A controversial mission

An Irishwoman’s Diary: Nangle’s actions on Achill sparked public criticism and sectarian controversy

The headstone at Edward Nangle’s grave has toppled from its stone base amid overgrown foliage in Deansgrange Cemetery, Dublin. One hundred and thirty years ago this week, on September 9th, 1883, the controversial clergyman breathed his last at his home on Morehampton Road. The headstone inscription tells us of his two main occupations: “founder of the Achill Mission and late Rector of Skreen, Co Sligo”. It was, however, his sojourn on Achill Island in the early-19th century as founder of the proselytising Achill Mission that brought Edward Nangle to public, and frequently contentious, notice.

Edward Nangle's first wife, Eliza, received an Achill interment some three decades earlier. A flat gravestone marks her burial spot on the slopes of Slievemore Mountain in north Achill. The Achill Missionary Herald – which her husband founded and edited – noted Eliza's death as having taken place on June 19th, 1850 at Peafield Terrace, Blackrock, Dublin, "after a long and painful illness". She was 47. Her remains were removed to Achill where, her husband wrote, "the funeral was attended by a large concourse of people of all classes".

Poignantly, Eliza Nangle was buried alongside the remains of five children who had predeceased her. At the time of her death she and her husband had six surviving offspring – three adult daughters and three young sons. She was distraught, her husband wrote, at the prospect of leaving the young boys motherless.

Eliza had known happier days in the years following her 1828 marriage when the Nangle couple resided at Elm Cottage, Monkstown. Henry Seddall’s 1884 Nangle biography describes pleasant musical evenings at the cottage with guests entertained by the young clergyman’s violin renditions of Haydn and Mozart. Eliza may well have looked back on those idyllic family days during her 16-year sojourn in Achill, often isolated with her children as her husband travelled on frequent speaking and Achill Mission fund-raising trips.


Edward and Eliza Nangle and their three young daughters arrived in Achill on August 1st, 1834, landing at Dugort Strand where bonfire flames rose in welcome. Three years earlier, Edward had set his sights on the establishment of an evangelical mission on the Irish-speaking island. The accommodation was sparse, the unfamiliar winter storms overwhelming, and the inconvenience for the Nangle household considerable. Eliza was already pregnant with her first son, who died two days after birth in 1835; a second son survived a few weeks in 1836; a third lived for a just a month in 1837.

The Achill Mission settlement expanded rapidly in the 1830s into a village comprising houses, school, an orphanage, printing press, hotel, and farm buildings. The development was, however, dogged by growing public criticism, none more vocal than that of the writers, Mr & Mrs S C Hall, who visited in June 1842. The Halls cast a forensic eye on the subscription flow to the Achill Mission, questioned the oversight of the mission expenditure, and raised serious questions about the operation of the orphanage. Samuel Hall would later accuse Edward Nangle of offering the islanders “food, clothes, and comfortable lodgings, on the sole and easy condition of becoming converts”, anticipating the charge of “souperism” against the mission during the Great Famine years.

When the evangelical writer Asenath Nicholson reached Achill in the summer of 1845 it appears that Eliza Nangle’s health was in a fragile condition. Mrs Nicholson had already travelled throughout Ireland carrying her bible, dressed in polka-dot coat, Indian rubber boots and black bear-skin muff. Her first impressions of the Achill Mission settlement were positive. It proved difficult, however, to interview the Nangles and, when they did meet, Mrs Nicholson got a hostile reception as Eliza gazed at the visitor with a silent fixed stare. In the subsequent two years Mrs Nangle would experience the last of her 11 pregnancies as famine enveloped the land: a daughter born in March 1846 died at birth; a son was still-born in December 1847.

By the time of Eliza Nangle’s death in 1850, the intense sectarian controversy surrounding the Achill Mission had passed its peak. Edward Nangle departed Achill in 1852 for a church post in Skreen, Co Sligo, returning to Achill for annual visits and, no doubt, climbing the Slievemore slopes to pray at the graves of his deceased wife and children.

Today, interspersed among the weathered headstones of the Achill Mission cemeteries are wooden crosses on unmarked graves, many of which enfold the bones of islanders who joined the mission in famine years; the crosses placed there by a joint effort of the local Protestant and Catholic communities as a symbol of healing.