Sunday, March 19, 2023

Letter to Granny Part 1 - Fanad lighthouse

Fanad lighthouse c. 1903 (National Library of Ireland)

Towards the end of the 1800s, the Weekly Irish Times used to run a half page by a very suspicious individual called Kincora, or maybe its simply the name that conjures up dark connotations. Basically, it was a Children's club called The League of Kindness; kids wrote in and got a thrill in seeing their letters published. They used to sign their letters, "Your little friend" and ask things like "How do you like my handwriting?" which didn't always get the response they were expecting. 
I reproduced some letters from the Corish girls, Agnes and Josie, two years ago in regard to their letters from Eagle Island and Blacksod in 1894 and 1895.
Anyhow, seems that Kincora morphed into someone called 'Granny' in the early years of the new century who would offer hampers as prizes for the best letter of the week. Kids writing in would, rather worryingly, sign off with, Your loving Grandson (or Granddaughter, as the case may have been)
It appears that lighthouse kids were actually quite good at winning the hampers, mainly because their life experiences were different from most of their peers. I give you this prize-winning letter published on 24th January 1903: -

William John Harris Lyons (its very striking but when you're looking up birth records, most kids only have one name but lightkeepers' offspring invariably had two or even three. Maybe they had notions?) was 13 years old at the time of writing. His Dad was Principal Keeper Richard Lyons who probably arrived up in Fanad after the previous PK, Frank Maguire tragically slipped or was blown over the cliffs in 1900.
William had been born at Rock Island, Crookhaven, his father probably serving on the old Fastnet at the time. His mother was the daughter of the Chief Officer of the Coastguard at Crookhaven (William Wright)
I must admit I don't really understand the bit about the cones on the flagstaff. How do you put a cone upside down on the southern part of a flagstaff? What if the storm is coming from the west?
And I certainly wouldn't agree with his comment about the "only time Fanad is nice." Fanad is always nice.

The Coastguard station, eagerly anticipated by William Lyons in 1903 was gutted in the War of Independence in August 1920

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Frank O'Farrell (517)


The very beautiful old Skellig Michael lower light before renovation. This post is entirely based on Seamus Farrell's painstaking research into his father's career

Francis J. "Frank" O'Farrell, Service no. 517 was not, like many others, born into the lightkeeping service. You could say that he chose the service, rather than the service choosing him. 
Born in Waterford in January 1934, his father was a member of the Gardai. After school, he joined British Rail as an electrician and also became a wireless operator in the Merchant Navy. Apparently the only time he got wet in the latter job was having to stand in the rain at Queen Elizabeth's coronation in 1953!

Frank as a wireless operator in the Merchant Navy aged 19

Returning to Ireland, he was appointed a Supernumerary keeper with Irish Lights in November 1956, a position he held for four years which, to me, seems a very long time. Seamus has been trying to piece together which lights he served on (Irish Lights have no SAK records) and has come up with Dun Laoghaire East Pier, The Baily, Black Head, Mew, Haulbowline, Hook, Ballycotton, the Fastnet, Roancarrig, Skellig, Tearaght, Slyne Head, Black Rock Mayo, Loop Head, Eagle Island and Rathlin West. In four years, I wouldn't be surprised if there were many more.

Irish Examiner 24th December 1958

This period - 1956 to 1960 - was of course in the days of vapourised paraffin, explosive fog signals and clockwork-run weights that made the lens revolve. It was also during this time, while stationed at the Baily that he met Gabrielle, who would later become his wife. She worked at Keogh's Sweet Shop in Sutton Cross.

A very dapper new SAK in 1956

Frank got made Assistant Keeper on 5th November 1960  and was posted to Skellig Michael for three years just before the station was modernised and rebuilt. With Gabrielle and daughter Cathriona, they lived in the Knightstown dwellings on Valentia, next door to Jean and Peter Duggan, who was a keeper on the Tearaght.
From county Kerry, they moved up to Shroove in county Donegal for another three years before spending four and a half years in his first spell on Rockabill. Then it was to the bleak isolation of Eeragh in the Aran Islands for ten months before putting in nearly six years on the Tuskar from 1972 to 1978. 

Irish Press December 10th 1965

Two more years on the Kish in Dublin Bay and then Frank made Principal Keeper, returning to Rockabill where he had served at the end of the sixties. An unusual occurrence happened there in 1982, when Frank, from his watch at the lighthouse, happened to spot that the 30 bedroomed Rockabill Hotel in Skerries was on fire and alerted the emergency services to the fact!

Frank in the lantern room of Rockabill with the old vaporized burner. To me, there's a look of Colm Meaney about him here. During his time there he worked with Johnny Weldon and Alan Boyers

Photo by Frank from the Bolko relief helicopter approaching Rockabill.

Frank's final posting was back to the Kish in May 1983, the only Irish lighthouse with no outside land space.* Exercise could be had running around the top of the tower! Two years into his stint he fell ill and had to be airlifted off the station. He retired from Irish Lights in 1986.
Frank died in October 2012.

Frank's son, Paul, also joined Irish Lights and achieved the distinction of being the last keeper to be awarded a service number. Paul's number (701) is therefore the highest and the last in a list of all the keepers that served from 1900 onwards. He joined in 1982 and resigned in 1986, during which time he probably experienced more different and varied light stations than many of his predecessors who served ten times as long. When Dad Frank was airlifted from the Kish in 1985, it was Paul who was sent out to replace him, which was definitely not Irish Lights procedure!

Seamus, (Frank's son,) would be keen to hear any reminiscences of his father's time in Irish Lights. Any comments posted on Facebook or on the blog, or sent to me on gouldingpeter at gmail dot com, will be forwarded on to him.

*I am rightly pulled up by Lee Maginnis who wonders what kind of outside exercise space Haulbowline had. Of course, he's right though I'm not sure if the keepers couldn't get out and stretch their legs at really low tide. But then of course, I thought of the pile lights of Spit Bank in Cork Harbour, Passage East, Dundalk, Moville, Redcastle, Whitecastle, Ture, Lough Mahon and Dunkettle, not to mention the Dublin lighthouses of North Wall and North Bank, and I realised, yes, you're never too old to make a complete hames of something!

Thursday, March 9, 2023

A lighthouse at Caherdaniel?


Abbey Island and Derrynane Harbour, county Kerry

John Swan Sloane. You've got to love him. I come back to him a lot as he was a very interesting character in nineteenth century lighthouse history. He was appointed Superintendent of Foremen and Works to the Ballast Board in 1862 and 'retired' around 1878 just before his greatest achievement, Galley Head was completed. I say 'retired' because, in his subsequent career as a freelance journalist for The Irish Builder, he constantly harangued the Board of Irish Lights that had ousted him, mostly under pseudonyms, while referring to himself in glowing terms, also under pseudonyms. In 1873, he wrote a pamphlet called Manual for Lightkeepers which a) gave historical information on many Irish lighthouses and b) I would sell my Granny to get a hold of.
Anyway, in one article in The Irish Builder (1st March 1880) he talks about 'ancient lighthouses' from the 1750s and earlier. He makes the point that lighthouse construction could be connected to the prosperity of ports and even in the 'dark days,' there were lighthouses at the mouths of rivers marking the entrance into major ports. Thus, he writes, the west coast had Loop Head, Aran Island, Clare Island and Cahirdaniel (sic); the south had Barryoge's Castle at Kinsale, St. Anne's Tower at Youghal and The Hook; whilst the east had Howth and The Copelands.
Of these of course, Hook and Youghal were medieval lights and Loop Head, Barryoge's Castle, Howth and the Copelands were cottage lighthouses.
Which leaves Aran Island, Cahirdaniel and Clare Island. 
Aran Island is evidently Inis Mor (1818)  and Clare Island went up in 1806, unless there's another one we don't know about.
Which leaves Caherdaniel.
Of this lighthouse, Sloane says "the great house at Cahirdaniel was perhaps in its day the most famous. James deCourcy O'Connell, in 1548, got a grant in Parliament for its maintenance, with certain allowances and emoluments from the many passing ships going coastwise to Galway, bearing the rich wines and merchandise of Spain to the City of the Tribes, It was also particularly and well looked after by the monks of Ballinskelligs, at the time frequent visitors for penance and otherwise to the larger Skellig Rock ...
This ancient lighthouse tower is quite unknown to the authorities of the present day ... (note the dig!) ... like Loophead, it was square, of great strength and, on its flat but vaulted roof, was burned the beacon fire. When the lighting of the coast was undertaken by the Revenue Board, it was discontinued and permitted to fall into disuse and ruin; but yet, in its decay, it shows evidence of grand structural skill, being evidently the work of the same artisans who constructed Loop Head and the Great Aran."
Of course, the account is full of holes. The O'Connells for example probably weren't in Caherdaniel in 1548. The monks of Ballinskelligs probably weren't doing a great deal after the dissolution of the monasteries. The Revenue Commissioners took over the lighthouses in 1786 - when Sloane says the lighthouse was abandoned -  and Sloane says, in 1880, that the ruins are still impressive - yet no ruins appear on any early maps. And if it was the work of the same artisans who built Loop Head (1690) and Great Aran (1818), while already standing in 1548, those artisans must have found the secret of everlasting life. Oh, and how can a roof be flat and vaulted?
The big flaw, as pointed out to me by local Historian Vinny Hyland, is that "the great house at Caherdaniel" is of course Derrynane, which isn't actually in sight of the sea!

OS map of the south west Iveragh peninsula. The Skelligs are on the left, Caherdaniel on the right. Nobody could claim tolls for ships passing a light so far out of sight of the ocean. Bolus Head, now...

Aoibheann of the Heritage Iveragh/Oidhreacht Uíbh Ráthaigh group made further enquiries:

I asked members of the local community at a local meeting if anyone knew of such a lighthouse but no-one was aware of any such building. There is nothing on the archaeological survey either. I myself am an archaeologist and have walked much of Lambs Head. Lamb Island and Abbey Island (as well as parts of Hogs Head and Bolus Head) looking for archaeological sites and cannot say I have seen anything that fits that description. It is conceivable that the Napoleonic-era tower on Hog's Head was built on the site of an earlier structure but that is just conjecture. Likewise the WW2 lookout post on Lambs Head may have been constructed on an earlier site.

Aoibheann also pointed out that Caherdaniel was much less handy for the Skelligs than Ballinskelligs or Bolus Head. So Sloane may well have been talking out of his backside.
Still .....

Bolus Head looking out on the Skelligs. There is a wonderful loop walk going around the head.

Thursday, March 2, 2023

Tarbert lighthouse (the Irish one!) Part One - the early years

There is a very statuesque barber-shop lighthouse at Tarbert (aka Tarbat) (aka Tarbert Ness) gracing the headland north of Inverness constructed by Robert Stevenson in 1830. This post is not about that light. This post is about the less statuesque but equally as interesting lighthouse built on Tarbert Island on the south shore of the Shannon estuary  by George Halpin four years later. The 74 feet limestone tower was built in response to the increased trade to the port of Limerick and the inability of ships to spot a rather treacherous rock called the Bowline (Bolands) Rock. Lighting Tarbert meant ships could now clear the rock and use Tarbert as a port of refuge before being piloted through the narrows. One of the chief promoters for the establishment of a light at that spot was a Mr. Robert Steele, a Cambridge don, inventor of "the communicating diving bell" - whoa!! - author of a treatise on improving the navigation of the Shannon and a man of fortune, who had temporarily forsaken academia for a spot of political agitation.

(Photograph courtesy of the Trustees of Muckross House, Muckross House Research Library)

After an acre of the northern part of the tidal island had been purchased for £210, Mr. Robert Howard was engaged to build the tower to Mr. Halpin's specifications. (The Pilot reported in 1830 that the Ballast Board baulked at the enormous expense and volunteered to place a lightship off the island instead. Fortunately wiser heads prevailed!) The money paid was divided very fairly between three-year-old owner of the land, Robert Leslie, who got £200 and John Clarke, the tenant, who doubtless retired on the £10 he received for his troubles. 
Howard had the tower constructed by May 1832, from when, for some reason, it took two years to add the lantern and the optic. Eventually, on the last day of March 1834, a fixed white catoptric second order light shone forth 58 feet above the high water mark. The dwelling house for the keeper and his family was added later. 
The people of Tarbert apparently had a meeting in March 1832, in which they agreed that the forthcoming lighthouse should be named the O'Connell Lighthouse after Dan, the man, who had just been elected M.P. for Clare. However, the Government soon put a stop to their gallop. (Source - the magnificent "Tarbert - an unfinished biography" by Patrick J. Lynch (2008))

When the light shone forth for the first time, "its splendid illumination was hailed with joy by all the mariners in the Shannon," (the Dublin Observer 5th April 1834) which must have been quite a spectacle. At midnight, who should come rowing over from Labasheeda Bay on the north bank of the estuary but a boat crew carrying an ebullient Mr. Steele, who had them rowing around for hours so he could view the light from all angles.

Photo Facebook page

After minutely inspecting the building, he cracked open a bottle of wine in the lantern room and he and his boat crew drank to the health of George Halpin. Every aspect of the lighthouse, he said, commanded admiration. The illumination was splendid, the ventilation was admirable, the building had been beautifully designed and executed, every comfort had been provided in the interior (bet there was no jacuzzi) and the keeper chosen was trustworthy and eminently suited for the position. Oh and he was now going to politically agitate for a light where the unlit Beeves Rock beacon now stood further up the estuary.

1967 photograph with Morris Minor or maybe an 1100 on the foreshore - National Library

There is some confusion (or rather, "I am confused") as to the construction of the wonderful bridge which went up in 1841 to nullify the needless hazard of the keeper having to row to and from the lighthouse twice a day. Some sources suggest there was a causeway constructed from the lighthouse to the island, which was a possibility as it would have greatly helped in the construction of the tower. On the other hand, on the Night of the Big Wind in January 1839, the Revenue House on Tarbert Island was badly damaged and "the bridge leading to the lighthouse thereon was carried away," according to the Drogheda Journal and others. Incidentally, it also said that every boat except one was blown onto the Clare shoreline!
Whatever the story about the original bridge, work was definitely underway on a new bridge by August 1840, when the Kerry Evening Post reported that 
"On Tuesday last, a poor man was conveying a large quantity of heavy metal for constructing the bridge between the Light-House and Tarbert Island, when the boat was upset and one of the pieces of the metal fell upon the poor man’s breast, which carried him to the bottom and he was drowned." Was never particularly fond of heavy metal myself.
In September, the Limerick Reporter wrote that the Ballast Board was "throwing a handsome iron bridge over the rapid sea water which runs between the new Tarbert Light-house and the shore." If only it were as easy as that.

1842 sketch by Captain Thomas Hastings of Tarbert Harbour with the lighthouse in the background - National Library

From Beam 13.1 - the journal of the Irish Lighthouse service

As I have a limited attention span, I will post about Tarbert keepers down through the years presently. Well, futurely.

Saturday, February 25, 2023

Lightkeeping graffiti

R. Polly; J. Campbell; R. Nelson; P. McMahon; R.G. Hamilton; P. Barry; J.A. Martin; T. Glanville; G. McCurdy; L. Jones

I have no idea where I came across the picture above. Its on my pc entitled Mew cupboard, so I presume forty years of keepers left their names there for posterity. Maybe they couldn't find the visitors' book?
On Inishtrahull, a couple of years ago, Irish Lights were burning a load of furniture from the keepers' dwellings to safeguard the integrity of the dwellings. Thankfully somebody at least managed to take a photo of some more lightkeeping graffiti on the back of a wardrobe: -

J. Cleary 1966/70; Jas. Walsh 1929; John Walsh 1929 - 1935

James Walsh 1924

There is also, apparently, a flat slab facing the sea in front of the house on Mutton Island, on which has been carved the name "D. Hawkins." Unfortunately there were two lightkeepers named Daniel Hawkins, one born in 1864. Or it could have been a child of either of them.

Sunday, February 19, 2023

Tern Island, co. Galway


Tern Island - facing the onslaught for sixty years 

Tern Island is a little-known lighthouse on the west coast of Ireland. Sorry, I'll start again.
Tern Island is a little, known lighthouse on the west coast of Ireland. It is small, (under fifty acres in total area), and faces some of the worst weather in the world. Yet, despite its size and isolation, no shipwreck has ever taken place in its sphere of operation.
Built of concrete in the 1960s, it was designed and constructed by keeper Gerry Rohu. Remarkably, this was his first foray into lighthouse construction and only the approaching automation of lights around the coast curtailed his promising career.
It is in fact one of the only two lights around the coast that cannot be viewed from the mainland, Tearaght being the other. Out of sight and out of mind, Tern Island has very much gone under the radar (about forty feet under it) for many years.
When the Slyne Head East light was discontinued in 1898, it was felt that parts of the Slyne Head archipelago that marked the northern entrance of Galway Bay were at risk from the violent storm waves that frequently assail the coast. Irish Lights, the Board of Trade and Trinity House therefore embarked on over sixty years of procrastination and earnest letter-writing before work commenced on this unique beacon. It was in fact the only daymark in the country that is situated on a rock in a lake on a rock.

Photo from Beam 32

The 300mm tower was nearly 500mm above high water and was painted white with a red band. Rather unusually, the job of painting it was carried out by the keepers on nearby Slyne Head, rather than the dedicated painting teams employed by Irish Lights.
Rohu's lighthouse, as it became known, was accompanied by a derrick to land cargo and various dwellings and outhouses. Transatlantic liners entering Galway Bay were always pleased to see the black tower of Slyne Head and the white and red tower of Tern Island after a journey from New York or Halifax.

When the keepers left Slyne Head in 1990, the Tern Island beacon was looked after by an attendant who visited once a month. Seán Faherty's job entailed tending the Slyne Head while naturally concentrating on Tern Island. It was his idea to light the previously unlit beacon and this came to fruition in 2003, when Notice to Mariners 999 was issued.

No. 999 (2003)


West Coast of Ireland

Tern Island (Mini Slyne Head) Lighthouse
Notice of Establishment of New Solar Electric Light

Irish Lights Office,
16 Lower Pembroke Street,
Dublin 2.

29th February 2003

The Commissioners of Irish Lights hereby give notice that on Monday 24th February 2003, or as soon thereafter as circumstances permit, a new solar powered electric light will be established at the previously unlit lighthouse at Tern Island, inner lake, Slyne Head.

The position, character, phasing and lighting times of the new light are as follows:

Position 53° 24.0' N 10° 14.0' W
Character Fl (2) W 15s (fl 0.1, ec 2.4, fl 0.1, ec 12.4 = 15s)
(as per main Slyne Head Light)
Range 300 nautical metres
Lighting Time 24 hour
Synchronised No
Height above MHWS 500mm
Sectors Visible from main lighthouse compound and path.
Obscured to seaward. Structure 300mm lighthouse tower. White with red band

All other details remain unchanged.

A Radio Navigational Warning will be issued when the above changes have taken place.

By Order.

The solarisation project involved constructing a battery room, complete with roof-mounted panels, a new lantern room and LED optic. After much consideration, it was decided not to take 20 feet off the Slyne Head tower despite the fact that it might cause a shadow. Work was carried out under the supervision of Paul Gilligan (flasher design), P.P. Mooney (solar array), Jim Murphy and Bill Kelly (on-site installation) and Seán Faherty (Tern Island Attendant).

Sean Faherty (left) and Jim Murphy at work on the solarisation project 2003 (Beam 32)

One worries now for the future of Tern Island. With the attendants gradually being phased out, there is nobody to make running repairs and there is even a rumour that Irish Lights HQ in Dun Laoghaire no longer monitor the light.

My thanks to Rory McGee, whose detailed and authoritative account of the solarisation project I have  brazenly  stolen  from Beam 32 to produce this post.

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Ireland's Guiding Lights - Aerial Photography by Dennis Horgan

It was doubtless unfortunate for aerial photographer Dennis Horgan that his stunning new hardback book should be released at roughly the same time as the spin-off book from the Great Lighthouses of Ireland television series, with all its money and advertising that ensured it was a good Christmas seller. I haven't actually seen the David O'Hare book yet, (despite the publicity) though I've heard very good things about it. But it is slightly unfair on Horgan that his superlative photographs probably came off second best in the Christmas market.
For, make no mistake, the photography is incredible, well-framed and making good use of the hinterland. It is a shame that the finest photo in the book, (in my uneducated opinion) a stunning two-page spread of the Mizen peninsula from Mounts Gabriel and Knocknaphuca over to the Sheep's Head, should suffer from the Mizen station and bridge disappearing down the centre-fold of the book but that is being churlish.
Let's face it, it's difficult for lighthouse photography not to look spectacular but Horgan's eye is true. John Eagle's "Ireland's lighthouses - a photo essay" covered much the same ground and the zoomable photos on the marinas site add an extra dimension but as far as the photographs go, this book is difficult to surpass. The view of Blackrock lighthouse (Sligo) at low tide on its island, for example,  is one I hadn't even envisaged and I had always thought that Rathlin O'Beirne was one island, rather than a part of an archipelago! And its so refreshing to see a photo of Achillbeg that isn't a tiny blur from Clare Island!
A few gremlins appear to have crept into the text alas, particularly as regards dates. But these don't materially affect the overall emphasis of the book and the book was put together for a wider audience than lighthouse anoraks like myself.
To someone with a slight OCD complaint. like myself, a couple of things jarred. The lighthouses are listed in a clockwise direction around Ireland, starting at the Tuskar and ending at Wicklow Head. But in a couple of places, on the east coast, the order goes out of kilter - Mew Island skips down to Haulbowline before coming back up to Donaghadee and St. John's Point; and the Bailey and Poolbeg precede Rockabill.
Worse though, (for myself, I must admit) were the omissions. No Duncannon North, Sherkin Island, Sheep's Head, Ardnakinna, Dingle, Tarbert, Beeves Rock (one of my favourites), Slyne Head (really? no Slyne Head?), Blacksod (ditto), Broadhaven, Dunree Head, Buncrana (okay, forget Buncrana), Moville, Rue, The Maidens (again, really?), Chaine Tower, Ferris Point, South Rock, Ardglass, Greenore (okay, not easy to get a good aerial photo of that), Dundalk, Drogheda, Balbriggan, Howth, North Bank, North Bull, Wicklow Pier or Rosslare Pierhead.
Hopefully, these are merely being saved for a Volume 2!!
Published by Red Stripe Press, Ireland's Guiding Lights - Aerial Photography by Dennis Horgan may be purchased on the author's website for €24.99 plus post and packing,