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.

No comments:

Post a Comment