Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Rotten Island, county Donegal

When this blog started, many moons ago, it was a simple 'visit a lighthouse, take a photo or two and add a bit of info' sort of a blog. For better and worse, it has become much more historically minded and the need to have visited has gone. So it is something of a breath of fresh air to get out and actually visit an Irish lighthouse I had never seen.

So, an unexpected free day at the start of September, saw me up early and driving across the country to south-west Donegal to bag the last of the easily baggable lighthouses. I could have taken a boat tour and got pretty close to Rotten Island but the distance from the mainland seemed minimal. Basically, I got to Bruckless and, with the help of Google Maps, headed for the Atlantic View B & B, which ended at a stony beach. Parking up (making sure I left a gap for any boat-laden cars to get through) the lighthouse was visible from the beach (see next photo) The tide was low so I walked up the beach towards the lighthouse, eventually coming across a gentle slope up to the cliff top and then simply headed towards the island. I was actually surprised how close I could get to the island.

Rotten Island was of course named after the Sex Pistol's singer and was established in 1838. (There is another outlandish theory that it was named after Naomh Rotain, who hosted a hermitage there) The CIL website mentions that three workmen were drowned on 15th September 1836 (exactly 185 years ago, I have just realised) returning from a day's work on the island.

1905 photo taken during a CIL visit (photo National Library of Ireland)

Killybegs was, and still is, a hugely important fisheries port. I was surprised to see the number of brand spanking new trawlers lined up on the quays and boats frequently passed by the lighthouse. Nearby St, John's Point lighthouse - post to come! - marks the southern entrance of Donegal Bay and Rotten Island marks the inner channel to Killybegs. Working in tandem, these two lights have had a relatively trouble-free existence, compared to many other lights on the west coast of Ireland.

The lighthouse was designed by the renowned George Halpin snr and was built of cut granite, painted white. It cost £8850 14s 10d. The character of the light was fixed but this was changed to flashing in 1910. It became unwatched in 1959 but the new lighting system was not popular with the maritime community, so it was changed to electric in 1963. This was achieved by simply stringing a telegraph wire across from the Carntullagh Head on the mainland, as per the photo below.

Electricity came to the island in 1963! See also the small landing stage on the landward side of the island. The 1905 photo above suggests another landing place on the channel side too,

Being such a tiny island (5 roods 12 perches, if anybody understands mediaeval acreage) the only people who lived on the island were the lightkeeper and his family. Being a small island and a local light, wives would presumably have acted as assistant keepers. Accommodation would also be provided for visiting tradesmen, contractors, technicians, painters etc. There is a record of a Florence Connell being born on the island on 29th May 1910, daughter of Corkman John Frederick Connell and his wife Florence (nee Pavlosky) It is entirely possible that Florence may be completely unique in having been born on the island, as most mothers would presumably have taken the short trip to the mainland to give birth, one thinks.

In 1901, the lightkeeper was one Charles Boyle (59), his wife Mary (49) and two sons Patrick (20) and Charles (18). Other keepers include Thomas Lydon (1881), Alphonsus O'Leary, George Rogers, Martin Kennedy, John  Wall, Jack Campbell and Paddy McHugh among others. William A Hamilton was the last keeper, locking up in 1959. His wife Mary, was one of the last female assistants in the country. Apparently, subsequent to the light being made automatic, a small portion of the lantern was cut away, so William, who was appointed the attendant on shore at Lough Head, could see that the light was operational!

One other keeper I came across was Harry Diver, who was assistant keeper in 1935. Obviously he was outside the normal husband - wife lightkeeper partnership on Rotten Island. Poor Harry, only 16 years old at the time, endured a most traumatic experience when his brother and a friend drowned whilst ferrying him to his place of work.

From the Londonderry Sentinel 5th September 1935

Another snippet I came across was from the Derry Journal 28th March 1938 on the centenary of the lighthouse, Apparently an oak clock, that had been a feature of the new lighthouse in 1838, was still keeping time and had never been repaired. I wonder where it is now.

1st edition OS map of Rotten Island and Carntullagh Head.