Thursday, May 21, 2015

Calf Rock

It is nearly three years now since I started making plans to see the remains of the infamous Calf Rock Lighthouse off the tip of Dursey Island, a stark reminder of the terrible power of the sea. Two years ago we came down with the express purpose of seeing it but were thwarted by maintenance to the cable car, the only viable means for tourists to reach the island. This year we were luckier and crossed early in the morning, albeit on one of the windiest days I've ever known. Not blustery, just a constant driving wind that increased in intensity the nearer you got to the western tip of the island. Small wonder it has been called the windiest place in Europe.

Due to the frequency of shipwrecks off the south west coast of Ireland, a decision was reached in 1857 to construct a lighthouse off the end of Dursey Point. There were many (the contractor included) who argued that the Calf Rock was too low an island to place a lighthouse and that Bull Rock, a little further north and much higher, would be more appropriate. The Elder Brethren of Trinity House prevailed though and George Halpin's cast iron tower was approved for Calf Rock. The constructor, one Henry Grissell, later said that the waves were so fierce here, that they sometimes obscured the top of the tower for two minutes at a time. Indeed, only Wolf Rock - off Lands End in Cornwall - and the Fastnet have to contend with more ferocious seas.

The Calf Rock with the old temporary lighthouse in the foreground

The difficulty of landing men and provisions on the rock strung out the construction process and it was not until June 1866 that the light was lit. The lighthouse was 102 feet high, tapered from 20 feet to 14 feet under the balcony, and built of cast iron plates bolted to a central pillar. Ancillary dwellings for the workmen were hewn into the rock (see the black rectangular holes in the pictures) These rude dwellings saved six lives fifteen years later.

But before that, tragedy struck in 1869 when the keeper offshore thought he saw distress signals on the light. Hurriedly commandeering a boat and six men they set forth for the Calf, only to discover their mistake. Almost immediately, a huge wave capsized the boat and all seven were drowned. 
That same year, as a result of storm damage, the lower part of the lighthouse was strengthened.
Then in November 1881 during a prolonged bout of atrocious weather, the unstrengthened top of the lighthouse was swept away into the sea one night. The keeper on duty had fortuitously just nipped downstairs for a second when the wave struck. The six men managed to make their way to the workers' dwellings, which were waterlogged and there they stayed for 12 days, as high seas made rescue by boat impossible. The whole world waited for news. Eventually a local crew, skippered by one Michael O'Shea, managed to get a line onto the island and the three keepers and three workmen took a running jump into the foaming cauldron. Al;l were saved to great rejoicing.

A memorial to the six men and their heroic rescuers was unveiled on the mainland on Dursey Sound, in sight of the Calf Rock in 2013. Incidentally, with the Fastnet being constructed of the same material, it was hurriedly decided that another Fastnet needed to be constructed before it suffered the same fate. This only took 23 years to come to fruition.
A temporary light was erected on the end of Dursey Island in 1881 to replace the Calf. This lasted for eight years until the new light was exhibited on Bull Rock on January 1st 1889.


  1. Glad you got to go there and thanks so much for the great write up. Cheers.

  2. I believe my husbands ancestor was one of the men who died during the storm on Calf Rock in 1869. I only have his surname, Duggan. Do you have any further information about him? I believe his great grandfather was assistant keeper in the 1880 storm

  3. I believe my husbands ancestor was one of the men who died during the storm on Calf Rock in 1869. I only have his surname, Duggan. Do you have any further information about him? I believe his great grandfather was assistant keeper in the 1880 storm

  4. Hi Lighthouse (is that your real name?)
    There was certainly a John Duggan from Ballaghboyanong the men drowned. Ballaghboy is the townland at the end of the Beara peninsular on the mainland. John's wife Ellen was 30 at the time and her maiden name was Harrington. They had one child, Patrick, aged 2. John's mother, Margaret, was also listed as being a dependant of John.
    Now, there was no Duggan marooned on the rock in the 1881 tragedy but one of the assistants on the rock was a John Harrington from Tilickafinna (the last townland at the end of Dursey Island) He could possibly be a brother of Ellen Duggan? John Harrington had worked for ten years on the rock and had a wife and two children at the time of the tragedy.
    However, there was another John Duggan who was assistant keeper on the rock at the time. He should have relieved one of the other assistants three weeks previously but bad weather had kept him on the mainland. He helped to direct the boat crews in the rescue attempt. This information from Penelope Durell's excellent book 'Discover Dursey' Mail me at if you require further info on the two disasters!

  5. That should be 'Ballaghboy among' !!!!