Friday, January 14, 2022

Inishtrahull Part Two

The old Inishtrahull lighthouse today, photograph courtesy the multi-talented and multi-faceted John McCarron. The tower, on the right, was taken down in 1960 as it obscured the beam from the new light at the other end of the island

I'm going to use a red font to denote additions / corrections to the list of nineteenth century lightkeepers on Inishtrahull.
It's been quite a while since I last wrote about Inishtrahull which wouldn't be so bad if I hadn't labelled the post Part One, thereby implying a second part was in the offing!
So, rather belatedly, here is the second part of what may be a trilogy but may again be only a biology(?) We'll look at the early lightkeepers on that strange, unheralded island that can be spelt in so many ways that a googler could be driven mad.
The Commissioner of Irish Lights has excellent records of lightkeepers but only from 1919, when that girl with the red hair got the secretary's job and put some manners on the filing system. Frank Pelly, unsung hero of the Irish Lights archive department, compiled a record of the keepers since that time, if anybody has fathers or forefathers during the last hundred years.

Prior to the late 1920s, there was of course a native population on the island but since that time, the keepers had the island to themselves, save for the birds, goats and seals.
The relationship between the islanders and the keepers was, in general, one of mutual respect. The islanders were somewhat lawless in so far as they were very slow at paying their rents and they were also proficient at distilling, both occupations being aided by their distant insularity from landlords and coastguards. The islanders realised the keepers had a way of life to maintain and the keepers, if they had any cop on, maintained the status quo by leaving them to go about their own business. 
The light was established in 1813, and, according to one report, over 100 years later, the name of the first keeper on the island was O'Reilly, as claimed in this clip from the Donegal News 26th May 1917: -

Unfortunately, whereas the Reilly mentioned probably did exist, it is unlikely that he was the island's first lightkeeper. There was a John Reilly who was a keeper in the 1840s, 1850s and 1860s and he did have a gun, because his son nearly killed himself with it on Skelligs. But there is no record of him ever being on Inishtrahull. Another son, James Reilly, was many years in the service but I know nothing about his travels. Maybe he inherited his father's gun after the latter got murdered in Dublin in 1865.
The first keeper was a guy called Michael Heffernan, who received his first quarterly pay on 1st April 1813, a couple of weeks after the establishment of the light. He was joined a few weeks later by a Scotsman called Robert Irvine, whose short-lived lighthouse career I have described here
Thanks to Sean Beattie's excellent Book of Inishtrahull, we learn, via the Ordnance Survey Report No 38, that a familiar name was a keeper on the island in 1824. Michael Wishart, who was a leading light in the Tuskar smuggling incident, seems to have been sent as far away as possible after the disciplinary hearing. This enterprising man purchased and cured all the fish caught by the islanders and indeed himself, before selling them on at a fair profit.
On his first posting as a keeper, William Callaghan joined the community in 1833, for how long, I have no idea. In time he would become William Callaghan senior but on the island his three wives and countless children were still ahead of him. He died at Inishowen in 1874.
In February 1848, a brig called The Danube went down about twenty miles north of the island, the captain and crew having scarcely enough time to launch the boats before she went down. After rowing all night, they landed up at Inishtrahull, where they were kindly housed by keeper Isaac Christie who put them up before they could get over to Malin on the boat.  (Source: Belfast Newsletter 8th February 1848) Christie was a Protestant, as many were in those days. By 1854, he was on North Maidens, where his daughter Susan married lightkeeper Henry Stocker, himself son of a keeper (Edward). He died in Donegal Town in 1884, allegedly aged 86 years, though a probable baptism for him in Dublin is dated 1809.
From 1862 to 1867, Robert Calwell, one of the Ballast Board commissioners, kept a ledger of all the personnel at Irish lighthouses, giving length of service, marital status and previous stations. One of these, a keeper called John Dunleavy, was recorded as having been on Inishtrahull some time between 1850 and 1860, probably the middle years of the decade.
Next up, we have John Whelan, who spent a fair amount of time on the station in the 1860s.  Born around 1837, he joined the Ballast Board in 1856, being sent to the Fastnet on his first appointment. Here he married Ellen Hill, daughter of a Crookhaven coastguard. He was transferred up to Inishtrahull around 1859, though Ellen considered it safer to give birth to their first-born child at home in Crookhaven. The couple remained at Inishtrahull until February 1865 when he was posted to the South Rock in county Down, John died in Queenstown (Cobh) aged 66. (Source: Audrey Arthure family tree)
The Principal Keeper while John Whelan was there was Michael Brownell, one of the famous surnames in Irish Lights. He served on the island from 1859 to 1864. Born around 1802, he died in 1887 in Downpatrick.
Another contemporary of John Whelan was John Young, son of another lightkeeper of the same name. We know he was on the island in March 1863 because the only legible headstone in the small graveyard by the old lighthouse carries the name of his daughter Annie. E. Young. It was pre-civil registration of course but thankfully John and Mary (shades of Father Ted) had another girl called Sara Maria in October 1865,
Mary was the daughter of another lightkeeper, Peter Page and the sister of another, also called Peter. They had been married at the Hook in 1859.

Another keeper from the Calwell list is Arthur Oxford junior, son of long-serving keeper Arthur Oxford, erm, senior. Inishtrahull was junior's first station and his career ended after two years in 1865 with the single word 'Dismissed.' I'd love to know what he got dismissed for.
Arriving on the island in 1865 was George Brownell, son of Michael above. He was 22 years old and on his first posting. We don't know when he left but he and John Young were listed on Calwell's list in 1867 and both were gone by 1871. 
Irish Lights has a document listing all the people in the service on 30th June 1871, drawn up for the purposes of a life assurance scheme. The two keepers listed at Inishtrahull - this was later increased to three - were Thomas Lydon and Thomas Kerlay, both described as Principal Keepers, which must have been great fun. Thomas Kerlay seems to have been stationed with Edward McCarron in Dundalk in the late 1860s but he seems to have left Inishtrahull by 1872. Thomas Lydon was still there in 1872 when McCarron arrived. McCarron described him as 'kindly.'
Edward McCarron is of course known for his autobiographical 'Life in Donegal,' which can still be ordered through the library service. It details his early life as a teacher and his first three stations with Irish Lights - Dundalk, Arranmore and Inishtrahull. His description of the islanders is terrific in its detail and very humorous too. 

Edward was on the island from 1872 to 1875 after which time he moved to Ardglass. During his time at Inishtrahull, though, the Principal Keeper, Thomas Leydon was replaced by another keeper whom McCarron does not name but states he was 'pompous' and had 'his children in tow.' This was probably William Callaghan junior who was on the island from at least 1874 to 1876, possibly a year on either side.
William Callaghan was (again) the son of a keeper with the same name (see William Callaghan senior above!). He buried two of his children on the Skelligs in the late 60s, replenished his stock during the seventies, and then lost most of them again in the eighties, when he was at Inishowen.
A few gap years before we come to William Henry James, a Corkman though, as a son of William James, lightkeeper, his affiliation to his county was probably only restricted to his birthplace. He was in Inishtrahull from 1880 to 1883 (again, maybe longer) and we know this only because from 1881 to 1897, Irish lightkeepers were recruited by ornithologists to report on bird sightings during the year, William died in Ardglass in 1913.
Robert J. Phelan was bird reporting in 1885. He was the father of another Robert Phelan and the two are often confused.
In 1884/5, the lightkeepers wrote to Irish Lights looking for wage parity with their English and Scottish counterparts. Practically every keeper signed it. On Inishtrahull, Robert Phelan PK added his signature, as did Frederick William Duffy AK.
From 1886 to 1891, Martin Kennedy was the Inishtrahull ornithologist, though he was assisted in 1890 by one I. Glanville, who may well have been J. or John Glanville, a Corkman operating in the north of the country at the time.
To complement this, The Book of Inishtrahull includes an illustration of a headstone for Willie Glenville who died on the island aged 6 months in October 1891. His parents were John and Maggie. He had been born in Wexford, Maggie's hometown - her father was William Higginbotham of that famous lightkeeping family and died of 'convulsions, 2 days, No medical attendance.'
George Gillespie was the resident gull watcher from 1891 to 1896. He was a Donegal man with a Donegal wife and found himself at Wicklow a couple of years later.

George was followed by John Potter in 1897. Sadly, John was to die of a stroke at the Maidens lighthouse a few years later, leaving a wife and young children.
The 1901 Census saw Wicklerman Edward Smith, 25, unmarried, on the island with his sister Georgina acting as housekeeper. Also in the compound were PK, Benjamin Jeffers, 34, unmarried and his older sister, Sarah. Edward's religion was 'I.C.' whilst Benjamin was a 'Brethren.'
In 1905, a new siren fog signal was erected at the west end of the Inishtrahull, thus dividing the station in two (the old lighthouse was still at the east end) Technically speaking, it therefore joined Poer Head in Cork as being the only light stations without a light.
So, in 1911, the lighthouse fraternity was split. At the fog signal western point were  William Hawkins, 28, and his young wife, Rebecca. who was seemingly the principal keeper, as John Johnston, 35, was described as a Lightkeepers Assistant. William was the son of Charles Hawkins, another widely-travelled lightkeeper. John was married but his wife was not on the island with him.

From CIL Album #6 (1905-6) in the NLI

Keeping an eye on them from the other end of the island were two other lightkeepers. There was Richard James Kelly, a Dub, 41, his wife Elizabeth and their five children, ages ranging from 18 down to 8.
And there was 25 year old Francis John Carolan, a single man born in county Galway in the 1880s. He may well have been of lightkeeping stock, as there was a Matthew Carolan keeping light in the 1870s. Tragically, Francis joined the frightening list of statistics of people succumbing to the so-called Spanish flu in October 1918, passing away at the Baily Lighthouse in Howth, aged just 33.
In 1914, Laurence Power was on the island, evidenced by his infant son Thomas' grave in Carndonagh. We know he was still there in February 1915 when another son was born, like Thomas in Cardonagh.
And that, I'm afraid, is the sum total of my knowledge of Inishtrahull lightkeepers. There are sadly, more gaps in that list, than in my teeth, and that is saying something. But if anybody has any additions, I will gladly include them in the text.

From the Belfast Telegraph 5th July 1924. It seems that the Inishtrahull keepers were the last to come ashore as most island stations had been made relieving by 1912.

Wonderful drone picture, courtesy John McCarron, showing practically the entire island from the remains of the old east lighthouse to the new (1958) west light. The landing place was in the sheltered bay to the right (north)


  1. A noble effort! I hope Irish Lights has you on retainer.

  2. Excellent again Pete, such rich history and lots of humourous asides - John and Mary indeed :)

  3. Excellent blog - well done
    Sean Beattie, Book of Inishtrahull, author.

  4. If any of your readers have new info on Inishtrahull, please contact me Sean

  5. Thank you for the information! My great grandfather is on the list of assistant keeper. I have been trying to verify this information for quite some time. My ancestor, William Friel, has been placed in history and remembered.

  6. Thanks Pete - I am in contact with William's grandson, Liam whom you may know.

    1. Hi, many thanks for the comment. I love it when people relate to somebody in a post! Yes, William spent two spells on Inishtrahull, first as an AK, then finished his career there as a PK. He was also on Arranmore when the terrible drowning took place with 19 people killed. And he was on Mew and Arranmore and Eagle. I'm actually writing a book on Eagle and any info on William would be most welcome! Pete