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.


  1. This is fascinating. I am curious re your comment: "and Robert Wilson, the lightkeeper, probably Protestant, in light of later events at Cape Clear." Are you working on a follow up or is there a piece already up that I haven't seen?

  2. Hi Finola! Yes, there will be a Robt Wilson Pt 2! I figured it would have made it too long to include the events at Cape Clear. I had the Part 1 in the title but maybe I should have added a 'To be continued...' at the end too.