Thursday, November 25, 2021

A few good men - Wicklow Pierhead Light

It's kind of like having a superstar living on your street. No matter how great and wonderful you may be, you're always going to be overshadowed by the national celebrities.
Thus is the lot of Wicklow Pierhead lighthouse, forced for all eternity to listen to the endless tributes to the three bigshot lighthouses on nearby Wicklow Head, each of them older and taller and brighter than the mere 130 year old harbour light sitting modestly at the end of Wicklow's East Pier.
Like many east coast settlements, fishing has been going on at Wicklow for centuries. The Vikings arrived and set up a base upriver from the coast and maritime trade slowly grew the village into a small town, despite the presence of the sandbanks that run parallel to much of the country's east coast.
In the 1840s, royal assent was given for the town commissioners to improve the harbour which, though busy, had a nasty bar at its entrance and not much depth within it. Progress was slow - the famine years turned heads towards more important matters  - but by 1856, a new pier, had been constructed at the end of the Murrough, though there was still a lot of wrangling between the Harbour commissioners and local shipowners over the state of the place.
There was evidently some form of a light at the end of this pier, for a newspaper report of 1865 states that it was no longer there:-

This end of pier collapse appears to have been a recurring theme along the east coast. Lighthouses at Ardglass (1838), Newcastle county Down (1869) and Bray (1957) were also washed into the sea as poorly built piers succumbed to violent storms. Whatever kind of light had been erected at Wicklow was not to be replaced for over thirty years.
Eventually, a new harbour was officially opened in 1884, featuring "a concrete lighthouse, about 35 feet above high water with a dioptic fixed light," according to "Wicklow Harbour: A History" by Jimmy Cleary and Andrew O'Brien. It was an oil light with a range of around ten miles and shone red to seaward and white in the harbour. And the first lightkeeper was a man named Gilbert Goodman.

Postcard from the 1920s

Gilbert Goodman was a Wickler man and was roughly 60 years old at the time he was appointed the keeper of the Pierhead lighthouse. He lived in Castle Street - at the Black Castle end -  with his wife Maria and had been a sailor for most of his life. In January 1883, he was working as a coastguard at Wicklow Head, an occupation that evidently saw him right when he applied for the new position. 
His wife Maria died suddenly of heart disease in 1894, leaving Gilbert at home with his married son James. Another Goodman, John, a sailor, was to be found also living in Castle Street in 1911 and may well be a brother of Gilbert. I mention him merely to justify the 'few good men' of the title.
Part of the duties of the lightkeeper, aside from painting, was to set in motion the automatic fog bell when necessary. It was on this activity that he was engaged in 1898 when, returning home, he stumbled into a small quarry at the shore end of the pier. He was discovered unconscious with head injuries but, thanks to the quick administrations of a Dr. Halpin, made a full recovery in hospital.
(The bell, incidentally, clearly seen in the postcard above, was donated to the nuns up above in Magherymore, whose orchards I used to raid when young, and eventually ended up in the missions in Hong Kong)

Regatta Day pre-1909 (the year the North Pier was constructed) Note the Union Flag on the lighthouse and the beautiful copper dome too. From the Lawrence Collection in the National Library

In 1901, a brief questioning at an inquiry, reported in the Wicklow Newsletter, gave an insight into the dangers of the job, particularly for an elderly keeper.

On 1st October 1904, the Newsletter reported the sad news that Gilbert had gone to the great catadioptric light in the sky. He had developed pneumonia and had died on 26th September. His death certificate incidentally gives his age as 79.

In December of that year, it was suggested, as a financial saving, that the current oil lamp should be replaced by an unwatched automatic gas light. The Chairman of the Harbour Board was particularly forthright in his opinion that, whereas their antecedents had naively offered an exorbitant salary of 15shillings a week to the previous incumbent, now, on his demise, was the time to make this saving. He also said that his position as Chairman of the local gas company had nothing to do with his views. 
Fortunately the board disagreed. Not only would an oil light have to be kept ready , should the gas supply be interrupted, but the fog bell would need to be sorted out as it too ran on oil. They advocated the continuing use of oil and recommended the appointment of James Goodman, son of the deceased keeper, who, they all knew, had been doing the job for the past two years anyway. 
According to Jimmy Cleary and Andrew O'Brien, not only was James Goodman's appointment ratified before the end of the year, but it seems the Chairman was determined to get his money's worth out of him, as he was expected to act as harbour master too, a position he held for the next 26 years.

The terrible storm of 1901 had been followed by the terrible storm of Friday 12th November 1915, when 'enormous masses of sea' struck the pier and stove in the strong door of the lighthouse. This made it impossible to light the lantern, the first time it had remained unlit since its inception.
But there was another terrible storm still to come. In what was said to have been a 'freak gust' during a storm in early January 1976, the beautiful copper dome and weather vane, which had adorned the structure for nearly 100 years, were swept into the sea. The Harbour Board offered £50 for its recovery and the challenge was taken up and the dome brought to the surface.
However, it was found to be badly damaged, a large hole indicating where it had hit the end of the pier before tumbling into the sea. A local tradesman put a temporary roof on the lighthouse for £58 and further money was paid out to local divers and the owner of the crane used to winch the 15 cwt dome out of the sea.
The Harbour Board were then informed that they would only get around £60 for the dome for scrap, while the cost of providing and fitting a new one was likely to be in the region of £765, which the board could ill afford. 
And so the lighthouse has been flat-headed and domeless ever since. There has been speculation about the current location of the dome but nobody is telling.


Wednesday, November 17, 2021

East Twin Island (Inner Light) New photo


When I wrote about the lost lighthouse at the tip of East Twin Island last year I was somewhat frustrated by the fact that, although it was pulled down as late as 1965, I could not, for the life of me, find a decent photograph of the light, which had stood, in one form or another, for over 120 years.
I will spare the reader a repetition of the long, tortuous and incomplete history of this light, which can be found at the link above. This post is merely to reproduce the much more interesting photo of the light that I came across at one of the NMNI sites recently.
As suspected, the light was a skeletal tower but a scaling of its entire height by ladder was not necessary as it seems it was accessed from the roof of a building adjoining the house. I am in two minds as to whether that is the fog signal at the base of the tower or if it was housed in that small room on the adjoining roof.
I believe this is/was the only lighthouse of this type in Ireland, though I am open to correction.
The date of the photograph is 14th October 1946 and presumably the happy couple are long-standing keepers Samuel and Ellen McKibbin.
Incidentally, I love the architecture of the house, though a bit unsure about the light sabre shining through the attic.
The pictures below are taken from the previous post and were the best I had previously come up with.

Monday, November 1, 2021

Rathlin O'Beirne


Rathlin O'Beirne lighthouse and keepers' cottages (photo by Karl Birrell)

With the exception of the uncategorisable Kish light, you can probably divide Ireland's coastal lighthouses into three main categories - onshore lighthouses, island lighthouses and rock lighthouses, where the difference between the latter two would be that rock lighthouses had no other inhabitants. And, in general (again) it was on the rock lighthouses that most of the dramas occurred. The histories of the Tuskar, Fastnet, Slyne Head etc are littered with shipwrecks and drownings and shaking towers and tenders capsizing and make for stirring reading.
Alone among the west coast rock lights, Rathlin O'Beirne, off the coast of south west Donegal (and not to be confused with Rathlin Island on the north coast) seems to have led a beatific, serene existence, compared to its wave-lashed neighbours. Of course, it is larger (only slightly moreso than the Skelligs) but it is not far from Eagle Island and Blackrock Mayo yet, unlike them, reliefs were seldom long delayed.
In case anyone feels I am labelling R.O'B 'boring,' I should point out that, in operating a lighthouse on that coast for 160 years with only one relatively minor accident, this unheralded light station, its keepers and  boatmen, deserves to be feted as one of the most successful stations in the country.

Of course, the day I visited was hazy in sharp comparison to the other radiant photographs on this page! This photo taken from the mainland in September 2021

Asicus the Gaul was a religious bigwig in the late 400s. He was Abbot-Bishop of Elphin and later of Ireland and had performed the last rites on St. Patrick, hopefully when the latter was on his death-bed. However, somebody told a dirty rotten fib about him and he stomped off, first to the top of Sliabh Liag and then (finding that too congested?) to the desert island of Rathlin O'Beirne, where he established a hermitage. The place has been a pilgrimage destination ever since.
It was in 1841 that the shipowners of Sligo called for a light to be erected on the northern point of Sligo Bay and only a further two years before building was due to start : -

However, the hold-ups were many and frequent, mostly due to litigation. It was not until 14th April 1856 that the catadioptric flashing light first shone forth.

This was altered to a fixed light on 1st June 1864 and the old (?) lighting apparatus moved up to Arranmore Island. This lasted until 1st June 1893 when the light was changed back to 'flashing.' Now let's see who calls it a boring lighthouse.

The island is around 3kms from the harbour at Malin Beg and comprises roughly 50 acres

In 1902, as rock stations around the country were slowly being made relieving, a question was asked in the House of Commons about the educational and spiritual needs of the children of the keepers on the island: -

In fact, it was not until 1912 that the poor pagan, uneducated lightkeeping kids were dragged, kicking and screaming onto the mainland to avail of the four sturdy houses at Gannew, Glencolmcille. These houses served Irish Lights for 45 years until they were sold off to a Mr. and Mrs. Markey of New York in 1957.

The lightkeepers' cottages, front and rear, in September 2021

I mentioned one minor accident on the island - well, not minor to the victim - and this occurred in 1940: -

In 1974, Rathlin O'Beirne became the first and only lighthouse to be powered by nuclear energy with a big dollop of Strontium 90 used to keep the light going. Surprisingly, this only lasted for 13 years when the light was found to have become rather feeble. The nuclear age then became the wind age with a wind turbine producing the energy to run the light. In 1994, it became the first major Irish lighthouse to be run on solar power.

The lighthouse in 1905, photo taken on an Irish Lights inspection trip, photo in the National Library of Ireland

The lighthouse keepers' cottages on the island. In 2019, the whole island (minus the lighthouse itself) went up for sale. The estate agents thoughtfully provided a million photographs, which can be found here

The extremely safe boat tender to and from the island was for most of the lighthouse's history in the domain of the Jones family of Malin Beg. Edward Jones was succeeded in his duties by his son, Michael. Michael's duties were eventually taken over in turn by his three sons, Edward, Michael and Thomas, together with a nephew. A fourth generation Jones, Michael, became the attendant when the lighthouse was automated in 1974. One can just picture Michael at his hall door, "I'm just going to brave those vicious currents in my flimsy boat to check the nuclear reactor on the island, love...."
The boat generally landed on the sheltered eastern side of the island at a small pier, from which stone steps lead up to an incredible walkway, flanked by two very long 8 feet high stone walls to shelter the keepers on the journey to the lighthouse on the west side of the island and to protect them from the savage black-faced sheep which today are the island's only sizable inhabitants.

Photograph by Michael Hegarty

Without access to the Irish Lights archive, these are but a few of the keepers who have lit this very safe and definitely not boring light down through the years: -

In 1869, William Duffy and Owen McClosky both contributed to the subscription for the drowned Calf Rock boatmen.
In 1871, the keepers were Michael Brownell, PK, and Owen McCloskey, AK.
In October 1876, Bridget Gillespie, wife of keeper George, gave birth to twin sons John and Neal, surely the only twins to be born on the island.
The 1901 Census lists George James and Richard Hamilton as lightkeepers on the island.
The 1911 Census shows John J. Gillespie, Thomas Jones and Thomas F. Ryan to be the lightkeepers. John Gillespie's age means he is more than likely one of the 1876 twins.
Keeper Charles Loughrey's wife, Lucy, died at Glencolmcille in 1916.
Walter Coupe, AK,  left the island after three years in 1938. 
His replacement, Francis S. Ryan was the son of F. Ryan who was PK for 'a long number of years' (probably the Thomas F. Ryan on the 1911 Census)
John Corish, AK, also left the station in 1938.
James McGinley was the PK in August 1939.
'Con Murrin,' AK, could not attend his father's funeral due to heavy seas in 1940. Another newspaper report names him as Cornelius Meenan. The minor incident above also references 'Con Meenan.'
Frederick James, keeper, married Ms Louie Maxwell at Glencolmcille in January 1941.
Charles McNelis, PK, retired in October 1942 after 35 years in Irish Lights.
M. Murphy was transferred to R. O'B in March 1951. He had served at the station 'about 13 years previously.'
He replaced Michael O'Boyle who was transferred to Fanad.
In June 1951, AK Patrick Brennan was transferred to Inisheer. His replacement was T. Shanaghan.
In the same month, Charles Hernan was transferred to Inishowen.
His replacement was Frederick James, who had previously served at the station 'for a term.'
In September 1954, Michael Jones AK, was transferred to Rockabill.
PK David Murphy, who had been at R O'B since 1951 died at his lodgings at Glencolmcille in September 1956.
Martin Kennedy, AK, was transferred on promotion to Galley Head in October 1956.
In December 1960, wonderful boatmanship by Edward Jones meant that PK Campbell could be relieved for Christmas by AK Kane. 
Reggie Hamilton also served at Rathlin O'Beirne around this time.
The last keepers before automation in 1974 were PK Brendan McMahon and AKs Thomas Roddy, Hugh Sullivan and A.J. Cronin.

It is a sobering thought that in January 1975 - shortly after the last keepers left the island - six men lost their lives when the MFV Evelyn Marie foundered on a reef off Rathlin O'Beirne. They were Paddy Bonner, Hugh Gallagher, Johnny O’Donnell, Roland Faughnan, Tom Ham and Joe O’Donnell.
Incredibly, the following year the MFV Carraig Una went down on the very same reef and five men - Ted Carbery, John Boyle, Anthony McLaughlin, Michael Coyle and Doalty O’Donnell - were drowned.
Among the many unanswered questions about the terrible loss of life in the two incidents, there also remains the nagging thought that, had the lighthouse been manned, assistance might have been summoned much quicker and some of the victims may have been saved.