Tuesday, January 18, 2022

A lovestruck young lightkeeper annoys the crap out of an elderly colleague on Mew Island in the 1930s

 Mew Island in the 1930s (Copyright estate of Eileen Kates, used by permission.)

Hey Mr. Daly, I know you’re awake.
It’s only three hours until morning will break.
In her house near the town, I can see a wee light –
do you think that she’s thinking about me tonight?
I cannot play chess and I cannot play cards,
but quiz me again on the coastline of Ards.
Ask me who lives in yon house near the shore,
for it is the girl that I truly adore.
Oh, Mr. Daly, can you hear my heart pound?
I simply can’t wait for my leave to come round.
So fine is the morning, so calm is the sea,
I feel I could amble to Donaghadee.
I’ll walk to her door with a great, beaming smile
and ask her to walk up the lane for a while.
My boots will be polished, my uniform clean,
which is bound to impress a young girl of nineteen.
You’re up in the lantern? It’s the place I love most.
It gives the best view of her house by the coast.
The field full of cows on the hillside above –
tell me, Mr. Daly, were you ever in love?
This lantern shines brightly from dusk to sunrise
but the light that I have in my heart never dies.
She’ll be gazing at night at this great Fresnel beam
and thinking of me as she lays down to dream.
We met in the dancehall, three Friday nights gone
and twirled round the floor as the music played on.
And later that night, sure, I stole a brief kiss –
are you sure, Mr. Daly, I told you all this?
Shall I tell you again how we ran through the rain
back to her wee house at the end of the lane
and she gave me a passionate peck on the cheek?
Oh Lord, I can’t wait until next Friday week.
Ah, Mr. Daly, I’ve found you at last!
It’s lonely out here with just waves rolling past.
Let me tell you again of my newly-found flame –
my only regret is I don’t know her name.
We’ll be married in August and with any luck,
we’ll be transferred to somewhere like Mine Head or Hook
and we’ll have many children there, one of which who,
I promise, is going to be called after you.
Hey, Mr. Daly, I see you down there!
I can sing like a lark in this wee bosun’s chair.
As you asked, I have put a fourth coat on the wall
though I’m not sure the tower needs painting at all.

Friday, January 14, 2022

Inishtrahull Part Two

The old Inishtrahull lighthouse today, photograph courtesy the multi-talented and multi-faceted John McCarron. The tower, on the right, was taken down in 1960 as it obscured the beam from the new light at the other end of the island

I'm going to use a red font to denote additions / corrections to the list of nineteenth century lightkeepers on Inishtrahull.
It's been quite a while since I last wrote about Inishtrahull which wouldn't be so bad if I hadn't labelled the post Part One, thereby implying a second part was in the offing!
So, rather belatedly, here is the second part of what may be a trilogy but may again be only a biology(?) We'll look at the early lightkeepers on that strange, unheralded island that can be spelt in so many ways that a googler could be driven mad.
The Commissioner of Irish Lights has excellent records of lightkeepers but only from 1921, when that girl with the red hair got the secretary's job and put some manners on the filing system. Frank Pelly, unsung hero of the Irish Lights archive department, compiled a record of the keepers since that time, if anybody has fathers or forefathers during the last hundred years.

Prior to the late 1920s, there was of course a native population on the island but since that time, the keepers had the island to themselves, save for the birds, goats and seals.
The relationship between the islanders and the keepers was, in general, one of mutual respect. The islanders were somewhat lawless in so far as they were very slow at paying their rents and they were also proficient at distilling, both occupations being aided by their distant insularity from landlords and coastguards. The islanders realised the keepers had a way of life to maintain and the keepers, if they had any cop on, maintained the status quo by leaving them to go about their own business. 
The light was established in 1813, and, according to one report, over 100 years later, the name of the first keeper on the island was O'Reilly, as claimed in this clip from the Donegal News 26th May 1917: -

Thanks to Sean Beattie's excellent Book of Inishtrahull, we learn, via the Ordnance Survey Report No 38, that a familiar name was a keeper on the island in 1824. Michael Wishart, who was a leading light in the Tuskar smuggling incident, seems to have been sent as far away as possible after the disciplinary hearing. This enterprising man purchased and cured all the fish caught by the islanders and indeed himself, before selling them on at a fair profit.
In February 1848, a brig called The Danube went down about twenty miles north of the island, the captain and crew having scarcely enough time to launch the boats before she went down. After rowing all night, they landed up at Inishtrahull, where they were kindly housed by keeper Isaac Christie who put them up before they could get over to Malin on the boat.  (Source: Belfast Newsletter 8th February 1848) Christie was a Protestant, as many were in those days. By 1854, he was on North Maidens, where his daughter Susan married lightkeeper Henry Stocker, himself son of a keeper (Edward). He died in Donegal Town in 1884, allegedly aged 86 years, though a probable baptism for him in Dublin is dated 1809.
Next up, we have John Whelan, who spent a fair amount of time on the station in the 1860s. Born around 1837, he joined the Ballast Board in 1856, being sent to the Fastnet on his first appointment. Here he married Ellen Hill, daughter of a Crookhaven coastguard. He was transferred up to Inishtrahull around 1859, though Ellen considered it safer to give birth to their first-born child at home in Crookhaven. The couple remained at Inishtrahull until February 1865 when he was posted to the South Rock in county Down, John died in Queenstown (Cobh) aged 66. (Source: Audrey Arthure family tree)
A contemporary of John Whelan was John Young, son of another lightkeeper of the same name. We know he was on the island in March 1863 because the only legible headstone in the small graveyard by the old lighthouse carries the name of his daughter Annie. E. Young. It was pre-civil registration of course but thankfully John and Mary (shades of Father Ted) had another girl called Sara Maria in October 1865,
Mary was the daughter of another lightkeeper, Peter Page and the sister of another, also called Peter. They had been married at the Hook in 1859.

Irish Lights has a document listing all the people in the service on 30th June 1871, drawn up for the purposes of a life assurance scheme. The two keepers listed at Inishtrahull - this was later increased to three - were Thomas Lydon and Thomas Kerlay, both described as Principal Keepers, which must have been great fun. Thomas Kerlay seems to have been stationed with Edward McCarron in Dundalk in the late 1860s but he seems to have left Inishtrahull by 1872. Thomas Lydon was still there in 1872 when McCarron arrived. McCarron described him as 'kindly.'
Edward McCarron is of course known for his autobiographical 'Life in Donegal,' which can still be ordered through the library service. It details his early life as a teacher and his first three stations with Irish Lights - Dundalk, Arranmore and Inishtrahull. His description of the islanders is terrific in its detail and very humorous too. 

Edward was on the island from 1872 to 1875 after which time he moved to Ardglass. During his time at Inishtrahull, though, the Principal Keeper, Thomas Leydon was replaced by another keeper whom McCarron does not name but states he was 'pompous' and had 'his children in tow.' This was probably William Callaghan who was on the island from at least 1874 to 1876, possibly a year on either side.
William Callaghan was (again) the son of a keeper with the same name. He buried two of his children on the Skelligs in the late 60s, replenished his stock during the seventies, and then lost most of them again in the eighties, when he was at Inishowen.
A few gap years before we come to William Henry James, a Corkman though, as a son of William James, lightkeeper, his affiliation to his county was probably only restricted to his birthplace. He was in Inishtrahull from 1881 to 1883 (again, maybe longer) and we know this only because from 1881 to 1897, Irish lightkeepers were recruited by ornithologists to report on bird sightings during the year, William died in Ardglass in 1913.
Robert J. Phelan was bird reporting in 1885. He had been born on Rathlin Island in 1867, so Inishtrahull must have been one of his first postings. Surprisingly his father, Robert, was also a keeper.
From 1886 to 1891, Martin Kennedy was the Inishtrahull ornithologist, though he was assisted in 1890 by one I. Glanville, who may well have been J. or John Glanville, a Corkman operating in the north of the country at the time.
To complement this, The Book of Inishtrahull includes an illustration of a headstone for Willie Glenville who died on the island aged 6 months in October 1891. His parents were John and Maggie. He had been born in Wexford, Maggie's hometown - her father was William Higginbotham of that famous lightkeeping family and died of 'convulsions, 2 days, No medical attendance.'
George Gillespie was the resident gull watcher from 1891 to 1896. He was a Donegal man with a Donegal wife and found himself at Wicklow a couple of years later.

George was followed by John Potter in 1897. Sadly, John was to die of a stroke at the Maidens lighthouse a few years later, leaving a wife and young children.
The 1901 Census saw Wicklerman Edward Smith, 25, unmarried, on the island with his sister Georgina acting as housekeeper. Also in the compound were PK, Benjamin Jeffers, 34, unmarried and his older sister, Sarah. Edward's religion was 'I.C.' whilst Benjamin was a 'Brethren.'
In 1905, a new siren fog signal was erected at the west end of the Inishtrahull, thus dividing the station in two (the old lighthouse was still at the east end) Technically speaking, it therefore joined Poer Head in Cork as being the only light stations without a light.
So, in 1911, the lighthouse fraternity was split. At the fog signal western point were  William Hawkins, 28, and his young wife, Rebecca. who was seemingly the principal keeper, as John Johnston, 35, was described as a Lightkeepers Assistant. William was the son of Charles Hawkins, another widely-travelled lightkeeper. John was married but his wife was not on the island with him.

From CIL Album #6 (1905-6) in the NLI

Keeping an eye on them from the other end of the island were two other lightkeepers. There was Richard James Kelly, a Dub, 41, his wife Elizabeth and their five children, ages ranging from 18 down to 8.
And there was 25 year old Francis John Carolan, a single man born in county Galway in the 1880s. He may well have been of lightkeeping stock, as there was a Matthew Carolan keeping light in the 1870s. Tragically, Francis joined the frightening list of statistics of people succumbing to the so-called Spanish flu in October 1918, passing away at the Baily Lighthouse in Howth, aged just 33.
And that, I'm afraid, is the sum total of my knowledge of Inishtrahull lightkeepers. There are sadly, more gaps in that list, than in my teeth, and that is saying something. But if anybody has any additions, I will gladly include them in the text.

From the Belfast Telegraph 5th July 1924. It seems that the Inishtrahull keepers were the last to come ashore as most island stations had been made relieving by 1912.

Wonderful drone picture, courtesy John McCarron, showing practically the entire island from the remains of the old east lighthouse to the new (1958) west light. The landing place was in the sheltered bay to the right (north)

Sunday, January 2, 2022

Miraculous cure of the lightkeeper's daughter


Dundalk Bay lighthouse (photograph by Barry Pickup)

Gather round, ladies and gentlemen, don't be shy. Can you hear me at the back? Today I'm going to let you into the secret of Doctor Williams' Pink Pills for Pale People - a young lady pining away and growing paler by the minute; a lightkeeper's anxiety for his beautiful daughter. What's that you say? I'm a mere quack? Well, if you don't believe me, you'll surely believe the august and honourable Ballymena Observer of June 24th 1898 ... 

A quick glance at the 1901 Census return shows James (55) and Elizabeth (50) Walshe up in Blacksod, county Mayo on the beautiful Belmullet peninsula, where James could have tended the light at either Blacksod, Eagle Island or the remote Blackrock (Mayo) light. With the couple were their three daughters, Frances (22), Maude (17) and Esther (15) Seemingly Frances was the lady who had such a fortunate, life-changing experience, courtesy of Dr. Williams. 

Monday, December 20, 2021

Merry Christmas!


My posting has been fairly non-existent for December so as an apology, I wish you all a very merry Christmas and send you this very old Christmas card which seems to encapsulate what the festive season is all about. Imagine the eight-year-old child coming down on Christmas morning to find the cat has eaten her pet budgie ....

I had hoped, as this is a lighthouse blog, to bring you a lighthouse Christmas card but they are few and far between and rarely very humorous. But there is a lighthouse link in the above card.

Audrey Arthure is a fellow Irish lighthouse enthusiast and well she should be, as her pedigree of Hills and Whelans goes back to the first half of the nineteenth century, many of each family serving as either lightkeepers or coastguards. John Whelan, for example, joined the Ballast Board, (as was) in 1856/7, as the son of a lightkeeper. Frank Hill, born 1878 was both the son and grandson of a coastguard.

Frank Hill and Annie Sweeney on their wedding day in 1908. Annie was from Carrick (An Charraig) a busy little village on the road between Killybegs and Glencolumbkille in county Donegal. Frank was stationed on Rathlin O'Beirne at the time - the shore dwellings were only constructed four years later.

Fortunately Audrey has done a large amount of work on researching her family tree and, even more fortunately, she actually got around to writing down a lot of it, a salutory lesson to those of us with good intentions! 

(I also see Pat Demarte Handorf's name in her writings, another name familiar to Irish pharologists!)

Audrey also inherited from her grandfather, Frank Hill, a wonderful postcard album, featuring scenic views and humorous caricatures, some of them not altogether pc by today's standards! These were apparently used as the modern equivalent of text messages. As Frank could not phone his family while out on a rock lighthouse, he imaginatively used to send these postcards back on the relief boat with little messages. As Audrey says, a lot of them seemed to involve instructions to send butter out. "The PK broke his leg. Send butter." "I'm out of hair gel. Send butter." "The lantern has fallen into the sea. Send butter." That sort of thing.

You can view Audrey's wonderful piece and the postcard collection here.

Sunday, December 5, 2021

Joseph Kerr at the Holywood Light

Painting of the Holywood Bank lighthouse, artist unknown, currently in the Belfast Harbour Board office. Dated to 1860.

As per the previous post, this is one of over 70 stories of Irish lighthouse fatalities, in my forthcoming book, When the light goes out.

Joseph Kerr and the Holywood Bank light 1855

One of the great names in Irish (and indeed global) lighthouse history is Alexander Mitchell, the blind, Belfast engineer (born in South William Street in Dublin but the family moved to Belfast when young). Inspired by how easily a corkscrew went into a cork but could not be pulled out straight, he transferred the principal to the problem of building edifices on mud. The story goes that, in the 1830s, with his 19-year-old son, John, he rowed out into Belfast Lough with a long pole attached to a metal screw. This he screwed into the mud, leaving the top of the pole exposed. He came back the following day to find the pole still in situ and the screwpile lighthouse was born.

     It was doubtless gratifying to him that his adopted city was one of the first to request one of his pile lights. It was erected in 1844 on the edge of a large and dangerous bank of sand off Holywood, county Down. The lighthouse also doubled as a pilot station and contained fifteen sleeping berths, as well as separate apartments for both the captain of the pilots and his assistant. The captain of the pilots was also in charge of the light.

     We do not know when Joseph Kerr became the lightkeeper of the Holywood Bank light. Newspaper reports in the early 1850s talk generally of regatta races being held “to Kerr’s lighthouse and back,” which suggests he was certainly well-known in the area by this time. A Joseph Kerr, born in Belfast in 1821, received his Master’s Certificate in 1851 for having served seven years in the coasting trade as a boy, mate and master. It was probably the same man.

     Joseph Kerr was married and had two small children. His wife used to mind the red light at the bottom of the Victoria Channel. When morning came, Kerr was in the habit of dowsing his own light and taking the boat to his wife’s lighthouse.

     At 7 o’clock on Monday morning 14th May 1855, he was doing just this when, descending the ladder on the piles, he fell into the water and was carried away. What made this all the worse was that the accident was witnessed by the keeper’s six-year-old daughter. As the strong current took him away, his daughter attempted to push the boat out to him but was unable to do so. Raising the alarm, the pilots immediately set about scouring the area but were unable to find him. At last, around two o’clock in the afternoon, the Harbour Commissioners’ pilot boat succeeded in locating the body not far from the lighthouse.

     The obligatory inquest was held at the General Hospital in Belfast and came to the unsurprising conclusion that Joseph Kerr had been accidentally drowned.

     At the next meeting of the Belfast Harbour Board, it was graciously agreed that they should permit Mrs. Kerr to continue to mind her light as she had done during her husband’s lifetime, as otherwise the family would be unprovided for.

Illustration from "Holywood Then and Now" by Rev, McConnell Auld

      Seven weeks later, the Harbour Board engineer had the sad duty to report that Mrs. Kerr (being a woman, her first name was immaterial) had also died. The Board empowered board members Messrs. Pirrie and Henderson to inquire what could be done for the two orphaned children and to appoint a successor immediately.    

More on the Holywood Bank lighthouse can be found here

When the light goes out (update)

As some of ye may know, I've been writing a book about fatalities at Irish lighthouses, a cheery little tome, which is a collection of deaths suffered by keepers, their families, tradesmen and contracted ferry operators from 1786 to 1972.
Not every death, mind. Some are lost in the mists of time and some are not really noteworthy but there are roughly 70 tales of people who paid the ultimate price for keeping our seas safe for mariners. It didn't help that the Irish Lights archive has been unavailable for the last couple of years (great time to write a lighthouse book!) but I was able to work around it.
It is roughly 80,000 words long and, despite the grim subject matter, or maybe because of it, I've tried to keep it light-hearted where appropriate, while trying at all times to be respectful to the memory of the deceased. I have sent a few individual chapters out to descendants of those involved and have got the green light from all of them, which makes me hopeful that I've got something right.
Arranged chronologically, I'm hoping the book serves as a history of sorts of lightkeeping in this country. I also used it to erm, shine a light on some of our lesser-known lights - Beeves, Little Samphire, Lough Mahon etc - that don't, I feel, get the exposure they deserve.
I finished the book around the end of August and sent it out to twenty or so publishers, confidently expecting there would be a rush of editors desperate to sign me up. So far, I've had four responses - they like the unique concept of the book, they like the writing and the photographs "... but, unfortunately, ..."
Most of the publishers say to give it three to six months to expect a reply. So I'll give it till the end of January, If nobody is interested by then, I'll publish the damn thing myself, when a lot of things will need to be decided - do I ditch the colour and sell €5 cheaper. Do I need a subtitle on that cover above? How do I go about distributing? Will our exorbitant postal rates make the cost prohibitive? Et cetera.
But we'll deal with that when the time comes ...

Thursday, November 25, 2021

A few good men - Wicklow Pierhead Light

It's kind of like having a superstar living on your street. No matter how great and wonderful you may be, you're always going to be overshadowed by the national celebrities.
Thus is the lot of Wicklow Pierhead lighthouse, forced for all eternity to listen to the endless tributes to the three bigshot lighthouses on nearby Wicklow Head, each of them older and taller and brighter than the mere 130 year old harbour light sitting modestly at the end of Wicklow's East Pier.
Like many east coast settlements, fishing has been going on at Wicklow for centuries. The Vikings arrived and set up a base upriver from the coast and maritime trade slowly grew the village into a small town, despite the presence of the sandbanks that run parallel to much of the country's east coast.
In the 1840s, royal assent was given for the town commissioners to improve the harbour which, though busy, had a nasty bar at its entrance and not much depth within it. Progress was slow - the famine years turned heads towards more important matters  - but by 1856, a new pier, had been constructed at the end of the Murrough, though there was still a lot of wrangling between the Harbour commissioners and local shipowners over the state of the place.
There was evidently some form of a light at the end of this pier, for a newspaper report of 1865 states that it was no longer there:-

This end of pier collapse appears to have been a recurring theme along the east coast. Lighthouses at Ardglass (1838), Newcastle county Down (1869) and Bray (1957) were also washed into the sea as poorly built piers succumbed to violent storms. Whatever kind of light had been erected at Wicklow was not to be replaced for over thirty years.
Eventually, a new harbour was officially opened in 1884, featuring "a concrete lighthouse, about 35 feet above high water with a dioptic fixed light," according to "Wicklow Harbour: A History" by Jimmy Cleary and Andrew O'Brien. It was an oil light with a range of around ten miles and shone red to seaward and white in the harbour. And the first lightkeeper was a man named Gilbert Goodman.

Postcard from the 1920s

Gilbert Goodman was a Wickler man and was roughly 60 years old at the time he was appointed the keeper of the Pierhead lighthouse. He lived in Castle Street - at the Black Castle end -  with his wife Maria and had been a sailor for most of his life. In January 1883, he was working as a coastguard at Wicklow Head, an occupation that evidently saw him right when he applied for the new position. 
His wife Maria died suddenly of heart disease in 1894, leaving Gilbert at home with his married son James. Another Goodman, John, a sailor, was to be found also living in Castle Street in 1911 and may well be a brother of Gilbert. I mention him merely to justify the 'few good men' of the title.
Part of the duties of the lightkeeper, aside from painting, was to set in motion the automatic fog bell when necessary. It was on this activity that he was engaged in 1898 when, returning home, he stumbled into a small quarry at the shore end of the pier. He was discovered unconscious with head injuries but, thanks to the quick administrations of a Dr. Halpin, made a full recovery in hospital.
(The bell, incidentally, clearly seen in the postcard above, was donated to the nuns up above in Magherymore, whose orchards I used to raid when young, and eventually ended up in the missions in Hong Kong)

Regatta Day pre-1909 (the year the North Pier was constructed) Note the Union Flag on the lighthouse and the beautiful copper dome too. From the Lawrence Collection in the National Library

In 1901, a brief questioning at an inquiry, reported in the Wicklow Newsletter, gave an insight into the dangers of the job, particularly for an elderly keeper.

On 1st October 1904, the Newsletter reported the sad news that Gilbert had gone to the great catadioptric light in the sky. He had developed pneumonia and had died on 26th September. His death certificate incidentally gives his age as 79.

In December of that year, it was suggested, as a financial saving, that the current oil lamp should be replaced by an unwatched automatic gas light. The Chairman of the Harbour Board was particularly forthright in his opinion that, whereas their antecedents had naively offered an exorbitant salary of 15shillings a week to the previous incumbent, now, on his demise, was the time to make this saving. He also said that his position as Chairman of the local gas company had nothing to do with his views. 
Fortunately the board disagreed. Not only would an oil light have to be kept ready , should the gas supply be interrupted, but the fog bell would need to be sorted out as it too ran on oil. They advocated the continuing use of oil and recommended the appointment of James Goodman, son of the deceased keeper, who, they all knew, had been doing the job for the past two years anyway. 
According to Jimmy Cleary and Andrew O'Brien, not only was James Goodman's appointment ratified before the end of the year, but it seems the Chairman was determined to get his money's worth out of him, as he was expected to act as harbour master too, a position he held for the next 26 years.

The terrible storm of 1901 had been followed by the terrible storm of Friday 12th November 1915, when 'enormous masses of sea' struck the pier and stove in the strong door of the lighthouse. This made it impossible to light the lantern, the first time it had remained unlit since its inception.
But there was another terrible storm still to come. In what was said to have been a 'freak gust' during a storm in early January 1976, the beautiful copper dome and weather vane, which had adorned the structure for nearly 100 years, were swept into the sea. The Harbour Board offered £50 for its recovery and the challenge was taken up and the dome brought to the surface.
However, it was found to be badly damaged, a large hole indicating where it had hit the end of the pier before tumbling into the sea. A local tradesman put a temporary roof on the lighthouse for £58 and further money was paid out to local divers and the owner of the crane used to winch the 15 cwt dome out of the sea.
The Harbour Board were then informed that they would only get around £60 for the dome for scrap, while the cost of providing and fitting a new one was likely to be in the region of £765, which the board could ill afford. 
And so the lighthouse has been flat-headed and domeless ever since. There has been speculation about the current location of the dome but nobody is telling.