When the National Gallery of Ireland unveiled its major retrospective exhibition of paintings by Paul Henry in February 2003, attention was directed towards Achill Island, Co Mayo, on the west coast of Ireland. Achill was the home and inspiration for Henry during the most significant period of his career, from 1910 to 1919. Paul Henry’s paintings of Achill and Connemara have come to be seen as the archetypal west of Ireland landscape. But his legacy to Irish culture extends beyond his art, for Paul Henry was also one of the earliest members of Scoil Acla, a summer school on Achill aimed at promoting traditional Irish music, song, dance and culture.

Established in 1910, Scoil Acla was one of the first of the summer schools that were formed in the wake of the foundation of Connradh na Gaeilge by Douglas Hyde and the revival of interest in traditional Irish culture. Its founding members included Darryl Figgis, Eva O’Flaherty and a Mrs Weddall, who introduced the artist Paul Henry to the people of Achill. An active member of the group, in 1912 Paul Henry was the director of the play ‘Casadh an t-Sugain’ (The Twisting Of The Rope) by Douglas Hyde, which was staged in the newly built Scoil Acla Hall in Dooagh, Achill.

In 1985 a group of local people on Achill joined together to revive Scoil Acla, with the highlight that summer being tuition on fiddles provided by Paddy Ryan from Roscommon. Every year since then, this summer school has strived to follow the original aims of its founders – to promote and develop traditional Irish music, language, song and dance – as well as hosting writers workshops, poetry readings, drama, art exhibitions and seminars on the historical, geological and archaeological features of the locality.

In 1987 events came full circle when Scoil Acla hosted an exhibition of over 20 paintings by Paul Henry. This retrospective exhibition covered Henry’s Achill period from 1913 to 1920. A performance of ‘The Twisting of the Rope’ was also staged by ‘The Island Players’.

The achievements of Scoil Acla over the past 22 years include bringing more than a hundred young musicians to a high standard in traditional Irish music on all instruments. The poetry readings, which include an appearance by Seamus Heaney, have developed into a popular and well-attended writers workshop. Scoil Acla hosted a most successful Mayo Fleadh Cheoil in 1991 and has staged exhibitions of paintings by artists including Grace Henry, Alexander Williams and Percy French.

One of the regular features in Scoil Acla is the ‘Hata Acla’, a family competition in traditional music. In olden times not everybody in Achill had a hat to wear, and in order that the Achill man would not feel out of place when he went to town, a community hat was hung on a post at Achill Sound (the village next to the bridge connecting Achill Island to the mainland) to be worn on those occasions. This hat was called “Hata Acla” and the custom is commemorated in the form of this family competition.

A book about Miss Eva O’Flaherty, one of the 1910 founders of Scoil Acla, is to be published in summer 2012 and will launch during Scoil Acla (31st July – 5th August, book launch date TBC). Written by Galway-based author Mary J Murphy and titled ‘Achill’s Eva O’Flaherty: Forgotten Island Heroine’ it charts the life of a remarkable woman who trained as a milliner and practised in Paris and London before returning to the west of Ireland and settling in Achill where she established the St. Colman’s knitting industry in the village of Dooagh. Author Mary J Murphy can be contacted at morma@eircom.net.

Fadó in Acaill ní raibh hata ag gach duine, ach bhí hata ag an bpobal. Bhíodh an hata seo ar crochadh ar phosta i nGob a’ Choire agus cead ag duine ar bith a bhí ag dul go dtí an baile mór, an hata seo a chaitheamh agus é a fhágáil ar ais ar a mbealach abhaile. Tá muintir Acla tagtha chun cinn ó shin; agus tá an comórtas seo bunaithe ar an sean-nós.