Friday, October 9, 2020

Kingstown (Dun Laoghaire) Temporary light(s)

Kingstown Harbour 1830s - the dark blob at the end of the east pier is presumably the temporary lighthouse. Poolbeg can be seen to the left of the top of the mast of the left-most sailing ship. An exaggerated Bailey lighthouse is silhouetted against the sky to the right of the picture.

Temporary lighthouses are not an unknown phenomenon on Irish coasts. Rue Point on Rathlin Island had one for a couple of years before the first light was established. Ardglass had a ‘temporary’ light for nearly fifty years, housed in a private residence. Calf Rock’s temporary light was in operation for ten years on the end of Dursey Island. And so on.
Unlike the lights mentioned, the temporary light at Kingstown, as it was then known, was not a stationery light. When the East pier was being constructed – from the shore outward – the light was installed at the end of the constructed pier. As building progressed, the light kept moving, so it was always on the end of the pier, which made sense as there was no point having a light in the middle of a pier, where it would have done more harm than good.
The first stone of the new harbour was laid on 31st May 1817. The two main players involved in its construction were John Rennie and Richard Toutcher, who managed, somehow, to get unlimited quantities of free stone from the Dalkey quarries. The original plan was for two piers but, at first, funding was only secured for one – the east pier.
Dunleary became Kingstown in 1821 after a visit to the harbour by George IV and the following year, on 6th June the first Notice to Mariners went up. Despite it having a a light “of a bright Colour” – the best sort of lights, I always say – it’s visibility only amounted to nine miles. Not that it needed a large degree of brightness – the lights at the Baily, Poolbeg and the Kish Floating Light were already well established.

The light was actually smashed in a storm later that year, although it was repaired the following day. The new Harbour master, William Hutchinson, had to send to Dublin for the glass and thereafter, some spare glass was always kept on site for such emergencies. 
Aside from the fact that the temporary lighthouse was ‘brown’ and ‘wooden,’ we know very little of the construction of the light. A sketch from the Dublin Penny Journal of 1834 seems to show a reasonably sized construction with what is probably a lantern on top. Presumably the lamp would be tended from inside, as its position at the end of the pier would have rendered tending the light impossible in stormy weather. One suggestion has been that it was actually floating though, given the limited sketches we have, that seems unlikely. Also, the 1843 plan of the harbor depicts the two temporary lights at, not off, the end of their respective piers.

In 1841, a Notice to Mariners was issued announcing that the hitherto revolving white light would become a revolving white and red light, attaining their maximum brilliancy after thirty seconds, rather than one minute. The lighthouse itself was of timber and coloured brown and was elevated 34 feet and 40 feet above high water and mean water respectively.

Another view of the harbour. This time the temporary light looks like a large mooring bollard or whatever the technical term is

It was eventually decided to go ahead with building the West Pier and a second temporary light was installed at the end of the ever-moving pier head. This was fitted with a fixed red light. By this time, George Halpin of the Ballast Board had been drafted in to design proper lighthouses for the ends of the respective piers.
A great storm in 1844 failed to dislodge either temporary lighthouse although there were fears for their safety as large portions of unfinished wall got washed away.
Worse was to follow in 1849, when on October 17th of that year, the Athlone Sentinel reported on a large storm that caused much wreckage. The article concludes, "It blew with such force on Saturday night at Kingstown that the Friendship, of Halifax, coal-laden, was driven on shore near the old harbour and now lies a total wreck. Wm. Capel, the keeper of the wooden lighthouse on the west pier was drowned in trying to effect his escape." 
The Morning Post reported the tragedy thus - "The keeper of the lighthouse on the western pier at Kingstown was drowned on Sunday night by the sea washing over the wall. He was very feeble,"
Lloyds Weekly Newspaper elaborates slightly - "He was a feeble old man and it is supposed that in trying to escape from the lighthouse, he was struck by a sea, stunned and drowned in the pool of water which remained around him."
I suspect poor old William may well have been the only keeper to have been killed tending a temporary Irish lighthouse.

On 1st October 1847, the new lighthouse on the east pier was lit for the first time and 'the light, hitherto shown from the timber building' was discontinued. The 'small fixed red light in the temporary timber shed on the west pier' would continue as before until the erection of the new lighthouse there. Interestingly, an illustration from 1845 shows the East Pier lighthouse well advanced but no sign of the timber building housing the temporary light. Of course, this may simply due to artistic licence.

1845 drawing (Newman) East Pier lighthouse would not be lit for two more years, yet there is no temporary light in sight

On Tuesday 5th October 1852, the Liverpool Standard reported that "the temporary wooden pier-light, on Kingstown west pier, was blown down last night." Strangely, the Liverpool Mail had reported the same sentence word for word three days earlier. Somehow, I doubt it was blown down twice. The following month it was reported that "the harbour wall on the end of the west pier, where the old lighthouse stood, has been washed away," possibly bringing a temporary temporary light with it. The new lighthouse first exhibited in 1852, so maybe the destruction of the temporary light brought forward the introduction of the actual lighthouse.

My sincere thanks to Simon Coate, Dun Laoghaire Harbour Master, for his kindness and help in researching this post.


  1. I believe that my 3rd Great Grandfather John McGinn was a lighthouse keeper at Kingstown - as it was known then) when he was married in 1845. As the east Lighthouse was not opened until 1847 I am assuming that he was in charge of one of these temporary timber lighthouses. Is there a list of these lighthouse keepers and who would have employed them?

  2. So sorry, Baggie, only seeing this now. Okay, to answer your questions - basically the majority of lighthouses prior to 1867 were run by The Ballast Board. A few smaller local lights were run and staffed by the local harbour authorities, lights in Belfast or on the Foyle, for example, but Kingstown was a part of the Ballast Board area of operations and, as such, keepers could be transferred anywhere in the country. In 1867, the Ballast Board was officially split in two. One part became the Dublin Port Authority; the other became the Commissioner of Irish Lights. Kingstown became part of the Dublin Port Authority. As to who holds the records, well, Irish Lights personnel records pre-1900 are extremely patchy and unsorted, and the further back you go, the more non-existent they are. The last time I asked about Dublin Port Authority records, I was told they are in a secure storage unit in the Fingal area. Okay, regarding John Maginn, or McGinn, I see he was married in Killybegs in 1845, a widower, and was a lightkeeper on Rotten Island at the time (one of my favourite lighthouses, actually). As some of his children were born there, it seems he was there for quite a while. It may be he was transferred to Kingstown when he was approaching retirement age - older keepers often got the cushy numbers after a lifetime of rock stations! If you have any further info on John, I'd be delighted to hear from you - gouldingpeter at gmail dot com Pete