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.

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