Souperism - The Achill Mission Colony

Origin of the term 'Taking the Soup' or to 'Take the Soup'.

For many, the term "taking the soup" is synonymous with the Famine story.

Protestant Bible societies set up schools in which starving children were fed, on the condition of receiving Protestant religious instruction at the same time.

As the food crisis deepened, some poor Catholic families had to choose between Protestantism and starvation. Those who converted for food were known as "soupers" or "jumpers".

In reality, souperism was a rare phenomenon, but it had a lasting effect on the popular memory of the Famine. It also blemished the memory of relief work by many Protestants who gave aid without proselytising (attempt to convert).

Reverand Edward Nangle (1799 – 1883)

One of these Protestant Evangelicals who was accused of engaging in the controversial practice was the Reverand Edward Nangle.

A native of County Meath, in 1834, he established a Protestant mission on Achill Island, County Mayo, and worked there for eighteen years with the aim of bringing Christianity to those living there.

When Edward Nangle arrived in Achill with his young family, it was one of the most destitute spots in Ireland jutting off the coast of Mayo into the Atlantic.

Nangle's project was bold and daring. He wanted to transform the island and to lift the people out of their destitution which he blamed on Popery and the Catholic Church. He would bring the Bible to the islanders, using their native language.
He would set up schools, reclaim land, bring medical services and encourage good living.

He would civilise the island and scriptural education was his main tool.

At this time, Achill was populated by around 6,000 mainly poor Irish Catholics.

Nangle himself was seen as a difficult and intolerant man with a deep hatred of Catholicism. The force of his personality and the nature of his mission, brought him into regular conflict with local Catholic priests and the equally forceful Archbishop John McHale.

Archbishop John McHale (1789 – 1881)

By the early 1840s, the Achill Mission Colony included two-storey slated houses, a printing press, an orphanage, a hospital, a post office, a dispensary, a corn mill and farm buildings, surrounded by fields reclaimed from the wet mountain slopes.

In 1842, the colony accommodated fifty-six families comprising 365 individuals. Only eleven of these families were originally Protestant; the remaining forty-five families were originally Catholic.

As the mission grew, it attracted more public scrutiny. Samuel and Anna Hall visited the Achill mission as part of an Irish tour which the couple had embarked on with the aim of producing a guide book of Ireland for tourists.

Arriving at the Colony, they conducted a brief overview of the mission, taking into account the finances expended and the practical results. However, they were not 'enamoured' by Nangle's strict approach to the entrants of the school, the mission and the orphanage.

The Halls branded the Mission ‘a complete failure’ and targeted Nangle, labelling him as a man without any genuine sense of gentle, peace-loving, Christian zeal.

A similar visit undertook by Asenath Nicholson, an American author, drew unwelcome attention to the expenditure and income of the Achill Mission Colony and raised questions about the benefits of the organisation.

Achill Mission Colony

Nangle's physical and mental health had been precarious since his youth. He endured symptoms of what would now be termed bipolar.

With the onset of the Great Famine, his health crumpled. Despite this, he was able to marshal huge resources through his fundraising, mainly in England, for the Achill Mission.

In the spring of 1847, at the height of the Famine, Nangle and the colony employed 2,192 labourers and fed 600 children a day. By July 1847, it was suggested that 5,000 out of Achill's total population of around 6,000, were receiving practical support from the mission, which had planted twenty-one tons of blight-free foreign potatoes.

What appeared to be a humane gesture was soon embroiled in controversy. The nasty charge of souperism - securing converts with material benefits like food - was levelled at him. "Nangle the soul-buyer" was the accusation.

Edward Nangle in turn declared that no children were admitted to the colony schools unless they were willing to receive religious instruction,
but his schools had saved many from starvation.

Achill Mission Colony

The Achill Mission almost certainly saved many from famine death - a place of refuge in difficult times. As conditions improved, many who had left the Catholic faith soon returned to the fold.

In 1852, Nangle left Achill after 18 years working on the island, and moved to County Sligo, where he became Rector of Skreen.

Today, Edward Nangle's remains at rest in Deansgrange Cemetery, Co Dublin.