Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Wannabe lighthouses - No.2 The Kish Bank light

Alexander Mitchell's pile light off the coast of Fleetwood in Lancashire. Constructed in 1840, it is probably similar in design to Mitchell's nearly-completed lighthouse on the Kish Bank in Dublin

This is the second installment of a three-part mini-series about Irish wannabe lighthouses which will be shown on Netflix starring Frances McDormand and that guy from Peaky Blinders.
Basically, a wannabe lighthouse is one where construction began but it never got to live the dream of sweeping its beam across the perilous sea.
Alexander Mitchell was a Dublin-born, Belfast-reared engineer who went blind at the age of 21. Undaunted, he carried on a brickmaking and building enterprise for 30 years until he retired to concentrate on his screw-pile method of construction, which he had patented. Basically, this consisted of screwing poles or piles into soft ground like a corkscrew and which, like a corkscrew, would not pull out straight. Thus he was able to construct lighthouses and piers at places hitherto impossible at a cost much cheaper than a standard lighthouse.
His first pile light is often quoted as being at Maplin Sands at the mouth of the Thames but, whereas this edifice was the first pile light to be started, like the hare, it decided to have a nap during construction and the tortoise-like Fleetwood Wyre light (above) pipped it to the post in 1840.

Alexander Mitchell c. 1855

Both lighthouses were big successes and Mitchell came to Dublin in triumph in the late Spring of 1842 at the behest of the Ballast Board to erect his infallible screwpile lighthouse on the Kish Bank at the entrance to Dublin Bay.

There had been a lightship on the Kish Bank since 1811. It occasionally broke its moorings in foul weather and required a large crew to maintain it. Mitchell's pile light would save the Ballast Board a lot of money, which could more usefully be spent on junkets.
And so work began apace. Mitchell was very much a hands-on manager - excuse the pun - personally overseeing (sorry again) every plank of wood or pole of iron for defects, often finding flaws that fully-sighted men had missed. He was also given to swimming down under the sea to check the positions of the piles and he occasionally fell in accidentally too. Like Mitchell, all was going swimmingly and the construction was springing up in a remarkably short space of time. It was found that the shifting, drifting sands were only a couple of feet thick, below which a rich blue clay was ideal for securing the piles. The piles were sunk and were just about ready to take the deck and housing when, in early November 1842, disaster struck, as described in the Freemans Journal of 19th November:

So what had gone wrong? Well, there were three main theories. One was that the piles had been hit by a vessel of some sort during the storm, as it would have needed great force to prise them out of the ground, anchored and braced as they were. Apparently none of the piles were left upright and all had disappeared beneath the waves. 
Another said that, the piles, not being fully braced, were simply swept away by the storm. The third theory, and one that Halpin himself ascribed to, was that the piles had been sunk too close to the edge of the sandbank and that the storm had caused the whole bank to shift, forcing the piles out of the ground. Personally, I'm surprised that the notion of local Dublin gurriers out for a bit of craic never came up.
Sadly, there was no further attempt to resurrect this 'novelty in Pharoatic architecture.' Mitchell erected a steel buoy on the spot of the lighthouse and then went on his way to design and construct many more lighthouses and piers in Ireland, Britain and America. The lightship crew breathed a sigh of relief and continued guarding the bank until the 1960s, when a lighthouse was finally installed.
For years afterwards, Dublin Bay fishermen would complain about 'Mitchell's bloody piles' when coming ashore with nets ripped to shreds on submarine obstructions. More than one source of Irish shipwrecks has logged a wreck with the unusual name of 'Mitchell's Piles' as having gone down at the Kish in 1842!

An elderly Mr. Mitchell contemplates his 'bloody piles.'

The Kish lightship remained on the bank for 150 years before finally being superceded by the Kish lighthouse (below)  in 1965

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Wannabe lighthouses - No.1 Capel Island

The one that got away. Capel Island lighthouse today

Some lighthouses around Ireland's coastline are currently in use; some are defunct but still standing; and some are lost and gone forever.
There is a further category - the wannabe lighthouse - structures that were started but for one reason or another (mainly 'sod this for a game of lightkeepers') were never completed and from whom a beam never issued forth. Their number is few - I can only think of three - but, in my mind's ear, I hear them sobbing that, only for hard luck, they could have played at county level.
First up, and the one that got the nearest to completion was Capel Island near the entrance to Youghal harbour, also called Cable Island at the time.

Position of Capel Island, in between Youghal (top right) and Ballycotton (bottom middle)

A glance at the 1828 lighthouse map of the south coast of Ireland (below) shows a long length of dark coastline between the Old Head of Kinsale and Hook Head, lit only by the small harbour light at Roches Point. Where today shines Ballycotton, Youghal, Mine Head and Dungarvan, there was precious little shining back then to help the transatlantic vessels navigate the south coast safely at night.

As early as January 1826, the Cork Constitution printed a letter from a mariner lately shipwrecked on that stretch of coast, which show that, even at that early date, it was recognised that the lack of a light on that stretch of coast had long been a source of irritation to the shipping community in Youghal: -

The Southern Reporter, in an article entitled Lighthouse on Cable Island in 1832 said that the merchants and ship-owners of Youghal had been agitating for many years for a lighthouse on Ballycotton or Cabel Island but nothing had been done. At first, the article continued, the Ballast Board had denied the need for a light at either location.. Then, when they finally agreed that one was necessary, Inspector Halpin argued that Ballymacart Point (Mine Head) was the proper place for it. Yet, it said, there were no guarantees that a lighthouse would be built at either spot.
Stung into action, the Ballast Board finally took the nettle by the horns and, in 1846, began to erect the lighthouse on Cable Island. The Merchants of Youghal were delighted, though there were still some mutterings as to the precise placement of the light. But at least all the arguments between the Merchants and the Ballast Board and Trinity House and the Board of Trade and the Admiralty were at an end and the lighthouse was under construction.
However, in January 1847, the Paddle Steam ship Sirius - the first vessel to cross the Atlantic completely under steam in 1838 - was wrecked off Ballycotton with the loss of twenty lives and the debate over the best place for the lighthouse was reignited. So vituperative was this debate that public meetings were held in Youghal, prompting the editor of the Irish Examiner  to pen a long piece about the self-defeating arguments put forward. It began:

Eventually, the  Cork City and County merchants, shipowners, traders and businessmen wrote to the Ballast Board saying that, um, actually, they wanted a lighthouse on Ballycotton and another on Mine Head. George Halpin said, "But what about the bleedin' lighthouse on Capel Island that yous were pushin' for? It's over ten feet tall!" but he had to back down. Ballycotton and Mine Head were both exhibited on 1st June 1851 and Youghal harbour light a year later.
As for Cable / Capel Island, it was not considered expedient to knock it down, so Inspector Halpin decided to build it up to the second floor, and place a dome over it, so that it could be easily turned into an outer harbour light for Youghal, "in case them bleedin' Youghallers change their minds again," as he said, in my imagination.
These days Capel Island is a bird sanctuary (permission required from Birdwatch Ireland to land on it) and home to a herd of mad goats. According to the legendary Dan McCarthy in the Examiner, the door is open and a spiral staircase winds up 7.5 metres to the domed ceiling. Though it serves as a daymark, it has never been lit.

View from the mainland

Saturday, March 19, 2022

Culmore lighthouse, co. Derry


The Culmore light with the remains of the fort behind. It has its name written on it in case it ever gets lost

Culmore lighthouse is situated on the west bank of the River Foyle, about four miles north of Derry, where the river starts to widen out into the Foyle estuary. It is also slightly south of the North of Ireland border with the Republic, though all lights on both the river and the estuary come under the jurisdiction of the (London) Derry Harbour Board.

Location of Culmore Point marked with a very amateurish red cross

There was a fort at Culmore since the early 1600s and its position on the river would have made an ideal spot to place a lighthouse. Sadly, I have been unable to unearth any evidence that a guiding light ever shone forth there prior to 1848. 

In the 1840s, the newly-founded Harbour Board set about a programme of dredging and lighting to make the port of Derry accessible to ships at night. Pile lights were erected along the length of the estuary and beacons on the shore of the river. The Londonderry Sentinel of 20th September 1845, reported that two large floating lights (lightships) were being placed off Whitecastle and Crumman Point, and four shore lights were being placed at Culmore Point, two leading lights opposite Culmore and another at St Georges Quay. By 1850 many more had been added. 
The first light appears to have been a lantern hanging out of a ship's mast, which doesn't sound like a complicated piece of architecture that would have taken three years to erect but as I have mentioned before, the Victorians were quare folk. It shone a fixed white light at 45 feet above the river. An 1864 Harbour report describes it as a wooden box with a pole painted red. It is however possible that the mast and lantern arrangement were incorporated into some sort of a stone dwelling as a Historic Buildings survey in 2002 lists the date of the current lighthouse to 1860-1879.
According to family tradition, the first keepers of the light were John and Hannah Cleary. Not only were they the keepers of the light but they also were caretakers of Culmore Fort and ran a ferry service over to the east bank of the Foyle and, presumably, back again. They moved to Scotland to escape the famine.

Map showing ferry service between Culmore Point and Culmore. Yes, I know. For some reason, the train station that ran down the east side of the Foyle stopped at Culmore Station, despite the fact that Culmore was on the opposite shore. To make things worse, there was also a lighthouse there called Coolkeeragh, or Culkeera, but it was frequently referred to as Culmore lighthouse by people who couldn't spell Coolkeera. As such, I can't guarantee that every reference to Culmore lighthouse referrred to the much smaller light actually in Culmore.

At some time between 1877 and 1891, the mast and lantern were replaced by a 'white house on black piles' still 45 feet above the water level, according to an American book of 'Port Regulations in Foreign Countries' published in the latter year and which got made into a feature film with Charlton Heston many years later.

This colourised photo taken from the east bank of the river shows Culmore lighthouse and fort house in the background. Unless I'm very much mistaken, the lighthouse is on piles.

A very sad incident took place in 1895 when a lightkeeper at "Culmore lighthouse" had a breakdown after a terrible storm. It is a topic for another time but apparently this was not an uncommon occurrence at lighthouses around our shores and beyond. Due to the naming ambiguity, one is unsure if the poor chap was the keeper at Culmore or Coolkeeragh.

The keeper of the Culmore lighthouse in 1901 was one James Doherty, 74 and unmarried. He was probably paid a pittance for his efforts, which was why the lighthouses on the Foyle were often manned or womanned by elderly keepers.

The Culmore Point lighthouse around 1903. James Doherty is possibly still inside, trying to get his socks on. Note that the light house is now placed on a solid plinth (coloured red) rather than the black piles. The oil lamp was shown from the three oriel windows near the top of the tower. This was changed to a Wigham lamp in 1923 and may also have changed from 'fixed' to 'revolving' around this time. It may also have become unmanned too. Furthermore, several sources say the current building dates from the 1920s, though there is a marked similarity between the picture above and those below.

An American serviceman, Dwight Sheplar, recorded a lot of the activity on the Foyle during the Second World War. Here he shows a destroyer (I'm guessing here) doubtless on its way to Lisahally, the naval base,  just slightly upriver from the point. 

Brian Scrampton, a local Donegal artist, has also painted the lighthouse, along with Inishowen and Moville. To be honest, it's not the most photogenic lighthouse on these shores but you don't hate one of your kids just because they're ugly. Besides, its probably beautiful on the inside.

On 16th July 1971, the Belfast Telegraph reported that "the 100 year old on-shore  lighthouse at Culmore point, near the city, was completely destroyed by fire last night." Judging by the context on the page, it appears to have been malicious, though it is unclear which of the local factions had such a spite against lighthouses. However, the Historic Buildings report of 2002 that I mentioned before says that the light in 2002 was electric and was shown from the top of the tower, as per the Scrampton painting above.
These days, the plinth is green, there is no sign of a lamp (since 2012 apparently) and a rather unimpressive LED lamp sits shamefacedly in the water nearby.

Does my bum look big in this? Rare view from the rear showing that, yes, it did have a doorway. It looks pretty insignificant but it is actually 23 feet tall.

New green flashing light. This is not one of my kids so I don't love it.

Sunday, March 13, 2022

Lt. Robert Wilson R.M. Part 2


The old 1818 Cape Clear lighthouse beside the slightly older signal tower on the top of the island

When we last met Robert Wilson, he had incurred the displeasure of the Protestant Archbishop Trench, for starting to build a catholic chapel on the island of Inis Mor on the Aran Islands with money raised by the Archbishop himself and, for his sins, he was banished to the lighthouse on Arranmore Island county Donegal.
He and wife Ann had had four children born on Inis Mor (Robert, 1816; Ann 1817; Elizabeth 1820; and Mary 1822) and a fifth child, John, was born on Arranmore, or Arran North, as it was sometimes called, in 1826. Robert's third and final station - also an inhabited offshore station - was at Cape Clear, the light which preceded the Fastnet, off the coast of county Cork.
Four more children were born here - Louisa 1828, William 1831, George 1832 and Frederick 1835 - making nine in total, which wasn't bad for a Protestant.
In March 1835, a very interesting piece appeared in the Dublin Penny Journal penned by Robert Wilson junior, describing in detail both the lighthouse and the island. I'll probably return to this in another post as its rather technical and long and not particular relevant to the subject of this post - Robert Wilson, 1st Lieutenant Royal Marines on Half-Pay. Suffice to say, the light was built at 480 feet above sea level, was frequently obscured by cloud and mist and was operated by two keepers, both living in the lighthouse compound.

In 1843, with Richard in his fifties and principal keeper, a letter appeared in the Cork Southern Reporter, which highlighted the friction between the principal and his assistant on the station.

 Intolerance and Bigotry even at a Lighthouse

There is a Lighthouse on the Southern Coast of Ireland, not five miles from Cape Clear, on which two Lightkeepers reside with their families in different habitations, the one a Protestant and the other a Roman Catholic. The Protestant is principal light man, was a Lieutenant of Marines, and is this long time retired from the service on her Majesty’s half pay. This sprig of the Reformation is in the habit of being visited by a saintly Parson of the neighbourhood, who never comes without some of his followers in his train. A Coast Guard and his family (all Protestants) living near are summoned to attend the station (if such a popish name could apply to the gathering.)

Induced by the example set by his neighbour, the Catholic Lightkeeper resolved to have his station too, and for that purpose invited the Priest to his house. The Priest, faithful to his engagement, was at the gate of the Lighthouse early on the morning of the day appointed but was met by his parishioner, the Lightkeeper, with tears in his eyes. Gentle reader, you will think those tears were tears of gladness at the sight of a respected clergyman coming to discharge the duties of his calling. No such thing: they were tears of dread and dismay at the frightful rating he got a few minutes before for presuming to introduce a Popish priest into the sanctuary of the Lighthouse, hallowed as it was by the visits of the saintly person above alluded to. The poor man was threatened with being instantly turned off and deprived of his livelihood if he dared to introduce any Minister of “that damned infernal Church” to pollute with his presence a place hitherto sacred only to the flying visits of any Ranter of the Law Church who may choose to come there. The Priest, of course, not wishing to involve any member of his flock in trouble, did not urge his visit, but immediately returned home.

These facts will speak for themselves and who, after reading them, can envy the gallant Marine, or his less fortunate brother of the lantern, their feelings.
Cape Clear, April 29th, 1843. 

My suspicions as to the author of the letter fall on one John S. Sloane, later Chief Engineer of the Ballast Board, even though this learned gentleman does not include his tell-tale catchphrase in the piece. But the style is very Sloane and he would have had access to the lighthouse through his work with the Ballast Board.

A month or two after the publication of this letter, the Cork Examiner ran a piece on a Great Repeal Meeting held on Cape Clear. (Very briefly, Great Britain and Ireland had been politically united by the Act of Union in 1800. Daniel O'Connell led a movement in the 1840s to get shot of this Act, effectively giving Ireland Home Rule. The campaign ultimately failed)
The first business of the meeting, involved the secretary of the local Repeal Movement, reading out a letter he had written to Robert Wilson asking him to chair the meeting:

It appears that the secretary's knowledge of Robert Wilson's 'tact and patriotic sentiments' were limited for the letter was 'disdainfully returned, with a verbal message not fit for publication.'  It could well have been 'feck off.' It may even have been the bad 'f' word. You know the one I mean, Father.
When the secretary resumed his seat, he received three hearty cheers from the assembled crowd, followed by "three hearty rounds of groans for The Orange Lamp-lighter." I have to say I am intrigued by the concept of three hearty groans and wonder if it could be reintroduced, maybe with the option of three hearty tuts, or three hearty head-shakes.

Two years later, John Swan Sloane was back on the Cape and reporting to the Cork Examiner on a meeting of Ranters held at the lighthouse, a perjorative term used to describe bands of, usually Methodist, zealots who preached in a loud and overbearing way.
According to Sloane, Wilson was the chair of the meeting, ably aided by his assistant, Carty, a man who had once embraced popery but who had now seen the light. One wonders if this was the same poor Catholic assistant given a roasting by Wilson two years previously.
Sadly, the report of the meeting is far too long to publish in full, but I will add a couple of Wilson's reported comments to give a flavour.

Carty then stood up and gave a small speech which had all the elements of love and compassion that come with religious fervour.

Sloane then rounds off his piece by asking

which more than suggests that the writer of this piece is the same as the author of the Intolerant Bigotry piece of two years previously. Sloane then signs off with

Granted, "Oh! tempora, oh mores!" may not be quite as snappy as 'Nice to see you, to see you, nice" or "Ooh, shut that door" but it works in the field of brand recognition of Sloane.

On June 19th 1848, an open letter to Sir William Beecher, the island's landlord, appeared in the Examiner. Among his accusations were that Beecher's agent, the aforementioned 'Friday' ie Carty, the assistant lightkeeper, in his new capacity of bailiff was now threatening eviction on the poor and destitute of the island unless they did not convert to protestantism; that he was expelling children from the island school for the same reason; and that he had beaten up Cadogan, the catholic publican, while drunk. Carty, he said, had "renounced what he calls the errors of Romanism and had become a spiritual bugbear" in the hands of others.
In the same edition, Edward Spring, the Curate of Tullagh, makes reference to a letter from Lt. Wilson in which he says the latter has complained to the British Relief Association that no famine aid has been forthcoming for the islanders from them. Contradicting this assertion, he says that Mr. Wilson "is a person who knows but little of what passes outside the walls of his Light-house" and had made the accusation in ignorance of the true situation but from the best of intentions. The Editor of the Examiner, in a sideswipe at both parties, declared there was far to much 'heart-burnings' on the island already, adding that "the conversion that comes through a pauper's stomach is an insult to common sense and true religion."
On a more personal level, Wilson's daughter, Ann, died in Baltimore in 1846, aged 28 years. His son, Robert, the young wannabe journalist, married in 1856, the marriage register describing his father as "Robert Wilson, 1st Lieutenant Royal Navy HP RMLI." A similar description adorned his son John's marriage certificate the same year. By this time of course, the lighthouse had been turned off in favour of the newer, brighter and more visible Fastnet light.
Evidently, the nautical gentleman was not transferred to another station for he died at Cape Clear on May 23rd 1858 in his 68th year.
Following his death, it appears that his widow, Ann, and most of their children decided to get as far away as possible from the toxicity of the island and emigrated to Australia or New Zealand. Only Elizabeth and William remained, the latter himself becoming a lightkeeper, in time becoming Principal Keeper of the Fastnet.

Thursday, March 10, 2022

The old Ferris Point lantern - an update - and a bit of 19th Century versifying


The space age lighthouse at Ferris Point dualled as the Harbour Office when it was first unveiled in 1976. Sadly its use as a navigational light lasted less than 20 years.

In a recent post on the lighthouse at Ferris Point, I described how the old Ferris Point lighthouse lantern, dating from 1839, was moved up the coast to Carnlough to serve as as a tourist attraction in the harbour there and I wondered aloud if it was still there, as it was not mentioned as an attraction on any of the local tourist sites.
Well, thanks to the much-travelled Finola Finlay of the Roaringwater Journal and local man Frank Rogers, the answer is in and its very disappointing.
Initial enquiries seemed to suggest the lantern was still in situ but, on trying to get a photograph of it, it was discovered that it wasn't. Further enquiries elicited the information that the copper dome of the lantern had been stolen by thieves, presumably for melting down and selling on. Because of this, the lantern had been left in an unsafe state and it was removed. All that now remains is one small part which serves as a shelter for a couple of people.
So, another example of our maritime history disappears for ever. The only difference is that this time it was not due to Harbour Board or local council neglect but for monetary gain. In 1972, the dome and lantern of the very old South Rock lighthouse were stolen by audacious thieves, never to be seen again. Hopefully this won't be repeated around the country as lighthouses are left unattended.
To relieve some of the gloom of this post, I came across this poem, written about an incident at the time of the building of the old Ferris Point lighthouse in the 1830s. It comes from the Larne Weekly Telegraph of December 19th 1908 but is obviously much older: -