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'


  1. Sounds like Flor certainly deserves a plaque at least, but for the longest serving keeper, or the man with the most side jobs! Facinating as ever Pete. love the Lawrence photo

  2. Lovely read. Brought back great memories!

  3. Hi Pete,
    This is really interesting. I wonder what your sources are as none are listed; I'm interested in the local history of Sherkin (I'm a lazy native) thus this email. I'd love to access your sources; also the little clippings from which newspapers?? Or is all this listed somewhere but I missed it?
    Thank You.
    Dolly O Reilly

    1. Hi Dolly, can you mail me at and I'll send you what clippings I have

  4. The picture you use here featured on the NLI's Flickr page today, and I found your entertaining blog entry. A bit of detective work later, I think the emigrating brother was Denis, born 1875.

  5. A photo you use here featured on the NLI's Flickr linked below, an a search brought me to your entertaining blog.

    I think Flor's emigrating brother may have been Denis, born 1875, as the eldest boy James died of measles at 18.

    See comments at

  6. Thanks Niall, Great genealogical detective work to get Denis Nolan as the second keeper. The only problem is that Denis is shown on the 1911 Census with the widowed Margaret on Cape Clear? Unless my info about the son emigrating is wrong. Or unless Denis returned from America?

  7. I double checked, and still no Denis in 1901, perhaps he did return to Sherkin before 1911.