Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Whatever happened to the Maiden Lovers?

The crazy Maidens lighthouses from the coast (photo: The Antrim Rambler)

Irish Lighthouse aficionados will be well aware of the story of the Maiden Lovers but just to recap very briefly....

The towers, off the coast of Antrim, were designed by George Halpin himself, who supervised their erection. The tower on the northern rock, known as the West Tower, (obviously!!) was 84 feet above high-water with a visibility of 13 miles, and the tower on the southern rock, known as the East Tower, was 94 feet high and visible for 14 miles. The two towers were a half mile apart. The lights were first exhibited on 5th January 1829 at a cost of £37,000 .


Image from Picturesque Ireland

Anyway, a young man called Thomas McKenna was the assistant keeper at the North Maiden light. His father was the Principal Keeper. At the other lighthouse, the South one, the Principal Keeper was a man called Hugh Redmond and he had a daughter called Mary, living with him in the lighthouse at the time. Now its awful hard for a young man or girl to socialise when you’re stuck on a tiny rock in the Irish Sea and naturally the two fell in love.

Unfortunately, Thomas McKenna’s father frowned on the liaison, for some reason lost in the mists of time. So young Thomas secretly built a boat and used to row over to the other lighthouse half a mile away on the sly. His father, however, found the boat and smashed it to pieces. Undaunted the pair continued to converse, first by semaphore ('making love telescopically,' as one commentator put it) and later by carrier pigeon, until such time passed as young Thomas secretly built himself another boat, supposedly named 'The Conquering Hero'. Then one night, he rowed over to the other island, picked up young Mary and then made for Carrickfergus on the mainland, where they were quickly married.

Faced with this fait accompli, you’d have thought that the older McKenna would have accepted the course of true love but apparently, he still had a snot on him and so Thomas and Mary were allocated another lighthouse, after which they lived happily ever after. 

Most commentators ambiguously give the date of this story as 'the 1800s.'

The North (West) Tower was discontinued in 1903

Anyway, to flesh out the story a bit, and with the help of Martha Power Baxter who, enviously, has this amorous pair in her well-researched family tree, we'll fill in a few gaps in the tale.
Thomas McKenna's father was also called Thomas McKenna, principal keeper on the now defunct North Maidens. His son, also Thomas, was born around 1819.
Mary Anne Redmond was the daughter of Hugh Redmond, who came to the Maidens probably from Skellig Michael. Again, commentators say that 'a man called Redmond lost a son and a nephew over the cliffs at Skellig.' Hugh served at the Skelligs during the 1830s and his brother Joshua served there from 1839 to at least 1856, without apparently ever setting foot on the mainland! Joshua also lost a son over the cliffs, hence both brothers actually lost a son and a nephew.
The only other information we have about Hugh is that he was a Wexford man and he allegedly fathered the wife of Commodore Barry, though I haven't yet checked that out. Mary Ann was born around 1820.

The Commissioners of Irish Lights rowing off to inspect the East (South) Maidens around 1904. Photo in the CIL collection of the National Library of Ireland

To confirm, or at least substantiate, the Maidens Lovers story, we find that the pair were in fact married at St. MacNissi's RC church in Larne on 12th June 1839. (Great name for a saint)

Daniel and Catherine, being witnesses, indicate that maybe they weren't as against the liaison as their father! They were probably living in Larne at the time, rather than on the Rock.
Thomas and Mary Anne were at Wicklow Head where their son Thomas was baptised on 4th September 1842. He was a younger brother to John McKenna who seems to have been born in Dublin.
From being assistant keeper at the Maidens, at 21 years of age, young Thomas next turns up as being Principal Keeper at Hook Head in late 1842, not only a great promotion to one of the handiest and most prestigious lighthouses in the country but also a long, long way from his da. Not bad for a man only six years in the job,
While here, he met up with a local farmer called Alec Power whom he recommended for a lightkeeping position. Alec became a keeper of long standing, starting off in 1842 by being assistant to Tom McKenna at Hook Head. 
In June 1844, Tom and Mary Anne were to be found at the Tuskar Rock. The Ballast Board had built cottages for the keepers on the shore at St. Helen's in the 1830s (still standing) but had sold them on after reports of appalling behaviour by the families there! So, the families lived out on the rock. One of the children, William Henry, was baptised there on 20th June 1844. A daughter, Mary Anne, was born there on 20th  February 1848. She evidently did not survive because another Mary was born there on 10th March 1850. This is probably not a complete list of the McKenna children.

The still active East (South) Maidens light today

On 4th October 1860, the eldest son, John McKenna - also destined to become a lightkeeper of long-standing - married Elizabeth Power, daughter of Alec Power. They married at St. MacNissi's Church in Larne as that is where Alec Power was stationed. Or maybe they eloped. Or maybe they just liked the name.
In 1861 or thereabouts, the Maiden lovers were lovin' it up at Rockabill off the coast of Dublin, where one of Thomas's assistants was John Power, son of Alec.
Alec Power died on 7th September 1865 at the remote and lonely Inishgort lighthouse in Clew Bay. The keeper chosen to replace him was none other than Thomas McKenna. Although several older children had left the nest, the family included two fledglings, Teresa (2) and Hugh (1), both born at Rockabill. There was also Edward (12) who would also become a lightkeeper.
It was to be the final posting for Tom and his runaway bride. Mary Anne died there eleven years later. She was 56 years old.

It was very unusual for a widow to have her maiden name entered on the death cert but extremely useful for future genealogists

Tom retired not long afterwards and settled in Mulgrave Street, Dun Laoghaire, then known as Kingstown. He was still there on the 1901 Census. He survived his wife by thirty years.


  1. Thats an amazing bit of research Pete

  2. Hi, Peter - What fun to see my name pop up on your blog! And this whole blog, like your book, is colorful, witty and fun. The book is definitely best seller material... Fingers crossed.

  3. Thomas and Mary Ann actually married in Carrickfergus in St Nicholas church. Commodore Barry died c 1803, nine years before Hugh Redmond married Bridget Howell.

    1. Yes, the Commodore Barry tale seems a bit far-fetched all right! Can't reconcile the snapshot of the Larne register with the marriage being in Carrickfergus? What am I missing here? I had no idea that Hugh's wife was Bridget Howell. You obviously know your stuff. Any idea of the name of the son who was killed on Skellig Michael?