Thursday, May 6, 2021

Cultra Quay (lost lighthouse) Update


When I first came across the lighthouse at Cultra, next to Holywood in county Down, I had absolutely  no information on it at all. It was marked on an OS 1st edition map (1834) as being located on the quay at Cultra Harbour and on the 1854 2nd edition as being 'in ruins' but t'internet was strangely non-forthcoming on any description of this mysterious edifice.
Once again, I am indebted to my equally mysterious friend, Nick from Holywood, for pointing me in the direction of a remarkable book called "Holywood county Down, Then and Now" by the Rev. McConnell Auld M.A., known to all and sundry as 'Con Auld,' whose list of achievements would fill a book on its own. The book is A4 size, landscape and includes practically everything there is to know about the small town on Belfast Lough.
Cultra - the back of the beach - was owned by the Kennedy family since 1671 and was part of a large tract of the North Down coast acquired by that family. It is possible that its harbour was the factor that encouraged them to build Cultra House at this spot. Belfast Lough was notoriously shallow due to sand on its southern shore. At Cultra was the only harbour that permitted deep water vessels to put in. In fact Cultra was, in 1775, one of only two places where the cross-channel packets would use to take on and disgorge passengers.
According to Con Auld, the Hugh Kennedy rebuilt the harbour in 1818, adding a small square light house building in the centre of the rather odd arrow-shaped quay. The harbour could facilitate vessels up to three hundred tons. A ferry boat The Bangor Castle left Donegall Quay in Belfast for Bangor every afternoon and included Cultra on its journey. Regattas were held here too and papers were filled with reports of the day's racing.
However, the development of Holywood and its incredibly long pier as a port, coupled with the dredging of Belfast harbour meant that by 1850, Cultra harbour had outlived its usefelness and was now 'going to run' according to one Dr. Kelly. By the 1870s it was completely dilapidated.
Intriguingly, Con Auld includes a sketch of the quay and lighthouse in his book (top picture) but it is unclear if this sprang from his imagination or if he copied it from another source. (Another sketch of his of the first Holywood Bank lighthouse looks remarkably accurate, so I am inclined to believe the latter. He lists his sources at the back of the book but it would take me a lifetime to go through them all and find the relevant illustration)
Sadly Con Auld died a couple of years ago, leaving to the people of Holywood this remarkable legacy, an example to all local historians of what can be achieved through research and collating.

Monday, April 26, 2021

The Cursing Stone by Tom Sigafoos


Since I left school, nearly 45 years ago now, I don't think I have ever written a book review. There are a number of reasons for this. 
Although the advice to writers has always been 'read, read, read,' I don't actually read much. The only books I do read are factual books, mainly involving local history. 
Another reason is that I have always been suspicious of reviewers and critics. Either they are palsy-walsy with the person they are reviewing, in which case the review is impossibly laudatory; or they are trying to make a name for themselves with a witty turn of phrase or a damning put-down. It breaks my heart to see anyone - musician, author, actor - pilloried in the press by someone who has not the talent nor dedication nor creativity to produce anything original.
However, I'm going to make an exception in this instance after coming across Tom Sigafoos's historical novel, The Cursing Stone, which, I believe, contains enough lighthouse content to warrant inclusion on this blog.
Basically, Tom has very cleverly woven a novel around an event in Ireland's maritime history that has fascinated myself and others by the many unanswered questions that surround it. 
The event is the sinking of the H.M.S.Wasp under the beam of the lighthouse on Tory Island off the coast of Donegal on a clear night in 1884, with the loss of all but six of the crew. The Wasp was on its way to evict islanders from their homes on the island of Inishtrahull, a little further along the coast, when it ran aground. Rumours later surfaced of 'a cursing stone' being invoked on Tory to forestall the evictions. 

The Tory Island lighthouse c.1905. The lighthouse, like Mew Island, was painted black until 1954/55 when both were given a white band. (Photo the CIL collection, National Library of Ireland)

Tom has obviously done a huge amount of research on the subject for even small details are accurate. A new Principal Keeper at Tory had only arrived a few days beforehand. A lad from the island had been drafted in to help man the light. The topographical description of the island demonstrates familiarity with the subject. Even the hapless priest, hell-bent on converting the primal islanders - shades of The Wicker Man? - appears faithful to the actual priest of the time.
But although the facts of the incident remain central to the plot, it is the ingenious way that the fictional story fits into the narrative that delights. I probably have an advantage in that I've visited Tory, more than once. Though hardly an expert, I can recognise the landscape and the people. Today they are a law unto themselves - 140 years ago, they were fiercely independent, politically, economically and religiously, as well as geographically, like their fellow islanders on Inishtrahull. They were Christians on their own terms, with a smattering of an ancient religion thrown in for good measure. Like Inishtrahull, they had a King who adjudicated on disputes. The priest, like the lighthouse keepers, were accepted but were regarded as transient visitors, held slightly at arm's length.

Tory Island lighthouse c.1954 shortly before earning its white stripe. I have no idea where this photograph came from.

The book is a chunky one, over 360 pages, but I devoured it in two sittings. The main characters are well developed and believable and I found myself really caring what happened to the main protagonist. There are many issues dealt with in the story - British empire-building, the role of the ordinary British seaman, the picture of an island community on the cusp of its inevitable submersion into the political status quo, landlordism and, most importantly, the dispute over the respective effectiveness of  static and flashing lighthouse beams. It so engrossed me that I may even consider reading another novel.
In all seriousness, I have no qualms about recommending this book to anyone. Its a cracking read from start to finish and I was kind of sorry when I finished it. 
The Cursing Stone by Tom Sigafoos ISBN 9781008980396  is available to order from

The sinking of The Wasp

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Carrickfergus lighthouse


Map of Carrickfergus c.1680 shamelessly robbed from the Carrickfergus history website

I remember in the days of my youth that I used to get excited by going to a gig by the Ramones or the Clash, by a girl acknowledging my existence or by my football team getting into the semi-finals of the Cup.
Nowadays, it seems, I get my kicks from the possible discovery of a 370 year old lighthouse. To borrow a line from a Talking Heads song, "Well, how did I get here?"
The common story about lighthouses in Ireland is that six lighthouses were patented by Sir Robert Reading in 1665 - Old Head and Charlesfort in Kinsale; Hook Head; two at Howth and one at Islandmagee. Before that, there were only ever two lighthouses - Hook and Youghal. The rest of the coast was dark.
I've struggled to accept this for a long time. Doesn't make sense that shipowners would let their ships and their valuable cargoes founder for want of a simple harbour light. I suspect that places like Ardglass and Galway lit fires on the top of castles or towers to guide ships into harbour. But I've never been able to confirm it.
Two weeks ago however, I came across an article by a guy called Colin Johnston Robb from the Belfast Telegraph 13th January 1948. It was an article about lighthouses in Ulster and I have snipped the portion that made me sit bolt upright.

So, if Mr Robb has his facts correct, this was not merely a tower with a brazier on top. This, like Youghal, was a candle-burning light, shining forth from a purpose-built tower. Neither Youghal nor Hook were probably purpose-built (I may be wrong on the latter) so this 'discovery' is quite exciting. For me, anyway. Probably not for a lot of other people.
The sketch at the top of the page is from around1680. The town was always getting invaded and repulsed, because it was a very important place. The sketch seems to be looking south down the coast to the castle and there's a very lighthousey-looking tower next to the castle at roughly the place from where the pier began (out of shot) which might possibly be our boyo. Or the lighthouse could have been knocked down by then.
A few months ago, I 'discovered' a long-lost lighthouse at Cultra near Holywood, only to find, after making enquiries locally, that its existence was well-known in the area.
So, I wrote to the good people at Carrickfergus History who seem to know everything there is to know about the history of their town. I was a bit disgruntled they didn't write back immediately until I realised that I had written to them on 1st April and they may have considered my mail to have been fake news.
So now, I have written to them again.
And I wait.

Friday, April 9, 2021

Inishkea Beacons

The Inishkea Islands group lies a short distance off the Mullet peninsula in county Mayo and consists of two main islands - North and South - and a couple of outlying rocks. It is said they housed early Christian sites which later were abandoned and the islands were uninhabited during the Middle Ages before being repopulated later on in the millennium.
There have been suggestions that the Inishkea islanders were anthropologically different from their brethren on the mainland, almost imbued with heroic, godlike qualities, strength and beauty, unbeatable at Twister, that sort of thing. In the nineteenth century, when there were no English speakers on the islands, they worshipped a stone, said to be the pillow of St. Columba, which was dressed in new flannel every year and which could calm stormy seas or raise a storm whenever a potential shipwreck appeared on the horizon. The stone was eventually broken in two and thrown into the sea by a zealous priest where it waits for Indiana Jones to discover them and slot them together and restore the ancient Eden that was Inishkea.

Position of the Inishkeas courtesy of Mapcarta 

A whaling station was established on an island off Inishkea South in the early 1900s which created employment for those inhabitants but created a bad stink - in more ways than one - for the inhabitants of Inishkea North. The divide between the two islands, which is geographically very small, intensified during the Civil War when the two islands came down on opposite sides in the conflict. A possibly apocryphal story says they used to gather on the shores facing the other island and peg rocks at each other!
The end for the islanders came with the loss in 1927 of ten young fishermen in a night-time storm that suddenly sprung up out of nothing. They struggled on for a couple of years but in the early 1930s, they were brought to the mainland, many of them settling in the neighbourhood of Glosh, looking back out to the island.

But to the beacons. My thanks to researcher Rosemarie Geraghty, who is doing tremendous work at Blacksod Lighthouse collating information about the lighthouses of the Mullet peninsula, amongst many other things. A new venture is due to open at Blacksod this summer with a brilliant new tourism initiative for an often neglected area of the country.

The two beacons are on Inishkea South, bottom right and top left on the map above. They are two circular beacons tapering towards the top, built of rubble, cemented and painted white. The one in the middle of the island (top photograph) is 31.5 feet high, 13 feet diameter at the base, tapering to 8 feet at the top; the coastal beacon, the slightly blurred photograph, with the black extended pixie hat, is five feet shorter, 12 feet in diameter at the base, also tapering to eight feet at the top.
They were constructed as part of relief works organised in 1890-91 to lead boats through the Duvillaun channel. The works included raising the pier and repairing the slip on South Island and took approximately eight months. As many as sixty men, women and boys were given employment for this period. 
The beacons are maintained by Mayo County Council and painted by them every couple of years, Rosemarie thinks, which may be of interest to Marie Coyne and the wonderful islanders of Inishbofin, whose three similar beacons are permanently neglected by Galway County Council. A true legend, Marie has organised crowdfunding to repaint them when needed, despite the disapproval of the powers that be. Maybe they should consider towing the island twenty miles north so it falls under Mayo jurisdiction.
One final piece on the Inishkea islanders and particularly on the women. This from the Dundee Evening Post 13th November 1903, showing how the females had the right idea how to treat their menfolk...

Friday, April 2, 2021

Inishtrahull Part One

This cow has been grazing on my C Drive for many years now in front of the old Inishtrahull light. I have no idea where the photo comes from but I have seen it in various places.

The flaming sun ascends o'er Cantyre's Mull, 
Flings out his arms, day breaks on Inishtrahull!

So concludes poet, broadcaster, naturalist, lightkeeper D.J. O'Sullivan's  celebrated poem, Dawn in Inishtrahull, of which the author saw many thousands in his lifetime.
In contrast to Danny, I have never seen one dawn on Inishtrahull, nor dusk, or mid-afternoon, or any part of the day, much as I would have liked to. There are certain islands around our coast that have a definite lure for me, a lure which I find hard to explain. Inishgort and Inishkea in Mayo are two such. Scattery is another. Inishtrahull. Maybe the fact they all had thriving populations at one time but now are left to the birds and seals has something to do with it.
There is so much history of the lighthouse on the island, that this particular post will doubtless require a follyer-upper. John McCarron, who is doing such great work on recording and collating the history of the Inishowen peninsula, recently sent me a ganzy-load of photographs from the island which would never fit in one post, so I'm delighted to label this Part One. As usual, any corrections or additions to the story gratefully received at
Inishtrahull is famous for being the most northerly part of Ireland, lying 10kms (6 miles in old money) off the tip of Malin Head in county Donegal and also for being the oldest part of Ireland. Originally a part of the southern tip of Greenland, it is 1.7 billion years old and one day it took a figary and wandered across the north Atlantic to its present position.
A few years after it had settled in, the Royal Navy began to use Lough Foyle in a big way and they needed a light to mark this substantial island near its mouth. It was also slap-bang in the middle of the northern channel used by ships going from the Clyde to Amerikay and vice-versa.
So, the Ballast Board, newly imbued with the power to light our coastline, got to work to build a lighthouse on the island. Unfortunately, their first action was to cut down a whitethorn tree on the eastern end of the island, where the lighthouse was to be built. As the islanders were well aware, whitethorn trees are often the home of fairies but, despite their objections, building went ahead. As a consequence of this, everybody concerned with the building of the lighthouse - architects, stone-masons, island labourers etc - would die suddenly and inexplicably within a few short years. Fairies are notoriously touchy about having their homes destroyed, and I don't mean that in a derogatory way, in case any of them are reading this.
Incidentally, I have yet to read any details of the sudden, unexplained deaths and would be delighted to do so.
So the light was established on St. Patrick's Day 1813, the same day, four years later, that Ardglass and Fanad were first exhibited.

Shortly after the Bigger man put that notice in all the major newspapers, it seems he suddenly realised that he had forgotten something.

Actually, that is the only time I have ever seen an advertisement for a lightkeeper at an Irish lighthouse and it seems rather odd that they should stipulate the lighthouse when, even at that early stage of lighthouses, keepers would still be moved from station to station.
The lighthouse which was constructed of local rubble stone on the highest point of the island was designed by the celebrated George Halpin, who somehow managed to elude the vengeance of the fairies and built by workmen of the Ballast Board. Painted white, the light with the lantern cost £10,850 8s 4d to establish. It was roughly forty feet tall, stood 181 feet above the high water mark and was accompanied by  single-storey dwelling-houses and ancillary out-houses.

On 22nd June 1850, the Coleraine Chronicle reported a melancholy incident - "Melancholy case of Drowning – On Saturday morning last, as Philip Doherty and Edward Doherty of Ballygorman, near Malin Well, were proceeding, in a boat, to the island of Instrahull, (sic) and when about to enter the port, the boat was struck by a heavy sea and upset when, melancholy to relate, both men were thrown into the water and perished. They were the boatmen appointed for conveying, from the mainland to the lighthouse, the necessary supplies of provisions for the keeper, and oil for the lights, and had been in comfortable circumstances and said to have been experienced boatmen of strong constitution and athletic frames. Their untimely fate has left eleven children fatherless, Philip having left six and Edward five, besides their wives, bereft of their natural protectors."

It should be pointed out that all drownings in Victorian times were, by law, to be referred to as 'melancholy,' a point of grammar seemingly drummed into cub reporters heads. Boat journeys to and from lighthouses seem to have been the greatest cause of death at lighthouses in the 1800s, Slyne Head and Belfast Lough being particularly dangerous.
There were two keepers at Inishtrahull during the early years. In 1859, the Principal Keeper was earning £64 12s 4d per year, while his assistant brought in £46 3s. At this time, the light was a revolving white light, the flash appearing every 150 seconds, slowly strengthening and decreasing, which seems to me to be pretty slow.
In August 1863, the Dublin Mail gave details of the new lantern that was going to be installed on 'Innishall,' most of the details of which go way over my head, but somebody may make sense of them.

Between the old lighthouse and the very end of the island, there is an old graveyard. A bit lumpy and bumpy and most of the stones are apparently illegible. One of them though is eminently readable, as this picture from the Inishtrahull Facebook page shows: - 

Sadly, Annie died just before the introduction of civil registration for catholics in 1864, but a trawl of the Births, Marriages and Deaths around that time threw up the following birth cert for Annie's younger sister, Sara Maria:

John Young was of course one of many lighthouse keepers to have been based at Inishtrahull down through the years. A very comprehensive list exists for the 1900s but details are sketchy for the first 88 years to 1900. Edward McCarron, the author of 'Life in Donegal' did a fair stint on the island; and the ill-fated Callaghan family, who buried two children on Skellig Michael and another five at Inishowen, were at Inishtrahull in the 1870s, and had two children born there, neither of whom saw thirteen years of age.
At some stage between 1858 and 1873, the rotation of the light had been changed from two and a half minutes to one minute, because in 1874, it was changed again, down to thirty seconds.

However, things didn't go quite as planned for the Inishtrahull light, because there were questions asked about the frequency of the light after the Iris ran aground on the island, a vessel costing £23,000, though with no loss of life. It prompted a scathing letter in The Builder of 1st October 1883 from an anonymous writer who was probably former Irish Lights engineer John S. Sloane.

All that remains of the old lighthouse tower (photo courtesy John McCarron)

The new (1959) lighthouse on Inishtrahull seen from the gateposts of the old lighthouse on the other end of the island (photograph courtesy John McCarron)

A lot of metal was left lying around the old lighthouse, not only after the new lantern was installed in the 1860s but after the reduction in height of the old tower. The old story of the curse of the fairies is said to have made many people wary of reusing the metal (photos John McCarron)

To be continued

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Dunmore East

Dunmore East lighthouse 2014

For some strange reason that I haven't been able to fathom, my Google Newsfeed, when not telling me there's going to be some melodramatic weather ahead, keeps slipping in lighthouse articles. The World's most iconic lighthouses; Sierra Leone's most remote lighthouses; Milton Keynes' oldest lighthouses, that sort of thing. A recent one was "Ireland's prettiest lighthouses."
Now I'm well aware of the saying about beauty and eyes and beholders but Poolbeg pretty? It's iconic, for sure, but pretty? I always found it rather squat and dumpy. Blackhead, county Antrim? Yes, its nice enough, but nothing to make it stand out in the prettiness stakes. The article contained most of the so-called Great Lighthouses of Ireland, most of which are pretty due to their location, rather than any prettiness in themselves.
Ones that stand out for me are Donaghadee in county Down, Beeves Rock on the Shannon, Little Samphire Island in county Kerry and Ballycurrin on Lough Corrib. But the prettiest, by far, and like the others mentioned, didn't make the list has to be Dunmore East.

Engraving of Dunmore East by T. Dixon (1824 - 1842), with Hook Head behind. Not only is the light very classical but the pier doesn't look so bad either. Does anybody know what the contraption at the end of the pier is? Looks like something to do with tides.

The pier was famously built by the renowned Scottish engineer, Alexander Nimmo, whom I always see in my mind's eye as a Caledonian Derek Nimmo, which shows my age. He reputedly erected the five pillars at Tramore on the two headlands though others dispute this. It was built to facilitate a new mail packet route between Dunmore East and Milford Haven (it was superceded by Waterford in 1835). The tower was finished in October 1824, and was inspected by the Ballast Board in March 1825, when a few small improvements were noted and implemented. Finally in October 1825, the lamp was ready to be established. This clipping is from late summer 1824

The dwellings for the lighthouse were very cleverly incorporated into the raised parapet of the pier and protected from the sea by the boundary wall. However, on an inspection by Nimmo in January 1826, the dwellings were found to be damp and the keeper living away up in the town. The necessary improvements were made and the keeper moved in. The protection of the boundary wall was doubtless  a great advantage to Redmond (possibly Hugh or Josiah) as an 1838 letter to the Waterford Chronicle reveals.

It would indeed be very churlish to suggest that Redmond was the Spectator and I certainly wouldn't even broach such a suggestion.
The tower itself is a Grecian Doric column made of granite (Ref John S. Sloane - others say sandstone!), whereas the pier itself is made of red conglomerate or pudding stone. The reflectors were from the firm of Boulton and Watt and they were raised or beaten to the parabolic curve by Mr. John Thuillier, a name now more associated with Kinsale than Waterford.
The cast iron lattice work of the balcony is only found at one other Irish lighthouse (Haulbowline) although it is quite popular in Scotland

Photo of the harbour 1870 - 1890 Eblana Collection National Library of Ireland

Robert French photo 1880-1900 showing detail of the dwelling house National Library of Ireland

 The lighthouse in 2014

Thursday, March 18, 2021

The Copeland Islands - Lighthouse History and Keepers' Dwellings

The second Irelandscapes Lighthouse History documentary by the enigmatic Nick from Holywood county Down. Gives the history of the lighthouse(s) on the Copeland Islands and interviews with local fishermen and light attendants, backdropped with some wonderful footage.

Post amended 28th March 2021 in light of correction received from Joanna May (see bottom of page)

Mew Island light c.1940. Note the three disused sunken gasometers behind the tower. The lighthouse only acquired its white band in 1954. (Copyright estate of Eileen Kates, used by permission.)

Although the lighthouse at the end of Donaghadee pier was constructed in 1836, it was not until 1863 that the powers that be decided to erect a house for the keeper. To be fair, they acquired a plot of land in 1841, situated next to the Coastguards Cottage, but they promptly filled it up as a depot for stores, while the keeper lived in a rented house in the town.

The house was designed by John Swan Sloane, Chief Bottlewasher of the Ballast Board, and the contract was awarded to Mr. Nimick of Holywood and cost, with walling and gates, £843 8s 4d. As explained in Nick's video, it must be one of the few original Irish Lights dwellings still occupied by a lightkeeping family.

The lightkeeper's cottage, with the regulation red gates, near the beginning of the pier in Donaghadee harbour, behind the coastguard station. Picture shamelessly stolen from Nick's Irelandscapes video at the top of the page.

As for the keepers and their families at the light out on the Copeland Islands, there had been accommodation provided for them on Lighthouse (Lesser Copeland) Island but when the lighthouse went up on Mew Island in 1884, a block of five houses was erected at the same time, about a mile north of Donaghadee harbour on the main road to Groomsport. (They are still there, though in private hands since October 1957, just before the A2 hits the sea on the right hand side of the road opposite the Golf Club.) See correction at bottom of page

  The front of the lightkeepers cottages on the Warren Road. Picture taken from the shoreline Easter 1938. The road between Donaghadee and Groomsport would be on the far side of the buildings.(Copyright estate of Eileen Kates, used by permission.)

The five dwellings comprised three terraced houses facing out to Mew and two larger houses adjoining either end, facing north and south. As well as these, there was also constructed a large stores, a boathouse and a small quay with a winch and slipway. Reliefs were carried out from this quay, which was strictly private.

Lightkeeper's dwellings for Mew Island at the top left of the map, complete with their own quay. Detail below.

Of course, not everybody was happy with Irish Lights hogging the quay. One James Black in 1908 was particularly miffed by the notices going up!

Relief boat arriving back from Mew Island c.1940 (Copyright estate of Eileen Kates, used by permission.)

Radio telephone came to Mew in 1951. Prior to this, there was daily communication between the shore dwellings and the Mew Island via semaphore. The keeper on land gave news of wives and children and the keeper on the island transmitted his reply from the lantern. In addition to the semaphore, the keeper ashore also tended and observed the three lighted beacons in Donaghadee Sound - Deputy, Foreland and Governor.

Keepers Eugene Fortune and P. Heneghan at Mew Island c.1940 (Copyright estate of Eileen Kates, used by permission.)

Keepers E. Fortune, G. Evans and J. Lavelle, Mew Island, late 30s (Copyright estate of Eileen Kates, used by permission.)

The Foreland buoy, tended by the Mew Island liberty keeper, now stands at the entrance to the Mizen Head Visitors Centre in county Cork. (I must apologise for the spotted dog. His name is Tommy Bowe and he has photobombed photographs of mine from Hong Kong to Vancouver and all places in between)

I was delighted to receive a response to this post from Joanna Doyle, who comes from thoroughbred lightkeeping stock, going back to the early nineteenth century. 
I have written above that the Mew Island dwellings at Warren Road have been in private hands since 1957, taking my information from the CIL webpage for Mew Island - 
"The Keepers' shore dwellings at Donaghadee were discontinued and sold in October 1957 and the Keepers then lived in homes of their own, travelling to and from Donaghadee when their tour of duty on the island commenced or finished."
Not so, says Joanna, and she should know. Her mother and grandparents lived at the dwellings at least until 1966 and I would certainly dare not contradict Joanna's mother!!!