Saturday, February 26, 2022

The old Ferris Point lantern


The old Ferris Point lighthouse. I'm guessing this photograph is probably 19th century, due to the fashion and the fact that the lightkeeper's dwelling appears to be single-storey. The lower photograph was taken shortly after the two people and the dog fell down a large sink-hole.

A lighthouse was first established on the southern entrance to Larne Harbour on 1st February 1839 on a headland named Ferris Point, Farres Point or any variation of the two. It is also called Larne lighthouse or Islandmagee lighthouse, sitting as it did on the northern end of that peninsula, bookended by Blackhead lighthouse at its southern point.

View of the old Ferris Point lighthouse, with the new dwellings, looking out to sea,. I'm assuming the guillotine on the right of the picture was erected by some over-zealous Principal Keeper.

During the 1890s, when the keepers and their families were still living out on the Maidens Rocks, there was a clamour for Irish Lights to provide mainland housing for the families and the off-duty keepers so that the children could receive a national education and the spiritual needs of the families could be attended to. And so, around the middle of that decade, it seems that dwellings were either erected or bought or rented in Bay Road in Larne. Ten years later, new dwelling houses, double-storey, were built at Ferris Point, as the keeper arrangements got very complicated. The Principal Keeper at Ferris Point also became the Principal Keeper at the Maidens, although he only spent 30 minutes a week on the latter on his inspection trip. The Assistant keepers ran the Maidens, but when onshore were expected to assist the Principal keeper with both the lighthouse at Ferris Point and the buoy depot there. (This all changed later on, when the nearby Chaine Tower and Barr Point Fog Signal were both annexed by Ferris Point and the Maidens keepers declared an autonomous republic. Yes, I know, I'm finding it hard to follow this myself)

Ferris Point and Chaine Tower lighthouses marking the entrance to Larne harbour. A ferry regularly ran across the harbour mouth near to both lights.

Irish Lights' inspectors checking the newly-built dwellings at Ferris Point for correct number of storeys etc

And so to relatively modern times and in 1976, the 137 year old light was extinguished and a new, state-of-the-art lighthouse erected in its stead. This light  - which I wrote about here - looked more like an airport control tower and doubled as a harbour office and a launching pad for the Irish space programme, which sadly never got off the ground. Unfortunately, with a bloody great power plant behind it, the light was swamped by the all the other lights and was discontinued in 1994.
In my innocence, I had believed that the 1839 lighthouse got knocked when the 1976 one was erected but, it seems, it was left to graze on the open space of the headland, with a warning to avoid any sinkholes. It was actually only in 1991 that it was decided to do something about it.

So, this is a good news story, right? The lantern and dome preserved as a tourist attraction, better than nothing.
Roughly eight years ago, I made enquiries and was informed that the dome had been purchased by Larne Council and was placed on a stone plinth at Hurry Head at Carnlough Harbour. This was on my to-do list ever since and, typical me, I never got around to it. Maybe this year.
However, I can find no mention of the dome on any tourist site - Glens of Antrim, Trip Advisor, Glenarm or Carnlough - and I've also failed to find it on Google street-view or satellite maps, either near a playground or on a headland. 
So, I won't be celebrating until I know for a fact its actually there.

Postscript - an update on ther old lantern can be found here

Monday, February 21, 2022

Youghal listen up, ya hear?

Once upon a time, whenever I travelled down to Cork, I would invariably head west when I hit the Dunkettle roundabout, heading for the beautiful grandeur of the Sheep's Head or Mizen peninsulas. It is only through my lighthouse interest that I have ever ventured into East Cork to see the pharological specimens at Roches Point, Poer Head, Youghal and Ballycotton. People sometimes ask me why I love lighthouses and the answer I usually give is that it gets me off the beaten track to wonderful places I would otherwise have never visited. 
It is actually thirteen years since I visited the lighthouse at Youghal, which is quite criminal for someone whose hobby borders on the obsessional. (And, at the risk of boring my Irish readers to tears, any mention of this place must include the explanation for non-natives that the town is pronounced Yawl, as in the boat. Hence the poor attempt at a pun in the title.)

A few years ago, I wrote about the old lighthouse at Youghal which rivals Hook for pedigree and was kept for centuries by the nuns of St. Annes. (I bet the nuns and the monks of Hook had deathly boring arguments at ecclesiastical conferences about the merits of their respective lighthouses) When the ruins of this ancient light were knocked down in the early 1850s, such was the positioning of the tower that it was decided to build the new lighthouse at practically the exact same spot. Being a coastal, harbour light, situated in the middle of a small town, it doesn't really have an exotic, romantic past, with the lightkeeper left alone with the elements and his solitude. Its actually  my kind of light - one where you could nip down for a pint whenever you wanted.

Since I was down there last, though, there have been two developments that have put this often overlooked light on the tourist map.
The first is the renovation of the old lightkeeper's cottage, which reached the final of the Home of the Year competition in 2020. Completely revamped inside by local lass, Saoirse Fitzgerald, it was many people's choice to be the outright winner of the competition but got pipped at the post by a Dublin attic. The airy lightness of the rooms allied to the stupendous views have turned it into a much sought after, albeit quite expensive (for me, anyway), Airbnb. When you think of the number of lightkeepers' cottages lying roofless and derelict around our coasts, any preservation of our lightkeeping heritage must be applauded.

Secondly, there is an initiative by Cork County Council, who took over the lighthouse in 2014, to develop the tourist potential of the site. According to an article in the Examiner in 2021 (and thanks to Andrew Doherty for drawing my attention to it) works are expected to include the construction of a viewing balcony in front of the lighthouse allowing for panoramic views of the harbour, the creation a ‘courtyard’ around the lighthouse and the inclusion of interpretive storyboards on the site. Of course, I'd push for a guided tour of the tower and balcony myself but then, I often want more than I can have! At least the Council recognise the heritage of the lighthouse. I doubt it will make people come to Youghal but it will be something for them to do when they're here.

I came across this poem in the Irish Examiner of March 23rd 1901. I'm a bit OCD so I'm not mad about the half-rhymes and the questionable rhythm but I like what she was trying to do. It's called The Lighthouse at Youghal by Katherine Tynan: -

At Youghal by the sea,
    The lighthouse lights the dark;
    Streaming through rain and murk
Over the angry sea.

The Atlantic breakers roar
    With curled crests, like a bull;
    Or the long rollers roll,
Slapping the doomed shore.

Here, in the long ago,
    The white nuns kept the light;
    Climbing the stairs by night
To set its star aglow.

And many an old sea king,
    Tracking upon the sea,
    His enemy's argosy
Hath marked, uncovering.

And bid his anger cease,
    And let his enemy sail
    Under the radiance pale
Into the harbour's peace.

At Youghal by the Sea,
    No more the white nuns are
    Keepers of the star
That lights the perilous sea.

But still, through scud and foam,
    And over the shrieking gull,
    Tjhe light streams yellow and full,
Crying, "Come home, come home!"

O but the call is plain
    For many a mariner,
    Far from the home, and her
Who sets a light i' the pane.

This will spent sailors sight,
    Scourged with relentless seas,
    Praise God for lighthouses
And sing a song in the night.

And when their sails of snow
    Drop o'er the round world's rim,
    They watch, with eyes grown dim,
The lighthouse last to go.

Saturday, February 19, 2022

Lt. Robert Wilson R.M. Part 1

The old lighthouse at Oghil (Eochaill) at the highest point of Inis Mor. The lighthouse first shone in 1818 but was found to be built at too high an elevation and was often shrouded in low cloud and mist. In addition, they painted it white, so, as a daymark, it was frequently lost in the background of the sky.

Irish Lights has complete records of lightkeepers and their postings from 1919 onwards. Going backwards from that, the records become fewer and patchier. The two censuses in 1901 and 1911 help us trace who was where in April of those years and an 1871 list of keepers in the organisation does the same. By the time we get back to the first half of the nineteenth century, an odd name crops up here or there but these are hard won and lack any kind of detail. The two exceptions to this are the amazing Michael Wishart and his roller-coaster career and a guy by the name of Lt. Robert Wilson R.M.

There are roughly 31 family trees for Robert Wilson on Ancestry, the majority of them saying he was born in London. Some produce a baptism entry in Bristol for a Robert Wilson in Bristol in 1788. This may well be our man but I doubt he was the only Robert Wilson born in England around that time. What is recorded is that a Lieutenant Robert Wilson RM was entitled to the Naval General Service Medal and also won a clasp for participating in a naval action against the French at Anse-le Barque in Guadeloupe on 18th December 1809. 

This was of course the time of the great entente-cordiale shortage in Britain and France. Basically the British came across two French frigates in Guadaloupe and roasted them alive, led by a ship called the Blonde. In case one wonders why they were fighting over Guadaloupe, it should be noted that the French had in fact traded Canada for this Caribbean island group some years previously.
What happened next is difficult to tell for certain, although the family trees are quite clear that he married one Anne Eastman in London on the 11th May 1811. The trees also state that three children, Robert, Ann and Elizabeth were born to the couple on Inis Mor, the largest of the Aran Islands in Galway Bay, in 1816, 1817 and 1820 respectively.
This information may well be taken from one of the very few surviving fragments of the 1821 Census that we have in this country.

So, in the two houses at the lighthouse, we have Robert Wilson, a half-pay Lieutenant of the Royal Navy, head lightkeeper, 36, Ann, his wife, 30, and the three above-mentioned children, and two house-servants, Brian Dirrane and Mary Finnigan. In the other house lived Richard Kelly, the 26 year old, under lightkeeper.
Now, the big lighthouse at the very highest point of Inis Mor was only exhibited for the first time from 1st May 1818 (along with Cape Clear) so it is unlikely that the elder two children were born on the island. It might have been possible if the half-pay lieutenant had joined the Coastguards on the island and then transferred to the lighthouse service but I've been unable to find RW in the ranks of Coastguards.
What is probable is the fact that Wilson and Kelly were the first keepers on the island. (Incidentally, one Bryan Dirrane was one of the seven victims nineteen years later when the lighthouse tender capsized on its way to Arran, drowning both lightkeepers at the same time. It seems that Bryan may well have been one of those local helpers on a retainer from the Ballast Board who crop up around the country. They do not appear to have been subject to transfers)
A fourth child, Maria appears to have been born on the island in 1822 but these were turbulent times and I am extremely grateful to Stephen A. Royle for his paper Irish Famine Relief in the early 1820s - the 1822 famine on the Aran Islands for further information on RW. 
Famine relief was not orchestrated by Government agencies on the island but by 'the key members of the islands' very small middle class' - Patrick O'Flaherty, the only magistrate and de facto King of the Islands; Patrick Naughton, the Constable; Digby Devenish, the coastguard master; the Rev. Francis O'Flaherty, the Catholic parish priest; and Robert Wilson, the lightkeeper, probably Protestant, in light of later events at Cape Clear. (Evidently, Richard Kelly was considered a bit of a pleb.)

Funding for the famine relief came mainly from the protestant Archbishop Trench who organised for food to be sent to the islands and also lobbied successfully for funds to pay for the famine relief projects on the island. Each of the five middle-class men organised community projects to give the islanders work, paying them either in money or food sent over by Trench.
The lightkeeper was given two projects - one to build a road, and the other to build a chapel at Oghil, in the centre of the island where the lighthouse was situated. The Archbishop raised funds specifically for Wilson's projects, including at least 15 tons of barley meal and £110.

Despite this, Wilson got little of his road built and soon fell into arrears with his labourers. But worse was to come with his chapel. In those days, Catholics and Protestants worked hand in hand to alleviate suffering and hardship, though there was always a suggestion that the Protestant aid was evangelical with the hope of attracting converts. But despite this, Archbishop Trench was indefatigable in his efforts to raise funds for Wilson and his chapel. Until, that is, Digby Devenish informed him that he was 'sorry to say that Wilson was building a Roman Catholic chapel.'
The Archbishop's response has been lost in the mists of time. But, five days later, Wilson found himself summarily transferred to the lighthouse on Arranmore Island off the coast of Donegal.

To be continued ....... (thanks, Finola!)  Continued here

The lighthouse went up for sale in 2020 for €550,000, described as a restoration project. Locals are keen for restoration to take place, as abortive efforts to do so have been made down the years. I am not sure if the property is still on the market. It was in Autumn 2021.

Friday, February 11, 2022

An early drone's view of Poolbeg lighthouse 1812


This post may be terribly confusing to younger people, so I'll approach this difficult subject in baby steps.
There was a time in history before drones were invented. Its a long time ago now but few and far between were your lovely aerial views of lighthouses, islands, villages etc that you see today on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram (none of which were around either)
Prior to this, aerial views were normally obtained from either aeroplanes or helicopters or simply by climbing up to some higher ground like a mountain, which naturally limited your choice of view.
Even before aeroplanes and helicopters, but not before mountains, man looked up to the skies and dreamed of soaring in the blue firmament like pterodactyls. Then somebody had the bright idea of filling up a big bag with hot air, attaching a basket to the bottom of it and the science of aviation was begun.
It is generally acknowledged that the first balloon ascent was made in Paris in 1783 by Pilatre de Rosier, who sounds suspiciously like an Aldi wine. Less than one year later, Britain's first aeronautist was a pastry cook from Oxford called James Sadler. After practising with inflatable vol-au-vents for several months, he approached the local university with his plan to soar like a bird and, with the help of public subscriptions, made the first 30 minute flight.
After about a half dozen successful and longer flights, it was a case of 'been there, done that, bought the t-shirt' and, through his connections with the university, concentrated on engineering, inventing a number of things like a steam engine for pumping out docks and a non-recoil rifle. He got an engineering post with the Admiralty but, when they dispensed with his services in the early 1800s, he fell on hard times and went back to ballooning to pay the bills, appearing at venues around England.
In 1812, he decided to attempt the first crossing of the Irish Sea by balloon. He set off from Belvedere House in Drumcondra and was soon past Poolbeg, from where the above picture was taken. (I say 'picture' but there were no Iphones in 1812, not even cameras, so this picture, which was obviously done with the help of some long invisible selfie-stick, was done with brushes and woad)
Sadler got to Anglesea like a breeze but then managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by deciding he wanted to land in Liverpool, as he didn't really trust the Welsh. Turning north, to catch the westerly air currents, he ditched in the sea and was picked up by the crew of a doubtless bemused, and hopefully Welsh, trawler. He died, largely forgotten, in Oxford aged 75.
The first successful crossing of the Irish Sea was made by Sadler's son, Windham - an apt name - in 1817. Sadly Windham was doomed to die in a balloon accident several years later when his basket hit a chimney in Blackburn Lancashire and he was catapulted to the ground head first sixty feet below.
But of course, all that takes second place to the rare aeronautical drone shot of the Poolbeg lighthouse in 1812. This was the first lighthouse on the site, having been built as early as 1767 and was destined to be replaced in 1820 by the current incumbent.
The picture below, by one Jonathan Fisher, who was more at home on the water than in the air, gives another aspect of the old lighthouse. Both pictures would have been printed on something called 'paper.' 

Wednesday, February 9, 2022

Fashion conscious lighthouses

Two views of Hook Head - white with two black stripes (post 1933) and white with three red stripes (1859 - 1933) The change caused a riot on the catwalk

In a recent post, I focussed on the confusion that could occur by careless naming of our coastal light stations - St. John's Point could get mixed up with St. John's Point, for example, or Blackrock with Blackrock. Hard to see how, but apparently it happened.
Quite coincidentally, Andrew Doherty in his always-compelling Tides and Tales blog, recently described the sinking of the sailing ship Columbus off Hook Head in 1852. The reasons for the tragedy were many and varied but one of them sparked my attention.

At 5 p.m. I made the Hook lighthouse and, from being unable to see the land, it had the appearance of Tusker. At half-past 5 saw the light and found that we were embayed. 

Not being a seafaring chap, by any stretch of the imagination, I wondered how often it happened that you could see a lighthouse in daylight hours but not the land surrounding it. I would have thought the reverse were more common - you might see the land but not the lighthouse due to sea-mist.
But happen it must, as in the case above. Back in 1852, Hook was painted white and, if there were the slightest chance of confusion over the colour of a lighthouse, then why not paint it a different colour to its near neighbour? The Ballast Board learned their lesson and gave the Hook three red stripes, albeit seven years later.

The Old Head of Kinsale changed in 1930 from white with two red bands to black with two white bands

Down the years, many of our familiar lights have undergone a change of colour, such as the Old Head of Kinsale above, though it is difficult to see what other lighthouse on the south coast the red-and-white stripe tower could have been confused with. In fact, red and white stripes has long since ceased to be a pharological colour scheme in this country, which is a bit of a shame, to my eyes.

Blackrock Sligo was originally plain white until it started modelling a very fetching black band to the delight of lighthouse fashionistas.

Possibly the Greatest Change of Colour award goes to St. John's Point in county Down. Originally plain white, it obtained three black bands in 1902. Then in 1954, the white was changed to yellow. Maybe Brendan Behan did such a poor job of painting it in 1950 that the change was necessary. It is the only Irish lighthouse that incorporates yellow into its colour scheme and very pretty it looks too.

Both Mew Island light (above) and Tory Island light were originally painted black before acquiring a white band in the mid fifties. I know that Ballycottonites (and presumably Slyne Heads) are very proud of their little black number but its as if a stereotypical man had flipped through the Dulux colour charts. No 'Autumn Embers'  or 'Sea Mist' here. (Actually, scrub that last one)

Mine Head in Waterford looks to have had a somewhat checkered career in the fashion world, though check never caught on with Irish lighthouses. Unfortunately I have no dates for MH's colour changes but it appears to be white in CIL's 1905 picture, then some darker hue in the 1930s (red? or dirt?) before donning its now familiar white-with-a-black-band.

Eeragh aka North Aran aka Rock Island was another that changed from red bands to black in the 1930s, so it was obviously 'a thing' rather than some Principal Keeper requesting the change so that it would go with his hair.

Not much of a change for Haulbowline at the entrance to Carlingford Lough in 1954. Its original white colour was scraped off, probably not with sheets of sandpaper, to bring it back to its natural stone colour. I quite like both versions.

And finally, to one of our most iconic lighthouses. It's difficult to think of Poolbeg as any other colour than red but it started out life in 1820 as white. There then came a very worthy attempt to standardise harbour lights around the world, so visiting captains would know on which side of the lights they should steer. For boats entering a harbour, you kept the black lights on your port side and the red ones to starboard. So the Poolbeg got painted black. In the 20th century, this was changed to red for port and green for starboard, hence its current distinctive deep red colour.

(PS I arranged this post with the photographs side by side but for some reason, when I posted it, the photographs moved!)

Friday, February 4, 2022

The 1869 Calf Rock Tragedy Conspiracy Theory


The stump of the Calf Rock lighthouse off the end of Dursey Island, with the Heifer in front

The lighthouse on the Calf Rock at the end of the Beara peninsula stood for only fifteen years before a terrible storm sheared it off in 1881. The story of the survival of the six men on the rock is one of those Stirring Stories for Boys which used to excite our imagination many years ago before we all got cynical.
The other major story concerning the lighthouse was the drowning of seven men in 1869 during an abortive relief. To quote from the CIL website :

A severe storm early in 1869 washed away a section of the lantern balcony rail and a hut containing stores. The Keeper ashore thought he saw distress flags on the rock so with six boatmen braved the stormy seas only to find the Keepers on the rock were safe and sound. When the boat turned to return to the main land it was caught by the sea and capsized, all hands were lost.

There were three keepers on the Calf Rock at the time and one, Richard Howard, on shore, at the dwelling houses at Dursey Head on the mainland. As the houses were built slightly to the south of the southern shore of Dursey, the Calf Rock is clearly visible less than five miles away. With a telescope, Howard, who had a young family including one baby only a few weeks old, saw the distress flags on the lighthouse and contacted Timothy O'Sullivan, who had the contract for supplying provisions and reliefs to and from the light. He assembled a crew and in the choppy sea, the seven men (Howard included) set out. The crew of the boat were:

Timothy Sullivan, chief boatman, who had a wife and five young children;
Timothy Houlihan, who also had a wife and five young children;
Denis Sullivan Fuan – incredibly, he too had a wife and five young children;
John Duggan, who had a wife, a child and an old mother dependent on him;
Philip Conroy, who had a wife and a young child, and;
John Conroy, who left a wife, an orphan and an old mother dependent on him. (He had been married to Julia Lynch three days previously at the parish church in Allihies).


As was usual at the Calf Rock, the men reached the rock but, due to the combination of currents and waves, were unable to land. However, they found there was no emergency - Howard must have been mistaken -  mail was exchanged and some provisions landed. The men in the boat gave three hearty cheers to the men on the rock and headed back. 
The Principal Keeper, Thomas O'Reilly, watched them go. All seemed to be going well until, about a mile from the mainland, the men seemed to have lost their oars. As the boat drifted towards some breakers, O'Reilly immediately put up the distress flags in the hope of attracting the attention of someone either on the mainland or on Dursey Island. But then a sudden rain shower obscured his view of the boat. When it cleared, thirty minutes later, the boat was drifting upside down in the water. The bodies of the seven men were never found.
And that is the narrative that was handed out to the press and the families and it is the story that has been re-told in newspapers, books and websites down to this day. However, I came across a small snippet in an old newspaper that suggests that maybe this was not quite the whole truth and that what actually happened was even more terrible.                 

There are two talking points in the story. How could the experienced crew of six all lose their oars at the same time? And how did an experienced lightkeeper imagine he saw distress flags where none existed?
To the first question, I have no answer. Maybe a sudden wave washed people and oars overboard and they managed to climb back in? I simply don't know.
As to the second question, I must introduce you to John Swan Sloane, a very interesting character. His list of accomplishments is too long to detail here but they covered many fields. In time, he became chief engineer of the Ballast Board, which became Irish Lights, having no small hand in constructing many lighthouses around the coast. At the time of the tragedy, he was actually in nearby Castletownbere. Word was sent to him to try and commandeer a steam ship to help in the rescue (the smaller Dursey boats dare not set out) but none were available.
In the late 1870s, a new regime took over Irish Lights and all the old guard - Sloane included - were replaced. Sloane spent his remaining years sniping at the new regime through the pages of the Irish Builder, with whose proprietor he was good friends. He used a number of aliases, including Wicking Mandril, Pharos and 'Oil Jack,' supposedly an old lightkeeper who lived on Lemon Rock, an uninhabited island off the Skelligs. (Hilariously, under the pretence of being Oil Jack, he used to lambaste the new regime by comparing them to the great men of the old guard, like Sloane the engineer, who was always the lightkeepers' friend and never steered them wrong!!)
Fast forward to the Irish Builder of 15th December 1881, shortly after the successful rescue of the six men, when the tower came down. As usual, Oil Jack is going off on one and then makes a statement that makes you sit up and say, whaaaat??
"I was an assistant keeper," he says, untruthfully, "when Howard, Tade, Daniel and the men were lost on 12th February 1869 through the love-sick madness of the keeper O'Reilly and Miss Comyns."
(Tade and Daniel weren't among the crew in 1869. They were part of the seven-man rescue crew in 1881 though, which probably caused that particular confusion.)

Above, detail from the Speed map of 1610 showing the Calf Rock
Below, detail from the OS 1st edition, pre-lighthouse map, showing Calf and Heifer

So now we have a new narrative. A Principal Keeper, mad with love for a young wan, hoists the distress signals to get news from his sweetheart? He'd have known they would have brought out any mail and he was dying to read some loving words from her.
Imagine O'Reilly's horror as the boat drifted towards those breakers. He must have known he was responsible for getting them out on a fool's errand, that seven men were going to die because of him.
Sloane, who arrived hot foot from Castletown, would have known the real story and, together with his overlords back in Dublin, must have realised that the truth was too dreadful to be made public. There would have been a public outcry, possible criminal charges and Irish Lights would be pilloried from high up to low down. Seeing that Howard was dead anyway, why not put out that it was a simple accident on the assistant keepers' part, mistakenly thinking he had seen distress flags? It would save a lot of bother.
I have no proof that this is what actually happened and I may be doing Thomas O'Reilly a grave disservice. Hopefully something might emerge from the digitisation of the Lighthouse Journals in the Irish Lights archive, which is supposed to be imminent.
In June 1871, Irish Lights carried out an inventory of lightkeepers in their employment for insurance purposes. There was no Thomas O'Reilly on their books. The conspiracy theorist in me suspects he was made to retire but, again, he might have been due to retire anyway.
I have also failed to find Ms Comyns. I suspect she mightn't have been Helen of Troy but perhaps she had a face that capsized one small boat.

Wonderful picture of the Calf Rock by Joe McCabe.