Monday, December 20, 2021

Merry Christmas!


My posting has been fairly non-existent for December so as an apology, I wish you all a very merry Christmas and send you this very old Christmas card which seems to encapsulate what the festive season is all about. Imagine the eight-year-old child coming down on Christmas morning to find the cat has eaten her pet budgie ....

I had hoped, as this is a lighthouse blog, to bring you a lighthouse Christmas card but they are few and far between and rarely very humorous. But there is a lighthouse link in the above card.

Audrey Arthure is a fellow Irish lighthouse enthusiast and well she should be, as her pedigree of Hills and Whelans goes back to the first half of the nineteenth century, many of each family serving as either lightkeepers or coastguards. John Whelan, for example, joined the Ballast Board, (as was) in 1856/7, as the son of a lightkeeper. Frank Hill, born 1878 was both the son and grandson of a coastguard.

Frank Hill and Annie Sweeney on their wedding day in 1908. Annie was from Carrick (An Charraig) a busy little village on the road between Killybegs and Glencolumbkille in county Donegal. Frank was stationed on Rathlin O'Beirne at the time - the shore dwellings were only constructed four years later.

Fortunately Audrey has done a large amount of work on researching her family tree and, even more fortunately, she actually got around to writing down a lot of it, a salutory lesson to those of us with good intentions! 

(I also see Pat Demarte Handorf's name in her writings, another name familiar to Irish pharologists!)

Audrey also inherited from her grandfather, Frank Hill, a wonderful postcard album, featuring scenic views and humorous caricatures, some of them not altogether pc by today's standards! These were apparently used as the modern equivalent of text messages. As Frank could not phone his family while out on a rock lighthouse, he imaginatively used to send these postcards back on the relief boat with little messages. As Audrey says, a lot of them seemed to involve instructions to send butter out. "The PK broke his leg. Send butter." "I'm out of hair gel. Send butter." "The lantern has fallen into the sea. Send butter." That sort of thing.

You can view Audrey's wonderful piece and the postcard collection here.

Sunday, December 5, 2021

Joseph Kerr at the Holywood Light

Painting of the Holywood Bank lighthouse, artist unknown, currently in the Belfast Harbour Board office. Dated to 1860.

As per the previous post, this is one of over 70 stories of Irish lighthouse fatalities, in my forthcoming book, When the light goes out.

Joseph Kerr and the Holywood Bank light 1855

One of the great names in Irish (and indeed global) lighthouse history is Alexander Mitchell, the blind, Belfast engineer (born in South William Street in Dublin but the family moved to Belfast when young). Inspired by how easily a corkscrew went into a cork but could not be pulled out straight, he transferred the principal to the problem of building edifices on mud. The story goes that, in the 1830s, with his 19-year-old son, John, he rowed out into Belfast Lough with a long pole attached to a metal screw. This he screwed into the mud, leaving the top of the pole exposed. He came back the following day to find the pole still in situ and the screwpile lighthouse was born.

     It was doubtless gratifying to him that his adopted city was one of the first to request one of his pile lights. It was erected in 1844 on the edge of a large and dangerous bank of sand off Holywood, county Down. The lighthouse also doubled as a pilot station and contained fifteen sleeping berths, as well as separate apartments for both the captain of the pilots and his assistant. The captain of the pilots was also in charge of the light.

     We do not know when Joseph Kerr became the lightkeeper of the Holywood Bank light. Newspaper reports in the early 1850s talk generally of regatta races being held “to Kerr’s lighthouse and back,” which suggests he was certainly well-known in the area by this time. A Joseph Kerr, born in Belfast in 1821, received his Master’s Certificate in 1851 for having served seven years in the coasting trade as a boy, mate and master. It was probably the same man.

     Joseph Kerr was married and had two small children. His wife used to mind the red light at the bottom of the Victoria Channel. When morning came, Kerr was in the habit of dowsing his own light and taking the boat to his wife’s lighthouse.

     At 7 o’clock on Monday morning 14th May 1855, he was doing just this when, descending the ladder on the piles, he fell into the water and was carried away. What made this all the worse was that the accident was witnessed by the keeper’s six-year-old daughter. As the strong current took him away, his daughter attempted to push the boat out to him but was unable to do so. Raising the alarm, the pilots immediately set about scouring the area but were unable to find him. At last, around two o’clock in the afternoon, the Harbour Commissioners’ pilot boat succeeded in locating the body not far from the lighthouse.

     The obligatory inquest was held at the General Hospital in Belfast and came to the unsurprising conclusion that Joseph Kerr had been accidentally drowned.

     At the next meeting of the Belfast Harbour Board, it was graciously agreed that they should permit Mrs. Kerr to continue to mind her light as she had done during her husband’s lifetime, as otherwise the family would be unprovided for.

Illustration from "Holywood Then and Now" by Rev, McConnell Auld

      Seven weeks later, the Harbour Board engineer had the sad duty to report that Mrs. Kerr (being a woman, her first name was immaterial) had also died. The Board empowered board members Messrs. Pirrie and Henderson to inquire what could be done for the two orphaned children and to appoint a successor immediately.    

More on the Holywood Bank lighthouse can be found here

When the light goes out (update)

As some of ye may know, I've been writing a book about fatalities at Irish lighthouses, a cheery little tome, which is a collection of deaths suffered by keepers, their families, tradesmen and contracted ferry operators from 1786 to 1972.
Not every death, mind. Some are lost in the mists of time and some are not really noteworthy but there are roughly 70 tales of people who paid the ultimate price for keeping our seas safe for mariners. It didn't help that the Irish Lights archive has been unavailable for the last couple of years (great time to write a lighthouse book!) but I was able to work around it.
It is roughly 80,000 words long and, despite the grim subject matter, or maybe because of it, I've tried to keep it light-hearted where appropriate, while trying at all times to be respectful to the memory of the deceased. I have sent a few individual chapters out to descendants of those involved and have got the green light from all of them, which makes me hopeful that I've got something right.
Arranged chronologically, I'm hoping the book serves as a history of sorts of lightkeeping in this country. I also used it to erm, shine a light on some of our lesser-known lights - Beeves, Little Samphire, Lough Mahon etc - that don't, I feel, get the exposure they deserve.
I finished the book around the end of August and sent it out to twenty or so publishers, confidently expecting there would be a rush of editors desperate to sign me up. So far, I've had four responses - they like the unique concept of the book, they like the writing and the photographs "... but, unfortunately, ..."
Most of the publishers say to give it three to six months to expect a reply. So I'll give it till the end of January, If nobody is interested by then, I'll publish the damn thing myself, when a lot of things will need to be decided - do I ditch the colour and sell €5 cheaper. Do I need a subtitle on that cover above? How do I go about distributing? Will our exorbitant postal rates make the cost prohibitive? Et cetera.
But we'll deal with that when the time comes ...