Thursday, March 11, 2021

Josie and Agnes Corish, Eagle Island and Blacksod Lighthouse

Painting of Eagle Island by Beechey in 1885. Incredible how he managed to paint in that swell. The East Lighthouse - the one destroyed - is on the right, therefore we are looking west and that could well be Blackrock in the background.

On 29th December 1894, an incredible storm caused widespread destruction all over Ireland, not least all along the west coast. On Eagle Island, off the Mullet peninsula, giant waves smashed over the lantern of the East Tower, 220 feet above sea-level, causing widespread damage. The families cowered in terror in the base of the tower, and it was not until the following morning that the families in the West Tower realised their plight. The result was that the East Tower which, like its comrade, had stood since 1835 was too damaged to repair and the families were moved to newly-built lodgings on the mainland at Blacksod.
The night of the storm is vividly described in a famous letter written by Polly Ryan to her sister but I recently came across some letters from Mary Josephine and Agnes Gertrude Corish, two daughters of lightkeeper James Corish, which throw some light, not only on their experiences that night but also on their new house in Blacksod.
To set the scene, the Weekly Irish Times had a Literary Club for adults and children run by a guy called Kincora. Children joined the club by paying subscriptions, after which they wrote letters to Kincora, some of which were printed. The best letter each week got a medal.
Mary Josephine (Josie) and Agnes were both members of the club. They were born at Rathlin Island in 1883 and 1885 respectively, their father, Joseph, and grandfather, Peter, having been lightkeepers. I print some extracts from the girls' letters to Kincora below to give you a flavour.

Eagle Island East, Belmullet, county Mayo (IT 4th August 1894)

Dear Kincora ... It is hard to find anything to write about on a rock on the bleak west coast, seeing no-one only the boatmen who attend twice a week, which they usually do in summer, but in winter as many times in the month is thought good. There are a few funny young gentlemen on the island at present. I may tell you some of their tricks next time ...  Josie Corish

Dear Kincora ... I am sure that she (Isabelle Moynihan, a pen friend) would think everything strange and wonderful if she could spend a week on Eagle Island and a week would be long enough on a place fit only for the wild sea birds. It is said a pair of eagles used to build on it in olden times. My little brother John has got a sailor suit on him today for the first time. He is very proud of it and looks quite a man ... Agnes Corish

Eagle Island East, Belmullet, county Mayo (IT 15th December 1894)

Dear Kincora, Since I wrote last we had the first of our winter storms. It was a long one, lasting nearly a month and all that time we had no word from the mainland; so we were delighted when we saw the boat coming out this day week and a new neighbour for us in her, so that we will not be lonely now. The weather here for the past week has been lovely, more like spring than winter ... Agnes Gertrude Corish

Eagle Island, Belmullet, county Mayo (IT 12th January 1895)

Cards from Josie and Agnes Corish with subscription on Josie's card for 2s 6d. Will write themselves shortly, when recovered from effects of late storm. J.M. Corish (probably their father)

Eagle Island OS map (1st edition) above, and last edition, below. 

Corclough (IT 2nd February 1895)

Dear Kincora ... We had a dreadful storm on Eagle Island on the morning of 29th December. It was my eldest brother's birthday, so he, as well as all of us, will not soon forget it. It was something dreadful. It left us houseless. We (that is, the women and children) are ashore since the 5th January. Dear Kincora, I would like to tell you about the storm that night, but it would be impossible. None of us ever expected to see the morning, we spent such a night of terror. Unless you saw the state of the houses and the outside premises, you would not believe it. The men think it was a tidal wave; it was not one, but several of them. And the large storm-wall that stood so many storms is cracked down near the large lighthouse ... Josie Corish

From Josie's address (above) it appears that the Corish family were lodged in Corclough after their evacuation. There is a row of four Irish Lights dwellings there. It is situated around 15 miles from Blacksod Point, north west of Belmullet on the road to, well, Eagle Island. Their stay at Corclough (aka Corclogh) doesn't appear to have been long as the next letter is addressed Blacksod.

Blackrock Dwellings, Blacksod (IT 13th April 1895)

Well, after our narrow escape on Eagle Island, we are at last settled in Blacksod or rather, in Blackrock Dwellings. I have a little friend here, Sarah Isabel Widdicombe    We all go to school every day and that is fine, the four eldest of us, also Isabel. The school is two miles from us and the chapel three ... I hope you have not had the influenza, dear Kincora. I don't hear of it down here at all. ... Josie Corish

Blacksod Point, Belmullet (IT 13th April 1895)

I suppose you have heard we were shifted to Blacksod from Eagle Island. We have five hens, three of them are laying. We see a lot of little lambs when we are going to school; they are lovely little things. It is a lovely place in the summer. I found a lot of buttercups today; the primroses are in bloom now, we find them coming home from school. My father went out to the rock today and another man came in ... There are blackberry bushes growing here. - Agnes Gertrude Corish

Blacksod Dwelling House for the families of keepers on Eagle Island and Blackrock c. 1905
(picture from the CIL collection in the National Library)

Blacksod Point Lighthouse, Belmullet, co. Mayo (IT 18th May 1895)

Josie and Agnes Corish and I are sending you a box of primroses for the sick children in the cots. My examination in the school is to be in June and I am working very hard and I hope I will pass... I get lovely little shells on the beach and I made a box of them, it was very nice. I can see three churches from here but the nearest one is nine miles distant. It is called Binghamstown Church. Josie and I take off our boots every evening and wade in the tide and the water is not very cold so soon we shall bathe. There is a nice castle four miles from here at a place called Kelly Bay and there are lots of nice flowers there. There is a Coastguard Station quite close to us and there is a telephone from it to Belmullet now... Please say what you think of my writing. Sarah Isabel Widdicombe 

To which Kincora tactfully replied, Your writing is good but you must be more careful with your grammar, which I had to correct.

Blackrock Buildings (IT 13th July 1895)

... There was a horse went mad last week, we are afraid of him as he is out on the road when we pass. Thursday (the 1st of July) was more like a day in November than in summer. We had some very heavy showers going to and from school ... Agnes Corish

Blacksod Point Lighthouse, Belmullet, co. Mayo (IT 13th July 1895)

Prize Letter

I am going to give you a description of Inniskea Islands. The south is divided from the north by a narrow channel of water. There are a great many inhabitants who live chiefly by fishing and they go out to fish in little boats called canoes in the roughest weather. There is also a school on it and a great many children go to it. The people keep sheep and they spin their wool into yarn and then get it woven into flannel and they dye it blue for the men and magenta for the women. The north island is not so large as the south. There is a school built lately on it but there is no teacher appointed for it yet. There is also a police barrack. The police were sent there to prevent the inhabitants making potheen on the islands. Inniskea Islands are four miles from the mainland and it is very difficult going to and from them in winter time and often there is no communication with the mainland for weeks at a time. You will be glad to know I was successful at my examination at school and passed into a higher class.  Sarah Isabell Widdicombe

Blackrock Buildings, Belmullet, co. Mayo (IT 13th July 1895)

I would rather be on Eagle Island than on Blacksod. The Eagle is covered with seapinks after the storm that did such damage. There are seapinks here also but not as nice as they were on Eagle Island. The weather has been lovely here the past three weeks ... I have seven hens and sixteen chickens ... The bishop will be here in three weeks time. He comes every three years. I am preparing to be confirmed and, along with all our other lessons, we must learn the Catechism.The examination is just over and anyone that does not make 100 days in the year will not be examined. The priest gives a tea-party to the children that pass. There is a telephone at the coastguard station about 200 yards from us. We often send telegrams to Belmullet, it is very handy. I got a duck's nest the other day among a lot of rushes and my brother went down next morning to count the eggs and they were gone. The pigs came up and ate every one of the eggs while the duck was away feeding. My mother and father were going on Sunday to see an island called Inniskea but they did not go as it was going to rain ... Mary Josephine Corish

Blacksod, Belmullet (IT 31st August 1895)

...The other day I was upstairs in mother's bedroom; I was sitting on a little box when suddenly a little bird flew in through the window and I ran and shut the window and caught it; it flew in after flies. We got plenty of mushrooms. We have plenty of carnations growing here; they are not very well out yet. My little brother Louie is very mischievous; today he went down to the sea and came up drenched with wet. There was no one to mind him because we were at school. We felt very lonely after Isabella S. Widdicombe went away from here. We are expecting two strangers - one for Blackrock and one for Blacksod Station. At this time, a number of girls are on the shore picking periwinkles off the rocks; they send cargoes of them away to Westport. There was a big fair in town yesterday; it is considered the best fair of the year.

Blackrock Buildings, Blacksod, Belmullet, co. Mayo (IT 21st September 1895)

... Our school was opened yesterday, the 9th of September; we had three weeks vacation; I enjoyed my holidays pretty well. The weather is very disagreeable for the last two weeks. I think it is not very good weather for the harvest, although the people about here are all cutting down their corn... I did not see any letter from Isabel Widdicombe since she went to Carlingford. I miss her very much going to school; we were always together. Josie Corish

Blackrock Buildings, co. Mayo (IT 21st September 1895)

Josie and I were confirmed on the 26th of last month. There was a great iron machine with arms for the purpose of working the semaphore, landed here at Blacksod Pier some months ago; the coastguards have charge of it; I think it is to be erected on a very high hill called Tarmon, a short distance from here where you can see all the country around you for miles. They were removing it today with horse and cart, so I suppose they are going to put it up at once. I am sure when it is up it will about 45 feet high. The 16th of next month will be my little brother Louie's birthday. Agnes Gertrude Corish

Blacksod Point, Belmullet, county Mayo (IT 19th October1895)

I must tell you this week about how suddenly the storms come on about here and what risk the men run who have to be on the sea in boats. The police boat was returning to Inniskea (an island 4 miles from the land) when, just after passing the lighthouses, a thunderstorm broke over the place and it was thought by all who saw the boat passing she was upset. After the storm cleared away, she was seen mounting the waves without mast or sail between this and Achill. The Inspector-General from Dublin and the Inspector, Mr. Wallace, from Belmullet, were returning from Inishkea about the same time. The Inspector-General landed with enough to do at Fallmore, one and a half miles from this. Before Mr. Wallace could land, the boat was blown away from the shore and, with great danger, he landed among the rocks close to us, when he and the Inspector-General drove to Belmullet. The boat they came in from Inishkea was Mr. Philip Lavelle's. When he and his two brothers who were in the boat saw the danger the police in the other boat were in, they went to their assistance and they both, after hard work, got in safe to the pier, when they got a hearty cheer. Mr. Lavelle and the police, (who were Sergeant Hanniffy and Mr. Crowley) shook hands. Mr. Crowley, who had no cap, tunic or boots on, said, "Thank God we are safe and it is the best little boat in Ireland." We were glad to see them safe for we know them well. They then went to the lighthouse where they were treated kindly by Mr. Keenan and were able to return to Inniskea on Saturday after the narrow escape they had... Agnes Corish

Blacksod Lighthouse c. 1905. CIL photo in the NLI collection


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