Dugort, Achill Island | Ireland
I’ve always thought of misty, shadowy West of Ireland weather as gloomy or mysterious. It wasn’t until I read CS Lewis on the difference between half light (Nordic) & full light (Mediterranean) beauty that I broadened my perspective. He compares a northern landscape & light to water colours, bright southern light to oil paintings. One vivid & exuberant, the other subtle & nuanced. Ambivalent.
Minaun cliffs and Keel surf, Achill, Co Mayo. © 2019 Sarah Whitcroft
Different beauties evoking different responses. One universal response to all beauty he talks about though, is longing. For Lewis, all earthly beauty is partial. A pale imitation or fore-taste of the true intense beauty, that can be found only when creation is in full harmony with its Creator. For Lewis, beauty is suppose to make us long for something greater, heaven, or when heaven re-invades creation to restore it.
Love on earth can be the same. There is simply no way that any of us can perfectly, selflessly love each other as we should. Even the best of parents, children, husbands, wives, lovers or friends, let each other down. There will be times in your life when you feel deeply disappointed that the efforts you make, the feelings you feel, are not returned like for like by other people.
Well, I reckon that just as beauty creates longing within in us for something more, the incompleteness of earthly love, for all its high points, inevitably leaves us seeking for the untiring, constant, intense love that can only be found at its source. John, the ‘beloved disciple’, who stayed with Jesus at the cross, tells us that God is love.
So this song laments the limits of our human love, mentions some joys of life, & looks beyond them both, to the rich peace of being in God’s presence.
I’ve shared this song with some friends who have been through traumatic times. You know who you are. You’re still in mind as I write this.
Melody – Dugort
I’ve called this tune Dugort. For me, the melody perfectly matches the Achill Island village and the folk music that have been part of my life since I was 8. Dugort has a melancholy watercolour beauty, with the deepest of bittersweet histories.
It’s personally poignant, because my dad was driving there with a load of trees to plant, when he got wiped in his car accident in the 80’s. His good friends Pat Lavelle & Vi McDowell, arranged with John Sweeney for the trees to be planted while he was undergoing brain surgery.
St.Thomas’ Church, Achill Mission, Dugort, looking west to Slievemore & the Settlement.
More significantly, Dugort was the site of the Achill Missionary Settlement started in the 1830’s. It was an ambitious & zealous project to bring the gospel to a place that evangelicals considered both overlooked by, & enthralled to, a mediaeval Catholicism. The idealism was real & poignant. Like the rest of the Islanders, the founding members of the settlement suffered great personal loss. There was no personal gain (although the mission as a project got sucked into exercising control as a landlord). In due course they were on the receiving end of an institutional backlash, from an equally formidable neighbouring bishop.
Changing Hearts or changing culture?
With hindsight you can see the mistakes that were made. Although the mission was Irish speaking, the founding minister, Edward Nangle, (himself a convert from Catholicism), spent too much of his time denouncing the ‘idolatry’ of catholicism, instead of focusing on the core message, that it’s a personal faith in Jesus not commitment to an institution that counts.
Also, you can see, they just assumed that modernising imperial methods were best. As well as bringing a message, the settlement dispossessed a number of tenant farmers in order to set up a model village. It championed modern farming techniques, had a printing press, hotel, school, coast guards, and constabulary, all centred around a picture postcard church & Rectory, St Thomas’. We’re all captives of the times we live in. 19th century Evangelicals were at times too wedded to the notions of cultural superiority & uncritical of the social improvement initiatives that went with the global British imperial project (think assumptions about exporting American culture, or the assumed superiority of secular atheism in Europe today).
When tragedy strikes
On top of the controversy, the mission faced the tidal wave of bigger, more tragic events in the 1840’s and 1850’s. The horrendous crop failures & political disaster of ‘The Famine’ struck.
How do you stay true to your vision of spreading a faith, & respond to needs of starving people at the same time? The mission had had some early success in seeing people come to a genuine faith. Inevitably this was seen by some as cultural & religious betrayal. Perhaps the mission could have built a community with an alternative vision of Christianity, but if you have trained people up with marketable skills on an island, & famine hits, the sensible thing to do is to take those skills somewhere without famine. The momentum dissipated.
In addition, the mission ended up being the institution that distributed food relief to 2,000 people. If you pastor a church, you have a responsibility to your neighbours, & in particular to your ‘flock’ in the middle of a crisis. It became almost inevitable that the tension between the original aim of the mission, and the duty to feed starving people, led to allegations of ‘souperism’ – (using the prospect of food, as an incentive to conversion).
If it occurred, it was despicable. It’s unproven & I have significant doubts about it. If your worldview is that belonging to institutions makes a difference, then ‘souperism’ might appear to people looking in, as an effective (if reprehensible) strategy by the Achill Mission. But Evangelical Christianity is all about preaching that joining clubs doesn’t save your soul. It’s a personal faith in Jesus that makes the difference. For Nangle and the mission, getting people on the church register under false pretences would have been a fake outcome, an external symbol without a heart reality.
Whatever the real (or confused) motives in those dreadful times, mud sticks. If I were desperate and starving, I would have changed ‘club’ if I thought it increased the chance of saving my family’s life. The desperate circumstances caused deep resentment. The Mission had aligned itself with the Imperial civilising project. The free market, non-interventionist policy of the British government, was an unmitigated disaster that left people to die. The Famine devastated rural Ireland, and the Mission became just another well intentioned but unsustainable project on marginal land, destined for decay.
History is written by
If you look on the map today, the Missionary Settlement, has been renamed The Colony. I find this a little sad, if understandable. However flawed, I think the self-sacrifice & outward looking intentions of the Mission were about building a new community around a different understanding of faith, in the Irish Language. Perhaps with the passage of time, & a little generosity, they can be honoured with the name they originally chose for themselves. A Mission of idealists, rather than a Colony of outsiders. The little church still operates, serving a small congregation & summer visitors.
And so to the music ~ sorry that was so long!
‘We will see’, is a classic 3/4 lament in Am. You have to play it quite delicately, picking out the lilting melody as you change chords.
If 'Still Only One Way' is the most powerful, then I think this is the most beautiful song on the album (Sunshine for Rainy Days). Gillian Brown’s voice is haunting & delightfully pure for the main melody. Gillian’s is a voice that deserves to be heard much more widely, particularly in this genre.
I love the contrast of the 3 part harmony she & Sarah sing in the middle of the song for the punchline. The fuller, ‘otherness of heaven’, is further implied by an echoing counter melody, thanks to Gwyneth Reid’s cello part.
I’m not going to suggest you try this one, but I hope you like it!