Monday, December 20, 2021

Merry Christmas!


My posting has been fairly non-existent for December so as an apology, I wish you all a very merry Christmas and send you this very old Christmas card which seems to encapsulate what the festive season is all about. Imagine the eight-year-old child coming down on Christmas morning to find the cat has eaten her pet budgie ....

I had hoped, as this is a lighthouse blog, to bring you a lighthouse Christmas card but they are few and far between and rarely very humorous. But there is a lighthouse link in the above card.

Audrey Arthure is a fellow Irish lighthouse enthusiast and well she should be, as her pedigree of Hills and Whelans goes back to the first half of the nineteenth century, many of each family serving as either lightkeepers or coastguards. John Whelan, for example, joined the Ballast Board, (as was) in 1856/7, as the son of a lightkeeper. Frank Hill, born 1878 was both the son and grandson of a coastguard.

Frank Hill and Annie Sweeney on their wedding day in 1908. Annie was from Carrick (An Charraig) a busy little village on the road between Killybegs and Glencolumbkille in county Donegal. Frank was stationed on Rathlin O'Beirne at the time - the shore dwellings were only constructed four years later.

Fortunately Audrey has done a large amount of work on researching her family tree and, even more fortunately, she actually got around to writing down a lot of it, a salutory lesson to those of us with good intentions! 

(I also see Pat Demarte Handorf's name in her writings, another name familiar to Irish pharologists!)

Audrey also inherited from her grandfather, Frank Hill, a wonderful postcard album, featuring scenic views and humorous caricatures, some of them not altogether pc by today's standards! These were apparently used as the modern equivalent of text messages. As Frank could not phone his family while out on a rock lighthouse, he imaginatively used to send these postcards back on the relief boat with little messages. As Audrey says, a lot of them seemed to involve instructions to send butter out. "The PK broke his leg. Send butter." "I'm out of hair gel. Send butter." "The lantern has fallen into the sea. Send butter." That sort of thing.

You can view Audrey's wonderful piece and the postcard collection here.

Sunday, December 5, 2021

Joseph Kerr at the Holywood Light

Painting of the Holywood Bank lighthouse, artist unknown, currently in the Belfast Harbour Board office. Dated to 1860.

As per the previous post, this is one of over 70 stories of Irish lighthouse fatalities, in my forthcoming book, When the light goes out.

Joseph Kerr and the Holywood Bank light 1855

One of the great names in Irish (and indeed global) lighthouse history is Alexander Mitchell, the blind, Belfast engineer (born in South William Street in Dublin but the family moved to Belfast when young). Inspired by how easily a corkscrew went into a cork but could not be pulled out straight, he transferred the principal to the problem of building edifices on mud. The story goes that, in the 1830s, with his 19-year-old son, John, he rowed out into Belfast Lough with a long pole attached to a metal screw. This he screwed into the mud, leaving the top of the pole exposed. He came back the following day to find the pole still in situ and the screwpile lighthouse was born.

     It was doubtless gratifying to him that his adopted city was one of the first to request one of his pile lights. It was erected in 1844 on the edge of a large and dangerous bank of sand off Holywood, county Down. The lighthouse also doubled as a pilot station and contained fifteen sleeping berths, as well as separate apartments for both the captain of the pilots and his assistant. The captain of the pilots was also in charge of the light.

     We do not know when Joseph Kerr became the lightkeeper of the Holywood Bank light. Newspaper reports in the early 1850s talk generally of regatta races being held “to Kerr’s lighthouse and back,” which suggests he was certainly well-known in the area by this time. A Joseph Kerr, born in Belfast in 1821, received his Master’s Certificate in 1851 for having served seven years in the coasting trade as a boy, mate and master. It was probably the same man.

     Joseph Kerr was married and had two small children. His wife used to mind the red light at the bottom of the Victoria Channel. When morning came, Kerr was in the habit of dowsing his own light and taking the boat to his wife’s lighthouse.

     At 7 o’clock on Monday morning 14th May 1855, he was doing just this when, descending the ladder on the piles, he fell into the water and was carried away. What made this all the worse was that the accident was witnessed by the keeper’s six-year-old daughter. As the strong current took him away, his daughter attempted to push the boat out to him but was unable to do so. Raising the alarm, the pilots immediately set about scouring the area but were unable to find him. At last, around two o’clock in the afternoon, the Harbour Commissioners’ pilot boat succeeded in locating the body not far from the lighthouse.

     The obligatory inquest was held at the General Hospital in Belfast and came to the unsurprising conclusion that Joseph Kerr had been accidentally drowned.

     At the next meeting of the Belfast Harbour Board, it was graciously agreed that they should permit Mrs. Kerr to continue to mind her light as she had done during her husband’s lifetime, as otherwise the family would be unprovided for.

Illustration from "Holywood Then and Now" by Rev, McConnell Auld

      Seven weeks later, the Harbour Board engineer had the sad duty to report that Mrs. Kerr (being a woman, her first name was immaterial) had also died. The Board empowered board members Messrs. Pirrie and Henderson to inquire what could be done for the two orphaned children and to appoint a successor immediately.    

More on the Holywood Bank lighthouse can be found here

When the light goes out (update)

As some of ye may know, I've been writing a book about fatalities at Irish lighthouses, a cheery little tome, which is a collection of deaths suffered by keepers, their families, tradesmen and contracted ferry operators from 1786 to 1972.
Not every death, mind. Some are lost in the mists of time and some are not really noteworthy but there are roughly 70 tales of people who paid the ultimate price for keeping our seas safe for mariners. It didn't help that the Irish Lights archive has been unavailable for the last couple of years (great time to write a lighthouse book!) but I was able to work around it.
It is roughly 80,000 words long and, despite the grim subject matter, or maybe because of it, I've tried to keep it light-hearted where appropriate, while trying at all times to be respectful to the memory of the deceased. I have sent a few individual chapters out to descendants of those involved and have got the green light from all of them, which makes me hopeful that I've got something right.
Arranged chronologically, I'm hoping the book serves as a history of sorts of lightkeeping in this country. I also used it to erm, shine a light on some of our lesser-known lights - Beeves, Little Samphire, Lough Mahon etc - that don't, I feel, get the exposure they deserve.
I finished the book around the end of August and sent it out to twenty or so publishers, confidently expecting there would be a rush of editors desperate to sign me up. So far, I've had four responses - they like the unique concept of the book, they like the writing and the photographs "... but, unfortunately, ..."
Most of the publishers say to give it three to six months to expect a reply. So I'll give it till the end of January, If nobody is interested by then, I'll publish the damn thing myself, when a lot of things will need to be decided - do I ditch the colour and sell €5 cheaper. Do I need a subtitle on that cover above? How do I go about distributing? Will our exorbitant postal rates make the cost prohibitive? Et cetera.
But we'll deal with that when the time comes ...

Thursday, November 25, 2021

A few good men - Wicklow Pierhead Light

It's kind of like having a superstar living on your street. No matter how great and wonderful you may be, you're always going to be overshadowed by the national celebrities.
Thus is the lot of Wicklow Pierhead lighthouse, forced for all eternity to listen to the endless tributes to the three bigshot lighthouses on nearby Wicklow Head, each of them older and taller and brighter than the mere 130 year old harbour light sitting modestly at the end of Wicklow's East Pier.
Like many east coast settlements, fishing has been going on at Wicklow for centuries. The Vikings arrived and set up a base upriver from the coast and maritime trade slowly grew the village into a small town, despite the presence of the sandbanks that run parallel to much of the country's east coast.
In the 1840s, royal assent was given for the town commissioners to improve the harbour which, though busy, had a nasty bar at its entrance and not much depth within it. Progress was slow - the famine years turned heads towards more important matters  - but by 1856, a new pier, had been constructed at the end of the Murrough, though there was still a lot of wrangling between the Harbour commissioners and local shipowners over the state of the place.
There was evidently some form of a light at the end of this pier, for a newspaper report of 1865 states that it was no longer there:-

This end of pier collapse appears to have been a recurring theme along the east coast. Lighthouses at Ardglass (1838), Newcastle county Down (1869) and Bray (1957) were also washed into the sea as poorly built piers succumbed to violent storms. Whatever kind of light had been erected at Wicklow was not to be replaced for over thirty years.
Eventually, a new harbour was officially opened in 1884, featuring "a concrete lighthouse, about 35 feet above high water with a dioptic fixed light," according to "Wicklow Harbour: A History" by Jimmy Cleary and Andrew O'Brien. It was an oil light with a range of around ten miles and shone red to seaward and white in the harbour. And the first lightkeeper was a man named Gilbert Goodman.

Postcard from the 1920s

Gilbert Goodman was a Wickler man and was roughly 60 years old at the time he was appointed the keeper of the Pierhead lighthouse. He lived in Castle Street - at the Black Castle end -  with his wife Maria and had been a sailor for most of his life. In January 1883, he was working as a coastguard at Wicklow Head, an occupation that evidently saw him right when he applied for the new position. 
His wife Maria died suddenly of heart disease in 1894, leaving Gilbert at home with his married son James. Another Goodman, John, a sailor, was to be found also living in Castle Street in 1911 and may well be a brother of Gilbert. I mention him merely to justify the 'few good men' of the title.
Part of the duties of the lightkeeper, aside from painting, was to set in motion the automatic fog bell when necessary. It was on this activity that he was engaged in 1898 when, returning home, he stumbled into a small quarry at the shore end of the pier. He was discovered unconscious with head injuries but, thanks to the quick administrations of a Dr. Halpin, made a full recovery in hospital.
(The bell, incidentally, clearly seen in the postcard above, was donated to the nuns up above in Magherymore, whose orchards I used to raid when young, and eventually ended up in the missions in Hong Kong)

Regatta Day pre-1909 (the year the North Pier was constructed) Note the Union Flag on the lighthouse and the beautiful copper dome too. From the Lawrence Collection in the National Library

In 1901, a brief questioning at an inquiry, reported in the Wicklow Newsletter, gave an insight into the dangers of the job, particularly for an elderly keeper.

On 1st October 1904, the Newsletter reported the sad news that Gilbert had gone to the great catadioptric light in the sky. He had developed pneumonia and had died on 26th September. His death certificate incidentally gives his age as 79.

In December of that year, it was suggested, as a financial saving, that the current oil lamp should be replaced by an unwatched automatic gas light. The Chairman of the Harbour Board was particularly forthright in his opinion that, whereas their antecedents had naively offered an exorbitant salary of 15shillings a week to the previous incumbent, now, on his demise, was the time to make this saving. He also said that his position as Chairman of the local gas company had nothing to do with his views. 
Fortunately the board disagreed. Not only would an oil light have to be kept ready , should the gas supply be interrupted, but the fog bell would need to be sorted out as it too ran on oil. They advocated the continuing use of oil and recommended the appointment of James Goodman, son of the deceased keeper, who, they all knew, had been doing the job for the past two years anyway. 
According to Jimmy Cleary and Andrew O'Brien, not only was James Goodman's appointment ratified before the end of the year, but it seems the Chairman was determined to get his money's worth out of him, as he was expected to act as harbour master too, a position he held for the next 26 years.

The terrible storm of 1901 had been followed by the terrible storm of Friday 12th November 1915, when 'enormous masses of sea' struck the pier and stove in the strong door of the lighthouse. This made it impossible to light the lantern, the first time it had remained unlit since its inception.
But there was another terrible storm still to come. In what was said to have been a 'freak gust' during a storm in early January 1976, the beautiful copper dome and weather vane, which had adorned the structure for nearly 100 years, were swept into the sea. The Harbour Board offered £50 for its recovery and the challenge was taken up and the dome brought to the surface.
However, it was found to be badly damaged, a large hole indicating where it had hit the end of the pier before tumbling into the sea. A local tradesman put a temporary roof on the lighthouse for £58 and further money was paid out to local divers and the owner of the crane used to winch the 15 cwt dome out of the sea.
The Harbour Board were then informed that they would only get around £60 for the dome for scrap, while the cost of providing and fitting a new one was likely to be in the region of £765, which the board could ill afford. 
And so the lighthouse has been flat-headed and domeless ever since. There has been speculation about the current location of the dome but nobody is telling.


Wednesday, November 17, 2021

East Twin Island (Inner Light) New photo


When I wrote about the lost lighthouse at the tip of East Twin Island last year I was somewhat frustrated by the fact that, although it was pulled down as late as 1965, I could not, for the life of me, find a decent photograph of the light, which had stood, in one form or another, for over 120 years.
I will spare the reader a repetition of the long, tortuous and incomplete history of this light, which can be found at the link above. This post is merely to reproduce the much more interesting photo of the light that I came across at one of the NMNI sites recently.
As suspected, the light was a skeletal tower but a scaling of its entire height by ladder was not necessary as it seems it was accessed from the roof of a building adjoining the house. I am in two minds as to whether that is the fog signal at the base of the tower or if it was housed in that small room on the adjoining roof.
I believe this is/was the only lighthouse of this type in Ireland, though I am open to correction.
The date of the photograph is 14th October 1946 and presumably the happy couple are long-standing keepers Samuel and Ellen McKibbin.
Incidentally, I love the architecture of the house, though a bit unsure about the light sabre shining through the attic.
The pictures below are taken from the previous post and were the best I had previously come up with.

Monday, November 1, 2021

Rathlin O'Beirne


Rathlin O'Beirne lighthouse and keepers' cottages (photo by Karl Birrell)

With the exception of the uncategorisable Kish light, you can probably divide Ireland's coastal lighthouses into three main categories - onshore lighthouses, island lighthouses and rock lighthouses, where the difference between the latter two would be that rock lighthouses had no other inhabitants. And, in general (again) it was on the rock lighthouses that most of the dramas occurred. The histories of the Tuskar, Fastnet, Slyne Head etc are littered with shipwrecks and drownings and shaking towers and tenders capsizing and make for stirring reading.
Alone among the west coast rock lights, Rathlin O'Beirne, off the coast of south west Donegal (and not to be confused with Rathlin Island on the north coast) seems to have led a beatific, serene existence, compared to its wave-lashed neighbours. Of course, it is larger (only slightly moreso than the Skelligs) but it is not far from Eagle Island and Blackrock Mayo yet, unlike them, reliefs were seldom long delayed.
In case anyone feels I am labelling R.O'B 'boring,' I should point out that, in operating a lighthouse on that coast for 160 years with only one relatively minor accident, this unheralded light station, its keepers and  boatmen, deserves to be feted as one of the most successful stations in the country.

Of course, the day I visited was hazy in sharp comparison to the other radiant photographs on this page! This photo taken from the mainland in September 2021

Asicus the Gaul was a religious bigwig in the late 400s. He was Abbot-Bishop of Elphin and later of Ireland and had performed the last rites on St. Patrick, hopefully when the latter was on his death-bed. However, somebody told a dirty rotten fib about him and he stomped off, first to the top of Sliabh Liag and then (finding that too congested?) to the desert island of Rathlin O'Beirne, where he established a hermitage. The place has been a pilgrimage destination ever since.
It was in 1841 that the shipowners of Sligo called for a light to be erected on the northern point of Sligo Bay and only a further two years before building was due to start : -

However, the hold-ups were many and frequent, mostly due to litigation. It was not until 14th April 1856 that the catadioptric flashing light first shone forth.

This was altered to a fixed light on 1st June 1864 and the old (?) lighting apparatus moved up to Arranmore Island. This lasted until 1st June 1893 when the light was changed back to 'flashing.' Now let's see who calls it a boring lighthouse.

The island is around 3kms from the harbour at Malin Beg and comprises roughly 50 acres

In 1902, as rock stations around the country were slowly being made relieving, a question was asked in the House of Commons about the educational and spiritual needs of the children of the keepers on the island: -

In fact, it was not until 1912 that the poor pagan, uneducated lightkeeping kids were dragged, kicking and screaming onto the mainland to avail of the four sturdy houses at Gannew, Glencolmcille. These houses served Irish Lights for 45 years until they were sold off to a Mr. and Mrs. Markey of New York in 1957.

The lightkeepers' cottages, front and rear, in September 2021

I mentioned one minor accident on the island - well, not minor to the victim - and this occurred in 1940: -

In 1974, Rathlin O'Beirne became the first and only lighthouse to be powered by nuclear energy with a big dollop of Strontium 90 used to keep the light going. Surprisingly, this only lasted for 13 years when the light was found to have become rather feeble. The nuclear age then became the wind age with a wind turbine producing the energy to run the light. In 1994, it became the first major Irish lighthouse to be run on solar power.

The lighthouse in 1905, photo taken on an Irish Lights inspection trip, photo in the National Library of Ireland

The lighthouse keepers' cottages on the island. In 2019, the whole island (minus the lighthouse itself) went up for sale. The estate agents thoughtfully provided a million photographs, which can be found here

The extremely safe boat tender to and from the island was for most of the lighthouse's history in the domain of the Jones family of Malin Beg. Edward Jones was succeeded in his duties by his son, Michael. Michael's duties were eventually taken over in turn by his three sons, Edward, Michael and Thomas, together with a nephew. A fourth generation Jones, Michael, became the attendant when the lighthouse was automated in 1974. One can just picture Michael at his hall door, "I'm just going to brave those vicious currents in my flimsy boat to check the nuclear reactor on the island, love...."
The boat generally landed on the sheltered eastern side of the island at a small pier, from which stone steps lead up to an incredible walkway, flanked by two very long 8 feet high stone walls to shelter the keepers on the journey to the lighthouse on the west side of the island and to protect them from the savage black-faced sheep which today are the island's only sizable inhabitants.

Photograph by Michael Hegarty

Without access to the Irish Lights archive, these are but a few of the keepers who have lit this very safe and definitely not boring light down through the years: -

In 1869, William Duffy and Owen McClosky both contributed to the subscription for the drowned Calf Rock boatmen.
In 1871, the keepers were Michael Brownell, PK, and Owen McCloskey, AK.
In October 1876, Bridget Gillespie, wife of keeper George, gave birth to twin sons John and Neal, surely the only twins to be born on the island.
The 1901 Census lists George James and Richard Hamilton as lightkeepers on the island.
The 1911 Census shows John J. Gillespie, Thomas Jones and Thomas F. Ryan to be the lightkeepers. John Gillespie's age means he is more than likely one of the 1876 twins.
Keeper Charles Loughrey's wife, Lucy, died at Glencolmcille in 1916.
Walter Coupe, AK,  left the island after three years in 1938. 
His replacement, Francis S. Ryan was the son of F. Ryan who was PK for 'a long number of years' (probably the Thomas F. Ryan on the 1911 Census)
John Corish, AK, also left the station in 1938.
James McGinley was the PK in August 1939.
'Con Murrin,' AK, could not attend his father's funeral due to heavy seas in 1940. Another newspaper report names him as Cornelius Meenan. The minor incident above also references 'Con Meenan.'
Frederick James, keeper, married Ms Louie Maxwell at Glencolmcille in January 1941.
Charles McNelis, PK, retired in October 1942 after 35 years in Irish Lights.
M. Murphy was transferred to R. O'B in March 1951. He had served at the station 'about 13 years previously.'
He replaced Michael O'Boyle who was transferred to Fanad.
In June 1951, AK Patrick Brennan was transferred to Inisheer. His replacement was T. Shanaghan.
In the same month, Charles Hernan was transferred to Inishowen.
His replacement was Frederick James, who had previously served at the station 'for a term.'
In September 1954, Michael Jones AK, was transferred to Rockabill.
PK David Murphy, who had been at R O'B since 1951 died at his lodgings at Glencolmcille in September 1956.
Martin Kennedy, AK, was transferred on promotion to Galley Head in October 1956.
In December 1960, wonderful boatmanship by Edward Jones meant that PK Campbell could be relieved for Christmas by AK Kane. 
Reggie Hamilton also served at Rathlin O'Beirne around this time.
The last keepers before automation in 1974 were PK Brendan McMahon and AKs Thomas Roddy, Hugh Sullivan and A.J. Cronin.

It is a sobering thought that in January 1975 - shortly after the last keepers left the island - six men lost their lives when the MFV Evelyn Marie foundered on a reef off Rathlin O'Beirne. They were Paddy Bonner, Hugh Gallagher, Johnny O’Donnell, Roland Faughnan, Tom Ham and Joe O’Donnell.
Incredibly, the following year the MFV Carraig Una went down on the very same reef and five men - Ted Carbery, John Boyle, Anthony McLaughlin, Michael Coyle and Doalty O’Donnell - were drowned.
Among the many unanswered questions about the terrible loss of life in the two incidents, there also remains the nagging thought that, had the lighthouse been manned, assistance might have been summoned much quicker and some of the victims may have been saved.

Saturday, October 30, 2021


Birds and lighthouses have always had a strange sort of relationship. Keepers, both of lighthouses and lightships, were often recruited as amateur ornithologists and encouraged to send specimens to scientific organisations. Some of them actually became quite professional and were able to identify birds rarely if ever seen on our coasts.
At night, birds are attracted to the beams, often flying straight at the glass and extinguishing themselves rather than the light. Keepers have often reported hundreds of birds lying dead and stunned at the base of a lighthouse on waking up in the morning. Some would fly straight at the lantern and break their beaks. Others would throttle themselves on the lattice work surrounding the lantern, some would fall prey to lighthouse cats.
Ducks were no exception, migrating birds often finding the warm glow of the lighthouse beam a tempting encouragement to break their journey and rest. According to nineteenth century reports, many were killed by breaking their wings while flapping around the lantern; others actually split themselves in two, divebombing the lantern from a height, beak first.
Then there was this beauty who, in 1856, actually succeeded in getting inside the lantern!

Cork Constitution 11th September 1856

96 years later, an extremely obliging duck sacrificed itself in order to feed the poor starving keepers on the Tuskar Rock.

Evening Echo 1st December 1952

Obviously a duck flying headfirst at a lighthouse had the capacity to do an awful amount of damage, as this report from Flamborough Head in England in 1879 demonstrates: -

It should, however, be pointed out that, in this strange relationship between duck and lighthouse, it was not always the duck who came off second best.

Belfast Telegraph 15th April 1938

Monday, October 18, 2021

Loop Head - the early years

Loop Head today (By Charles W Glynn, CC BY-SA 2.0,

'In far Loop Head did somebody a stately small lighthouse erect ...'

So begins the first draft of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's epic poem "Kubla Khan," which sadly veered off the subject of pharology in later versions. It was a shame that Sammy didn't mention when the lighthouse was built and by whom, as it would have avoided a lot of confusion among today's lighthouse historians.

At the tip of the Loop or Leam peninsula, there is a wonderfully photogenic rock lying parallel to the cliff face. Legend has it that Cu Culainn, pursued by an old woman, leapt from the mainland onto the rock. The woman followed. Summoning all his strength, The Hound leapt back and the old woman, trying to do the same, fell to her death. (I'm sure I saw this in a film on the New York subway) Hence the name Cuchullins Leap. OSI First edition map

Who built the first lighthouse? Well, there is apparently little disagreement on this subject because nobody seems to know and, if they do, they're not saying. 
As most lighthousey people are aware, a patent was granted to Sir Robert Reading in the mid-1660s to construct and maintain six lighthouses around the coast - two at Kinsale, two at Howth, one at Hook (re-established) and one at Islandmagee. There were others in existence too, at Carrickfergus and Donaghadee, probably built by local benevolence or merchants. It is probable that the Loop Head light was established by either the merchants of Limerick or the local big landowner or both to light the way into the Shannon estuary.
When was it built? Well, Bill Long says 'around 1670.' Richard M. Taylor shies away from a date. Dick Robinson in the North Munster Antiquarian Journal plumps for 1670. I have seen 1690 mentioned and 1715 too, the former being the date it allegedly appears on an ancient map, which I have not been able to locate.
Merchants of Limerick petitioned the Irish parliament in 1717 to re-establish this lighthouse, which had fallen into darkness and disrepair for the past twenty years (giving an original date of prior to 1697) It is unclear whether the new lighthouse, established in 1720 was a new lighthouse or a fixer-upper job.
The lighthouse was an old cottage-style lighthouse similar in style to those at the Old Head of Kinsale, the Green Bayly at Howth and Muldersleigh Hill on Islandmagee. Most accounts agree it consisted of two or three rooms, in between two of which there was a staircase leading up to a brazier on the roof, from which a fire burned brightly. Like the other three cottage-type lights at the time, the building had a vaulted roof - unique to Ireland - reminiscent of the oratories and monks' cells in the south-west of Ireland.

Sketch of the original cottage lighthouse by Michael Costello, former CIL man, whose research into Irish lighthouse history has formed the basis of many a book. Curiously he depicts Loop Head as roughly half the size of the Baily, Old Head of Kinsale and the Copeland Islands cottage light

Section of the vaulted ceiling that apparently can still be seen today. John Sloane, writing in the 1880s, says the old cottage was being used as a coal house (photograph by Jim Ryan in the Clare Champion)

Patricia Lysaght, writing in Béaloideas in 2007, quotes Liam Ó Foghlú (born in 1850) in relation to the cottage lighthouse:

The obvious problem here is the timeline. Nobody that Liam knew would have been alive in 1720, but maybe it is a folk memory, handed down, with, as Ms Lysaght remarks, the visual presence of the old lighthouse keeping the story alive. 
It is unclear whether Polly was the first keeper of the 1670 or the 1720 light but the surname is well-known in lighthouse circles down through the generations, right to the very end. He certainly wasn't short of a fire to put the kettle on. Another source says it was a man from Donegal who lit the first Loop Head light. Michael Moore, a lightkeeper in the first half of the 20th Century claimed descendance from a man named Duplex who used to have to light the fire on top of the house at Loop Head.
Another Loop Head keeper appears to have been Mrs. Mary Westby, whom George III appointed 'Keeper of the lighthouse at Loop Head ... and also lighter of the fire.' One might be tempted to ask what the difference was between the two titles and what on earth was George III's interest in this, but as he was the mad one (I think) the answer to both questions might be the same. Mary held this position in 1771.
The cottage lighthouse with live-in keeper and family survived until 1802 when Thomas Rogers, Chief Lighthouse Builder of the Revenue Commissioners, built a 23 meter tall tower containing a lantern lit by 12 oil lamps. This in turn was replaced in 1854 by a tower of similar size nearby, the current light. Obviously with the two towers being of a similar height, the 1802 tower had to be truncated. There is no sign of this tower nowadays but the curious structure, below, photographed in the early 1900s, looks like it might well have been the base of the older tower.
Though, as my wife will happily tell you, I am frequently wrong about a lot of things.

Above and below, the current light in 1905, from the CIL collection in the National Library

Sunday, October 10, 2021

South Rock lightkeepers

The South Rock lighthouse three miles off the coast of county Down is, as we all know, the oldest wave-washed lighthouse in the world, still standing and is therefore criminally overlooked by our maritime historians, possibly because it is difficult to get up close to. The only surviving Thomas Rogers lighthouse, I'd better do a decent post about it soon, but for now, this post is about the keepers.

Built in 1797, the first keepers and their families lived in the tower itself. It was a single family operation, no relief keepers, and a boat came once a week from Newcastle pier, the nearest place on the shore. The pier had been constructed specifically to aid the construction of the lighthouse and lay in the townland of Newcastle, on the southern shore of Millin Bay. (This should not be confused with the town of Newcastle further down the county Down coast, though I confuse the two frequently)

It is said that the first keeper was a man named McCullough and there is a possibly apocryphal tale of him bringing his twelve year old son to the fair in Portaferry. It was the son's first time off the rock and he was naturally dumbfounded by the sights and sounds around him. Eventually, the father told the boy that he'd buy him one thing that he wanted. Earlier, the father had referred to some girls as goats. "Sure I'd like you to buy me one of them goats," the son replied.

The above notice was circulated in many newspapers. One might think that Captains Firebrand and Lasher were extremely stupid to sign their names, as a quick look through the local phone book could easily identify their location but phones had not been invented by this time. They were actually names in general use to indicate membership of a sectarian, agrarian secret society such as the Whiteboys, which operated in both creeds and eventually got used by the landlord classes to victimise unwanted tenants. George Carr, being the Superintendent of the Lighthouse, may have been the keeper at the time, possibly appointed at the expense of somebody on the opposite side of the religious divide.

Around about 1814, Michael Wishart was the keeper. Lighthouse people know him as one of the two keepers who aided a smuggler on the Tuskar Rock in 1821, helped themselves liberally to his brandy and got caught. Poor Michael eventually died falling off a cliff while cutting grass for his cow on Skellig Michael. It was quite a fall from grace (and from the cliff). In 1815, George Halpin had specifically plucked him off the South Rock to train up all the old keepers who were having trouble with the new Ballast Board regime.

Incidentally, I've never seen anybody make the link but this is surely the same Michael Wishart who was the master mason of the famous Bell Rock lighthouse in Scotland until a nasty accident cut short his career. Robert Stevenson made him one of the first lightkeepers there when he had recovered from his injuries and, with the great rapport between Stevenson and Halpin, it seems logical for Stevenson to recommend him to Halpin.

After 23 years of being a one keeper, live-in station, the South Rock was turned into a three-keeper operation in 1820 with three keepers' cottages constructed by the Newcastle pier to accommodate them. The photos above and below are from the north side of Millin Bay and my thanks to Nick from Holywood for going to the bother of taking them for me. The rutted lane down to the coast is now in a pretty bad state and is frequently waterlogged. The cottages, when built, were single storey dwellings though they are now two-storey.

One of the first men to avail of these cottages was a keeper called Walter Adamson. Like Michael Wishart, he hailed from Fife in Scotland and may have been another Stevenson recommendee. He must have been the Principal Keeper for his annual pay in 1821 (when he was 51 years old) was £66 15s. By 1844, he had retired on a pension of roughly half that amount. He died in 1856 and his wife Jane in 1864, both being buried at nearby Slanes graveyard.

Eventually in 1863, the station became a four-keeper posting with an extra two-storey dwelling house erected for the new assistant, which seems a bit unfair on the other three!
Records for lightkeepers are very hit and miss in the 1800s but thanks to the efforts of Jim Blaney in wading through what records exist and recording them in Beam 26, 1997, we at least have some names. These are: -

Daniel Whelan and Peter Corish, c.1850 - 51
Naphtali Hackney 1854
Mr. Butler (and possibly Mr. Stapleton) 1857
Nicholas O'Donnell 1858
Mr. Carlin 1858
John Whelan 1868
Andrew Goodwin 1868
James McCabe (PK) and AKs Sampson McCabe, George Brownell and John O'Donnell 1871
William Maginn and John Kennedy 1872
James Maginn 1874
John Whelan 1875-77
Michael Barry 1876
M. O'Donnell 1877

Michael O'Donnell was the final PK at South Rock, as the lighthouse was, after eighty years, deemed to be located too far from the very rock it was supposed to be marking. Sadly, for Michael, he was demoted to AK two weeks before the closure, for not forwarding his oil journals to Head Office.
As the lighthouse was replaced by the South Rock lightship, some lightshipmen continued to be housed at the shore station at Newcastle until they were sold off around 1905.

The Rocket House at Newcastle, as used by the coastguards.