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A Literary Canter Around Achill Island

20/02/2011

I was back In Achill recently when the wind roared and the Atlantic churned and the mist hid the outlines of Slievemore.

I did a quick car tour of some literary haunts. Between the mid-nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries writers and visual artists flocked to Achill, helped by the extension of the railway line to the island by the Midland Great Western Railway company in 1895.

First stop The Deserted Village at the foot of Slievemore in the north of the island. A short distance away is the Heinrich Böll Cottage – now an artist’s residence – where the German Nobel prize-winning author came with his family in the 1950s. He stumbled one day on the Deserted Village ruins, spent five hours there and later wrote the piece ‘Skeleton of a Human Habitation’ in his Irish Journal.

In Dugort, just down the hill from the Heinrich Böll cottage, is Gray’s Guest House that was run by the late and legendary Vi McDowell at the place which was once The Colony – the centre of the Achill Mission on the island from the 1830s. Victorian travellers and writers flocked here in the mid-nineteenth century, including Mrs S C Hall and Harriet Martineau. Gray’s Memorial Hall and St Thomas’ Church, a short distance away, are now the venues for the annual Heinrich Böll Memorial Weekend.

The Valley House is in the north-east corner of the island. It was the scene of a vicious crime in October 1894, when the owner Agnes McDonnell was attacked by James Lychehaun who became a notorious fugitive from the law. He was one of the influences on J M Synge in writing The Playboy of the Western World.

On the main spine road through the island are the ruins of Bunnacurry Monastery where a Franciscan monk , Brother Paul Carney, was based for a quarter of a century. His hand-written Lynchehaun Narrative was the basis for James Carney’s book The Playboy & the Yellow Lady, and of the film Love & Rage.

Keel, and the island areas of Pollagh and Gubalennaun, were the places where the painters Paul and Grace Henry spent almost a decade in Achill in the early twentieth-century. Paul had a fascination with writing and much of his autobiography An Irish Portrait (1951) dealt with his time on the island.

Graham Greene and his mistress, Catherine Walston, shared a holiday house in Dooagh in the late 1940s. I understand the 2011 Heinrich Boll Memorial Weekend will focus on Graham Greene’s connections with Achill.

When I drove away across Michael Davitt Bridge on to the mainland it seemed that the mist lifted from the island behind me. I will be back.

(Some great Achill photos on Lucy’s blog here.)

(Trailer for film Love and Rage, which was filmed on location in Achill and is based on the story of James Lynchehaun and the Valley House attack of 1894)

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