Wednesday, July 1, 2020

The six Ardglass lighthouses - No. 5

The sands of time tend to run slow, yet they would be given a good run for their money by lighthouse construction in nineteenth century Ireland. The Calf Rock lighthouse blew down in 1881, signalling that the first Fastnet lighthouse - of identical construction - should be replaced immediately. It took 23 years. Skerries harbour in county Dublin petitioned for a pier extension and new light for decades. It also took decades (and many shipwrecks) for many older lighthouses - found almost immediately to have been built too high on headlands to be rendered useless in cloudy weather - to be replaced with lower lights. Ardglass was doubtless delighted to find out it was no exception.
Following the demise of the new state of the art lighthouse (and temporary light) in 1838 - Lighthouse 3 and 4 - it was decided to immediately set up commissions of enquiry to decide what should be done about the collapse of the south pier wall. Ardglass harbour, though a good large harbour often touted as being a potential harbour of refuge between Dublin and Belfast, was beset by dangerous rocks and shoals and now had hundreds of tonnes of stone and rubble, not to mention a shattered lighthouse blocking 300 feet of the harbour entrance.
A Captain Denham gave a statement to yet another Harbour of Refuge report in 1851, saying "The debris in question has presented ... an unbeaconed ledge of rocks ... without any guide but a temporary light at the head of the bay, which can effect little more than indicate to the mariner ... that he is abreat of Ardglass Bay." The villagers of Ardglass, left to their own devices, given no money by the government to clear the debris or erect warning lights had done practically the only thing they could afford to do. They found that, by placing one red light in someones house right at the head of the bay, they could give approaching ships at least some indication of where the harbour was and the correct course to take.

Ordnance Survey map of the mid 1800s clearly showing the lighthouse (Light Ho.) at the head of the bay in the top left hand corner. The red light shone from there would be seen out in the Irish Sea though there were numerous hazards that would not be illuminated. The Google Street View photograph below shows the view from the "Lighthouse" looking out to sea and demonstrates clearly why this spot was chosen. (Spoiler alert: Lighthouse No.6 has photo bombed this picture on the right hand side.)

Captain Denham went on to detail the problems with this light. It is under the lee of the debris of this pier, he said "that one hundred and thirty-seven vessels per year still find shelter, notwithstanding (that) the operation of the harbour light is no longer to guide them up and around the pierhead but merely denotes when they are right off the mouth of the bay itself. This light is now exhibited from a stable loft window ... and is intended to throw its (beam) so definedly down the fairway of the bay as to clear of its limits the ruin of its pier on the western hand and the rocky fangs on the eastern hand; but this never-obtained objective of a single light fails as usual here, for it is as apt to lead on to the dangers right and left as between them. The western margin of its (beam) intersects 150 feet of the pier debris. Indeed the light, placed as it is, not only fails in denoting a fairway direction, but imparts no notion of distance, so that a vessel has been known to run past the pier haven, right up upon the strand at the head of the bay."
What we can take from this, despite the obvious and justified criticisms, that this was not merely a 100W bulb in someone's window (okay, they hadn't been invented but you know what I mean) but a proper lighthouse light, capable of throwing a beam that widened out from its single source. The logical explanation is that it was one of the three lights harvested from Lighthouses 2,3 or 4.
Captain Denham mentions the light shining from a stable loft; other sources mention that it shone from a house. It may be that it started in the stable and then got moved to the house (a House-light Light-house?) but even I am not going to be so pedantic as to label them as different lights!
The house has long gone but Griffiths Valuation on now comes with a lovely map that you can slide from the historical to the present day.

In the original Griffiths Valuation map, the Lighthouse is clearly on Plot 2. The corresponding modern day Google street view on Strangford Road is below. It appears that the entity known as The Cottage would have lain behind the blue hoardings. Whether the light itself was exhibited from the grass-covered plot or the newer house is unclear, but obviously the old house has gone.

The detail of the Griffiths Valuation entry is quite confusing to a person of limited intelligence like myself. Plot no.2 is designated as being divided into three entries. The first is the Rev. William McMullen, who is occupying 2 acres of land belonging to Aubrey de Vere Beauclerk (who owned practically the whole village). The second is a House and small garden unoccupied but owned by the Reverend (why he chose to sleep in a field when he had a perfectly good house is beyond me) The third is the lighthouse which the bounteous Beauclerk allowed a half-price reduction of rent, in return for shining the light. Is this the first example of a red light being shone from a vicarage? Joking aside, this would seem to imply that the light was being exhibited from somewhere other than a house, possibly, as the good Captain states, a stable.

Anyhow, things really started to move in 1866 when the southern pier, the one destroyed in 1838, was rebuilt. However, the lighthouse was not rebuilt. Instead, thanks to the lightning pace of lighthouse construction, it took another 21 years before the current light was erected, on the north pier instead.
Thus the 'temporary' light shone down the bay for nearly 50 years.

Nest post - Lighthouse No.6

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