Assault on Achill


HISTORY:In 1894 a Protestant landowner, Agnes MacDonnell, was maimed in a vicious attack by a local man, James Lynchehaun, on Achill Island. How did he escape justice and become a political folk hero?

The Veiled Woman of Achill By Patricia Byrne The Collins Press, 232pp. €12.99‘

COME ALONG with me to the sub sheriff’s office, he said. I want to show you the new beauty Rock has for a bailiff. He’s a cross between Lobengula and Lynchehaun. He’s well worth seeing, mind you.”

Thus Ben Dollard in the Wandering Rocks episode of Ulysses. James Joyce, master of the concealed micromyth, knew what he was doing when he linked Lobengula, king of the Matabele, a genuine victim of Victorian colonialism, with James Lynchehaun, the central villain of Patricia Byrne’s semi-fictional retelling of the story.

According to Evelyn Waugh, Lobengula was a Shakespearean figure, a kind of African Macbeth. Lynchehaun, by contrast, resembles a folk-tale bogeyman, a psychopathic misogynist and an abiding embarrassment to Irish-American eejits.

First the eejits. When an attempt was made in 1903 to extradite Lynchehaun from the US for assaulting Agnes MacDonnell, the owner of an 800-hectare estate on Achill Island, his counsel pleaded with the court to judge him “in the light of all history, in the light of every struggle for freedom under the sun, in the light of every heart-burning of the Irish man that came to him from his birth, in the light of all the sadness and tragedy of existence . . . When you do this . . . you will do justice to this heartbroken and defenceless man.”

The extradition was refused on the grounds that the assault was political, carried out in 1894 on behalf of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and the Land League with the assistance of hundreds of Achill islanders. The eejity supporters of the “freedom fighter” were ecstatic. They were even happier when the US supreme court upheld the verdict, though on a purely technical point concerning warrants. President Teddy Roosevelt was then recruited to prevent his deportation, and the vice-president, Charles W Fairbanks, visited the hero to tell him he could stay in the US.

But Lynchehaun’s testimony to the court amounted, in the words of the Mayo News, to “flagrant perjury”, and decent people such as Michael Davitt and Douglas Hyde wouldn’t shake his hand. What he did on Achill he did on his own and for selfish reasons. Even now his actions are painful to describe: he burned MacDonnell from ankle to knee, fractured her skull with a stone, knocked out one eye, bit her nose off and kicked thorns from a whin bush deep into her vagina.

John Millington Synge, that “dark tramper” (Joyce) and “evil spirit” (Patrick Pearse), was in part inspired by Lynchehaun’s story to write The Playboy of the Western World. There, though unnamed, he is described as “the man bit the Yellow Woman’s nostril on the northern shore”.

Synge brings me to Cathal Black’s 1998 film Love Rage. In the movie (for which I wrote the script), Greta Scacchi gives an outstanding performance as Agnes, and Daniel Craig, now better known as James Bond, smoulders through the Lynchehaun role with an irony that went unnoticed. (No critic cottoned on to the fact, for example, that when Lynchehaun confesses gloomily to killing his father, he is plagiarising Christy Mahon’s boastful account of the deed.)

The film was based on Prof James Carney’s 1986 book, The Playboy and the Yellow Lady – very loosely based, because the script is actually an allegory of the relationship between Ireland and England combined with a burlesque romantic love story. The only justification for the latter (if historical fiction can ever be justified) derives from the description of Lynchehaun that MacDonnell gave after the assault as “a fine, dark, animal-looking man”.

Prof Carney, an eminent Gaelic scholar and father of Mr Justice Paul Carney, based his book almost entirely on the rambling writings of a Franciscan friar, Br Paul Carney. Patricia Byrne, herself a great-grandniece of Br Paul, makes no bones about the fact that her ancestor was guilty of assisting Lynchehaun to avoid capture after he had escaped from Portlaoise Prison.

Why a follower of the saint of gentleness should harbour such a cruel criminal is a mystery that Patricia Byrne’s semifictionalised book does not solve. Part of the problem is the format: this is decidedly not a novel, yet Byrne mixes imaginative description with what is essentially straight history. The fictional skin – by and large, attempts to recreate the atmosphere of particular scenes – stretches a thin covering over the bones of the factual narrative.

However. as well as supplying a good deal of new information, mainly from contemporary newspaper reports, the book does present an interesting slant on the violently sectarian atmosphere that the Catholic Church whipped up against the followers of Edward Nangle on Achill. Although Byrne doesn’t say so, that stiff-necked but largely admirable Protestant missionary was feeding 5,000 of the island’s 7,000 inhabitants at the height of the Famine. Archbishop John MacHale of Tuam found Nangle’s charity unbearable and sent the Franciscans to fight his influence.

Caesar Otway, a friend of the novelist William Carleton, quoted (not in the present book) a typical McHale sermon thus: “Have nothing to do with these heretics. Curse them, hoot at them, spit in their faces, cut the sign of the cross in the air when you meet them, as you would against devils. Throw stones at them, pitch them, when you have opportunity, into the bog holes. Nay, more than that, do injury to yourselves in order to injure them.”

Lynchehaun was spawned and swam in these vile waters.

As for Agnes MacDonnell, she was charitable to Catholics and seems to have been, though strict, not an unjust landlord. She was certainly a remarkably brave woman, surviving even the Civil War, locked up alone at night in Valley House (now a tourist hostel), and dying there in 1923. After the attack she wore a silver nose and a black eyepatch and could occasionally be seen, heavily veiled, walking the lonely roads of Achill. She must have been, unlike her tormentor, “well worth seeing”.