Rev William John Burke’s work on Achill

Achill Mission

Set up by Rev Edward Nangle in 1831 in Dugort on land leased to him by the landlord of Achill, Richard O’Donnell. The Reverend’s main aim was to bring Christ and the Bible to the people of the Island. At the time there were a number of attempts to proselytisie people of rural Ireland especially in the West.  Dingle in Kerry and Achill were the two main areas as both places had suffered their share of poverty and disease, making them vulnerable and welcoming of any relief that came to them.

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Emily’s Father’s role in the mission

By the time Emily’s father arrived in 1845 the mission was well established;

At the time there was a need for relief from great poverty and education… By 1845 the Mission was thriving with the set up of schools, a church (St. Thomas’) a dispensary, orphan houses and training school. Footnote: Achill training school establishment situated at its Mweelin Settlement was originally formed to receive and train convert priests, but later was used to train scripture readers. Nangle has been instrumental in founding the Priest’s Protection Society, which aided converted priests…

Such a priest was Emily’s father. The Priests Protection Society was founded earlier that year to offer solace to convert clergymen like Rev. Burke. Converts known as Jumpers* were not tolerated by society in general at the time. Wherever he went in his native Galway he and his family were persecuted, which sometimes became physically violent. Now more than ever he and his family needed refuge as his wife was pregnant again. In October 1845 she gave birth to their son William Henry Emeris in Dublin.

In Dublin, the lady of tho Rev. William J. Burke of a son.

A month later in December 1845, Emily’s father arrived at the mission, he was made superintendent of the Reformed Priest Asylum. The country was in the grips of the famine and more and more people were availing of the charity provided by the missions.

Emily’s father was a great asset to the mission at the time. He was a fluent Irish speaker, putting him at an advantage to him to reach the wider community. He could also teach the Scriptures in English and Irish. Not only that he had an innate ability to preach and perhaps won many over through this. In later years when he did lecture tours of England he would draw audiences of hundreds. One newspaper article from 1868 reported that a crowd of 700 came to hear him speak. Like his daughter Emily he was fearless and would take his mission to the people, in the same 1868 lecture he told of bringing the Gospel to workers in the fields. The newspaper report below from 1846 tells of his early work as a missionary.

We have been informed by competent authority that upwards of forty individuals renounced Popery, on the same day in the Missionary Church the Island of Achill, under the ministry the Rev. Edward Nangle, and the Rev. W. J. Burke, the later of whom was formerly a priest of the Church of Rome and connected with the Priest’s Protection Society of Ireland.

 Rev William John Burke remained on Achill till 1848, when he was transferred to nearby Ballycroy. Although he lived on the island a relatively short time, this connection was the reason that Emily came to make Achill her home over half a century later.

*Jumper springs from the Irish word iompaigh which translates as turn around – in this context it means to turn around from one religion to another. This knowledge was shared with my by local historian. John Twin McNamara. For the rest of his life Emily’s father was known as The Jumper Burke.

Special thanks;

John Twin McNamara, Achill historian who kind shared his knowledge with me.

Achill Missionary Herald May 1845
Moffitt, Miriam. Soupers & Jumpers: The Protestant Missions in Connemara, 1848-1937. Dublin: Nonsuch, 2008. P 11
06 November 1845 – Clare Journal, and Ennis Advertiser – Ennis, Clare
Belfast News-Letter 11 November 1845
Downpatrick Recorder 09 May 1846
McDonald, Theresa. Achill Island. Tullamore: I.A.S, 1997.P 143
The Reporter, June 20. P7
10 June 1848 – Dublin Evening Packet and Correspondent – Dublin, Dublin