Monday, September 25, 2023

Little Samphire Island


They say I shot a man named Gray and took his wife to Italy
She inherited a million bucks and when she died it came to me
I can’t help it if I’m lucky

Okay, well I'm not as lucky as Bob and I've had my fair share of rainy day holidays in the past but sometimes the gods nod my way.
Five nights near Banna Strand in September. I knew Little Samphire lighthouse wasn't far away but I'd already seen it from Great Samphire seven years ago, so I'd only really be repeating myself. I made a few enquiries about old photographs or artefacts that might be still in the area and then Mary Browne - who had helped me greatly while I was writing the book - asked "We have a tour on Saturday at 2pm, if you're interested?" Hmm, let me see, I'll check my social calendar...

A nasty little rock in between Great and Little Samphire called the Wheel Rock. The light on it came down in the winter gales of 1946, 1965 and 1967 to name but three!

Mary and Alan Browne run (0852553331 / 0863048650) from Fenit marina. They do Eco-Scenic Tours, Sunrise and Sunset Tours, Sea Angling, Harbour Tours and, of course, lighthouse tours. Due to regulations, a member of Kerry County Council needs to accompany all landings on Little Samphire. John also acts as tour guide to the lighthouse and knows his stuff. They actually run all year round. I think you need four people to guarantee a tour but I was able to piggy-back on another group's tour, so happy days.

You arrive at the small stone pier and use the rusty handrail (which is about one yard short at the top!) to get to ground level. It is evident that Little Samphire, which was first established in 1854 to warn traffic entering Tralee Harbour from Tralee Bay of the nasty rocks around, needs a little TLC. Paint is peeling and wood is splintering, but, outside at least, both the tower and the keeper's two-storey dwelling house are intact. John said the Council are trying to secure funding to stop it deteriorating further.

The lighthouse was automated in 1956 and converted to electricity in 1976. In 2011, Irish Lights handed it over to the Tralee and Fenit Harbour Commissioners who, like a hot potato, quickly offloaded it to Kerry County Council.
Tommy O'Connor, writing in The Kerry Magazine 26, provided a very detailed list of the occupants of the lighthouse from 1854 onwards. And I leave you with a small portion of the thousands of photos I took on the trip.

(I also have a Michael O'Donnell on the station in 1882, the same year that James Williams was there. Perhaps the latter replaced the former. I can also place Robert Phelan there in 1886 and 1887; George Donleavy there from 1894 to 1896; Matthew Healy there 1897 to 1899; and Charles Meehan definitely there in 1900)

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

The 1912 lighthouses of Belfast harbour

Belfast's East Twin Light c.1912 (From the John Kempster album, courtesy Senan Molony)

On the morning of April 2nd, 1912, the ship groaned inwardly and eased out from the fitting-out jetty, as the crowd cheered excitedly.

Gazing at the delirious scenes ashore, Able Seaman Charlie Dumigan’s 45-year-old hands lightly rested on the handrail, and his thoughts strayed back to the Ailsa Craig and the deafening lack of fuss whenever she sailed. There was much to be said for coastal steamers, he thought. Far less hullabaloo and watching your language. At least, they were only delivering this girl to Southampton and then they’d be back home to Portaferry, while she sailed the world for many years.

Escorted by four tugboats, the ship approached a curious wooden structure on the quayside, maybe twenty-five feet tall and bearing a resemblance to a Chinese pagoda. Fortunately for this semi-factual account, Charlie Dumigan was a lighthouse enthusiast and recognised the East Twin Light immediately.

The lighthouse dated back to the first tentative steps of the Belfast Harbour Commissioners in their attempts to transform the swamp that imprisoned Belfast into a manageable and accessible port.  As the first dredgers scooped out centuries of mud and silt, they deposited it in a thin line along the centre of the channel. Soon, this silt became a long Chile-shaped island and a lighthouse was placed at either end. As the buzz around land reclamation intensified, the island grew and soon lost its insular status. ‘This is the spot where they will place the Mew Island Optic a hundred years from now,’ mused Charlie, who was also a bit of a clairvoyant on the side.

Belfast Lough lighthouse featuring on a 1930s tourism poster

Purring along the quayside, the ship passed the two triangular lights on either side of the entrance of the Victoria Channel: one at the end of West Twin Island, the other at the end of the East Twin. Both had been erected when the New Straight Channel had been developed in the 1890s and both showed green lights, though Charlie knew that would doubtless change in the future. The three West lights were on a pole but the East Twin lights were affixed to the house at the end of the peninsula, wherein the keeper John Harrison and his wife Elizabeth resided.

There were three pile lights, about a mile apart, leading out of the port and into Belfast Lough, but these were unwatched and automatic. Each had once had resident keepers when constructed in 1891 but, when two of them were ploughed into (with, incredibly, only two fatalities), the keepers were withdrawn and smaller, light-only structures were erected.

Out in the centre of the lough, the liner passed the outermost pile light called, with great imagination, Belfast Lough lighthouse. Many people called it Mitchell’s lighthouse, after the blind Belfast engineer, Alexander Mitchell, but in fact Mitchell’s original 1844 pile light had been located opposite Holywood before being knocked off its pins by a rampaging Earl of Ulster (the Fleetwood paddle-steamer, not a belligerent member of the aristocracy) in 1889.

Fortunately, for this narration, at this point, our hardened and gnarled old sailor quickly moved to the front of the ship, where he belted out ‘My heart will go on,’ whilst taking in the two relatively new lighthouses at the north and south entrances to the lough itself.

Blackhead county Antrim c.1907. Commissioner of Irish Lights collection in the National Library

On the port side, Blackhead lighthouse, only ten years old, sat up on her perch on the cliff face, staring boyishly at the passing liner. Charlie smiled wistfully as he remembered that his grandson, Billy Dumigan, would one day serve at this light.

Above it loomed the grey bulk of Muldersleigh Hill, where Sir Robert Reading had constructed the first state-sponsored lighthouse in Ulster way back in 1667. Unfortunately, it had only lasted a few years, as Bob was more interested in collecting dues from passing ships than maintaining this (and his five other) lights.

On the starboard side as they left Belfast Lough, Charlie noticed the tall, black tower of Mew Island. “It will look even better when it gets its white band in 1954,” he mused. Mew Island was the outermost of the Copeland Islands. A light, the ruins of which Charlie could just discern, had been established on the middle Copeland Island – coincidentally called Lighthouse Island – in either 1715 or 1735, depending on which book you read. This, like Muldersleigh Hill, had been a coal-burning, cottage-type light, until decent towers were built in 1790 and then 1820. It was only then that people started wondering why ships were still being wrecked on Mew Island and maybe the light was on the wrong island, despite the name. With the lighthouse authority’s characteristic speed of action, the Mew Island lighthouse eventually shone forth sixty-four years, and many wrecks, later.

The black lighthouse at Mew Island. Charlie found it hard to imagine it with a white band.

“Dumigan! Stop pfaffing about and do some work!” yelled a familiar voice. Charlie sighed and hopped to it as the ship began manoeuvres. Later that night, he might spot the elegant white tower at Donaghadee and then tip his cap to the Skulmartin and South Rock lightvessels. He well knew, another grandson – also named Charles – would serve as Master on the South Rock many years hence.

The LV Petrel on the South Rock light station c.1907 Commissioner of Irish Lights collection in the National Gallery

As he set about his work, he idly wondered how many lighthouses the ship would pass after he left her at Southampton. “Not many, actually” his inner voice answered.

Boat passing the East Twin lighthouse 2nd April 1912. One of the figures near the bow may have been Charlie Dumigan. (From the John Kempster album, courtesy Senan Molony)

Thursday, September 14, 2023

The lightkeeper's dwelling on Scattery Island

A few years ago, I came across a video on Youtube of someone who had entered the lightkeeper's cottage on Scattery Island and recorded the dereliction thereof. I was therefore not expecting very much improvement last month when I visited Inis Cathaigh courtesy of Scattery Island Tours. It was actually the day after Storm Betty and my morning trip was cancelled, but they managed to go in the afternoon and a very enjoyable experience it was too.

A short 15 minute walk down a green road lined with blackberry bushes (I should have brought a bucket) and I was at the cottage and the lighthouse beyond. The lady in the tour boat office in Kilrush had asked me not to enter the cottage as it was unsafe, but it seemed all locked up anyway. It seemed in pretty good condition. I shrugged and went on to the lighthouse, which I will cover in another post.

Returning past the cottage, there was a couple sitting in the front garden and the front door was open. We got chatting and I explained my interest in lighthouses and could I have a look around the house? Not a problem, they said. Can I take a few photographs? Not a problem. So I delightedly clicked away like I was photographing Claudia Schiffer for a photo shoot.

A very nice couple, I found out they were called Hamilton and they were doing up the cottage. I immediately assumed they were from one of the two Hamilton lightkeeping dynasties but no, Irene Hamilton's father, Brendan Griffen was a Scattery Islander and her mother had lived in that very house. Irene also was the owner of the Scattery Boat Tours initiative which had brought me over. Her husband - whose name, I am ashamed to say, I cannot for the life of me remember - was a lovely chap and he very kindly showed me around and pointed out all the work already done and the work yet to be completed. The latter far outweighed the former but at least they had made the cottage watertight, so it wouldn't deteriorate any further.

The cottage basically consists of a corridor from the front door, leading down to a kitchen down the book. Off the corridor are two rooms on each side, probably used as bedrooms, though one at the front could have been a front room. Out the back were some outhouses, sheds and the remains of an outside loo. 

As you can see from the photographs, the renovation has only just started and it is certainly a project that will take a long time completing what with the problems of ferrying builders and materials to the island but at least the cottage will be preserved for posterity, unlike many of the current cottages which are slowly being left to nature.

Scattery Island was always a one-keeper station with the wife acting as assistant keeper. The lighthouse and cottage were built in 1872 and Clare County Library has thoughtfully traced some of the families who lived there.

Incidentally, behind the lighthouse is an old battery, now being overrun by brambles. There is also that very rare building, a round tower with a ground-level entrance, a plethora of ancient ruined churches and views to die for. The OPW give free tours of the tower and churches but the rest of the island is small enough to see all of it in the two hours plus you get on the island.

Goodbye, Blackberry Way

Monday, September 4, 2023

Rinalan Point, county Clare and oil rustlers


Photo Alexander Trabas, Online List of Lights

Not so much a lighthouse. More of a 'light beacon' as Irish Lights calls it. Yes, Irish Lights, though at this stage I suspect it has been handed over to the Shannon Port Authority. When the powers that be came to divvying up responsibility for Shannon estuary lights, it was decided that everything between Loop Head and Beeves Rock (roughly where the River Fergus empties into the Shannon) should be Irish Lights (Kilcredaun, Corlis Point, Scattery Island, Tarbert and Beeves) while every light between Beeves and Limerick (Horse Rock, Sod Rock, Spillanes Tower etc etc) would come under the auspices of the Limerick Harbour, now the Shannon Port, Authority.

Rinalan Point marks the western boundary of the Fergus estuary and is west of Beeves, so in 1903, Irish Lights was asked to place a light on Rinalan Point to help all the traffic coming down the Fergus. With a distinct lack of enthusiasm, they replied that a lighted buoy off Aughinish Spit on the south bank would do the job just as well. The Limerick Harbour Board replied that, erm, no, it wouldn't. So reluctantly, the light was erected in 1906.
The Notice to Mariners for that year said it was an unwatched occulting white light, located 350 yards east of Rinalan Point on the north bank of the Shannon between Beeves and Tarbert. The light was 30 candle power, 13 feet above the high spring tides and was visible for eight miles. It would be exhibited from the top of an iron column painted with black and white bands atop a concrete platform.
(A further Notice to  Mariners at the end of 1907 stated that well, actually, the light is only 275 yards from Rinalan Point, not 350. Sorry about that.)
The 1934 U.S. Hydrographic survey stated that the black and white tower was 23 feet tall which means that either ten feet had been added or it was a typo for 13 feet.

No, it isn't a flock of cormorants perched on the light. Its a flock of Irish Lights bigwigs on their annual inspection, checking for cobwebs and whether the steps have been polished. Photo from the National Library Ireland, which says it is a Wigham light ( a light that is made out of Wighams.) The cost of the erection of the light was roughly £200 and it took around £30 per year to run, between the oil and the attendant to administer the oil.

The first attendant, appointed on 1st April 1906 - probably the date the light was established - was Michael Cahill of the townland of Shannakea, who farmed the land around Rinalan Point. He was 38 years old at the time and he kept the light topped up with oil until he formerly handed over the job to his son Patrick on 8th April 1939, when he was 71. 
In 1979, on the instructions of the representative of the late Patrick Cahill, the 'moderately sized farm' with its 'everlasting water supply' was put up for sale, thus ending the involvement of the Cahill family with the light.
(Incidentally, the father of the infamous gangland boss the 'General,' Martin Cahill, was called Patrick Cahill and was, by all accounts, an alcoholic, but scrupulously honest lightkeeper. I have been unable to trace where Patrick worked - probably one of the Dublin lights - but he was certainly not the aforementioned Patrick Cahill of Shannakea!)

Google Street map view

All in all, the Rinalan (or Rinelon) light has led a very sedate existence. No keepers have been stranded for days, no bosun's chairs and no tidal waves. The only flutter of excitement was its leading role in the Civil War, an incident that has been scandalously ignored by Diarmuid Ferriter and the like. I quote from a letter written by M. Cahill to the Commissioner of Irish Lights on August 19th 1922.

"I beg to inform you that I ordered Pat Cahill to supply 2 barrels of oil last year.
When it landed at Kildysart Quay, it was taken away off the boat by a party of armed men on 2nd July 1922."

This brazen act of theft by (presumably) members of the Anti-Treaty faction could so easily have tipped the armed struggle in their favour. How different Ireland would have been if we had had deValera running the country for decades. Oh, wait …