Heinrich Boll, the Nobel Prize winning novelist, was a regular visitor to Achill Island in the west of Ireland from the late 1950s to the 1970s. Heinrich Boll stayed at a cottage near Dugort on the north of Achill Island, now known as Heinrich Boll's Cottage and provided as a retreat for other artists and writers on Achill Island.

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Heinrich Boll & Achill Island (continued)

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Referring to the family of the Dugort postmistress, 'Mrs. D.', Böll wrote:

"... One thing is certain, and that is that of Mrs. D.'s nine children five or six will have to emigrate. Will little Pedar [...] in fourteen years, in 1970, on October 1 or April 1, will this little Pedar, aged fourteen, carrying his cardboard suitcase, hung about with medallions, supplied with a package of extra-thick sandwiches, embraced by his sobbing mother, stand at the bus stop to begin the great journey to Cleveland, Ohio, to Manchester, Liverpool, London, or Sydney, to some uncle, a cousin, a brother perhaps, who has promised to look after him and do something for him?" (Irish Journal, p94)

In a passage that could just as easily refer to 1980, 1990 or 2000 were it not for the closure of many rural railway stations, Heinrich Böll continues:

"... These farewells at Irish railway stations, at bus stops in the middle of the bog, when tears blend with raindrops and the Atlantic wind is blowing; Grandfather stands there too, he knows the canyons of Manhattan, he knows the New York waterfront, for thirty years he has been through the mill, and he quickly stuffs another pound note into the boy's pocket, the boy with the cropped hair, the runny nose, the boy who is being wept over as Jacob wept over Joseph; the bus driver cautiously sounds his horn, very cautiously - he has driven hundreds, perhaps thousands, of boys whom he has seen grow up to the station, and he knows the train does not wait and that a farewell that is over and done with is easier to bear than one which is still to come. He waves, the journey into the lonely countryside begins, the little white house in the bog, tears mixed with mucus, past the store, past the pub where Father used to drink his pint of an evening; past the school, the church, a sign of the cross, the bus driver makes one too - the bus stops; more tears, more farewells ..." (Irish Journal, p95)

There is one aspect of Heinrich Böll's heart-rending account of emigration that he got wrong; and his error belies a perhaps even greater disaster for Achill, for Mayo, and for the rural Ireland that sent so many sons and daughters overseas. Böll wrote in the mid-1950s: "Of the eighty children at Mass on Sundays, only forty-five will still be living here in forty years; but these forty-five will have so many children that eighty children will again be kneeling in church." (Irish Journal, p95) Forty years later the forty-five adults that Böll expected to remain at home was more likely to be twenty-five or thirty, and the eighty children he hoped would be kneeling in church was likely to be less than half that number. This tragedy is something that Böll himself acknowledged in the 1967 postscript to 'Irish Journal' in which he - still a Catholic despite his unorthodoxy - lamented the arrival of the contraceptive Pill:

"... a certain something has now made its way to Ireland, that ominous something known as The Pill - and this something absolutely paralyzes me: the prospect that fewer children might be born in Ireland fills me with dismay." (Irish Journal, p109)

Heinrich Böll and his family continued to travel to Achill during the 1950s and 1960s, residing in a cottage at Dugort. In the 1967 postscript to Irish Journal, Böll lamented the other changes that had taken place in Ireland since the early fifties (apart from the arrival of the pill). It had, he said, 'caught up with two centuries and leaped over another five' and the years of 1954 and 1955, when Irish Journal was written, was the historic moment at which the leap was beginning.

Heinrich Böll's legacy to Achill Island is evident most prominently in two places: his cottage in Dugort which, thanks to his family, the Böll Stiftung in Cologne, and Mayo County Council, is now an artists residence providing a short-term retreat for writers, poets and artists from Ireland, Germany and around the world. And Heinrich Böll's son, Rene, an artist, works and exhibits regularly on Achill Island. A selection of work by Rene Boell is available online at the web site of Keel-based Western Art Gallery. To visit the site click here.

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Further reading

Buy books on Achill Island from Amazon

Irish Journal
- A Traveller's Portrait of Ireland

By Heinrich Böll

The Mad Dog
By Heinrich Boll

The Bread of Those Early Years
By Heinrich Boll

And Never Said A Word
By Heinrich Boll

The Clown
By Heinrich Boll

The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum
By Heinrich Boll