Tuesday, March 1, 2022

One man and his dog - Straw Island 1911


To very quickly set the scene; the first lighthouse on the Aran Islands in Galway Bay was built in the centre of Inis Mor, the largest island, from where it could be seen from everywhere in the vicinity. Except when it was cloudy, or misty, or foggy.
In the 1850s, therefore, this light was extinguished and replaced by two lights, one at the northern end of the chain of islands, one at the southern end at a much lower level. Problem solved.
"Erm, excuse me," (or words to that effect) said the fishermen who plied their trade out of the islands' largest port, Kilronan. "Now there's no light to lead us into port."
"Oh yeah," said the Ballast Board. "Never thought of that." And so, twenty-four years later in 1878, the fishermen, many of who had drowned by this time, finally got their harbour light on Straw Island.

Straw Island is composed mainly of sand and rocks and a bit of a green area in the middle. It is small, roughly 11 acres at low tide, lying a welly's throw off the mainland, and, as such, it was a one keeper light, with the keeper's female companion - wife, daughter, sister, grandmother - acting as the assistant keeper. Being the only occupants of the island, we can trace many keepers in the early years by checking the dog licence registers of the time - any payee who gives an address as 'Straw Island' is obviously the keeper!

It is from these dog licence records that we learn that the occupants of the lighthouse in 1911 were B.R.  (Benjamin Robert) Jeffers and his two dogs, both males, one a wheat-coloured collie, the other a brown W. Spaniel (I'm sure someone will tell me what the W. stands for - Welsh? Water?) 
Benjamin is one of the few Jeffers clan who was not born in Mayo. He had been born in Kilrush to a Coastguard father  in 1866 and so was 45 years old. He was unmarried and of the Brethren (Open) religious persuasion according to the censuses. He had been PK at Inishtrahull in 1901 and PK at nearby Eeragh too, before which he had served his time on the Skelligs and Tearaght.
Assistant was his sister, Sarah Ellen, also unmarried, 47 years old, and also an Open Brother (I must find out what a Brethren was)
And of course, the wheat-coloured collie, imaginatively called Rover, and the unnamed brown W. spaniel, who, given BR's naming tendencies, might well have been called Brownie.

We'll leave humans and dogs on their desert island for now and move around a mile to the north, where, on 5th November 1911 most of the crew of the steam trawler, Hector, were eying the worsening storm with increasing trepidation. They had lain at anchor in a violent storm in Kilronan Bay for eight days but on the evening of the 4th November, the wind increased to hurricane force, preventing the skipper, who had gone ashore for provisions, from returning to the boat.
During the night, the mate, A.A. Douglas, had had to order the anchors raised five times to avoid drifting too close to dangerous reefs. At 8am, they decided to move closer to Kilronan to try and halt the drifting but unfortunately the wire hawser, attached to one of the anchors, fouled the propeller, putting the engines out of action and from that point on, they were in trouble.
They immediately hoisted the flags of distress but, although there were four trawlers near, a large steamer and a coastguard station, such was the violence of the weather that only the trawler Picton Castle was able to attempt a rescue, which soon had to be abandoned.
At the mercy of the tumultuous seas and wind, the nine members of the crew tried to launch their own boats but that proved impossible due to the terrible buffeting they were enduring. Seeing they were drifting towards Straw Island, 150 yards from its rocks, Douglas ordered as many planks and barrels to be thrown overboard as might help the crew reach landfall and gave the order to abandon ship.

On watching all this from the lighthouse, BR set out with his two dogs to try and render any assistance that he could. Plunging into the surf, at great personal danger to himself, he hauled exhausted men up to safety, either bodily or with the help of his lifeline.
Meanwhile, Rover, "a big, shaggy, sheepdog" according to the mate's later letter to the papers, plunged into the fray, dragging at least one man up on shore by his clothes. (One presumes, from the lack of any mention, that Brownie, the W. Spaniel, was off somewhere having a poo or chasing seagulls.)
Thus were all nine men rescued and all were soon ensconced in the tiny lighthouse, dried and re-clothed and tended to by Sarah Jeffers. "Had it not been for the timely assistance rendered, most of us would have surely perished," the mate later wrote.

From the Wicklow Newsletter 30th March 1912

BR Jeffers with a pair of binoculars, maybe the very ones he was awarded

Straw Island as seen from the old lighthouse on Inis Mor

Naturally, somebody had to compose a stirring ballad about the event and it fell to one S.E.J. to do the honours: -


  1. Great stuff as usual Peter. And yes, w stands for water: ie water spaniel.

  2. Lovely to find this, I have the award plaque and the collar that was given to Rover and Brownie for their help in rescuing people that night, its in a wooden box with Rovers name on the outside, I will have photos up on my site eventually, I'll come back and let you know when, might I add a link to this story please so everyone can know how these two pups came to be awarded such honours? Mary Lennon of Lennonwylie

  3. Hi Mary. Oh that is absolutely wonderful! I never dreamt that the collar would still exist and what a wonderful object to have with such a great story attached to it. By all means link the story or use it in whatever way you'd like. Looking forward to seeing the photos!! Pete