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.



  1. You need to find the dome and I need to hear more about the nuns’ apples.

    1. The man from Delmonte is not interested in divulging the whereabouts of the dome, except to say it's really not that far away!! As for the poor old nuns - well, they lived just over the hill from us and we thought they might appreciate us removing the forbidden fruit from temptation's grasp. Besides, they were rubbish at climbing walls.