Monday, April 26, 2021

The Cursing Stone by Tom Sigafoos


Since I left school, nearly 45 years ago now, I don't think I have ever written a book review. There are a number of reasons for this. 
Although the advice to writers has always been 'read, read, read,' I don't actually read much. The only books I do read are factual books, mainly involving local history. 
Another reason is that I have always been suspicious of reviewers and critics. Either they are palsy-walsy with the person they are reviewing, in which case the review is impossibly laudatory; or they are trying to make a name for themselves with a witty turn of phrase or a damning put-down. It breaks my heart to see anyone - musician, author, actor - pilloried in the press by someone who has not the talent nor dedication nor creativity to produce anything original.
However, I'm going to make an exception in this instance after coming across Tom Sigafoos's historical novel, The Cursing Stone, which, I believe, contains enough lighthouse content to warrant inclusion on this blog.
Basically, Tom has very cleverly woven a novel around an event in Ireland's maritime history that has fascinated myself and others by the many unanswered questions that surround it. 
The event is the sinking of the H.M.S.Wasp under the beam of the lighthouse on Tory Island off the coast of Donegal on a clear night in 1884, with the loss of all but six of the crew. The Wasp was on its way to evict islanders from their homes on the island of Inishtrahull, a little further along the coast, when it ran aground. Rumours later surfaced of 'a cursing stone' being invoked on Tory to forestall the evictions. 

The Tory Island lighthouse c.1905. The lighthouse, like Mew Island, was painted black until 1954/55 when both were given a white band. (Photo the CIL collection, National Library of Ireland)

Tom has obviously done a huge amount of research on the subject for even small details are accurate. A new Principal Keeper at Tory had only arrived a few days beforehand. A lad from the island had been drafted in to help man the light. The topographical description of the island demonstrates familiarity with the subject. Even the hapless priest, hell-bent on converting the primal islanders - shades of The Wicker Man? - appears faithful to the actual priest of the time.
But although the facts of the incident remain central to the plot, it is the ingenious way that the fictional story fits into the narrative that delights. I probably have an advantage in that I've visited Tory, more than once. Though hardly an expert, I can recognise the landscape and the people. Today they are a law unto themselves - 140 years ago, they were fiercely independent, politically, economically and religiously, as well as geographically, like their fellow islanders on Inishtrahull. They were Christians on their own terms, with a smattering of an ancient religion thrown in for good measure. Like Inishtrahull, they had a King who adjudicated on disputes. The priest, like the lighthouse keepers, were accepted but were regarded as transient visitors, held slightly at arm's length.

Tory Island lighthouse c.1954 shortly before earning its white stripe. I have no idea where this photograph came from.

The book is a chunky one, over 360 pages, but I devoured it in two sittings. The main characters are well developed and believable and I found myself really caring what happened to the main protagonist. There are many issues dealt with in the story - British empire-building, the role of the ordinary British seaman, the picture of an island community on the cusp of its inevitable submersion into the political status quo, landlordism and, most importantly, the dispute over the respective effectiveness of  static and flashing lighthouse beams. It so engrossed me that I may even consider reading another novel.
In all seriousness, I have no qualms about recommending this book to anyone. Its a cracking read from start to finish and I was kind of sorry when I finished it. 
The Cursing Stone by Tom Sigafoos ISBN 9781008980396  is available to order from

The sinking of The Wasp

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Carrickfergus lighthouse


Map of Carrickfergus c.1680 shamelessly robbed from the Carrickfergus history website

I remember in the days of my youth that I used to get excited by going to a gig by the Ramones or the Clash, by a girl acknowledging my existence or by my football team getting into the semi-finals of the Cup.
Nowadays, it seems, I get my kicks from the possible discovery of a 370 year old lighthouse. To borrow a line from a Talking Heads song, "Well, how did I get here?"
The common story about lighthouses in Ireland is that six lighthouses were patented by Sir Robert Reading in 1665 - Old Head and Charlesfort in Kinsale; Hook Head; two at Howth and one at Islandmagee. Before that, there were only ever two lighthouses - Hook and Youghal. The rest of the coast was dark.
I've struggled to accept this for a long time. Doesn't make sense that shipowners would let their ships and their valuable cargoes founder for want of a simple harbour light. I suspect that places like Ardglass and Galway lit fires on the top of castles or towers to guide ships into harbour. But I've never been able to confirm it.
Two weeks ago however, I came across an article by a guy called Colin Johnston Robb from the Belfast Telegraph 13th January 1948. It was an article about lighthouses in Ulster and I have snipped the portion that made me sit bolt upright.

So, if Mr Robb has his facts correct, this was not merely a tower with a brazier on top. This, like Youghal, was a candle-burning light, shining forth from a purpose-built tower. Neither Youghal nor Hook were probably purpose-built (I may be wrong on the latter) so this 'discovery' is quite exciting. For me, anyway. Probably not for a lot of other people.
The sketch at the top of the page is from around1680. The town was always getting invaded and repulsed, because it was a very important place. The sketch seems to be looking south down the coast to the castle and there's a very lighthousey-looking tower next to the castle at roughly the place from where the pier began (out of shot) which might possibly be our boyo. Or the lighthouse could have been knocked down by then.
A few months ago, I 'discovered' a long-lost lighthouse at Cultra near Holywood, only to find, after making enquiries locally, that its existence was well-known in the area.
So, I wrote to the good people at Carrickfergus History who seem to know everything there is to know about the history of their town. I was a bit disgruntled they didn't write back immediately until I realised that I had written to them on 1st April and they may have considered my mail to have been fake news.
So now, I have written to them again.
And I wait.

Friday, April 9, 2021

Inishkea Beacons

The Inishkea Islands group lies a short distance off the Mullet peninsula in county Mayo and consists of two main islands - North and South - and a couple of outlying rocks. It is said they housed early Christian sites which later were abandoned and the islands were uninhabited during the Middle Ages before being repopulated later on in the millennium.
There have been suggestions that the Inishkea islanders were anthropologically different from their brethren on the mainland, almost imbued with heroic, godlike qualities, strength and beauty, unbeatable at Twister, that sort of thing. In the nineteenth century, when there were no English speakers on the islands, they worshipped a stone, said to be the pillow of St. Columba, which was dressed in new flannel every year and which could calm stormy seas or raise a storm whenever a potential shipwreck appeared on the horizon. The stone was eventually broken in two and thrown into the sea by a zealous priest where it waits for Indiana Jones to discover them and slot them together and restore the ancient Eden that was Inishkea.

Position of the Inishkeas courtesy of Mapcarta 

A whaling station was established on an island off Inishkea South in the early 1900s which created employment for those inhabitants but created a bad stink - in more ways than one - for the inhabitants of Inishkea North. The divide between the two islands, which is geographically very small, intensified during the Civil War when the two islands came down on opposite sides in the conflict. A possibly apocryphal story says they used to gather on the shores facing the other island and peg rocks at each other!
The end for the islanders came with the loss in 1927 of ten young fishermen in a night-time storm that suddenly sprung up out of nothing. They struggled on for a couple of years but in the early 1930s, they were brought to the mainland, many of them settling in the neighbourhood of Glosh, looking back out to the island.

But to the beacons. My thanks to researcher Rosemarie Geraghty, who is doing tremendous work at Blacksod Lighthouse collating information about the lighthouses of the Mullet peninsula, amongst many other things. A new venture is due to open at Blacksod this summer with a brilliant new tourism initiative for an often neglected area of the country.

The two beacons are on Inishkea South, bottom right and top left on the map above. They are two circular beacons tapering towards the top, built of rubble, cemented and painted white. The one in the middle of the island (top photograph) is 31.5 feet high, 13 feet diameter at the base, tapering to 8 feet at the top; the coastal beacon, the slightly blurred photograph, with the black extended pixie hat, is five feet shorter, 12 feet in diameter at the base, also tapering to eight feet at the top.
They were constructed as part of relief works organised in 1890-91 to lead boats through the Duvillaun channel. The works included raising the pier and repairing the slip on South Island and took approximately eight months. As many as sixty men, women and boys were given employment for this period. 
The beacons are maintained by Mayo County Council and painted by them every couple of years, Rosemarie thinks, which may be of interest to Marie Coyne and the wonderful islanders of Inishbofin, whose three similar beacons are permanently neglected by Galway County Council. A true legend, Marie has organised crowdfunding to repaint them when needed, despite the disapproval of the powers that be. Maybe they should consider towing the island twenty miles north so it falls under Mayo jurisdiction.
One final piece on the Inishkea islanders and particularly on the women. This from the Dundee Evening Post 13th November 1903, showing how the females had the right idea how to treat their menfolk...

Friday, April 2, 2021

Inishtrahull Part One

This cow has been grazing on my C Drive for many years now in front of the old Inishtrahull light. I have no idea where the photo comes from but I have seen it in various places.

The flaming sun ascends o'er Cantyre's Mull, 
Flings out his arms, day breaks on Inishtrahull!

So concludes poet, broadcaster, naturalist, lightkeeper D.J. O'Sullivan's  celebrated poem, Dawn in Inishtrahull, of which the author saw many thousands in his lifetime.
In contrast to Danny, I have never seen one dawn on Inishtrahull, nor dusk, or mid-afternoon, or any part of the day, much as I would have liked to. There are certain islands around our coast that have a definite lure for me, a lure which I find hard to explain. Inishgort and Inishkea in Mayo are two such. Scattery is another. Inishtrahull. Maybe the fact they all had thriving populations at one time but now are left to the birds and seals has something to do with it.
There is so much history of the lighthouse on the island, that this particular post will doubtless require a follyer-upper. John McCarron, who is doing such great work on recording and collating the history of the Inishowen peninsula, recently sent me a ganzy-load of photographs from the island which would never fit in one post, so I'm delighted to label this Part One. As usual, any corrections or additions to the story gratefully received at
Inishtrahull is famous for being the most northerly part of Ireland, lying 10kms (6 miles in old money) off the tip of Malin Head in county Donegal and also for being the oldest part of Ireland. Originally a part of the southern tip of Greenland, it is 1.7 billion years old and one day it took a figary and wandered across the north Atlantic to its present position.
A few years after it had settled in, the Royal Navy began to use Lough Foyle in a big way and they needed a light to mark this substantial island near its mouth. It was also slap-bang in the middle of the northern channel used by ships going from the Clyde to Amerikay and vice-versa.
So, the Ballast Board, newly imbued with the power to light our coastline, got to work to build a lighthouse on the island. Unfortunately, their first action was to cut down a whitethorn tree on the eastern end of the island, where the lighthouse was to be built. As the islanders were well aware, whitethorn trees are often the home of fairies but, despite their objections, building went ahead. As a consequence of this, everybody concerned with the building of the lighthouse - architects, stone-masons, island labourers etc - would die suddenly and inexplicably within a few short years. Fairies are notoriously touchy about having their homes destroyed, and I don't mean that in a derogatory way, in case any of them are reading this.
Incidentally, I have yet to read any details of the sudden, unexplained deaths and would be delighted to do so.
So the light was established on St. Patrick's Day 1813, the same day, four years later, that Ardglass and Fanad were first exhibited.

Shortly after the Bigger man put that notice in all the major newspapers, it seems he suddenly realised that he had forgotten something.

Actually, that is the only time I have ever seen an advertisement for a lightkeeper at an Irish lighthouse and it seems rather odd that they should stipulate the lighthouse when, even at that early stage of lighthouses, keepers would still be moved from station to station.
The lighthouse which was constructed of local rubble stone on the highest point of the island was designed by the celebrated George Halpin, who somehow managed to elude the vengeance of the fairies and built by workmen of the Ballast Board. Painted white, the light with the lantern cost £10,850 8s 4d to establish. It was roughly forty feet tall, stood 181 feet above the high water mark and was accompanied by  single-storey dwelling-houses and ancillary out-houses.

On 22nd June 1850, the Coleraine Chronicle reported a melancholy incident - "Melancholy case of Drowning – On Saturday morning last, as Philip Doherty and Edward Doherty of Ballygorman, near Malin Well, were proceeding, in a boat, to the island of Instrahull, (sic) and when about to enter the port, the boat was struck by a heavy sea and upset when, melancholy to relate, both men were thrown into the water and perished. They were the boatmen appointed for conveying, from the mainland to the lighthouse, the necessary supplies of provisions for the keeper, and oil for the lights, and had been in comfortable circumstances and said to have been experienced boatmen of strong constitution and athletic frames. Their untimely fate has left eleven children fatherless, Philip having left six and Edward five, besides their wives, bereft of their natural protectors."

It should be pointed out that all drownings in Victorian times were, by law, to be referred to as 'melancholy,' a point of grammar seemingly drummed into cub reporters heads. Boat journeys to and from lighthouses seem to have been the greatest cause of death at lighthouses in the 1800s, Slyne Head and Belfast Lough being particularly dangerous.
There were two keepers at Inishtrahull during the early years. In 1859, the Principal Keeper was earning £64 12s 4d per year, while his assistant brought in £46 3s. At this time, the light was a revolving white light, the flash appearing every 150 seconds, slowly strengthening and decreasing, which seems to me to be pretty slow.
In August 1863, the Dublin Mail gave details of the new lantern that was going to be installed on 'Innishall,' most of the details of which go way over my head, but somebody may make sense of them.

Between the old lighthouse and the very end of the island, there is an old graveyard. A bit lumpy and bumpy and most of the stones are apparently illegible. One of them though is eminently readable, as this picture from the Inishtrahull Facebook page shows: - 

Sadly, Annie died just before the introduction of civil registration for catholics in 1864, but a trawl of the Births, Marriages and Deaths around that time threw up the following birth cert for Annie's younger sister, Sara Maria:

John Young was of course one of many lighthouse keepers to have been based at Inishtrahull down through the years. A very comprehensive list exists for the 1900s but details are sketchy for the first 88 years to 1900. Edward McCarron, the author of 'Life in Donegal' did a fair stint on the island; and the ill-fated Callaghan family, who buried two children on Skellig Michael and another five at Inishowen, were at Inishtrahull in the 1870s, and had two children born there, neither of whom saw thirteen years of age.
At some stage between 1858 and 1873, the rotation of the light had been changed from two and a half minutes to one minute, because in 1874, it was changed again, down to thirty seconds.

However, things didn't go quite as planned for the Inishtrahull light, because there were questions asked about the frequency of the light after the Iris ran aground on the island, a vessel costing £23,000, though with no loss of life. It prompted a scathing letter in The Builder of 1st October 1883 from an anonymous writer who was probably former Irish Lights engineer John S. Sloane.

All that remains of the old lighthouse tower (photo courtesy John McCarron)

The new (1959) lighthouse on Inishtrahull seen from the gateposts of the old lighthouse on the other end of the island (photograph courtesy John McCarron)

A lot of metal was left lying around the old lighthouse, not only after the new lantern was installed in the 1860s but after the reduction in height of the old tower. The old story of the curse of the fairies is said to have made many people wary of reusing the metal (photos John McCarron)

To be continued