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


  1. Great read of our most northernmost island which is something of the holy grail for kayakers to reach from Malin. Pretty difficult waters. Enjoyed the reports of fairy activity on those who destroy whitethorn trees.

  2. This is fabulous information Peter, this has answered so many of my questions about the lighthouse. Myself and 2 fellow paddlers were camping on the island Wednesday night and wished we knew more about its history , and now thanks to you we do 😊

  3. This is fabulous information Peter, this has answered so many of my questions about the lighthouse. Myself and 2 fellow paddlers were camping on the island Wednesday night and wished we knew more about its history , and now thanks to you we do 😊

  4. Oh its still a working lighthouse - just with no keepers!