1985 – The Revival

“Impímis or, A Thiarna, A Athair uilechumhactaí shiorraí,do bheannacht a bhronnadh ar an mbrat seo.  Tabhair don lucht leanúna atá cruinnithe anseo, spiorad agus dóchas go mbeidh ceol, culture, tráidisiún Gaelach buan, agus seashmhach ins na blianta atá ag teacht.  Beannaigh na tuismitheoirí agus a n-iarrachtaí ar son Scoil Acla agus gach éinne a raibh baint ar bith acu leis.  A Thiarna, A Íosa Chríost, a Mhac a mhaireann agus a riailaíonn leatsa trí shaol na saol.”

These are the words uttered by Fr. John Cosgrave in blessing the flag on the ultimate day of the revival of this historical event.  Words that helped propel Scoil Acla from those modest beginnings to the international renown that it now merits.

While much has been written of the original founders of Scoil Acla in 1910, their back grounds, aspirations and motivations in establishing a movement that now resonates through a century in time, what of those enlightened individuals who worked to revive an organisation that had nearly passed into the annals of history, culminating in 1985 with local youths taking the first steps along a musical journey that has reaped benefits for many?

The New Founders

Four visionaries are universally credited with having the initial drive and zeal to propel the project forward: Tommy ‘The Boley’ McNamara, John ‘Twin’ McNamara, Mary McNamara and the aforementioned Fr. John Cosgrave.  Each for a myriad of personal reasons set wheels in motion, the results of which resonate locally today.  Each not taken to self-promotion, but whose contributions and driven personalities have unquestionably enable the development of the organisation to date!

Initial Goals

The decision was taken to re-launch the school incorporating all the aims of the original school.

  • Examine the state of the language in the locality and promote it
  • Bring traditional music and set dancing to a high standard
  • Organise seminars on the historical, geological and archeological feature of the locality
  • Host poetry readings
  • Promote local song and poetry writing
  • Study the social development of the locality
  • Promote the Arts in general

Lofty goals that the revived Scoil Acla intended to emulate!

Programme Development

From the modest beginnings with fiddle teacher Paddy Ryan from Roscommon (who has become an ever present feature of Scoil Acla since 1985) and John ‘Twin’ McNamara on flute and tin whistle, the range of instruments under tuition has expanded to cover all areas of traditional music.  Participants have excelled to the point that eleven of the current tutors are graduates of the school.

1986-1989 The Formative Years

After the initial success of the relaunch, Scoil Acla began to introduce greater variety.  In 1986, a series of lectures on Archaeology by Teresa McDonald and Séamus Caulfield, set dancing workshops and poetry readings by Achill poet John F. Deane set the scene.  A book of ‘Achill Songs and Poetry’ was collected and compiled by local enthusiasts Michael O’Donnell, Eoin McNamara, Padraic Seoighthe and John McNamara.  Comprised largely of works by Achill people, it was the first of several publications under the auspices of Scoil Acla.

1987 was themed a ‘Paul Henry Retrospective Achill period 1913-1920’, and Scoil Acla in conjunction with The Oriel Gallery, Dublin and The National Gallery of Ireland held an exhibition and sale of original paintings and prints by Paul Henry, Desmond Turner R.H.A. lectured on Paul Henry – The Artist and Pádraic O’Raghallaigh gave readings from Paul Henry’s book ‘An Irish Portrait’. In keeping with this theme The Island Players presented ‘The Twisting of the Rope’, a translation by Lady Gregory of Dr. Doughlas Hyde’s play ‘Casadh an tSúgáin’ that was first produced by Paul Henry in Scoil Acla, 1912.  A celebration such as this strengthened the links to the original founders.

The following two years was a time of consolidation, development and growth, building on the strong foundations laid in the initial years.  A programme of events was now in situ, forming a core base of activities from which to thrive.  In keeping with this phenomenal growth a writers workshop was introduced in 1989 under the stewardship of Jack Harte and John F Deane, assisted by Gerry O’Malley and Bob Collins.

The 90’s

A new decade rought new items to the agenda.  An exhibition of Achill landscapes in 1990 by Keating, McGuire, Marey Robinson and Paul Henry, talks by John McNamara on tourism, John O’Shea on outsiders views of Achill, and aspects of Achill History by Tommy McNamara, illustrated the wide variety of activities that were becoming integral to the annual gathering.  Increasing numbers to the Music, Set-Dancing, Céilí and Writers Workshops were proving the revival an unrivalled success and in 1991 ‘Achill Island Volume 1 – Writings from the Workshop on Achill Island Summer 1990′ was published.

1991 proved to be an eventful year as Scoil Acla hosted its first Fleadh Cheoil Mhaigheo, making history as the first Island Fleadh ever!  This was a huge vote of confidence in the fledging branch in the year that Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann celebrated its 40th anniversary.

An Uachtarán Mary Robinson presided at the official opening in 1992, a landmark acknowledgement of the success of the Scoil.  The same year, artistic and cultural links were strengthened by an exhibition of oils, water colours, collage, sculptures in stone, metal and bogwood by various artisits courtesy of ‘The Kenny Art Gallery’, Galway.  Exhibitions of works by Rodger Shackleton, Seosaimh Ó Dalaigh, Alexandra Van Hout, Virigina Gibbons, Heinrich Boll and Robert Henri in 1993 were proving that Scoil Acla was not purely about traditional music, but encompassed culture on a wide and diverse basis.  The bank of instruments available was further enhanced by the introduction of the Harp.

Expanding the publications resultant from Scoil activities, 1994 saw the launch of a second book ‘Achill Island II’ – Writings from the Workshop 1992/1993.  The writers workshop was proving to be a solid contributor to the still youthful revived movement.  As this young enterprise flourished, student numbers reached the 150 mark, a positivie indicator of progress being made.

Once again lectures on related topics complimented the activities: ‘The Western Railways’ (Achill Railway Centenary Lecture), ‘Ar an mBóthar go hAcaill’ and ‘Ceol Tradisiúnta na hÉireann’.  In 1995, lectures by Tomás Mac Sheáin, Rev. Gary Hastings, Dr. E. King and Tony Catherine Antoine William entertained and informed attendees on a range of other topics.  The Scoil Acla Amateur Drama and Arts Fás Group successfully presented Brian Friel’s award winning play ‘Dancing at Lughnasa’.  Locals ‘ag glacadh páírt’, as envisaged by the founders.

In 1996 Matt Molloy of The Chieftains opened proceedings with noted musicians Paddy Glacken, Terry Tully, Brendan Begley and Noel O’Grady gracing the stage at The Gala Concert, entertaining the now 250 pupils at proceedings.  This was the second year that Scoil Acla hosted a very successful Fleadh Cheoil Mhaigheo, as it continued to develop and grow.

‘Na Bunaitheoirí – The Founding Fathers’, was the theme for 1997.  A talk by Iosold Ni Dheirg on the life and times of Mrs Weddall and other founders, with a talk on ‘An Paorach’ by T Mac Sheáin and P Ó’Raghallaigh informed participants about those responsible for setting the wheels in motion.  Patrick Comerford also gave an informative lecture entitles ‘Nangle in a New Light’.  The writers workshop with Macdara Woods was enhanced by poetry readings from Paul Durcan and John F Deane.  A drawing course by local artists Tommy Murphy further added to the variety of activities available.

In keeping with the theme of expansion, with a disregard for musical and geographical boundaries, Scoil Acla in association with The Cleveland Irish Music Academy introduced a cultural exchange programme in 1996 and 1997, enabling Achill musicians to visit the U.S. with reciprocal arrangements for their musicians to visit Ireland.  Those who participated were imbued with an appropriation of the high regard in which our traditions and culture are held abroad and a keen sense of the gift and skills which Scoil Acla had imparted to them.

In the final years of this decade numbers continued to grow, hitting 260 in 1998.  The poet Seamus Heaney was the star of 1999, giving a poetry reading which was an outstanding success.  The presence of Sean Keane (The Chieftans) and Arty McGlynn the same year illustrated the pulling power of Scoil Acla to attract performers of the highest calibre.

The New Millennium

‘Scoil Acla na Mílaoise’ was opened by Director General of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, Labhrás Ó Murchú.  The now well established programme of events was imbedded on the national stage, ranking with summer schools of international renown.  One year into the new millennium and the growth experienced previously continued afoot!

Brendan Begley launched proceedings in 2002, as a now well oiled machine set wheels in motion.  A series of lectures included Terry Moylan on ‘Political songs in 8th century Ireland’ and Brian Keenan on the narrative ‘Turlough‘.  Workshops on music, pipe making, set dancing, visual arts and writing offered something for everyone.

Author John McGahern was a special guest in 2004, reading from his own works as part of the programme.  A Wood Turning Exhibition by Mairtín Dáibhí O Coistealba was enjoyed by all who attended.  This was the first year that Scoil Acla was shortened to one week due to matters outside the organisers control.  This did not however curtail growth, but helped to consolidate the programme as the annual expansion continued.

Oscailt Oifigiúil le Padraig Ó hAoláin, Príomhfheidhmeannach, Údarás na Gaeltachta i 2005.  Twenty years on, a reunion event was held for the class of 1985, some of whom now taught in Scoil Acla, passing on the skills they themselves had learned.  Talks on ‘Seanchas agus Scéalaíocht Acla’ by Aodhán Ó Caoimh and ‘Portráidí Acla’ by Máirtín Mac Donnchadha further highlighted our rich Achill culture.

Mary Cloake, Director Arts Council of Ireland, performed the official opening in 2006.  Readings by John F Deane and MacDara Woods, a 1916 Commemorative Lecture ‘Beyond the Politics: The Creative Spirit of 1916’ by Sheila McHugh and a celebration of the stories, poetry and Gaeilig’ Acla in honour of Padraig Seoighthe organised by his daughter Nóra Seoighthe rounded off a broad cultural programme.

John F Deane, who had done much for Scoil Acla over the years, performed the official opening in 2008.  A talk on fiddle making by Graham Wright and poetry readings with Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin and MacDara Woods proved informative and entertaining.

In the penultimate year to the Centenary, well known composer and film maker Peadar Ó Riada enthralled and entertained a large crowd in performing the official opening.  The writer Michael Harding gave an unforgettable performance when he read from his own works during the week.  In the 24th year of a well developed and proven programme, pupil numbers achieved record levels.

The volunteers who commit to Scoil Acal each year are required to be innovative to help this school to stand out above all others.  Indicative of this innovation was the introduction of The Musician in Residence programme in 2001.  Each year a noted musical exponent of an instrumental discipline had been invited to perform, interact with and mentor students.  Beginning with accordion player John E Lavelle, many others including Joe Burke, Liam O’Connor, John Carty, Mary Bergin, Laoise Kelly, Catherine McEvoy, Micheál O’Raghallaigh and most recently Mick O’Brien, have filled this vital role.


Over the years the name Scoil Acla has featured prominently in the national media thanks to such advocates as Seán Ó hÉalaí (R na G), Ciaran Mac Mathúna (RTE), John Healy (Irish Times) and Joe Byrne (MWR FM) to name but a few.  This exposure has brought Scoil Acla to a wider audience, as illustrated by the increasing number of visitors each year.

Many individuals of note have often given of themselves to participate, such as Seán Potts (Na Píobairí Uilleann); Harry Bradshaw, Liam Mac An Iomaire, Áine Hensey and Cathal Goan (RTE); Éamon Ó Cuive TD and Enda Kenny TD from the political spectrum; and Achill natives such as Donnchada Ó Gallachóir, John McGinty, Mick Fadian, Katie Sweeney (CEO of Mayo VEC) and Tony and Bridie Molloy.

In an article of this nature it is an insurmountable task to attemptto acknowledge each individual contributor, honoured guest or participant separately.  The quality tutors that year on year impart their individual skills have ensure the growth of Scoil Acla on many fronts.  Equally, the list of locals who have participated in the organisation to date would merit pages of their own, not least the local pipe bands Pollagh and Dooagh, the latter of which turns out every year to add that special something to proceedings.

At this time of celebration and contemplation of wonderous memories, a broad ‘Go raibh mile maith agaibh go léir! is extended to all!

2010 The Centenary

Plans were set in motion in 2009 with the establishment of a Centenary Committee to assist in the multitude of tasks required of such a landmark event.  An extensive programme has been developed in line with the aims of the original founders, complimenting the ongoing events with a range of additional recitals, concerts and workshops, as detailed herein.

The sense of volunteerism that has enabled the growth of Scoil Acla to date was enhanced by further volunteers coming onboard to assist the Centenary Celebrations.  It is anticipated that many familiar faces will return to renew acquaintances and savour the atmosphere of what promises to be a momentous occasion.  As the children of the original 36 pupils now take the first steps along a musical journey taken by their parents 25 years earlier, the next generation has much to look forward to with resources now available to them, unheard of in 1985!

And Now

The original Scoil Acla was born at a time of nationalistic fervour, n almost inevitable byproduct of the times.  The revived movement has enjoyed a universal appeal, engaging participants and activists from all backgrounds and the four corners of the globe!

Achill, the Muse, continues to inspire individuals to greater things: local volunteers ensuring the smooth operation of the Annual Summer School, musicians of all ages developing their talents and writers and artists striving to better understand that which may elude them.

At a time when other similar bodies are contacting and struggling, Scoil Acla has in the last number of years enjoyed increasing numbers and a growing popularity.  It has been the catalyst for many cultural developments in the area, contributing much to the social fabric of the community.  In this Centenary Year, as one reflects on what has gone before, one can only look forward to what has yet to come!