Friday, May 28, 2021

The death of William Duff, the Kish lightship


The Kish lightship in the first decade of the twentieth century. To me this looks like the Cormorant but, hard to believe, I have been wrong in the past. Lightships were painted black until the 1950s, when red got the contract.

Back to 1902, the lightship on the Kish Bank, just outside the entrance to Dublin harbour, gained headlines worldwide when, on 8th September of that year, she was sunk by the Royal Mail Steamer Leinster in dense fog. Neither party saw the other until a collision was unavoidable and the lightship – The Albatross – was practically split in two by the force of the collision.

 The seven men aboard the stricken lightship – William Daly (Master), seamen William Duff, Patrick Langan, Michael Crowe, George Warren and Joseph Pluck and the carpenter, John Day – had been on board about a week and calmly and quickly lowered the lifeboat and rowed away. They were picked up by the Leinster and brought to Kingstown (Dun Laoghaire), seemingly none the worse for their experience. The lightship sank within minutes. It was eventually salvaged and sold off.

One of the rescued men was William Duff. He lived in 4, Northumberland Place, Kingstown and his main role on board he lightship – now the Shearwater, as the Albatross was otherwise engaged in submarine activities – was as a lamp trimmer. He had been on the Kish for twenty  of his fifty years.

The Shearwater was a relatively new addition to the fleet having been built in 1894 at a cost of £3,900.

According to his wife, Margaret, William’s nerves had got the better of him since the contretemps with the Leinster. He had told her that he never would get the better of the shock, although on Sunday morning 12th October, he seemed to be in perfect health as he left Kingstown to rejoin the lightship. He and the rest of his shift had actually been due to relieve the other crew on the Saturday but the weather had been too bad.

     His shipmate, Michael Crowe, who had also been on the Albatross agreed that William appeared to be in very good health on that Sunday and certainly made no reference to anything ailing him. The two men were winding up the weights of the revolving light at around 9.45pm when suddenly William cried out and fell down dead. Michael called the officer in charge and the two of them attempted resuscitation, to no avail. The body was subsequently brought ashore and taken to St. Michael’s Hospital, Kingstown.

     A post mortem examination found that the deceased had an enormous enlargement of the liver coupled with ‘a flabby heart.’ Liver disease was entered as the cause of death. It was an unremarkable death, now long-forgotten, for an unremarkable seaman who had given his life to the lightships.

     As for the R.M.S. Leinster, she continued to ply her trade between Holyhead and Kingstown until a few short weeks before the Armistice in 1918, when she was sunk by two torpedoes from a German U-boat. There was no passenger list but, thanks to the efforts of Philip Lecane, we know that there were 567 named people killed, making it by far Ireland’s worst maritime disaster.

     The tragedy happened as the Leinster was passing the Kish lightship.

Saturday, May 15, 2021

Sherkin Island, Florence Nolan and the fog bell


Sherkin Island lighthouse and the troublesome fog bell (I have no idea where this photograph came from)

In less than ten days, I shall be heading down to the Mizen peninsula in West Cork for our annual hiking break and I hope to be getting up close and personal with the Copper Point lighthouse on Long Island and also Crookhaven light, one of the few that I haven't ticked off. Unfortunately our itinerary means it will be unlikely that I will get anywhere near Ireland's laziest island, Sherkin Island, and its cast iron lighthouse. 
I have actually seen the lighthouse at Barrack Point twice - once from the Baltimore Beacon on the other side of the entrance to Baltimore Harbour and once from the Baltimore to Cape Clear ferry. But never close up.
From around 1881, the Skibbereen and Baltimore Harbour Board were petitioned to erect a lighthouse at the entrance to Baltimore Harbour. A local priest and board member, Fr. Charles Davis, was the chief agitator for this. There was a nasty rock, Loo Rock, some 75 feet by 25 feet, at the entrance to the harbour and he claimed that many fishermen were afraid of entering the harbour by day, let alone by night, because of the fear of foundering on this hazard. Local fishermen, as well as fishing captains from Arklow and the Isle of Man (who far outnumbered the former) were all in agreement that a lighthouse was essential to the future viability of the harbour and the increase in harbour dues would soon pay for the cost of a lighthouse.
And so, with the blessing of the Board, Fr. Davis prevailed upon the Commissioner of Lights to provide them with a lighthouse that the local harbour board could run and Irish Lights acceded to his request.

Because the light would not be ready for the 1885 fishing season on 1st March, Fr. Davis asked the Board of Irish Lights to send them down a temporary light which they did. (Irish Lights were in unusually receptive humour obviously) And when the permanent light was finally established in January 1886, the lantern contained the temporary, fixed, white light. It was a cast iron lighthouse, 27 feet tall, tower painted white.
The first lightkeeper appears to have been a local farmer, one John Nolan of Nine Gneeves, (I think I have the name right!) who took on the job for one pound per week, doubtless helped out by his wife Margaret (Driscoll) and sons. (Sherkin had been the stronghold of the O'Driscolls in mediaeval times)
In 1888, Fr. Davis snapped his fingers again and Irish Lights promptly sent down a fog bell for the lightkeeper's use. There was great consternation in West Cork when the instructions came down from Dublin that the bell would be rung once every ten seconds in foggy weather. This, it was argued, would put the lightkeeper under serious strain if the fog persisted for sixty hours, as it often did. However, Irish Lights agreed to send down a machine which would operate the fog bell so it only needed to be wound every three hours!
In 1890, John Nolan came down with liver disease and went to live with his cousin on Cape Clear. The light continued to be maintained by his family. John died in March 1891 and one of his sons formally took over the reins as lightkeeper. His widow Margaret outlived him by over fifty years.
Sadly we don't know the first name of John's son, who took over the lightkeeping duties. What we do know about him is that, in the summer of 1894, he suddenly resigned his position and emigrated to America. The Harbour Board advertised the post, received two applicants and in September announced that Florence (Flor) Nolan, another son of John's, had got the job at a wage of £40 per year. Evidently, the boom in harbour dues envisaged by the now late Fr. Davis had failed to materialise. One year, the amount in the bank totalled £10! So, Florence took the job with the promise that the original rate of pay would be restored when things picked up.
Incidentally, Florence, in Cork and Kerry, is a not uncommon boy's name.

Sherkin Island Lighthouse with Baltimore Beacon on the far side of the mouth of the harbour (The Lawrence Collection National Library of Ireland)

At the very end of July the following year, a fishing boat, the Zenith, with six crew and twenty-one pleasure seekers from Leap, some twenty miles east, had set off back from Baltimore when a fire broke out below around midnight. Florence Nolan, above at the lighthouse, spotted the haze of the light and rang the bejayzus out of the fog bell to alert the coastguards. Nine people were drowned when the one lifeboat was rushed and capsized.
In August 1895, Florence communicated to the Harbour Board that the fog bell supplied by Irish lights had somehow got broken and was completely useless. The Harbour Board related this to Irish Lights, asking for another one. Irish Lights replied saying they couldn't have another one. The Harbour Board said "Ah, you will, you will, you will, you will, you will" and the Irish Lights Board relented.
In 1899, the fog bell was blown down and a new stand was ordered immediately. The bell itself did not suffer any damage on this occasion.
It lasted until November 1914 when it was blown down in another storm and damaged. This time the Harbour Board wrote to Irish Lights requesting a fog siren but this time the lady was not for turning.
In 1948, reference was made at a Harbour Board meeting about the old fog bell and the 'mystery' of what happened to it. At the next meeting, the Secretary announced he had trawled through the minutes and discovered a cheque receipt from Warner Bell Founders for £13 16s 8d  for the bell sent to them in June 1915. The newspaper account says that "Mr. F. Nolan, Lightkeeper, said he was glad the mystery had been cleared up as false statements had been made about him."
Throughout the light's history, the Skibbereen and Baltimore Harbour Board, who appear to have been plagued by uncollected harbour dues and were never flush with cash, tried to minimize expenditure on the lighthouse. A proposal in 1908 to the board to increase Florence's pay to the original £52 per year was rejected out of hand as he already got a free house and coal. Repairs were constantly put on the long finger. They tried to offload the lighthouse onto Irish Lights but the latter were having none of it.

2012 photo showing Sherkin lighthouse (left) and Baltimore Beacon guarding the mouth of Baltimore Harbour like the Pillars of Hercules

The 1901 Census shows Florence (24) and his 15 year old brother Patrick, also described as a Lightkeeper, running the light. By 1911, it was Florence and his 23 year old sister, Annie.
On 23rd July 1918, Florence, who would have been 42 years old, married May O'Driscoll, who was twenty. (I had originally put down that she was a minor, as this is what it stated on their marriage cert, but Marie D. Driscoll rightly pulled me up on this as it would give the wrong impression to people today. I am happy to correct it) Interestingly, Flor's occupation on the marriage cert is Fish Buyer, which shows that the lightkeeping was not enough to live on. 
The Southern Star on October 4th 1930 printed the observations of a Liverpool man, returning to Sherkin after an absence of three years. The postmistress, a Mrs Young, had retired and her post office cum stores was now a holiday home. The new P.O. was more centrally located and was in charge of one 'Mr. Flor. Nolan.' Presumably he was the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker too.
The Southern Star of 14th May 1952 carried the news that the Harbour Board would write to the Minister for Industry and Commerce asking him to grant an annuity to Florence Nolan on the occasion of his retirement. I am sure that 58 years in charge of the one lighthouse must be some kind of record, yet I don't think I've ever seen his name mentioned in this regard. I reckon he deserves some sort of a plaque at the lighthouse for this feat.
He died on 15th December 1960 at St. Patrick's Old People's Home on the SCR in Dublin, my daughter's first flat after moving out. I hasten to point out it had been turned into apartments by then!
Whoever replaced Flor didn't last long because the Harbour Board reported in September 1955 that the lightkeeper had resigned and gone to England. A William O'Neill of Harbour Mouth, Sherkin, was the successful candidate in a two-horse race to replace him.
By this time the lighthouse was in rag order and needed an urgent overhaul. The roof in particular was in a bad way. It appears the Harbour Board dug deep into its pockets on this occasion.
The Lighthouse Directory, which is pretty accurate about these things says the lighthouse was automated in the 1970s. However an offer of £100 was made in 1963 to purchase the cottage from a London-based gentleman, so long as the sale went through quickly. In 1965, it was revealed that the cottage had been purchased by a local man. Normally, this would indicate that the lighthouse was already automated by this time, though if the keeper already had a house on the island - such as, say, William O'Neill - then the cottage would be surplus to requirements.
The light still shines over the mouth of Baltimore Harbour; two flashes White and Red every six seconds. 40 metres high, visibility six Miles for the white, three Miles for the red. (thanks Ron Skingley)

Sherkin lighthouse from Baltimore Beacon (2012)

Sherkin Island lighthouse, I'd guess the 1920s or 1930s. The gentleman with the hat has been named as 'possibly Flor Nolan'

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Exciting times for Irish lighthouse enthusiasts

When I started visiting Irish lighthouses, they seemed a most unwelcoming lot. The yellow 'Trespassers will be shot' signs were often placed a long way up the roads to the lighthouse, thus ensuring you couldn't take photos from different angles. You got one shot from outside the gates and that's your lot. Now turn around and go away. (I must confess, I always saw the yellow signs as a challenge rather than a deterrent, the way Dougal viewed the red 'Do not press' button in the aeroplane. And it will always be on my conscience, if I had one)

Slowly, though, the times are a-changing and CIL are starting to understand that a lot of people like lighthouses and there's a tourist potential there. Plus it's somewhere unusual and educational to bring the kids. Hook, Fanad, Loop Head, Mizen Head, Ballycotton and Valentia are now open to the public for at least most of the summer months and fantastic places they are too.

However, the good news is that during lockdown, people have been busy. A number of other communities are realising that a lighthouse is a wonderful piece of maritime history - the keepers who served there, the disasters at sea, the power of the ocean, the families, the ferrymen, the science of the lighting equipment. And plans are afoot to seek out this history and record it for posterity, as well as maybe opening up the lighthouses a little bit.

John Kelly's wonderful photo of Blacksod lighthouse

To the fore in this department are the good folk at Blacksod lighthouse on the Mullet peninsula in Mayo, who are opening up their doors to the public in the very near future. Rosemarie, Laura, Tina and Evin have been working tirelessly, researching the histories of the Erris lighthouses - Blacksod, Blackrock, Eagle Island and Broadhaven - and it looks set to be a major tourist draw on that beautiful peninsula (seriously, have you seen some of the beaches out there?) 

Fanad is also looking for people with connections to the lighthouse there to get in touch with their stories and tales to form the basis of compiling the history of that wonderful lighthouse.

Exciting things are also happening at Fenit with an aim of reopening up one of my favourite lighthouses, Little Samphire Island. Planning is at an early stage but it is hoped that lighthouse tours will be available and also the possibility of using the building as a research centre. If it had more beds, I'd say it would make a wonderful artists' retreat!

Tony Higgin's photo of Little Samphire with the Slieve Mish mountains behind

Rathlin Island East is also looking for information from the public about the history of the lighthouse there - folk memories, former keepers, triumphs and disasters - with a view to installing an exhibition there.

And there are also tentative plans to open the North Wall Quay in Dublin to the public, probably by appointment only, though this seems to be a good way off.

Other lighthouses have Open Days, often during Heritage Week, when they fling open their doors and allow people in. Wicklow Head has done them, the Old Head of Kinsale too. I daresay there would be plenty of scope to extend this right around the country. So, although some of the buildings are going to rack and ruin, at least some of our lighthouses are being a little bit more welcoming.

The North Wall Quay lighthouse in Dublin port

Thursday, May 6, 2021

Cultra Quay (lost lighthouse) Update


When I first came across the lighthouse at Cultra, next to Holywood in county Down, I had absolutely  no information on it at all. It was marked on an OS 1st edition map (1834) as being located on the quay at Cultra Harbour and on the 1854 2nd edition as being 'in ruins' but t'internet was strangely non-forthcoming on any description of this mysterious edifice.
Once again, I am indebted to my equally mysterious friend, Nick from Holywood, for pointing me in the direction of a remarkable book called "Holywood county Down, Then and Now" by the Rev. McConnell Auld M.A., known to all and sundry as 'Con Auld,' whose list of achievements would fill a book on its own. The book is A4 size, landscape and includes practically everything there is to know about the small town on Belfast Lough.
Cultra - the back of the beach - was owned by the Kennedy family since 1671 and was part of a large tract of the North Down coast acquired by that family. It is possible that its harbour was the factor that encouraged them to build Cultra House at this spot. Belfast Lough was notoriously shallow due to sand on its southern shore. At Cultra was the only harbour that permitted deep water vessels to put in. In fact Cultra was, in 1775, one of only two places where the cross-channel packets would use to take on and disgorge passengers.
According to Con Auld, the Hugh Kennedy rebuilt the harbour in 1818, adding a small square light house building in the centre of the rather odd arrow-shaped quay. The harbour could facilitate vessels up to three hundred tons. A ferry boat The Bangor Castle left Donegall Quay in Belfast for Bangor every afternoon and included Cultra on its journey. Regattas were held here too and papers were filled with reports of the day's racing.
However, the development of Holywood and its incredibly long pier as a port, coupled with the dredging of Belfast harbour meant that by 1850, Cultra harbour had outlived its usefelness and was now 'going to run' according to one Dr. Kelly. By the 1870s it was completely dilapidated.
Intriguingly, Con Auld includes a sketch of the quay and lighthouse in his book (top picture) but it is unclear if this sprang from his imagination or if he copied it from another source. (Another sketch of his of the first Holywood Bank lighthouse looks remarkably accurate, so I am inclined to believe the latter. He lists his sources at the back of the book but it would take me a lifetime to go through them all and find the relevant illustration)
Sadly Con Auld died a couple of years ago, leaving to the people of Holywood this remarkable legacy, an example to all local historians of what can be achieved through research and collating.