A heartfelt tribute from Scoil Acla to a cultural devotee, Emily M Weddall
For anyone who has had the pleasure of visiting one of Co. Mayo’s most idyllic settings, they will know the people of Achill Island are brimming with a resonant understanding and appreciation of their roots and culture. Achill Island has had a long association with artists, writers and those with a desire for culture and language. One reason for such an undisputable passion can be traced and attributed to a group of individuals who, in 1910, founded Scoil Acla which was destined to grow into Ireland’s oldest and one of the country’s longest running Traditional Irish Music and Cultural Summer Schools. Since its re-establishment in 1985, the Scoil Acla traditions and original aims have always remained central to its objectives and remain at the core of Scoil Acla’s beliefs.
Emily Weddall, a native of Edenderry, Co. Offaly was one of those individuals who were instrumental in the establishment of Scoil Acla. She was married to a ships captain Edward Weddall, and when he retired they moved to Achill and bought an old school house in the village of Keel. As a trained nurse, she cared for her husband until his death and it was her wish to erect a Celtic cross on his grave. She commissioned the sculptor William Pearse, brother of Padraig Pearse, to erect a Celtic cross on the grave in St Thomas’s Church, Dugort, where it still stands today.
Emily Weddall’s love of the Irish language was kindled during her time in Achill. She became the president of the local Gráinne Mhaol Branch of Conradh Na Gaeilge. In 1910, she purchased land and built the ‘Hall’ in Dooagh to facilitate the Scoil Acla summer school tuition in Irish language, dance, drama, and Irish cultural studies. It was in this hall in 1912, that the infamous artist and Scoil Acla member, Paul Henry, directed the popular Douglas Hyde play ‘Casadh an tSúgán’. Later, she offered the hall to Miss Eva O’Flaherty who ran the very successful St. Colmans Knitting Industry. In 1915, Mrs Weddall attended the funeral of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa. After Padraig Pearse’s famous graveside oration in Glasnevin Cemetery, she, along with Darrell Figgis, laid the first wreath, made from Achill shamrock and mountain heather on the grave, with the words ‘Ó Acaill’ prominently displayed on it. This justly conveyed the importance of Scoil Acla at that time and how illustrious she was in those political circles. In 1924, Mrs Weddall purchased a stained glass window of St Brendan, The Navigator at an art fair in London, which was crafted by famous stained glass artist Wilhelmina Geddes. Today, it is displayed at Our Lady Queen of the Universe Church in Currane, Achill. Mrs Weddall left an everlasting mark on Achill, one which ensured she would never be forgotten.
Recession, austerity and emigration resonated throughout Ireland in the 1920’s. TB and influenza were widespread, especially amongst the poor of Ireland. Mrs Weddall did not escape unscathed and due to her financial hardship, she sold her house on Achill and moved to Connemara to help treat the afflicted victims. From here she moved to Dublin and remained working as a nurse. As a member of Cumann na mBan, she continued as an avid campaigner for the Irish nation and rights of the native Irish people until she died on November 24th, 1952. She is buried just outside the republican plot in Glasnevin Cemetery beside many others who played their part in Irish freedom. The absence of a headstone on her grave is a reflection of the financial hardship she endured near the end of her life, despite her generous nature in the previous decades.
Scoil Acla has continued to grow from strength to strength, and in 2010 celebrated both its Centenary and its 25th Anniversary since its relaunch in 1985. As part of the centenary celebrations a plaque was unveiled at Mrs Weddall’s Scoil Acla hall which is now a private residence. As with any rural organisation, the Scoil Acla committee are very respectful of its historical roots. This year marks sixty years since the death of Emily Weddall. The Scoil Acla committee believe this would be a fitting time to show necessary gratitude to a lady that made such a huge contribution to Scoil Acla, the Achill people and Ireland.
As a belated mark of appreciation, members of the Scoil Acla committee, past and present, travelled to Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin on November 24th 2012 to unveil a headstone on Emily Weddall’s unmarked grave. During the ceremony the guests followed a lone piper to the grave. The graveside oration was given by John ‘Twin’ McNamara and Mrs Weddall’s obituary was read by Marie Gillen who is researching Mrs Weddall’s life. A portrait picture of Mrs Weddall, a book titled ‘Emily M Weddall Bunaitheoir Scoil Acla’ written by Iosold Ní Dherig and a wreath made from mountain heather with the words ‘Ó Acaill’ were placed on the grave as the piper played a lament. We would like to thank The Glasnevin Trust and the National Graves Association for all their help and assistance.