Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Muldersleigh Hill revisited

Photo of one of Sir Robert Reading's cottage-style lighthouses at the Old Head of Kinsale built 1665. The light was exhibited by a coal fire in a brazier in the cutaway piece of the roof. Presumably the short-lived Islandmagee light would have been similar, if not identical.

Seven years ago, I visited Muldersleigh Hill which overlooks the western entrance to Belfast Lough. In 1665, Sir Robert Reading was granted a patent to build and maintain six "lighthouses and towers" around the country and to extract tolls from passing ships to pay for their upkeep. One of them was at Isle of Magee, which corresponds to today's non-island, Islandmagee. Unfortunately, nobody seems to know exactly where this short-lived lighthouse was situated. Indeed, several authorities have categorically stated that the light was in fact the cottage lighthouse erected on Lighthouse Island, one of the Copeland Islands, on the opposite side of Belfast Lough.

Google map of Belfast Lough. Whitehead (top centre) is regarded as the beginning of Islandmagee, which continues northwards

Back then, I argued for Muldersleigh Hill as the location of the light. This was largely based on three premises.
1) Kevin McCarthy's book Lighthouses of Ireland says that "The Blackhead headland, surrounded by a stony beach, rises to 211 feet above sea level to the north-east of Whitehead. Its prominent position at the north east entrances to Belfast Lough made it an ideal site for the first lighthouse built in the area in 1665 at the order of King Charles II.  However it was abandoned within three years of its construction."
2) In 1833, the Reverend James O'Laverty, in his Historical Account of the Diocese of Connor says "On the summit of Muldersleigh Hill are the ruins of a light-house..."
3) Two of the other 1665 lighthouses - Howth and the Old Head of Kinsale - were built on the highest point of a headland, presumably on the basis that the higher up it was, the further away it could be seen. Of course, this was later found to be untrue, as mist and cloud frequently obscured the light. The current Black Head Lighthouse now sits on the cliff top, below Muldersleigh Hill. Given this tendency, the summit of Muldersleigh Hill seems the logical place for Sir Robert Reading to build.

In 1704, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, the Duke of Ormond wrote to the Lord High Treasurer about the patent issued to Sir Robert. The gist of his complaint appeared to be that Sir Robert was receiving the dues from passing ships, as per the patent, but, of the six lighthouses, only two were being maintained, and those two insufficiently so.
In 1667, the Town Book of the Corporation of Belfast tells us, Richard, Earl of Arran, the fifth son of the Duke of Ormond, "had a lease on the lighthouse at Island Magee." This was evidently being held in trust for Robert Reading and, when Sir Robert's daughter, Elizabeth, married James Hamilton,  the patent was handed down to the latter. James later became the 7th Earl of Abercorn.

1690 map of Belfast (Carrickfergus) Lough. The topmost hill on the northern side of the Lough is marked with the words 'Old Tower'. This corresponds to Muldersleigh Hill.

Part of the lease agreed upon by Richard, Earl of Arran, in 1667 stipulated that, in return for erecting and maintaining the lighthouses, he could charge 1d per ton for every British and Irish ship passing the lighthouses on an outward journey and 2d per ton on every foreign ship passing either inward or outward. And 10s per year on locasl fishing ships. The Irish shipowners petitioned the King that this charge was draconian and so Richard was only permitted to levy the tonnage on foreign ships, a decree that was later transferred to the Earl of Abercorn.
At the 1704 enquiry, the Earl, defending the poor or non-existent state of the six lights, maintained that he could not possibly maintain the six lights on the payment received from foreign ships only (£500 per year). It might have been possible he said from the revenue of all ships (£1,600 per year) As things stood, the two lighthouses he was maintaining cost £200 to maintain, so he was only making £300 per year on the enterprise. Poor divil. For surrendering his interest  in the lighthouses to the Revenue Commissioners, he was awarded £1,000 per year for the next three years.

Griffiths Valuation (mid-1800s) map showing "(Site of) Light Ho." on the summit of "Mulderslys Hill." The 1902 Black Head Lighthouse sits roughly at the 211 (bottom right)

What we learn from the 1704 petition is that the lighthouse at Isle of Magee had been abandoned thirty-six years previously. In other words, since 1668. Probably the logistics of transporting large quantities of coal up the hill to keep the beacon alight at night proved too much for the amount that Sir Robert was prepared to fork out. So, it was probably operational for less than three years.
The report also describes the brazier in use on the 'Hill of Hoath', which would doubtless have been used at the Old Head of Kinsale and the Isle of Magee too.

Doubtless the inefficiency of the fire also contributed to the early demise of the Isle of Magee light.
A Review of Rectangular-plan Earthwork Enclosures in counties Antrim and Down, published by Aidan and Christopher Lynn in the Ulster Journal of Archaeology (2011) suggests there were several ancient and not-so-ancient rectangular buildings on Muldersleigh Hill, none of which had yet been excavated.

The Revenue Commissioners, taking over the obligation to build and maintain a lighthouse to light ships into Belfast Lough, were of the opinion that "there should be a lighthouse on one of the Copeland Isles, commonly called Crosse Isle, and that a lighthouse on any part of Isle Magee would be no way comparable thereto. A lighthouse would be most useful on the South Rock, but was scarce practicable, or would be very chargeable. If there must be one on the Isle Magee, the place where the last lighthouse stood was the most proper." 
To sum up, then, the evidence for the location of the elusive Isle of Magee lighthouse seems to point strongly to the summit of Muldersleigh Hill. Both the Old Tower on the 1690 map and the "(Site of ) Light Ho." in the Griffiths Valuation Ordnance Survey map are strong evidence that there was once a lighthouse there and the archaeolgical survey of 2010 at least shows something was physically there.
Another point is that Robert Reading was patented to erect a light for showing ships into Belfast Lough on Islandmagee. He would not have been permitted to build it elsewhere without permission. Now, Islandmagee starts at Whitehead. The only possible part of the Islandmagee coast capable of lighting a ship into the Lough would be along the two miles of the coast from Whitehead to the site of the present-day Black Head Lighthouse. This section of the coast is east-south-east facing. Further north the coast trends north-north-east, which would not be seen by ships approaching Belfast from the south (see map below) 
And Muldersleigh Hill lies within that two-mile coastline...

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