Saturday, October 30, 2021


Birds and lighthouses have always had a strange sort of relationship. Keepers, both of lighthouses and lightships, were often recruited as amateur ornithologists and encouraged to send specimens to scientific organisations. Some of them actually became quite professional and were able to identify birds rarely if ever seen on our coasts.
At night, birds are attracted to the beams, often flying straight at the glass and extinguishing themselves rather than the light. Keepers have often reported hundreds of birds lying dead and stunned at the base of a lighthouse on waking up in the morning. Some would fly straight at the lantern and break their beaks. Others would throttle themselves on the lattice work surrounding the lantern, some would fall prey to lighthouse cats.
Ducks were no exception, migrating birds often finding the warm glow of the lighthouse beam a tempting encouragement to break their journey and rest. According to nineteenth century reports, many were killed by breaking their wings while flapping around the lantern; others actually split themselves in two, divebombing the lantern from a height, beak first.
Then there was this beauty who, in 1856, actually succeeded in getting inside the lantern!

Cork Constitution 11th September 1856

96 years later, an extremely obliging duck sacrificed itself in order to feed the poor starving keepers on the Tuskar Rock.

Evening Echo 1st December 1952

Obviously a duck flying headfirst at a lighthouse had the capacity to do an awful amount of damage, as this report from Flamborough Head in England in 1879 demonstrates: -

It should, however, be pointed out that, in this strange relationship between duck and lighthouse, it was not always the duck who came off second best.

Belfast Telegraph 15th April 1938

Monday, October 18, 2021

Loop Head - the early years

Loop Head today (By Charles W Glynn, CC BY-SA 2.0,

'In far Loop Head did somebody a stately small lighthouse erect ...'

So begins the first draft of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's epic poem "Kubla Khan," which sadly veered off the subject of pharology in later versions. It was a shame that Sammy didn't mention when the lighthouse was built and by whom, as it would have avoided a lot of confusion among today's lighthouse historians.

At the tip of the Loop or Leam peninsula, there is a wonderfully photogenic rock lying parallel to the cliff face. Legend has it that Cu Culainn, pursued by an old woman, leapt from the mainland onto the rock. The woman followed. Summoning all his strength, The Hound leapt back and the old woman, trying to do the same, fell to her death. (I'm sure I saw this in a film on the New York subway) Hence the name Cuchullins Leap. OSI First edition map

Who built the first lighthouse? Well, there is apparently little disagreement on this subject because nobody seems to know and, if they do, they're not saying. 
As most lighthousey people are aware, a patent was granted to Sir Robert Reading in the mid-1660s to construct and maintain six lighthouses around the coast - two at Kinsale, two at Howth, one at Hook (re-established) and one at Islandmagee. There were others in existence too, at Carrickfergus and Donaghadee, probably built by local benevolence or merchants. It is probable that the Loop Head light was established by either the merchants of Limerick or the local big landowner or both to light the way into the Shannon estuary.
When was it built? Well, Bill Long says 'around 1670.' Richard M. Taylor shies away from a date. Dick Robinson in the North Munster Antiquarian Journal plumps for 1670. I have seen 1690 mentioned and 1715 too, the former being the date it allegedly appears on an ancient map, which I have not been able to locate.
Merchants of Limerick petitioned the Irish parliament in 1717 to re-establish this lighthouse, which had fallen into darkness and disrepair for the past twenty years (giving an original date of prior to 1697) It is unclear whether the new lighthouse, established in 1720 was a new lighthouse or a fixer-upper job.
The lighthouse was an old cottage-style lighthouse similar in style to those at the Old Head of Kinsale, the Green Bayly at Howth and Muldersleigh Hill on Islandmagee. Most accounts agree it consisted of two or three rooms, in between two of which there was a staircase leading up to a brazier on the roof, from which a fire burned brightly. Like the other three cottage-type lights at the time, the building had a vaulted roof - unique to Ireland - reminiscent of the oratories and monks' cells in the south-west of Ireland.

Sketch of the original cottage lighthouse by Michael Costello, former CIL man, whose research into Irish lighthouse history has formed the basis of many a book. Curiously he depicts Loop Head as roughly half the size of the Baily, Old Head of Kinsale and the Copeland Islands cottage light

Section of the vaulted ceiling that apparently can still be seen today. John Sloane, writing in the 1880s, says the old cottage was being used as a coal house (photograph by Jim Ryan in the Clare Champion)

Patricia Lysaght, writing in Béaloideas in 2007, quotes Liam Ó Foghlú (born in 1850) in relation to the cottage lighthouse:

The obvious problem here is the timeline. Nobody that Liam knew would have been alive in 1720, but maybe it is a folk memory, handed down, with, as Ms Lysaght remarks, the visual presence of the old lighthouse keeping the story alive. 
It is unclear whether Polly was the first keeper of the 1670 or the 1720 light but the surname is well-known in lighthouse circles down through the generations, right to the very end. He certainly wasn't short of a fire to put the kettle on. Another source says it was a man from Donegal who lit the first Loop Head light. Michael Moore, a lightkeeper in the first half of the 20th Century claimed descendance from a man named Duplex who used to have to light the fire on top of the house at Loop Head.
Another Loop Head keeper appears to have been Mrs. Mary Westby, whom George III appointed 'Keeper of the lighthouse at Loop Head ... and also lighter of the fire.' One might be tempted to ask what the difference was between the two titles and what on earth was George III's interest in this, but as he was the mad one (I think) the answer to both questions might be the same. Mary held this position in 1771.
The cottage lighthouse with live-in keeper and family survived until 1802 when Thomas Rogers, Chief Lighthouse Builder of the Revenue Commissioners, built a 23 meter tall tower containing a lantern lit by 12 oil lamps. This in turn was replaced in 1854 by a tower of similar size nearby, the current light. Obviously with the two towers being of a similar height, the 1802 tower had to be truncated. There is no sign of this tower nowadays but the curious structure, below, photographed in the early 1900s, looks like it might well have been the base of the older tower.
Though, as my wife will happily tell you, I am frequently wrong about a lot of things.

Above and below, the current light in 1905, from the CIL collection in the National Library

Sunday, October 10, 2021

South Rock lightkeepers

The South Rock lighthouse three miles off the coast of county Down is, as we all know, the oldest wave-washed lighthouse in the world, still standing and is therefore criminally overlooked by our maritime historians, possibly because it is difficult to get up close to. The only surviving Thomas Rogers lighthouse, I'd better do a decent post about it soon, but for now, this post is about the keepers.

Built in 1797, the first keepers and their families lived in the tower itself. It was a single family operation, no relief keepers, and a boat came once a week from Newcastle pier, the nearest place on the shore. The pier had been constructed specifically to aid the construction of the lighthouse and lay in the townland of Newcastle, on the southern shore of Millin Bay. (This should not be confused with the town of Newcastle further down the county Down coast, though I confuse the two frequently)

It is said that the first keeper was a man named McCullough and there is a possibly apocryphal tale of him bringing his twelve year old son to the fair in Portaferry. It was the son's first time off the rock and he was naturally dumbfounded by the sights and sounds around him. Eventually, the father told the boy that he'd buy him one thing that he wanted. Earlier, the father had referred to some girls as goats. "Sure I'd like you to buy me one of them goats," the son replied.

The above notice was circulated in many newspapers. One might think that Captains Firebrand and Lasher were extremely stupid to sign their names, as a quick look through the local phone book could easily identify their location but phones had not been invented by this time. They were actually names in general use to indicate membership of a sectarian, agrarian secret society such as the Whiteboys, which operated in both creeds and eventually got used by the landlord classes to victimise unwanted tenants. George Carr, being the Superintendent of the Lighthouse, may have been the keeper at the time, possibly appointed at the expense of somebody on the opposite side of the religious divide.

Around about 1814, Michael Wishart was the keeper. Lighthouse people know him as one of the two keepers who aided a smuggler on the Tuskar Rock in 1821, helped themselves liberally to his brandy and got caught. Poor Michael eventually died falling off a cliff while cutting grass for his cow on Skellig Michael. It was quite a fall from grace (and from the cliff). In 1815, George Halpin had specifically plucked him off the South Rock to train up all the old keepers who were having trouble with the new Ballast Board regime.

Incidentally, I've never seen anybody make the link but this is surely the same Michael Wishart who was the master mason of the famous Bell Rock lighthouse in Scotland until a nasty accident cut short his career. Robert Stevenson made him one of the first lightkeepers there when he had recovered from his injuries and, with the great rapport between Stevenson and Halpin, it seems logical for Stevenson to recommend him to Halpin.

After 23 years of being a one keeper, live-in station, the South Rock was turned into a three-keeper operation in 1820 with three keepers' cottages constructed by the Newcastle pier to accommodate them. The photos above and below are from the north side of Millin Bay and my thanks to Nick from Holywood for going to the bother of taking them for me. The rutted lane down to the coast is now in a pretty bad state and is frequently waterlogged. The cottages, when built, were single storey dwellings though they are now two-storey.

One of the first men to avail of these cottages was a keeper called Walter Adamson. Like Michael Wishart, he hailed from Fife in Scotland and may have been another Stevenson recommendee. He must have been the Principal Keeper for his annual pay in 1821 (when he was 51 years old) was £66 15s. By 1844, he had retired on a pension of roughly half that amount. He died in 1856 and his wife Jane in 1864, both being buried at nearby Slanes graveyard.

Eventually in 1863, the station became a four-keeper posting with an extra two-storey dwelling house erected for the new assistant, which seems a bit unfair on the other three!
Records for lightkeepers are very hit and miss in the 1800s but thanks to the efforts of Jim Blaney in wading through what records exist and recording them in Beam 26, 1997, we at least have some names. These are: -

Daniel Whelan and Peter Corish, c.1850 - 51
Naphtali Hackney 1854
Mr. Butler (and possibly Mr. Stapleton) 1857
Nicholas O'Donnell 1858
Mr. Carlin 1858
John Whelan 1868
Andrew Goodwin 1868
James McCabe (PK) and AKs Sampson McCabe, George Brownell and John O'Donnell 1871
William Maginn and John Kennedy 1872
James Maginn 1874
John Whelan 1875-77
Michael Barry 1876
M. O'Donnell 1877

Michael O'Donnell was the final PK at South Rock, as the lighthouse was, after eighty years, deemed to be located too far from the very rock it was supposed to be marking. Sadly, for Michael, he was demoted to AK two weeks before the closure, for not forwarding his oil journals to Head Office.
As the lighthouse was replaced by the South Rock lightship, some lightshipmen continued to be housed at the shore station at Newcastle until they were sold off around 1905.

The Rocket House at Newcastle, as used by the coastguards.

Tuesday, October 5, 2021

The Muglins

Many thanks to Andrew Phillips for the wonderful photo above. I thought it was taken from nearby Dalkey Island but it is from near Colliemore Harbour in Dalkey. In the past I have tried to photo the Kish lighthouse from Howth, from Poolbeg and even from the Holyhead ferry with little success but, as Andrew points out, Dalkey is the nearest spot on the mainland. Don't think I've ever seen a photo of two of Ireland's newest lighthouses together.
The Muglins is the outermost of a series of islands and rocks off the coast off Dalkey in south county Dublin. The only thing on it is the lighthouse. The best views are from nearby Martello-Towered Dalkey Island, which can be accessed via Ken the Ferryman who operates out of Colliemore Harbour.
In 1765, the Sandwich (a boat, not a large chunk of bread and ham) set sail from the Canaries, richly laden, bound for London. While rounding Brittany, four of the crew murdered the other three crew members and the passengers, save for two boys, and set sail for Ireland. Outside Waterford Harbour, they scuttled the ship, threw the two lads overboard and made for the coast in a cock-boat, heavily laden with bags of gold.
Landing near Duncannon, they buried most of the gold and then started acting the go-boys in Wexford, driving around in Ferraris and wearing purple trousers and the like. Suspicions were aroused, one of the two boys survived and they were arrested, tried up in Dublin and found guilty.
Two were hanged near the Pigeonhouse, the other two nearer to Ringsend which amused the gentility out for a stroll until they started to smell, at which juncture they were removed to the Muglins, probably not the best initiative that Tourism Ireland ever came up with.
In the middle of the 19th Century, there was wreck after wreck on the Muglins, probably caused by lookouts gawping at the skeletons on the gibbet. Eventually, in 1847, the Ballast Board solved this problem when the Kingstown (Dun Laoghaire) East Pier light was established, its revolving beam supposedly keeping traffic clear of the Muglins.

One of my own inferior photos from 2014

Only it didn't. More wrecks followed and calls rang out to light the Muglins itself. The Adonis was one such ship. She fell foul of the rock in 1862 and would probably be long-forgotten except that her master was one George Silly. Captain Silly (I find I can't say the name without giggling like a schoolboy) had just gone below decks when the crash occurred and the inquiry laid the blame fair and square on the absence of a light on the Muglins. So Captain Silly sailed again.
To be fair to Irish Lights (as it became in 1867), they were all up for erecting a lighthouse on the Muglins but the Board of Trade thwarted them at every juncture. This is a report of one exchange in 1877: 

Yup, painting the island white would do it, all right...

Eventually in 1880, permission was agreed for a solid stone beacon to be placed on the Muglins. It was 30 feet high, 14 feet in diameter and was painted white, kind of like a mini Copper Point Three years later, the red band was added to make it look like a Scottish First Division football kit. It was only in 1906 that an unwatched light was placed atop the pillar, access to which was via an external ladder.

Rather like Pluto in reverse, the lighthouse was eventually promoted from a mere Beacon to full Lighthouse status on 30th July 1979. As it was unable to get through the door of the Mansion House, the Lord Mayor handed over the papers to it at a small ceremony in St. Stephens Green.

Two little known Betcha Didn't Know facts about the Muglins:

1) Despite the fact that it never had a population apart from two swinging corpses, one of the titles conferred on the King of Dalkey, was 'Emperor of the Muglins.' It should be pointed out that the Dalkey referred to in the title was Dalkey Island rather than today's village.
2) Future President and probably this country's greatest ever sex symbol, Eamonn DeValera, was once charged with being a 'Pretender to the Throne of the Muglins.' The mock trial macabrely took place in a cell in Richmond Barracks as Dev, Count Plunkett, Sean T. O'Kelly and others awaited trial after the Easter 1916 uprising. Dev was found guilty but the judge (Plunkett) refused to countenance the death penalty "despite the urgings of one of the prisoners who had a black cap ready for the occasion." (Alan Livingston Ramsay, Dublin Historical Record Vol. 48 No. 1 Spring 1995)

Dalkey Island with the Muglins behind (source -

Friday, October 1, 2021

Tagoat Cliff lighthouse???

Yet another lost lighthouse, short-lived and precious little known about it. Any further information would be gratefully received. A photo would be nice, but I don't hold out much hope!

Historic last edition OS map showing location of the Cliff lighthouse, midway between the two train stations

I have written about the lighthouse near the end of the Ballygeary Pier before and learned no more about it. It had a lightkeeper and by the end of the 1880s was reportedly 'not used for many years.' Further research has raised more questions than it does answers and to complicate matters, we now have another lost lighthouse to contend with.

It seems the Ballygeary pier light was working at least by 1881 even though the 1891 US Bureau of Commerce, Special Consular Report Vol. 4 (a cracking read by anybody's standards) states it was established in 1884. At the same time, it says, a green flashing light was established from a white perch on the cliff 1.3 miles NW by W, at a height of 28 feet above sea level. The two lights together provided leading lights into the harbour at Ballygeary.

Evidently, this white perch was not very long-lived because on or about 1st February 1895, the rear light on the cliff was changed to a window from a house at a height of 55 feet above high water, nearly twice as high as the perch ...

Eagle eyes may have spotted that the character of the light was altered from a green flashing to a green fixed light. Being able to be seen eight miles away meant that this was quite a substantial light and not a 100W bulb on a pole. So whereas the first cliff light was a perch, this one, dating from February 1895, was an actual lighthouse. And not a little one like Duncannon Fort or Sherkin - though I'm not of course denigrating either of those fine lights - but a lighthouse that was actually lived in. It didn't necessarily have to have a tower. In fact, it probably didn't if the light was shone through a window. 

In the 1901 Census, one John McKenna was living in one of the four houses at Hill of Sea.

Dublin-born and a widower, John McKenna was possibly a brother of Thomas McKenna, the male half of the Maidens Lovers story detailed in the previous post. This would have been a handy number for a former Irish Lights keeper, now pensioned off.

There were only three houses at Hill of Sea on the 1901 Census. The House and Buildings Return shows the 'Cliff Lighthouse' as being the middle house of the three and, unlike the other two, as being built on land owned by the Great Southern and Western Railway. The two adjacent landowners were James Murphy and Mary Byrne. I wonder if anybody might be able to pinpoint the location of the lighthouse from these names.

Sadly for John, he didn't last too long after the census. Bronchitis set in during the summer of 1902, which affected his weak heart and he succumbed on St. Brigid's Day 1903. A few weeks later, neighbour Mary Byrne's son, Thomas, died aged 27 of acute pneumonia. Must have been cold on the cliff top. 

It looks as though the other neighbour, James Murphy was present at death. He may have taken over the running of the lighthouse after John's demise.

If James did take over, he didn't have long to express his lightkeeping skills as the current red lighthouse shone forth on the new Rosslare pier on July 15th 1906. I doubt the house on the cliff top was pulled down. Maybe the railway used it for something else. Anybody know?

If I were to have a guess, I'd estimate the house with the light stood somewhere near this railway bridge here at Hill of Sea, halfway between the Strand and the harbour. But perhaps a person with more local knowledge could put me right?