Monthly Archives: October 2015

Darrell Figgis arrives on Achill

Darrell Figgis first visited Achill in 1912. After acquiring land from the Mission Estate in 1913 he and his wife Millie, built a cottage and made the island his writing retreat. He was already a published writer having made a name for himself in artistic circles in both Dublin and London.

At the time of his arrival there was a group of people central to the cultural life of the island. These people were Francis Power (An Paroach), Claud Chavasse, Eva O’Flaherty, Anita McMahon, Paul Henry and Emily, the founding members of Scoil Acla. Figgis naturally gravitated towards the group and can be credited with the part he played in formation of the summer school.

At the time the political situation was heating up and some of the Scoil Acla members were getting involved. Emily, Anita McMahon and Eva O’Flaherty, were all members of the newly formed Cumann na mBan (The Irishwomen’s Council). Claud Chavasse was heavily involved in Nationalist circles as were the students that attended Scoil Acla such as Margot and Cesca Trench and Diarmuid Coffey. Figgis was naturally drawn in too.

November 1913 saw the formation The Irish Volunteers, which Figgis joined and was appointed to drill the Achill Battalion. He used to drill them on the beach and is still talked about to this day. Local ledgend tells of him spending a lot of time in Annagh (a remote area on the west coast of Achill), where he drew inspiration from particularly for his poetry but, it was also an ideal place to hide arms.

Scoil Acla 1913

Scoil Acla 1913

Thanks to:
John Twin McNamara, Achill historian
Edward King, Achill
Chenevix Trench, Frances Georgiana, and Hilary Pyle. Cesca’s Diary, 1913-1916: Where Art and Nationalism Meet. Dublin: Woodfield Press, 2005.




Darrell Figgis

Emily Weddall had a great many friends, on Achill some she had  lifelong relationships with. Darrell Figgis, was one of those friends although his life was not long. Darrell Figgis moved to the peaceful setting of Achill in 1913 with his wife Millie (Emily) to write. He and Emily may have known one another beforehand as they both had a family link to the Dublin book trade.




DSCF3258On hearing from all witnesses it was clear to the judge, Baron Lefroy, that the evidence against Rev Burke was weak. It was clear that it all steamed from the hate campaign against William John Burke for changing his religion. The witnesses were local people, who bore a grudge against him and would go to lengths to see his downfall. It came out in the court that the apothecary rented land from a one of the men, who reported the ‘felony’ to the police.

According to the apothecary “There was a report that something unfair had taken place, and I believe there was a with on the part of the people to have the matter investigated.” He said a lot more besides that could have carried a fate worse than transportation if the authorities had decided to investigate it. But they did not even consider it even if the press reported upon it in a callous manner.

His representative rested his case: “Now, my lord, that [the apothecary did not take an oath to keep the birth a secret] being the case I respectfully call upon your lordship to direct an acquittal. there has been no oath, much less evidence, of its having been tendered.”

According to the judge” As the prisoner did not actually tender the oath after producing the book, the offense, in law, cannot be sustained, and I must direct a verdict of acquittal”

The jury returned a verdict of “not guilty.”

Even though he walked away from the Assizes acquitted of his crime he was far from freeman. The story reached a wider audience and was reported on nationally and in England too. The press made a sensation of the case and some of the headlines printed about it are best not mentioned.

Rev Burke and his family had no choice but to leave his hometown and take refuge in the church missions, one of these was at Dugort on Achill Island where he and his family arrived following year.

The Rev. William J. Burke, an ex-priest of the Church of Rome, and for some months under the care of the Priests’ Protection Society for Ireland, has entered on the important duties of his appointment in the church at Achill Island.

Rev Burke did not live on Achill for long but it was enough to create the link that would draw his daughter Emily there six decades later…

 Freeman’s Journal 03 August 1844. p3
20 December 1845 – Dublin Evening Packet and Correspondent – Dublin



In the Dock

Galway Courthouse

Galway Courthouse, where Rev. W J Burke was on trial in 1844

When William john Burke was summoned to court he learned that some of his former friends and neighbors were chief witness against him. It came as no surprise as there was a huge hate campaign against the Reverend and his wife since he changed religion. They used anything they possibly could to defame his character;

“The group of “witnesses swore that on Saturday, the 11th day of May last, the Rev. William John Burke. The midwife, apothecary [chemist], and the local doctor were called as witnesses. The midwife was called first as she delivered the baby, was asked to keep the birth of the baby, who sadly did not survive a secret. Which she did. She was not required to take an oath by Rev Burke. The local doctor was the next to give evidence:

” I recollect that on the 8th of May he [Rev Burke] called on me to attended to his wife; I did so and bled her; nothing more occurred on that day, but on the following morning I found her unwell with inflammation of the stomach; she was pregnant; before I went into her room Mr Burke brought me into an adjoining room, and said that as an old acquaintance he would rely on anything I would promise, but that Mrs. Burke would not be satisfied unless I swore to conceal that situation she was in. I told her as a medical man I would of course, keep professional secrets without taking an oath.”

The doctor and midwife’s evidence favored Revered Burke’s case, however, the Apothecary’s was a bit more incriminating, as he admitted that he had no feeling of vengeance towards the Reverend, but considered his [Rev Burke’s] “conduct improper”, that was in reference to his changing religion. All the Apothecary could say against him was that he produced a ‘book’ not necessarily a Bible and said “now take your oath”. That was all.

In effect Rev William John Burke did not commit the felony he was accused of as no oath was sworn. The case was a farce to begin with, as his defense Baron Lefroy put to the judge;

“As the prisoner did not actually tender the oath after producing the book, the offense, in law cannot be sustained and I must direct a verdict of acquittal.”

Freeman’s Journal 03 August 1844. p3
Image reproduced by kind permission of James Hardiman Library