing, however. The path to the peninsula is not early as well worn as it might be.
A cornerstone of Belmullet’s strategy to attract more visitors is Carne golf links, a community-owned course built in the 1980s. A big success in its own right, it more recently spawned an organisation called Erris Beo, which although housed on the course, promotes tourism in general, and not just on the peninsula, but across the sprawling barony of Erris, an area the size of Louth.
Newly expanded to 27 holes, meanwhile, the Carne links was still working its magic this week, when it was swept by a warm front of US golf writers returning from the British Open, among them one John Garrity. Garrity is perhaps a key to unlocking Belmullet’s tourism potential. Not only is he a golf fanatic, he’s also descended from local emigrants. And he combined the two themes in an acclaimed 2009 book, Ancestral Links.
But Belmullet’s emigrants are not as easily reached as he was. Thus, among the speakers in Ionad Deirbhile on Wednesday was writer and academic Gerry Moran, an expert on assisted emigrations. He told his audience that, to a certain extent, the Tuke emigrants had disappeared into America.
This is perhaps a measure of the scheme’s success. It’s also source of frustration for historians, never mind promoters of heritage tourism. Either way, because whole families went together, those involved had weaker connections with the old country than normal. They certainly seem to have written far fewer letters home, presumably because there was nobody there to receive the news.