An Irishman's Diary

 

TAKE THE STORY of an enthralling island in the west, mix in the extraordinary social enterprise of a local woman from a wealthy family, and you have the recipe for a vivid tale being written by a Co Galway based author, Mary J Murphy. The book, Achill’s Eva O’Flaherty: Forgotten Island Heroine, is due to be published next summer and she has hopes that it could be made into a film,with Meryl Streep perfect as the heroine.

Murphy studied at NUI Galway, where President Michael D Higgins, was her sociology lecturer, then at DCU, before working as a feature writer and broadcaster in Dublin, London, Nashville and Iceland. Her first book, Viking Summer, celebrated the making of the 1968 film on Alfred the Great at Caherlistrane near Tuam in north Co Galway, where she and her family live.

Not long ago, Mary’s husband, Gerard, introduced her to a local man, Brendan Gannon, who knew Eva well and indeed, had made her funeral arrangements in 1963. Eva’s family home, long before she got involved in Achill, was in Caherlistrane. The mansion on its own estate is now an upmarket guest house.

Mary, her husband and their three children, Morgan, Mason and Minette, often spend time at the family’s second home, on Achill Island, a place described by Mary Murphy as ” gloriously wild and windy” , somewhere she regards with boundless affection, a rich source of inspiration. The connection between Caherlistrane and what Eva O’Flaherty did on Achill started to fall into place after the meeting with Brendan Gannon, and the creation of the book began.

O’Flaherty was born into a well-heeled and well-connected Catholic landed gentry family; both her mother’s and father’s side of the family were steeped in nationalism and Eva could trace her pedigree back to Grace O’Malley, the pirate queen. Eva trained in millinery and by 1900, was in Paris, modelling headgear for people to wear when driving the motor car. Surprisingly, she didn’t stay in Paris but moved to London, where the world of millinery was gloriously exciting in the years before the first World War. A renowned society beauty, she held court in the Café Royal in London, a city that was then a hotbed of Irish literary and political revival.

But she had made trips to Irish-speaking locations in the west of Ireland. A doomed romance may have led her to settle in her own Hy-Brasil, Achill Island. Eva also had a burning desire to help relieve the desperate poverty on the island; for most men and women on the island, just about the only way they could earn money was to go potato-picking in Scotland during the summer.

Eva helped found Scoil Acla in 1910, revived over the past quarter century and now considered Ireland’s oldest summer school. But her main claim to fame was setting up the St Colman’s knitting industry in Dooagh a couple of years later. It became a life-long enterprise for Eva, providing at its height, employment for about 30 women. They knitted all kinds of what were then high fashion garments, such as cardigans, smart suits and twin-sets, which were sold in such outlets as Arnotts, Brown Thomas, Sloweys and Switzers in Dublin, indeed exported all over the world, and regularly exhibited at the RDS Spring Show.

Knitting had a long tradition on Achill, going back to around the mid-18th century, when local women knitted stockings for French mariners who put into the island.

Achill historian John “twin” McNamara recalls that when his mother worked at St Colman’s in the 1930s, Eva O’Flaherty had a favourite saying when someone turned up late for work: “Seven hours sleep for a man, eight for a woman and nine for a fool”.

Eva O’Flaherty kept the knitting industry going until she died at nearly 90 years of age. By then, fashions had changed and demand for its products was falling. Eva never married and had no children, so there was no one to pass the torch to and the industry closed in 1970.

Of the various industries set up on Achill over the years, the knitting industry was by far the longest lasting and most durable in terms of creating employment.

Besides the knitting, Eva had her own modest house at Dooagh; her lamp-lit salon there drew an amazing variety of artistic figures, mostly painters; personalities from the church; legal figures and political names. Those who were on first name terms with Eva and came to see her included Paul Henry and his wife Grace, Graham Greene, Heinrich Böll, Ernie O’Malley and Eamon de Valera. On one occasion, in July, 1950, ballet dancer friends from Sadler’ s Wells in London came all the way to Achill to see her while at the same time, Jack MacGowran was there, from the Abbey Theatre.

Achill, in the earlier part of the 20th century, drew an amazing mix of high name figures, drawn by the natural attractions of the island itself and the personality of Eva O’Flaherty.

By all accounts, she was an extraordinary woman, contributing much to an enchanting island. Mary Murphy says of her: “ She was a can-do woman of initiative, driven by the impulse of charity, exuding extreme kindness, grace, warmth and generosity, convivial, independent, cultured and with a refined literary sensibility” .

Yet as is inevitable with such stirring stories, they fall into abeyance. Nearly 50 years after her death, Eva has become Achill’s forgotten island heroine. So Mary Murphy determined to rescue the story from oblivion. A letter to this newspaper early last year yielded some delicious vignettes.

One was from a now elderly lady who had attended Mount Anville in the 1930s, just as Eva O’Flaherty had done in the 1880s. When Eva met this lady, then a schoolgirl, she asked her whether the girls still had to speak French to the nuns, curtsey and wear a shift while having a bath. Mary Murphy’s book is wending its way towards completion and is due to be launched at Scoil Acla next summer; the Eva O’Flaherty story will have come full circle, back into the limelight, an engrossing tale of high society on Achill and community self-help. Mary Murphy is contactable at: morma@eircom.net