Island life from a transatlantic angle


Achill islanders have joined Clevelanders in saluting their common roots. Lorna Siggins recalls the central role of "The Angle" in their past

When Irish "tattie hokers" swarmed into Scotland seeking work in the past century, many of them were from Mayo's Achill island. However, the islanders' migration route also pointed west - principally to Cleveland, Ohio, in the US.

Even before the Great Famine, they crossed the Atlantic in the 1820s to work on the Ohio canal. They dug the 308-mile waterway by hand, earning 30 cents per day for a 12-hour shift. Mayo Irish continued to come in following years, and names like Sweeney, Corrigan, Kilbane, Gallagher, O'Malley and Dever are as common in Cleveland as they are back on this Atlantic seaboard.

It's only appropriate, then, that a Gallagher, a Kilbane and a Dever were among those who organised a ceremony in the County Buildings, Castlebar, on Friday, when Achill was formally twinned with that "Achill eile" in Ohio. Significantly, Cleveland's Mayor, Jane L. Campbell, was there. She has been taking time out from her duties as "chief executive officer" of a major north American city to take part in the twinning festivities.

Also travelling in the Cleveland contingent was Judge Seán Gallagher, whose father was born on Achillbeg island, just off the main island. With him was his 85-year-old mother who was born and raised in Tuosist, Co Kerry, just outside Kenmare. Judge Gallagher's father and 10 siblings travelled to Cleveland to find work. His son, a judge in the Ohio court of appeals, is, at 47, the youngest member of the bench.

Judge Gallagher attributes his own success to "the dedication and commitment of the Cleveland Irish community and the respect and loyalty that American citizens have for the Irish". Cleveland has been "great to the sons and daughters of Erin like me, who from very humble origins have managed to reach positions of authority in American government", he says. He is both humbled by and proud of that heritage.

"The Angle" was name for the Achill quarter in Cleveland, and between the 1880s and 1920s emigration was well established, continuing right up to the 1960s. A network of support for new arrivals extended to the practice and development of Achill customs and traditions.

In the 1950s, a property was bought on Cleveland's Madison Avenue, which became the "West Side Irish American Club", and its first president was Mr Pat Lynch. The centre moved to a custom-built premises on a greenfield site in North Olmsted in the 1980s, and is still frequented by the Irish-Achill community. As Judge Gallagher points out, Cleveland is home to three major Irish cultural and social organisations, sponsors two major annual Irish cultural festivals and has an Irish archives section with an on-duty Irish archivist at the Western Reserve Historical Society.

The Cleveland community has maintained strong links with Achill through financial support for several projects such as Scoil Damhnait, Pollagh Church, St Colman's, the Order of Malta and Achill Sheltered Housing. Much of the credit for the twinning is extended to Steven Mulloy, an Achill islander from Keel who left for Cleveland in 1954 at 20 and worked in the construction industry.

He married a fellow islander, Anne O'Donnell, from Dooagh, and they had 10 children. Many family members and friends joined them out there.

"We were all raised to be exported!" Mr Mulloy quips.

To set up the weekend of events, he has worked tirelessly with the chairman of the organising committee, Fine Gael councillor Pat Kilbane; manager of Comhlacht Forbartha Aitiúl Acla, Mr Terence Dever; Karen Grealish of Achill Tourism; Tom McNamara, Cleveland-born of Achill parents and owner of the Boley restaurant in Keel, and others on both sides of the Atlantic. The official twinning ceremony was in Castlebar on Friday, hosted by Achill and Mayo County Council. That night, a celebratory dinner was held in the Achill Sound Hotel.

Jigs and reels formalise well-established ties between small Irish island and big US city

The Achill-Cleveland twinning coincides with the annual Scoil Acla festival, which runs until August 11th. Liam O'Connor, current TG4 Young Musician of the Year, is artist-in-residence at this year's event.

Described as one of the most exciting traditional musicians of his generation, O'Connor holds five All-Ireland Fiddle and Slow Airs championships. As artist-in-residence, he will participate in several of the student classes at Scoil Acla. He will also perform at public recitals and concerts.

O'Connor follows a distinguished line of musicians, including the legendary accordionist Joe Burke who was at last year's Scoil Acla. In 2001, the residency was given to John Lavelle, the Chicago-born accordionist whose father is from Achill. Liam O'Connor was born in Dublin to a musical family. His father, Mick, is a well-known flute player and his mother comes from Ennistymon, Co Clare, where young Liam spent many summers playing traditional music. He was taught from the age of eight by the renowned fiddle player Séamus Glackin. Details of the 2003 Scoil Acla schedule can be found on

Yesterday the programme of activities for Cleveland Mayor Jane L. Campbell and up to 65 of her compatriots opened with a "fáilte abhaile" festival in Currane. The annual Achill Yawl festival at Achill Sound was also staged, and the mayor met residents of Cuan Aoibhinn, the Achill Sheltered Housing at Keel. Later there was a reception and party for Mayor Campbell in the Óstán Oileán Acla.