Saturday, August 8, 2020

Sod Rock aka Sod Island, the Shannon Estuary


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




Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Dunkettle Pile Light (lost lighthouse)





The sketch above is the only representation I could find of the Dunkettle Pile Light, one of two pile lights on the stretch of Cork harbour between Lough Mahon and Blackrock. The other one, Lough Mahon Pile Light, we dealt with in the previous post.
With the difficulty for ships ascending the River Lee from Roches Point to the city, a huge programme of dredging took place in the 1840s and 1850s. When this was done, large ships could sail directly to the docks but, of course, only during daylight. There were still treacherous shoals that an unsuspecting barque could stray onto at night. Sir John Benson, Cork Harbour's chief engineer, designed a pile light for Lough Mahon, which was established in 1859, but it was soon realised that a second light was needed at the other end of the narrow channel leading up to Blackrock.


Lough Mahon pile light (bottom right) and Dunkettle Light (top left, a quarter of the way across) The other light near Dunkettle is Blackrock Castle

In early 1862, the Cork Harbour Board was approached regarding the viability of a second light and an investigation was conducted.


Having got the green light from the Harbour Board, the new lighthouse got the physical green light one year later in April 1863, courtesy of the contractor Mr. Henry Simmons.

It is difficult to be precise about the dimensions of the new lighthouse. According to a Harbour Board Report in 1864, Lough Mahon was octagonal in shape and built on piles. Dunkettle, it was said, was 'of similar shape' and 'built as the other.' It is elsewhere described as being built on a tripod, though the Irish Lights sketch at the top of the page shows more than three legs. It almost definitely had accommodation for a keeper and a fog bell, at least until 1905. So, the representation below, which is of Lough Mahon light, may or may not be what Dunkettle looked like!


In the Harbour Board inspection mentioned above, the report suggested the keepers at both lighthouses were too elderly to carry out their duties efficiently. The response of the Harbour Board was to remove the Lough Mahon keeper but to retain the Dunkettle keeper, whom they did not regard as being incompetent. Thankfully, four years later, the inspection recorded that the light was in good order. And in 1870, the lighthouse was "in a most creditable state."
Eventually a second light was affixed to the Dunkettle Bridge and, with the Dunkettle Light, formed a pair of leading lights around the bend in the river.
Towards the end of the century, Dunkettle Light, like many lights around the country, was used as the start and/or finishing point for races in the local regatta, for which, doubtless, the local keeper had a great view. At least until 1905, that is, when the introduction of an automatic Wigham lamp rendered the light unwatched. The fog bell was discontinued and a whole new series of buoyage was introduced.
In 1922, a complaint was registered by the Clyde Shipping Company regarding the intensity, or lack thereof, of the green light at Dunkettle and requesting it to be cranked up a notch or two. Whether the Harbour Board acted or not is unclear but any improvements did not last very long.
The very knowledgable Shipwrecks of Cork Harbour site states that "Dunkettle lighthouse lasted until 1926, when the SS Freddy Fisher collided with it and demolished it." The only reference I can find to the demise of the Dunkettle Light is from the Irish Examiner on June 17th 1926 - 


Freddy Smith or Freddy Fisher? Well, it seems that the Kirk Shipping Company did have an SS. Freddysmith (all one word) on their books from 1920 to 1924. It was a Dutch cargo vessel with a capacity of 900 tons and the Dunkettle Lighthouse wouldn't have been able to put up much of a fight. In 1926, it was transferred to South America and, after many name changes, it became the SS Lucho in 1938. It was eventually scrapped in Buenos Aires in 1973.


The SS Freddysmith

As for the Dunkettle Lighthouse, it was replaced by a buoy. Probably just as efficient but completely lacking in character.



Addendum: In January 1924, "Cork's own" Pierrots Concert Party played that city's Opera House. On the bill, according to the Examiner, were various ensembles, while ...


Sadly, I doubt that any written copies of "The Harbour Light" exist and so we cannot judge the comic potential of pile lighthouses.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Lough Mahon Pile Light (lost lighthouse)


Drawing of Lough Mahon lighthouse from the wonderful corkshipwrecks.ie

Cork Harbour claims to be the second largest harbour by area in the world behind Sydney. Mind you, there's a number of others queuing up to be labelled the second-largest, but that's neither here nor there. Let's just say it's big and leave it at that.
Like Dublin, like Belfast, like Dundalk, the big problem for Cork in the early eighteen hundreds was that of silting. Anything larger than a rubber duck was obliged to anchor in the lower harbour and have their cargo loaded and unloaded by lighters and brought the seven miles into the docks. This was highly inefficient in terms of time and money and energy and pleased nobody except maybe the lighter owners. 
There was a bit of the oul' dredging going on but it was not until the Cork Harbour Board was set up around 1840 that a serious attempt was made to get these big ships all the way up the river, day or night. The main problems were the shifting sandbanks of Lough Mahon and the very narrow channel up that lake towards Blackrock Castle. Serious dredging took place in the 1840s and 1850s and by the end of the latter decade, the river was ready to be lit with a combination of lighthouses and buoys. 


Nineteenth century map of the narrow stretch between Lough Mahon Lighthouse (5 o'clock) and Blackrock Castle (10 o'clock) The yellow splodges of light are the lighthouses. The third lighthouse (11 o'clock, where the channel turns west towards the city) is Dunkettle Pile Light.
 Map of the harbour showing the channel to the city

So, in September 1858, fifteen ship-owners and master mariners - but curiously, no lighter-owners -contacted the Harbour Board "soliciting the erection of a light on Lough Mahon between Horse-head and Blackrock" to enable ships to access the channel at any time of day or night. The proposal was accepted and Sir John Benson, the Board's chief engineer, was asked to furnish plans for the light. In November of that year, Mr. P.R. Roddy was contracted to erect the lighthouse for £285.
On 30th March 1859, the Freeman's Journal gives us the first description of the new light:-

I am assuming that 'the worm' mentioned is, in fact, thousands of tiny worms, and not some evil alien entity from Dr. Who. More's the pity.
The red light was exhibited for the first time at sunset on Friday 2nd September 1859 and a man named Humphrey Scannell of Blackrock, aged 59 years and a Harbour Board employee, was appointed temporary lightkeeper until the Dredge Committee met to make a permanent appointment and decide a salary. Seems incredible that this lighthouse was under construction for at least six months and the Board hadn't considered the appointment of a keeper until the day before it was due to be lit!
The lighting of the Lough Mahon pile light was roundly welcomed but it highlighted the need for the final piece of the jigsaw - a light at the north-west end of the channel, near where the present day Jack Lynch Tunnel disappears underground near the Dunkettle roundabout. The Dunkettle Pile Light was constructed and built in 1863 and we will deal with that lighthouse in another post.
In 1864, the Board of Trade (Ballast Board) carried out one of their regular reports into local harbours and navigational lights. Their main source of complaint regarding Cork was the brilliancy, or lack of it, of the lights. At the two pile lights, they stated that "the thick glass, nearly approaching to bulls-eyes, must necessarily absorb a portion of the light." Sir John agreed to fix this immediately. They also stated that "the light at Black Rock is in charge of a young woman and appears to be well-kept and clean; those in the two Pile Lighthouses were in the charge of men, who appeared to be rather too old and not so efficient as to be (in the opinion of your Committee) quite fit for the charge of so important an office."
The response of the Harbour Board was to remove the keeper at the Lough Mahon light but retain the keeper at Dunkettle, whom they "did not consider incompetent." An internal inspection in 1867 found the lighthouse in a dirty state due to oil leaking from the light. The following year, a report stated that

A Board of Trade report in 1870 found the lighthouse to be "in a most creditable state."
In 1873, when it was reported that the annual expenditure of the Lough Mahon light was £79, 'a man named Scannell' - possibly the same Humphrey Scannell who was appointed temporary keeper in 1859? - applied to have his wages raised from 15 shillings to £1 per week, so as to be put on a par with the other keepers. The Board initially agreed but later referred the matter to the Dredge Committee.
Whatever the result of that, Mr. Scannell was no longer the keeper at Lough Mahon in 1874, a fact he was probably happy about as both the keeper of the light and his wife lost their lives in a mad storm in late February of that year. The incident was reported in the Cork Constitution, under the headline, 'Melancholy Death by Drowning.'
"During the prevalence of the storm on Thursday, a melancholy accident took place, by which two persons lost their lives. It appears that on that day, the lighthouse keeper, Jeremiah O'Callaghan and his wife were in Lough Mahon lighthouse and that she, in consequence of the stormy weather prevailing, got nervous and requested her husband to carry her to shore. He acceded to her request and they were seen from the shore to get into the boat and put off. This was about one o'clock. A severe hailstorm, accompanied with thunder and lightning, then came on and it is supposed that, during its prevalence, the boat capsized. No-one on shore saw the accident, as it is anticipated, if there were persons there, they sought refuge from the storm. The man, it is said, was a good swimmer. They were married about nine months and were both young. Attention was first drawn to the lighthouse in consequence of the lamps not being lit at the usual time. A boat was immediately set off and, on arriving at the lighthouse, it was found the deceased were missing. The boat was found yesterday at Hop Island but up to the present, there is no sign of the bodies, though the river is being actively dredged." 
This is the only account I could find that mentions the keeper by name. Corkshipwrecks.ie - the only  site I could find that had collated any information on the lighthouse - has the name as Callinan. I could find neither a marriage cert or a death cert in the civil records for either name.
One wonders how, in the circumstances, the paper could tell that Jeremiah's unnamed wife got nervous and asked to be carried to shore. Maybe it was poetic licence. The Cork Constitution, the following week, got even more poetic with the publication of a poem by an unnamed author:

Dark was the sky and the wind blew high,
The waves look white and wild.
The light-keeper's wife watched the angry strife,
And she feared for her unborn child.

"Oh love," she said. "I am sore in dread.
I shall die if I tarry here.
My trouble may come and I far from home.
Take me back to my mother dear.

"These frail planks shake when the wild winds wake
And the thunder rolls o'erhead
With sullen crash and the lightnings flash.
Oh! carry me home," she said.

"Dear wife, take heart. See, the black clouds part
And the sun shines out on the lea. (Lee?)
I will row you across without harm or loss
Safe home to your mother," said he.

His arm was strong, but the way was long
And the squall came down amain (sic)
Oh! Christ who did sleep on the stormy deep
Send help, or his strength is vain.

The frail bark tossed. "Oh, love! we are lost,
You can swim, strike out for the shore;
Oh no, wife, no. Should I leave you so,
I could never be happy more."

"And must we die, my poor babe and I
Or ever I see it's face?"
"You shall see it, love, in the heaven above
Through the blessed saviour's grace."

"Brave heart and true, I can die with you."
But no other word they said.
Now Lough Mahon's wave makes their early grave
Till the sea gives up her dead.

The Harbour Board seemed fairly unmoved by the double tragedy. Basically, it was the couple's own fault. If they had wanted to go ashore, the Commissioners' boat was passing by at 12.30 and they could have gone ashore in that. They rejected any suggestion that the boat supplied was too flimsy, for a) they had never had a complaint before and b) a heavier boat would not have been manageable. They also postulated that it was the wife's fault for standing up in the boat to put on her shawl and thus capsizing it, a great example of perspicacity in the absence of any witnesses. The Harbourmaster concluded that he had a boat in the yard which had been earmarked for the lighthouse and he would have it transferred immediately (even though he had declared the lighter punt to be perfectly okay.)
Corkshiprecks.ie, unlike myself, have found the report of the inquest, which was apparently highly critical of the Harbour Commissioners, and in particular, the boat supplied by them, which was felt to be too old, too waterlogged and too small. They also say that a Mr. Regan was appointed as the replacement keeper.
He couldn't have lasted very long because the following year, there was nearly another tragedy when Lough Mahon lighthouse-keeper George Carpenter nearly lost his life.



It appears that in 1877, The Worm was back, despite having being banished by the Doctor to the farthest reaches of the Universe.


Thankfully the Tardis arrived just in time and the lighthouse was saved. The light, incidentally, was still a fixed red one and we are told that a fog bell was rung in foggy weather, exactly the conditions it was designed for.
In 1898, we learn from an investigation into an accident between two boats, that Michael Murphy, who was called as a witness, was the lightkeeper at Lough Mahon. The 1901 Census finds him living at Blackrock, aged 52 years. He gives his occupation as a 'Light Housekeeper,' though I suspect his light housekeeping duties were secondary to his lighthouse keeping.
However, his chosen profession came to an abrupt end "on or about 3rd January 1905," when a whole new series of buoys was put into operation from Queenstown (as was) up to the City.


And so, 46 years of lightkeeping came to an end at Lough Mahon. A Wigham oil light was installed and Mike Murphy was shunted off to Fiddler's Green. No more would the fog bell sound around the tidal Lough Mahon.
The oil light lasted until 1924 when the Harbour Board, fed up with their oil being syphoned off, introduced an acetylene lamp to the structure.
The end, when it came, in January 1930 was swift.
 

It was decided not to rebuild the lighthouse but to replace her with an acetylene lamp on a tripod.

The SS Ardmore. She was sunk in 1940 with all hands when it struck a magnetic mine laid by German aircraft near the Saltees and thus in Irish territorial waters. It had been on its way to Fishguard with a cargo of live animals. Only two bodies of the crew were ever found.