Inishgort lighthouse from Rosmoney. Think that must be Croagh Patrick behind
It is always a pleasure to re-visit one of my favourite lighthouses, seldom-visited, remote and isolated, even if the purpose is to gobble down a large helping of humble pie.
Inishgort - the spelling variations increase the further back in time you travel - is one of the 365 (ho hum) islands that allegedly populate Clew Bay. From the early 1800s, Westport had developed as an important port on the west coast of Ireland and in 1806, John Denis Browne, the 1st Marquess of Sligo, Earl of Altamont, Viscount Westport KP, PC, MP, absentee landlord and absentee slaveholder, lovely chap altogether, rolled up his sleeves and built a lighthouse on Clare Island, despite having to lug all his titles around with him.
Clare Island was an outer light, signifying exactly where on the west coast ships should turn in for Westport. Of course, between Clare Island and Westport lay a myriad of small islands, like jigsaw pieces on a board waiting to be placed in position.
First edition OS map showing the Light Ho. on Inishgort and its position in relation to Inishlyre, which was also a major port in those days with many pubs and dwelling places
What was needed was an inner light to mark the correct channel through Clew Bay to Inishlyre and Westport. Kinsale had the Old Head and Charlesfort, Dublin had the Baily and Poolbeg, Belfast had the Hollywood Bank and the Sea of Garmoyle, Galway had Inis Mor and Mutton Island. This pairing of outer and inner lights seems to have been standard practice. Irish Lights and indeed Bill Long in Bright Lights, White Water both state the lighthouse was established on Inishgort in 1806. This seems to have been perpetuated by most subsequent authors.
The Notice to Mariners though and John Swan Sloane both put the date of establishment as 1827 and this is the date I have always maintained, believing that the Irish Lights' 1806 was merely a case of confusion with Clare Island.
Irish Lights commissioners inspecting the lantern at Inishgort c 1905 (photo National Library of Ireland)
The truth, it seems, was somewhere in between. After completing Clare Island, the Marquess of Sligo loaded his shovel and titles into his cement mixer and hauled it down to Inishgort to build the inner lighthouse. He was definitely some boyo. The island was not actually his. The owner was Sir Samuel O'Malley, Bart. (I think Bart must have been his nickname) and John Browne leased an acre of the stony foreshore from Bart to build his lighthouse and dwelling house.
Fast forward to early 1826 and John Brown's body had been a-mouldering in the grave for sixteen years and had been succeeded by Howe Peter Browne, which sounds like some bad dialogue out of the Lone Ranger. I'm sure he was another lovely feller though.
Anyhow, John Browne's brother wrote to the Ballast Office in Dublin on behalf of his nephew, Howe, begging them to do something about the lighthouse on Inishgort (Public Record Office CSO/RP/1825/18795/1) which his brother had built "at his own expense" and, in regard to which, his brother had a consolation in death that his selfless work had greatly improved the fortunes of Westport and saved many lives from a watery grave. And would you like to take over the lighthouse.
Hard on the heels of this, came a memorial from the merchants, ship owners and fishermen of Westport asking the same thing. The lighthouse, they said, had been maintained by young Howe "until these last few years" but now was not fit for purpose. Could you please take it over?
2021 photo by Dan McCarthy, of the Irish Examiner, whose series of articles on the islands of Ireland is one of the joys of my life
The Ballast Board replied to Howe's uncle, saying, yes, they agreed that a daycent lighthouse on Inishgort was fundamental to saving lives at sea but, unfortunately, money was too tight to mention and they couldn't even get an unemployment extension. The Uncle wrote back immediately saying they could transfer over the lease from Bart at the same rate. The Ballast Board said, okay.
Obviously not having any indication of the speed that the Ballast Board worked, the merchants and fishermen wrote to this august body in June 1826 wondering when the promised lighthouse was going to materialise. The old lighthouse, they said, had burned down and they were reduced to lighting coal fires on the beach in order to help boats navigate the treacherous channels during the hours of darkness. This, they said, was completely unsustainable as they could not afford to do this and boats would not be able to enter the harbour except during daylight hours.
As an enticement, they pointed out that, although the lighthouse had burned down, the dwelling house was perfectly habitable and it wouldn't really take much to get a light up and running.
It seems quite remarkable, if not downright suspicious, that Clare Island and Inishgort lighthouses, both established in 1806 by the Marquis of Sligo, should remain the only two Irish lighthouses to have burned down. Clare Island was destroyed in 1813 after the keeper Reilly accidentally let undowsed snuff fall into the oil. What caused the conflagration at Inishgort is unknown but I suspect an insurance scam.
The fixed white light was eventually erected in 1827 at a cost of £3,460 7s 6d.
The story of the lightkeepers and attendants at Inishgort is dominated by one family, the Jeffers. Resident on the island since at least the mid-1800s the generations have served, helped and attended the light for over 150 years. This association ended with Sean Jeffers, the island's last resident, passing away in 2006. The Jeffers became the official attendants in 1933 when the light was made unwatched. Down through the years, Martin, Billy and Tommy (whose tragic drowning I relate in When the Light Goes Out) and then Sean acted as lightkeeper and postman, a duality later taken up by Sean Gibbons of nearby Inishlyre.
During the lightkeeping years, the Ballast Board / Irish Lights keepers included:
March 1832 - Lightkeeper McCullough (assisted in the rescue of the schooner Thistle)
1842 - 54 (possibly more) - William Landers, (the keeper who had annoyed the priest at Clare Island in the 1830s. He later retired to Westport)
1859 - Michael Brownell
1860-61 - Owen Carroll
1864 - William Callaghan snr
1864 - 65 Alex Power (took over from WC, died on the island)
1865 - 66 Thomas McKenna (took over from AP - one of the great characters in lightkeeping history)
1871 - James Keenan
1876 - Thomas McKenna
1887 - Michael Duffy (died on the island 24th May)
1889 - Thomas Redmond
1896 - Rickard Hamilton
1901 - Michael Barry
1911 - Patrick O'Connell