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.


  1. I love a good old conspiracy theory. But the brown text on the dark background is too much for my aging eyesight.

  2. Oh God, I'm so sorry about that, Finola. I write the posts on the laptop and it looks grand on there but when you read it on the phone, yes, its practically illegible. I'll have to ask around how to fix that.

  3. Should have also said, many thanks for bringing it to my attention!