Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Lightships Kittiwake (Update)

Lightship Kittiwake outside the O2 in 2012

It would be fair to say that lightships, having served Irish and foreign sailors so well for over 200 years, have had a raw deal when it comes to preservation. Of the thirty-five purpose-built vessels that once protected our east and south coasts, only seven still survive. Of these seven - and I'm relying on Russ Rowlett's invaluable lighthouse directory on this - five are to be found abroad. The Osprey is a nightclub on the Seine in Paris, Gannet is in Basel of all places, Penguin is in England being converted to a yacht, and Cormorant (the original 1878 version that was at one stage the Lady Dixon in Belfast) and Albatross are on the Medway in Kent both in private hands and not doing very well.

Which leaves only two left on this island. One is the Petrel (1915) which appears safe as the club house of the County Down Sailing Club in Ballydorn on Strangford Lough.

The other is the Kittiwake (1959) which has disappeared from view in recent years and was feared by many to have met the same fate in the scrapyard as many of its contemporaries. It was removed from service in 2005 and put up for sale in Dun Laoghaire harbour. It was bought by Harry Crosbie around 2008 and towed to the Pigeon House Harbour and later to a spot outside the Point. Harry intended to install it as a cafe / restaurant on dry land on the North Wall Quay. The Dublin Docklands Development Association refused the planning application as they felt it belonged in the water. The Dublin Port Authority then acquired the vessel and it disappeared from outside the Point. There were various sightings over the years in the Alexandra Basin but, in the absence of any further news, many assumed it was simply going to be left to rust away until it had to be scrapped. The feeling of doom was not helped by the fact that I could not see the Kittiwake either on Google Satellite, nor on Google Earth.

However, hope has been restored by a single line in the March 2020 Failte Ireland Docklands Visitor Experience Development Plan, basically a proposal to revamp the Docklands area as a tourism centre. The Diving Bell on Sir Rogerson Quay is the first in a series of installations that include a replica of the old Alexandra Breakwater Lighthouse and the opening of the North Wall Quay lighthouse to the public.

Anyway, on page 26 of the brochure is the line, "Restoration of the Irish Lightship Kittiwake" under the heading, "Desired Outcomes" Of course, this is purely aspirational and might never happen but at least it shows that the boat hasn't yet been scrapped. But where is it?

Well, shortly afterwards, a mail arrived from Russ Rowlett to say that one Jim Smith, a valued contributor to his site, had spotted what he believed was the vessel, yes, in the Alexandra Basin. He spotted it, not on Google, but on Bing. 

Possible Lightship Kittiwake, Alexandra Basin 2020 on Bing. Below, close-up of above. There is no corresponding vessel there on Google!

Monday, September 14, 2020

Spillane's Tower, Limerick


The small Gothic tower on the southern shore of the Shannon heading south out of the city of Limerick, was originally erected at the end of 1870 to commemorate William Spillane's year in the office of Mayor. It was designed as a finishing touch to the embankment whereon the gentle folk of Limerick could walk on a fine evening, which had been completed that year. Dublin had its Phoenix Park and Belfast had its Queen's Island - the embankment was a place for the citizens and their families to escape the industrialisation of the city and breathe some fresh air. Ironic it is now subsumed by an industrial estate!

The tower originally had seats inside (no idea whether it still does) where the citizenry could cough their brains out after such healthy exercise. There was also a suggestion at this time that it might have a light for navigation purposes (the Shannon Estuary was in the middle of a mad craze for erecting lights) but this was not adopted. Yet.

View from the Corkanree Business Park

The tower itself has three storeys and stands thirty-six feet tall. According to "The National Inventory of Architectural Heritage," it tapers slightly to the top and is constructed of square-cut limestone blocks. In addition, it boats a battlemented parapet, machicolations and a bartizan in north-west corner which housed the harbour light.
The Spillane family were the largest importers of tobacco in Munster and, with snuff a popular by-product, the tower became known as The Snuff Box. The harbour light, safely ensconced in its bartizan - presumably the sticky-up bit on the top corner - was finally lit in 1885, providing great benefit to the merchants of the city, not least Spillane's. William Spillane died in 1897 but the firm thrived, only selling to Messrs. Murray of Dublin in 1956.

Photo courtesy Bunratty Search and Rescue FB page

I cannot find when the light was transferred from the Spillane family firm to the ownership of the Limerick Harbour Commissioners. Presumably when the firm got sick and tired of maintaining it. In 1938, the tower was guinea-pigged into trialling a new 'automatic change-flasher' type of light, the cost of which was £150 but given free for the trials.

Photo courtesy Bunratty Search and Rescue FB page

In case one believes that rampant vandalism  began in this generation, the poor old tower has a history of abuse by the citizenry of Limerick. In its early days, young bucks used to take pot-shots at the light for fun, probably with a few pints in them. In 1945, one councillor reported that 

In 1961, the Limerick Harbour Commissioners won a claim for malicious damage to the light. Not only was the light extinguished, with its potential consequences for local shipping, but 200 cubic feet of acetylene gas escaped, hopefully making the perpetrators violently sick. 
Despite all this, the light is still active, flashing white every three seconds. Long may she continue to do so.

The light is easy found. Go to the Greenpark Roundabout on the N69 and turn into the Corcanree Business Park. Keep going until you can go no further. You'll see a gate with a sort of lane leading out towards the river. Park up, vault the gate with agility and 'tis but a short walk to the tower.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Newcastle, county Down (lost lighthouse)

Another lost lighthouse and one for which, alas, I have no photographs, oil paintings, daguerreotypes nor sketches but hopefully one might turn up. 
Newcastle is situated in south county Down (ie, south of the entrance to Strangford Lough) at the spot where the long sweep of Dundrum Bay reaches its easternmost point. It lies roughly twenty miles from Ardglass at the top of the bay. It should not be confused - as I did - with the townland of Newcastle in north county Down, where the cottages for the South Rock lightkeepers were built.
I had had no idea that there had ever been a lighthouse at Newcastle until a few weeks ago, when I was idly browsing the Ordnance Survey map Second edition (1846 - 1872) of the area (as you do) and noticed the 'Light Ho.' at the end of the south pier. A quick check showed that the lighthouse was no longer marked on the third edition map, dating from 1906. Nor was it on the First edition map (1819-42)

Detail from O.S. second edition map. The harbour itself is located south of the town. The blue lines indicate the extent of the coastline now, with its extended south pier.

Historical records do not appear to have been collated in any detailed fashion regarding Newcastle, a state of affairs that the "History of Newcastle, county Down" Facebook page is seeking to rectify. The photographs on this blog were, in the main, taken from their site.
It appears that works to build a harbour at Newcastle began in 1808, courtesy of a parliamentary grant. The South pier was begun but, due to one reason or another - probably wrangling over money - was only completed in 1829, thanks to the intervention of Lord Annesley, the local landowner. There was a North pier also - no idea of its date of construction, probably begun in 1808 too. It is showing on the 1829 O.S. map, looking more or less in the same position as today's North pier.
Ten years later in the Big Wind of 1839, the South pier was damaged during strong south-easterly gales (the only wind direction that the harbour here - and at Ardglass - could not handle.) No attempt was made to repair the breach and consequently every winter saw the damage become greater until, by 1845, the complete outer portion of the pier had been washed into the harbour.
By that time, the great fishing tragedy of  January 1843 had occurred. According to the "History of Newcastle county Downon Friday 13th of January 1843 - not an auspicious date, to be sure -  ten fishing boats set sail from Newcastle and six from Annalong; a storm ensued and seventy three fishermen were drowned. Forty six Newcastle fishermen were drowned leaving behind 27 widows, 118 orphans and 21 dependents. An appeal raised enough money to build twelve small cottages at King Street that is still known as Widows' Row. The location of Widow's Row can be seen on the O.S. map above and a picture appears below.
Presumably the lack of a safe harbour was a contributory factor to the tragedy and plans were immediately put in place to rebuild the South pier. The rebuilding, by the Board of Public Works, began in 1846 and was completed around 1849 - 1850.
It appears that Irish lights were requested to supply a light at the end of the South pier and did so.  This was somewhat unusual, for they normally only erected lighthouses for which tolls could be extracted from passing ships or to mark some danger for passing ships. They frequently refused to erect lights that were purely for local use. However, in this case, they may have been mindful of the huge storms that attacked this stretch of coast in 1838, 1839 and 1843, with their huge loss of life. In addition, there was no noticeable harbour of refuge for passing ships between Dublin and Belfast, so they acquiesced. as can be seen in one of their impossibly-long-titled reports of 1859. (Short, snappy titles like "They came at Night" or "Murder in the Orangery" were obviously not in vogue at the time.)

'Small' lighthouse erected in 1849

The accounts of all the lighthouses controlled by the Board are detailed later in the same report. They give the expenditure doled out to maintain the lights, broken down into rent, fuel, wages etc.  for the year ending 1858. Newcastle comes second bottom of the list with a measly £7 19s  3d spent on it, which was for rent only. This would seem to indicate that, whereas Irish lights erected the lighthouse, it was up to the local Harbour Board to maintain it. (Incidentally, the lighthouse on Arranmore Island in county Donegal, was bottom of the expenditure list with only £6 6s coughed up by the Board, again for rent. This may have had something to do with the fact that the lighthouse wasn't lit at this stage!)
It appears that the South pier was breached again within two or three years of its completion in 1850 but it struggled on until December 1868 when, on the 13th of that month, a gale tore two sizable chunks out of it. Newspaper reports that I have been able to find fail to mention the damage to the harbour at the time. It is only through later submissions and reports that it appears this was the date for the end of the South Pier Mark II. The breaches appear to have been at a spot 80 feet inland from the bend of the pier; and, more seriously, a total breach very close to the end of the pier. This latter breach would have left the lighthouse useless and isolated on its own little island and it probably succumbed to the next rough sea. 
It appears that poor construction - lack of cement, poor 'bonding' of the rocks used, timber frames etc - was to blame for this second destruction of the pier, much the same as the first time around, much the same as had happened at Ardglass (though Ardglass had an excuse that the pier was still under construction at the time!)
An 1897 report says that plans were drawn up to repair the inner breach and actually extend the outer arm of the pier for another 130 feet but, again, wrangling and inertia held sway. Nothing was done and, by the late 1870s, the pier was a complete ruin.

Photograph from the 1880s, showing the North pier and the flattened remains of the South pier.

Eventually, by the turn of the century, people got their act together and a new extended, better-built South pier was finally erected in 1905, minus one lighthouse. And it has stood there for the past 115 years. Maybe it has been able to survive because it has no lighthouse weighing down the end of it. Or, more realistically, maybe it was just constructed better.

Newcastle harbour today. I would estimate the lighthouse stood roughly where the outermost  boat is moored along the kink of the pier between the white boat and the steps. The Victorians seemed to use the word 'kant.'  Despite my staid appearance, I have always been more 'kink'-y.

And, what of the lighthouse? Presumably it is long gone, dredged up when the new pier was built. Do we have any further information on it besides the adjective 'small'? Well, no. We don't even have an idea how small 'small' is. Three feet? Twelve feet? In the absence of any visual depiction, I would guess the latter. Anything smaller than that would probably not be listed as a 'Light Ho.' on any map.  
We do have a report from the Downpatrick Recorder of March 1869 detailing the proposed cost of repairing the pier.

So, though it doesn't definitely say it in words, a) the lighthouse appears to have been gone by this date, as otherwise they would simply salvage the old one and b) they would presumably be replacing like for like, implying that the old lighthouse was cast iron. In my head, I am visualising something like the light built at the end of the pier in Bray in the 1890s. Maybe it comes to mind because it also suffered the same fate as the Newcastle light. Of course, the Newcastle light could have been much smaller and green and shaped like Prince Albert.

Bray lighthouse

The rubble of the South pier. Photo pre-1905.

Widows Row cottages, still standing

Today there is no lighthouse on either pier. There is of course one of the unlovely lights on a pole at the end of the North pier, showing red, white or green, depending on your direction of approach.

Sunday, September 6, 2020

Mushrooms and centipedes, National Maritime Museum, Dun Laoghaire

Last month, we took our first non-shopping trip of the pandemic era down to the National Maritime Museum in Dun Laoghaire. Although my primary interest would have been the lighthouses, the stories of the shipwrecks and models of the boats were very enlightening and even I, with the attention-span of a five-year-old in a classroom with a circus passing slowly by outside the window, found it utterly engrossing. One thing I learnt about was mushrooms and centipedes. I will leave the explanation to the bottom picture.

A mushroom

A centipede

I'll post more on this wonderful museum over the coming months.
Incidentally, the new regulations were in place, everybody kept their distance, though it was not very full and lots of space for everyone.

Sunday, August 23, 2020

The Scarlet Rock, Shannon Estuary

The Scarlet Tower in all her majesty. Photograph courtesy Mick Worland of Bunratty Search and Rescue

I should be used to it by now but there are very few photographs of this wonderful example of our maritime history on the net. This tower has stood in the Shannon estuary for over 200 years, guiding thousands of ships past a dangerous rock. It is not by any means ugly. A cut stone tower, roughly five miles downriver from the city, tapering slightly towards the top and it was only by chance that I managed to pick up a picture of it. If it were to crumble tomorrow, there would be little to mark its passing pictorially.
In the early part of the nineteenth century, the Corporation of the Chamber of Commerce of Limerick - consisting mainly of shipowners and merchants - were sick to the hind teeth of their ships striking the reef running from Scarlet Rock to the Whelps, which stretched over three-quarters of the width of the Shannon. Indeed, one of those wrecks was still visible there at low tide in 1955. 
And so, in 1817, they advertised for somebody to build a 'beacon or tower' on the Scarlet Rock. The thirty-feet tall round tower was completed the following year. It was built of squared cut limestone blocks and even the top was stone.

For over fifty years, the Scarlet Tower was the only purpose-built navigational beacon in the Shannon Estuary between Beagh Castle and the Port of Limerick, a distance of some eighteen miles. There were other daymarks along the shore which experienced pilots employed to wind in and out of the treacherous shoals and hidden rocks - Tervoe House, Aughinish Point, ruined castles etc - but from 1818 to 1871, when there was an explosion of perches and beacons, Scarlet Tower had this portion of the river to itself.
In 1832, the romantically-named naval officer, Captain Mudge, was commissioned to survey the Narrows - as that part of the estuary was called - and to offer suggestions as to how the navigation of it could be improved. 

Does anybody know what the little square in the tower on Mudge's sketch is? A hole? A window? A door? And is it still there?

The Whelps in the centre, Scarlet Rock at one o'clock. This is a magnified detail of the chart below

There is a small paragraph at the end of a Sunday Independent article in 1955 about the demise of lamplighting that mentions Scarlet Tower as being 'the first lighthouse on the Shannon,' though obviously Loop Head might disagree. The paragraph concludes with the sentence, "At a signal from the city corn merchants, a great beacon fire was lighted from the flat roof of the 20-foot-high tower to guide the corn ships past the danger out to sea." (I believe the 20-foot reference has to be a mistake. Judging by the photo below of Mick Worland shinning up the ladder of the tower below, he is roughly five layers of blocks tall and, though they are hard to count, there seems to be a good 30 layers in the photo at the top of the page.)
This is the first time I have come across a lighthouse 'on tap,' so to speak. I hope it is true but so far I have been unable to corroborate it.

The Scarlet Tower with a more modern beacon adjacent. All photos on this page courtesy Mick Worland and the Bunratty Search and Rescue Facebook page

Position of Scarlet Rock in the Narrows

Back in 2013, some Cork GAA fan decided it would be amusing to raise the Cork flag on the Scarlet Tower. Mick Worland of the Bunratty Search and Rescue, a Clare man, I am assuming, was stung into action and replaced it with a Banner banner, so to speak. The structure atop the tower seems to be some kind of protection for an oil lamp, probably erected in the 1870s. I doubt the Tower still has a light, due to the proximity of the more modern beacon (two photos above)

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Redmond of the Skelligs

The Upper Light at Skellig Micheal with ruins of the keepers houses

Occasionally I get emails from people asking if I know anything about lightkeepers of yore who feature in their family tree. Invariably I don't because I am primarily interested in the lighthouses and have not really made a study of the keepers, but I have an interest in family history and try to help as best I can, or at least set people on the right path.
Last year, I received a letter from a lovely lady called Heather Walker from British Columbia in Canada, asking if I knew anything about her ancestor James Robert Redmond (both first names used!) and his father, Joshua Redmond, both of whom were lightkeepers in the service of Irish Lights (or whatever the association was known as, at the time)
Well, I knew the Redmonds were one of the famous dynasties of Irish lightkeepers but trying to unravel the various strands was both exciting and fascinating. Suffice to say that Joshua Redmond, the father, was born probably around 1796 and, during the time he was a keeper, there were at least two other Redmonds in the same profession (Michael and Peter Redmond), who may or may not have been family.
Sadly, the Commissioners of Irish Lights do not hold records of early lightkeepers, though their records of subsequent keepers are excellent. We know that Joshua served on Skellig Micheal for a long period, but we have had to piece his story there from other sources.

The west-facing side of the island, showing the path between the lighthouses. Little Skellig photobombing back right.

It appears that Joshua was a Dublin man (or possibly Carlow) and he married Mary Hickes at the Pro-Cathedral in Dublin in 1819. Of his early career, we know nothing. There is a possibility he may have been a military man before turning his hand to lightkeeping. We know he had a son George born in 1834 on the Arran Islands, on which the only lighthouse is the old, original light in the centre of Inis Mor. This George may well be the same son who met a grisly end on the Skelligs.
From The Nautical Magazine and Naval Chronicle - a Journal of Papers Connected with Maritime Affairs (1856), we learn that Joshua was transferred to Skellig Michael in 1838 and hadn't left it since. 


Anyway who has ever visited the Skelligs, or indeed ever seen pictures of it will know that, outside of the monastery,  the island appears to be composed of craggy and impassable rock. On the lighthouse side, there is barely any walkable ground, save for the road between the lighthouses. The Upper Light appears to be stuck to the rock with Bostik and the lower is on a rugged pinnacle jutting out into the sea. How these people reared their children is a complete mystery.
In 1850 and 1851, the Valuation Office paid a visit to 'Skellig Rock Great and Rocks' to determine the taxable amount of the properties to the Revenue. In a footnote, they say that "the island was purchased from James Butler Esq. by the Ballast Company for the sum of £500 in 1820." (I have seen differing amounts for that figure)
The lower lighthouse, says the report, was built in 1820 and was 59 feet in circumference at the base and 45½ feet at 23 feet up. It was 37 feet from the base to the top of the glass.
The Principal Lightkeeper  was Edward Nolan, serving here since 1838 and occupying a house with extension, porch and two offices or outhouses. The Assistant Lightkeeper was John Kelly, also on the Rock since 1838, occupying an extension-less house, porch and two offices.
Up above them sat the Upper Light, 59 feet in circumference at the base and 45½ feet at 20 feet up. It was 34 feet from the base to the top of the glass.
The PK here was 'Josuah' Redmond, with his house porch and two offices, the same accommodation as the assistant, James Butler, another surname synonymous with lightkeepers in Ireland. Joshua was also at the station since 1838, whereas James was the blow-in, only there since 1845!
The Commissioner of Irish Lights official site gives the chronology of the building of the two lighthouses. It states that the tower and dwelling were built of rubble masonry with slate cladding on the outside walls. The dwellings were semi-detached (one house for the Principal Keeper and one for the Assistant) the lower was two-storey, the upper single. Each had attic rooms...  Each house had its own cast iron porch and all four are still in situ. The only "imported" stone was granite for the lantern blocking, tower, floors and stairs, windowsills and certain wall coping stones. 
The building of the lights was fraught with difficulties. Work began on the lower lighthouse in 1820 and only completed in 1826. In contrast, the upper light was started and finished in a few months in 1826.
One of the workmen, Peter Cane,  blew himself up with explosives used for blasting the rock, an accident for which his widow was still receiving a Ballast Board pension in 1859. More worrying, if true, was a letter from an anonymous author to the Freeman's Journal in February 1826. Under the heading "Deplorable Circumstance" the author states that "there are now about forty workmen now on the Skellig Rock, nearly a month without victuals or firing and the weather is so bad that no relief can be given them. The signal of death is constantly flying from the Rock. Two men escaped about a fortnight ago by jumping off and were most miraculously saved by the relief boat, though she could not approach the Rock. The account the men give of their fellow sufferers' privations is melancholy." Whether the letter is accurate or hyperbole is open to question. Certainly the Ballast Board lists Peter Cane as the only fatality of the building of the lights. What is known for certain is that the two lights were exhibited for the first time in December 1826.

One of the first keepers was Michael Wishart, who had been removed from Tuskar Rock after the infamous smuggling episode there. He fell to his death in 1828 while cutting grass for his cow, according to the above site, citing Commissioner Robert Callwell. I'd imagine getting a cow on the island would have been an interesting proposition, almost as strange as finding grass long enough to cut. 
There is a grave up in the monastery for the children of lightkeeper William Callaghan from 1869 - slightly after Joshua Redmond's time - both of whom died on the island.
So, it was a hard old station on The Skelligs, though Joshua, seventeen years at least without leaving it, didn't seem to mind.

The Journal of the Kerry Archaeological and Historical Society No.9 (1976) also details an account by one John Windele to the island in 1851, the same year as the Valuation above. Windele, as detailed by the article's author, Peter Harbison, seems to been somewhat scatterbrained at times in his account. It seems, from reading it, that the notes he made at the time were insufficient and he added to them from memory some time afterwards. Nevertheless, the jist of his account is true. I will give a few snippets in relation to the lighthouse here. (Incidentally, in the narrative, Windele calls the keeper of the Upper Light 'Rooney,' which obviously should be 'Redmond.' As far as I can tell, no Rooney ever served on Skellig)

After visiting the monastery, Windele and his companion, returned to the Upper Light, where they were to stay the night. "The light-

It seems as though by 1862, Joshua Redmond had been dragged, kicking and screaming, off his beloved Rock, for he made a complaint about being owed money in Kilrush Court. As there was no lighthouse near Kilrush (Scattery Island lighthouse wasn't established until 1872), it is likely that he had been pensioned off. This would have been eight years before his Upper Skellig Micheal light was discontinued with the establishment of the lighthouse on Inistearaght.
Joshua was still living in Kilrush when he died in 1873:-

His son, James Robert (the names appear to be interchangeable) followed his father into the lightkeeping trade, serving at Rotten Island, Roancarrig, Youghal, Inisheer, Drogheda and Eagle Island, if not more. I often think that it would make a great documentary for someone with lightkeepers in their ancestry to follow their great-grandfathers around the coast of Ireland. None of the lights mentioned above are among the so-called Great Lighthouses of Ireland but most are far more interesting than many that appear on that list. It would be a travelogue of Irish family history woven into our national history at some of the most stunningly beautiful places on our coastline. Maybe I should copyright the idea before somebody else does.