Model of Whitecastle pile light by Ken Doherty, built from a 1927 photograph, currently on display at the Inishowen Maritime Museum in Greencastle
The lights of Lough Foyle have baffled me now for many a day, mainly because many of them are gone and there is very little in the archives about them. So, with a lot of help from local residents, Seamus Bovaird and Martin Doherty, I have tried to piece them together and record what little I know of them.
In general, Lough Foyle is a large expanse of water, where the River Foyle, after flowing through the city of Derry (I use the term merely because it is shorter) and its outskirts, suddenly widens out as it nears the sea. Donegal is on the west side, co. Derry is on the east side. After partition, nobody thought to decide who had jurisdiction over what but now the Lough is jointly administered.
The main channel for vessels ran along the Donegal coast and lights were erected by the Derry Harbour Board to warn ships from straying too close to the shore. From north to south and showing the date of their establishment, they were -
Warrenpoint (a tower on land) (1861);
Moville (pile light) (1882);
Redcastle (pile light) (1852);
Whitecastle (pile light) (1848);
Quigley's Point (pile light) (1896);
Ture (pile light) (1850);
and Coneyburrow (pile light) (1848).
In addition to the pile lighthouses above, there were also pile lights with no houses. The general rule of thumb seems to be that the light-houses had eight legs whereas the house-less lights had four legs or fewer.
Of these, only the top two remain (I have not included the two Shroove lights at the the very north of the Lough as these are Irish Lights administered) I have been unable to find out when the other five pile lights were pulled down but I suspect some time around the 1960s, on the very spurious grounds that 'somebody on Facebook remembered them as a child.' According to Seamus Bovaird of the Inishowen Maritime Museum, "Deepening and re-profiling the main channel was the death knell for the piled lights as scouring at the channel edges would under cut one, or two, legs of the structure and over it went. Alterations to the channel left some pile lights too far away from the edge of the channel to be safe marks."
Relative position of Whitecastle light to Moville and Redcastle (above) and to Quigley's Point and Ture (below)
I have been unable to locate a Notice to Mariners for any of the pile lights but Jenkins' Lists' date of 1848 for Whitecastle coincides with Hoskyn's Sailing Directions (1877) date of 1848.
Incidentally, I have come across a melancholy drowning accident from 1846. (In Victorian newspapers, deaths by drownings were always 'melancholy.' It must have been drummed into cub reporters' heads, like 'i before e.') The report tells the story of two boys who were trying to return to their father's 'light-boat' but struck it too hard and split their own boat. One was drowned and the other saved. But, at the risk of being blasé about the death of a boy, what interested me was the fact that there was a light vessel in Lough Foyle, which was probably replaced by the Whitecastle pile light.
What we do know about pile lights is they seem to have been fairly high-maintenance with repairs being carried out at regular intervals. Even as early as 1862, newspaper advertisements were inviting tenders for the repair of Ture, Whitecastle and Redcastle lighthouses. Redcastle and Whitecastle were again repaired in 1876. In 1899, Whitecastle light was practically rebuilt.
An 1859 report describes the Whitecastle Light as showing a Common oil lamp with ten burners. By 1864, holophotal lamps were being used and the piles were painted red. Sailing directions for 1917 list Whitecastle light as a white house on black piles showing a fixed white light on the edge of the Great Bank. The piles were subsequently painted red again.
We know the names of a few of those early lightkeepers. On the 1901 census, it was 23-year-old Donegal man, Neal Duffy, though in December of that year, the board appointed Edward Henry as lightkeeper. He was a farmer from Ballyargus and had a large family. On Monday 24th June 1907, reported the Derry Journal, Whitecastle lightkeeper William Farren had just pushed off from the lighthouse in his boat when a sudden squall capsized it and, by a huge stroke of luck, he was spotted by the occupants of a nearby motor-yacht and rescued, after spending 25 minutes in the water. The 1911 Census shows 28 year old Daniel Farren, probably William's son, as the lightkeeper.
Actually, of the five lost pile lighthouses in the Lough, Whitecastle is not entirely lost. Anybody driving down the extraordinarily beautiful coast road cannot fail to see the remains of the piles sticking up out of the water, with a new pole light close by.
The remains of Whitecastle pile light with the new light to the left, 2016
Martin Doherty of the Harbour Board tells the story of a brave attempt at recycling the piles a few years ago. The piles were fitted with a platform and upturned drainpipes. It was hoped that terns would nest in the drainpipes and keep the eggs safe from cormorants, who are nasty little buggers at the best of times. Sadly a storm the following year did for the platform.
The Whitecastle platform with nesting drainpipes. Note the red paint still on the piles. (Pic. courtesy Martin Doherty)