Thursday, December 1, 2022

The Ballycotton lighthouse fog-bell

 

Ballycotton lighthouse and fog bell back in the day. CIL photo album in the NLI

The coast of east Cork is notorious for dense fogs, so much so that the only Irish Lights station without a lighthouse - Poer Head - was established there in 1879 and survived through to 1970. The lighthouse at Ballycotton had been established in 1851 with a flashing white light that could be seen for eighteen miles in clear weather but was obviously rendered useless in thick fog.
Cue the Reverend George Sackville Cotter Hingston, local Protestant curate, who became a veritable thorn in the side of the Ballast Board in his agitations for a fog bell at the station. A letter to the Cork Constitution in March 1855 lays the blame for the wreck of the Choice (a barque loaded with barley) the previous month firmly on the lack of a fog bell on the station. He also relays another story whereby a wreck on the island itself during a snowstorm was narrowly averted by the lightkeeper (Mr. Nolan) and his assistant shouting at an approaching boat at the tops of their voices!
A letter from George Halpin (junior) in the same paper assures the reverend gentleman that "the subject has been under consideration, and I trust that a bell will be erected there during the approaching summer."
One might have thought that lessons would have been learned from recent history. In 1853, 83 people died when the PS Queen Victoria sunk off The Baily lighthouse at Howth during a snowstorm. One of the reasons was the lack of a fog bell. Seven years earlier, another Board of Trade enquiry had recommended that a fog bell be established at the Baily. The Ballast Board explained this hadn't been done because other projects had taken priority.
(Incidentally, the Assistant Keeper at the Baily at the time of that disaster had been one Denis Nolan, probably the same Mr. Nolan who was in charge of Ballycotton in 1855.)


By June 1956, there was still no sign of the promised fog bell and the Cork Constitution wasn't happy.


By the 5th August, after another near miss, the paper was apoplectic, obviously not realising that the Ballast Board operated on a 'Sure, whenever" principle.


However, in this latter instance, the Shipping Gazette chipped in and muddied the waters a bit


Four days later, the Ballast Board issued some good news: -


which naturally invoked a predictable tirade, of which I only copy the first part


According to the Irish Lights website, there was presumably some delay in getting the equipment moved to the island but eventually at the start of December 1856, the Cork Con was able to break the incredulous news that the fog-bell had been installed.


The bell had been cast at Mr. Sheridan's Eagle Foundry, Church Street, Dublin, as were the great bells at Dun Laoghaire East Pier, the Baily and, eventually, Roches Point. An inspection of Ballycotton lighthouse in 1859, three years later, noted that the station consisted of a Principal Keeper at £64 per year; an Assistant Keeper at £46 per year and a Fog Bell Winder at £36 per year. It added that "the weight of the machinery that rung the bell had a fall of only 12 feet and required to be wound up every three-quarters of an hour."
Maybe this was why the fog bell wasn't operating that same year?


Things obviously took a turn for the better for the fog bell lasted another 50 years, when it was replaced, on 30th December 1909 by a reed horn fog signal, which later morphed into the rather unlovely contraption above.

Thursday, November 24, 2022

Loop Head lightkeeper - a cautionary tale

 


A rather worrying report from a newspaper called the Cumberland Pacquet 4th October 1786. It is worrying in that the name of the unfortunate keeper is not mentioned, nor can I find out if indeed the keeper, evidently a male, was executed for his negligence.


Friday, November 18, 2022

Blackhead lighthouse, county Antrim

 

As part of the ALK'S AGM weekend in Belfast in October, we got the opportunity to visit Black Head lighthouse in county Antrim and access the lantern and balcony, courtesy of the good people in CIL.
Black Head marks the northern entrance to Belfast Lough. Because of this important location, it is surprising that it was only established in 1902, although a short-lived cottage-style light was built on top of the hill above it in the 1660s. The reason for this is probably the presence of the two Maidens lights several miles north east, which were probably deemed adequate enough to signify where a ship was in relation to Belfast. It is obviously not a coincidence that when one of the Maidens was discontinued, Black Head was established.


The lighthouse is accessed by way of a narrow 'high' road from the town of Whitehead (I kid you not) or by way of a path along the bottom of the cliffs from the same place. The path is great fun and probably better in rough weather, due to the little bridges and caves that adorn its route. I walked it with Joanna Doyle and 'Auntie' Lorna Grimes, of the same lightkeeping stock of Loughreys and Ryans that had lived here when it was a working, manned lighthouse prior to 1975.


One of the advantages of visiting with the ALK is that you get access to a lot of places normally out of bounds. Thus, I was shown a small dwelling house out the back, in which were plans of the lighthouse: -



William Douglass' signature can be seen bottom right

And there was also a list of names of keepers at this station since its inception in 1902, probably drawn up by the irrepressible Frank Pelly:-


The Principal Keepers


and the Assistant keepers and attendants. It's amazing how many of the old dynastic lightkeeping names keep turning up, Higginbotham, Lavelle, Corish, Luccan, Ryan, Loughrey, Staniforth, O'Donnell, Moore, Maguire, Stocker, Polly - the list is endless.

Being a shore lighthouse and relatively new, it probably doesn't have the history associated with some of its more illustrious compatriots but the location is incredible. I did write about Johnny Connell's experiences here in the 1950s, but in the meantime, I'll shut up and leave you with a few views !















Saturday, November 12, 2022

Buoys oh Buoys

 

A navigation buoy, probably Foyle or Tuns, being brought ashore at the bottom of Clarendon Street, Derry for maintenance & cleaning around the 1960s.
Photograph courtesy John McCarron

I can cheerfully admit that I know very little about buoys. David Bowie once told me that they keep swinging and always work it out but that's about the extent of my knowledge. Buoy maintenance is so far from my sphere of understanding that those employed in the field would probably regard me with scorn and / or pity.
However, I know enough to know that if you got a belt from the buoy in the wonderful picture above, you'd know about it. Actually, you probably wouldn't know about it. The point is, those things look pretty managable when they're in water but gigantic out of it.
The series of photographs below were sent to me by Chris Kates, a descendant of both the Fortune and the Jeffers dynasty of lightkeepers. The photographs show how buoys were rounded up, lassooed and broken in back in the 1940s and were taken at Ferris Point. They are all ‘Copyright estate of Eileen Kates, used by permission.’ 


Looks like Ballylumford in the background. On the look-out.


After a lot of swinging and working out, the buoy is finally caught

He's a doggone ornery crittur but the buoy is eventually broken in


The buoy agrees to come quietly so long as you pat his head and give him a sugarlump


This is the bit where you don't want him to keep swinging


Seriously, though, I bet if you ever went for a few pints with them lads, they'd be able to tell you a tale or two and I'd imagine there were a good few hospitalisations if not worse. Personally, they make me feel soft and inadequate.


This was the Granuaile at Dun Laoghaire a few years ago. I imagine you still have to keep your wits about you when the crane hauls up that orange buoy.

The Titanic Quarter up in Belfast has an area dedicated to buoys - well, three of them anyway, painted in the colours. Red ones are for the port side coming into port; black ones (or green) are for the starboard side coming into port; and the stripey ones are for a junction. Although they are hollow, they can weigh around three tons each and are anchored in place.



Outside the Mizen Centre in county Cork, the Foreland buoy is a long way from the Copeland Islands


Yellow Smart buoy outside Irish Lights HQ in Dun Laoghaire, going for the record for the largest QR code in the world

Thursday, November 10, 2022

As regards lighthouse animals, are these the GOAT?


Goats at Ballycotton August 2022

"In view of the difficulty experienced at many lighthouse stations in obtaining supplies of fresh milk for young children, the Commissioners desire to draw the attention of their Lightkeepers to the desirability of keeping goats wherever practical."
So begins an Irish Lights memo to staff, dated 25th September 1918. It goes on to recommend the Anglo-Nunian and the Toggenberg breed to keepers, rather than the 'ordinary Irish goat' because the milk yield is higher and they give milk for ten months of the year. However, the excited keeper is warned, goats of the better class (I kid you not) aren't nearly as hardy as the 'ordinary Irish goat' and at the first sign of a chill wind they start complaining that they want to be stall-fed.
Keepers, said the memo, who are finding it difficult finding a good stud goat in the vicinity, should write to the Honorary Secretary of the Irish Goat Society in Trillick, county Tyrone, who presumably stepped up to the plate himself.


Goats on Skellig Michael circa 1900

Lightkeepers and goats, goes the old musical hall song, go together like a horse and carriage, though things didn't always work out for the best for the goats. Take young Annie O'Leary's account of a terrible storm on Inishtearaght, co. Kerry, in 1894, when families still lived on that barren rock.
"It was a terrible destruction. the houses were washed nine feet with sea, also the lighthouse. All the goats out of forty died of starvation, because the grass was swept off with the gale, and 31 kids, all but one little kid, her name was Gin." 
One fervently hopes that the kids she refers to were baby goats.


A semi-feral goat on Dalkey Island with the Muglins lighthouse behind

Things weren't a lot better for goats in the 1940s, particularly on the rock stations on the west coast. Take this example from the Irish Weekly and Ulster Examiner of 13th March 1943, where the reporter, (who, incidentally, seems to have trouble with the concept of 'an island,') explains why marooned keepers on Eagle Island will never starve to death.
"Eagle Island is not in reality an island, but a tall, irregular strip of rock jutting up in the Atlantic and is uninhabited, save for the lighthouse keepers.
'The lighthouse keepers' food problem on Eagle Island is not yet regarded as critical, as many wild goats graze on its slopes and, when short of food, the lighthouse keepers kill and eat them."


The goats didn't always come off worse though. In 1913, poor Denis Connolly fell to his death on the Tearaght as he rounded up the goats for milking. They must have been a different breed to the goats on Ballycotton who apparently didn't need rounding up but lined up in an orderly fashion along the path below the lighthouse at milking time. But these were probably a better class of goat.

Thursday, November 3, 2022

Fine art, poetry and music at Eagle Island in the 1870s and 1880s

 

The above painting is entitled "The Irish brigantine Sligo and other vessels in rough weather below Eagle Island, county Mayo," which is not quite as snappy as The Kiss or The Scream. He may have been a decent enough painter (he had to have been to have painted that picture with the boat bobbing up and down like it was on a spring) but Admiral Richard Brydges Beechey - the artist - had a lot of work to do on title length.
RBB was an artist of note, as was his father, Sir William Beechey who was a celebrated portrait painter and also fathered eighteen children, not necessarily at the same time. Followers of Arctic maritime history will know that Beechey Island was the last resting place of two of the crew of the ill-fated Franklin expedition to discover the North West passage. The island was named for Sir William by another of his many sons who was a lieutenant on one of Parry's Arctic voyages.
Junior Beechey entered Naval College in 1825 and was part of the maritime survey of Ireland ten years later. By 1864 he had fully retired and had time to concentrate on his paintings. The painting above is dated 1874, when of course two lighthouses sat proudly on Eagle Island. The east lighthouse, was destroyed by a violent storm in 1894 and the west lighthouse was destroyed by a violent burst of corporate architectural vandalism in 2014.

The painting above is also by Richard Brydges Beechey and is entitled "Eagle Island, off Erris Head, W. Coast of Ireland," which is better but still too wordy. It was painted in 1885, ten years later. One suspects the driftwood (bottom left) was part of the Irish brigantine, Sligo, in the top picture, which seems to have been placed just where those two nasty rocks jut out. 

As if one dose of art was not enough to make you lie down, I now give you a piece of rhyming verse from 1878 by a poet called C.B., whose bid for everlasting fame and fortune were blighted when he refused to reveal the other letters in his name. It details a pleasure trip from Belmullet to Inishkea and back which strangely takes in Blacksod, Inis Glora and Eagle Island. I have lifted it from the Connaught Telegraph 14th September 1878.

Of course, it isn't easy marrying CB's words of a tranquil sea with Beechey's violent waves for which Eagle Island is renowned. It is also difficult imagining the cost of public liability insurance today for a cruise around an island notorious for bad weather but, as I have often maintained, the Victorians were completely mad.

And if that wasn't enough to convince you that Eagle Island, more than Florence or Milan or London was the artistic capital of the world in the 1870s, I give you a testimonial from Charles O'Brien, lightkeeper, of Eagle Island, who doubtless organised melodeon parties on the rock as part of his enlightened musical education policies in regard to the children of his fellow-keepers.