The light on Sod Island (pic courtesy of Mick Worland )
There is a famous story about how Nome in Alaska got its name. Apparently, an early draft of a map marked the settlement but the drafter didn't know what it was called and put 'Name' by the side of it. The printer misread this as Nome and thus the town was named (or Nomed, I suppose)
I rather suspect that something similar happened to Sod Island. The Irish name for this small rocky patch of the Shannon is Oilean Dubhach, which translates as Sad Island. You see where I'm going here....
Sod Island lies in the middle of the river where, coming towards Limerick, the river starts to narrow into 'The Narrows', the long, winding stretch of the river that caused ships up to the middle of the nineteenth century to fear the approach to the city. There were many obstacles along this stretch. Horse Rock was the first danger reached; following it came a length of shoals totalling three miles, at the end of which lay Sod Rock or Sod Island. This was where there was a choice for vessels. Did one take the North or the South Channel? Originally the South Channel was the favoured route and so ships needed to keep Sod Island on their port side, going towards the City. The North Channel was blocked by a geleogical feature known as Big Bird, which (I'm sure I'm not the only one) lends itself to an image of a big yellow puppet sitting in the water.
The big problem in the first half of the 1800s was the complete lack of lights in the upper Shannon estuary. After Beeves Rock, ships were obliged to moor up for the night as the channel was so full of rocks and shoals that advancement would have been reckless. In the very short winter days, if you were unlucky with the tides, you could be stranded there without ever making the required high tide. There had been a bit of token dredging and a large circular tower had been built on The Scarlets further upriver but it was not until the Harbour Board was formed in 1864 that things really started moving. Anything from Loop Head to Beeves was 'sea' and therefore the responsibility of the Ballast Board (later Irish Lights); anything above Beeves was local responsibility.
The new Board immediately set to work. A thorough programme of dredging was commenced, the most dangerous rocks were removed and lights were introduced. Big time. By January 1865, the first six 'solid beacons' had been erected by Burgess and Sons for a cost of 'about £1,000.' These were at Sod Island, Logheen Rock, Crawford's Rock, Spilling Rock, Ballast Rock and Cock Creek. The last-named was described as a perch, the rest as beacons. They were described in one newspaper as 'handsome looking objects of wrought iron and they contain lanterns, the lights for which are not yet provided.' The costing was approximately £1,000 for the job lot of six.
Working on nineteenth century lighthouse time - which ran a lot slower than normal earth time - it is unsurprising that it took six years for the lights to be exhibited atop the beacons and perch. By this time of course, more perches and beacons had been added.
The light on Sod Island was 12 feet above the high water mark and had a fixed light that could be seen at a distance of five miles. The iron perch itself was 34 feet tall, painted white and was situated on the ledge extending southward from the island. It was an oil lamp, lit at dusk and extinguished at dawn by a lamplighter trusted to do the job conscientiously, for which he was paid a pittance. Most of the lamplighters were fishermen whose payment in no way reflected the responsibility of the job. In the case of Sod Island, the McInerneys were the family in charge of the lamp with Tom 'The Saint' McInerney performing the duties for many years. He got his monicker not for his piety but because he lived on Saint Island. Although, to be fair, he did sort of walk on water, striding across the mudflats to Mass every Sunday! For many years, indeed, he was the only inhabitant of Saint Island and when he died, so did human residency there.
Slowly though it was realised that the lights needed upgrading. Background lighting from street lamps, Shannon Airport and Mungret Cement Works rendered the river lights difficult to pick out. And so, the lamps were slowly replaced by unwatched acetylene lamps and the role of the lamplighter was extinguished. The last two to go were Horse Island and Sod Island in the early 1950s.
My earnest thanks to Mick Worland of the Bunratty Search and Rescue team for the pictures of Sod Island. Without the pictures, even I would think twice about reading the article!
Photos courtesy of Mick Worland of Bunratty Search and Rescue