Friday, April 29, 2022

When the Light Goes Out


"When the Light Goes Out"  - the book wot I wrote - is finally out. It was, to all intents and purposes, finished last August but with typical arrogance I thought publishers would be queuing up to print it, but sadly they weren't, possibly because its not very good. After realisation dawned that nobody was going to bite, I decided to publish it myself but Lulu has recently revamped their self-publishing site and it took me ages to figure out the formatting etc. But anyway, it's out now, thank God.
It is a lighthouse book with a difference. It tells the story of lightkeeping in Ireland from 1786 to 1972 through the fatalities that occurred to Irish Lights personnel and their families while on duty. In case that sounds like 'unrelenting gloom' as one publisher mentioned to me, I have tried to write the book in an entertaining manner, as much as the subject matter allows. All of the cases in the book - which are presented chronologically - are the ancestors of people alive today, many of whom I was able to contact. Universally they were supportive, delighted that their long-forgotten (or, in some cases, half-forgotten) ancestor should be brought back to life, in print, anyway.
So the book, which runs to 85,000 words, is a history, of sorts, of lightkeeping in this country, it serves as a roll-call of those who died in service, it shines a light (sorry) on some of the lesser-known lighthouses around their coasts and it is a collection of human-interest, real-life yarns. Or, at least, that is the intention.
Books are available to order from the sidebar to the right of this page (if viewing on a phone, you'll need to scroll to the bottom and select Web Version to view the sidebar) 
To keep costs down, books going to the island of Ireland will be despatched by myself, but anywhere else in the world, I will get Lulu to send. (This is because postage from Ireland is ridiculously expensive and Lulu, with their many printing presses around the world can post much more cheaply) 
I hope you enjoy the book as much as I enjoyed writing it. I just hope the number of errors are at a minimum and none of them are major ones!
Any questions, drop me a line at
Pete, April 29th 2022

Arranmore poem


For the Day After National Poetry Day, a poem from D.J. O'Sullivan, lightkeeper, field-naturalist, ornithologist, scientist, contributor of articles to national newspapers and poet. It is simply called Arranmore and is taken from his 1947 anthology entitled Lightkeeper's Lyrics. It is not about a lighthouse at all, more of a political discourse from a nature expert. Having just returned from a week on Arranmore, I can confirm that the nature still abounds on the island, though I wouldn't know a cushat from a Jew's-harp beetle.

Bright sunbeams gleam 'twixt flouncing waves,
The Jew's-harp beetle sparkles blue:
Where gnarl├ęd gorse shows armour'd leaves
A spider's web is dinked with dew.

The mist-bow o'er the stream glints red,
A brassy, brazen, brilliant tone
That flickers ochreous to lead,
Becomes nimbused, then nimbly gone.

Roan heifer noses through the hedge
Sweet honeysuckle bordering near;
The sunning ass, upon the hedge,
Half wakes to twitch flies from her ear.

Brown bees are pulsing flower to flower,
To gilly comes the Green-veined White,
This female's had her nuptial hour,
As tatter'd wings denote in flight.

Ringed-plover "tu-li-tu" around,
Showing trailing wings and drunken legs,
Pretending hurt - fall to the ground,
A ruse to hide their "scrape" of eggs.

The wood-rush rustles faery tunes,
The cushat coos in elder tree.
And all along the ribb'd sand-dunes
Blue harebells dance in ecstasy.

D.J. (Danny)'s father, Eugene, was lost at the Bull Rock lighthouse, county Cork on midsummer's day 1917. One of his sons, also called Eugene, brought the Irish lightkeeping occupation to an end in 1997, when he handed over the keys of the Baily to Irish Lights.

Sunday, April 24, 2022

Mew Island 1888 - My most boring post ever (and that's saying something!)

Beautiful mid-twentieth century watercolour by Ursula Spry of Lighthouse Island and Mew Island. Not sure if this was painted from the large Copeland Island or the mainland

For a bit of light reading recently, I picked up a book called Proceedings 1888 by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. Weighing in at nearly 600 pages, it is basically the story of what the IME did during that year and appears to be an annual publication. Chapters have titles like "Irrigating Machinery on the Pacific Coast," "Experiments on the Friction of a Collar Bearing" and "Riveted Joints Series XIV," the last of which seems particularly riveting.
But, in amongst these nuggets, the IME seem to have held their July meeting in Dublin and William Douglass, who gave us so many fin-de-siecle lighthouses, including the Fastnet, contributes a piece on "Mew Island Lighthouse," four short years since it was first established. Now, although I love lighthouses, I'm not too hot on the scientific stuff but I copy out the chapter now, in the hope that somebody can understand it.


Thursday, April 7, 2022

The first Fanad Head lighthouse

1835 drawing of the first Fanad Head lighthouse taken from the Ordnance Survey memoir to accompany the 1st edition OS map

I wrote a short piece on the original Fanad Head (aka Fannet Point aka Lough Swilly) lighthouse three years ago. My total sum of knowledge consisted of a short paragraph on the CIL website and a rather charming pre-1886 charcoal drawing of the lighthouse that adorns the office space at the base of the current tower.
However, I recently was able to pick up a copy of Sean Beattie's wonderful "The Book of Inishtrahull" and it really is the book that keeps on giving. In it, Sean quotes from some of the Ordnance Survey reports about the island and, emboldened by the detail therein, I managed to get a hold of a copy of "The Ordnance Survey Memoirs of Ireland - Parishes of county Donegal Part 1 1833-35."
Basically, when the 1st Edition OS mapping was taking place, the Duke of Wellington - whom I always picture as Stephen Fry in Blackadder III - who was PM at the time, agreed that the maps should be accompanied by some explanatory text - Memoirs - that couldn't fit on the maps itself. A hugely time-consuming enterprise, it was decided to split the country into parishes and every parish should have set headings - geology, ancient topography, bogs etc. What emerges is a fantastic addition to local history that, sadly, only extends to the northern part of the country, as the next government after Wellington gave it the boot.
In addition to the drawing at the top of the page, the memoir for the parish of Clondavaddog also includes the following description of the lighthouse

(I'm assuming that "North Hall" in Dublin is a typo for "North Wall")
Another source of information on this first lighthouse, which was knocked down and rebuilt in 1886, is the replies to a circular posted to the Ballast Board in 1859, looking for answers to a number of set questions for a Trinity House Commissioners report. The ludicrous thing is that, although I have the answers, I don't have the questions!! But some of them can be worked out!

It appears that, in 1859, at least, Fanad was a one-family lighthouse. The names of some of the keepers of this first light are few and far between (any additions would be most welcome!):-

1857 - John Prendergast (retired, aged 71)
1857 - John Whelan
1867 - William Callaghan snr
1868 - John Young jnr
1871 - John Young jnr
1882 - Henry Redmond
1883 - Henry Redmond
1885 - James Keenan

The picture mentioned above sitting in the current lighthouse. The guard rail is one obvious difference between the old light and the new. The height of the tower is also a lot shorter

Sunday, April 3, 2022

Wannabe lighthouses - No.3 The Coningbeg lighthouse

This is the final instalment of Irish lighthouses on which construction began but never finished, unless of course somebody comes up with one that I have overlooked. As we have seen so far, the Capel Island lighthouse was well under construction when Ballycotton and Mine Head got the nod. And the Kish pile light was also nearing completion when a fierce storm put paid to all their efforts. 

CIL map showing the location of the Coningbeg Rock, basically the outermost of a nasty little group of rocks lying south of the Saltees, which themselves lie south of Kilmore Quay on the south Wexford coast.

Basically, a simplification of the first map. This area of the coast was known as the graveyard of a thousand ships and these rocks were known as the headstones. Mor and Beg in English are of course Big and Little. The Big Coning is constantly above the high water mark but Little Coning isn't.

The Coningbeg lighthouse didn't get anywhere near the level of completion of the first two mentioned lighthouses, though more effort was probably expended on it. As early as 1796, the preamble to the Lighthouse Act stated that 

His Majesty's Revenue who were the Irish lighthouse body in situ, said, "Yeah, right" and went back to filing P60s. At this time, there was no light between Hook and Wicklow Head, leaving a large portion of the nautical map of the most dangerous part of the transatlantic seaway unilluminated.
Eleven years later, Robert Fraser published his "Statistical Survey of the county Wexford," - thanks Andrew Doherty! -   a titillating bodice ripper, in which he proposed erecting not one, not two, not four, not 875, but three lights on the Great Saltee Island. His arguments were quite persuasive. Every year, he said, some ship, travelling hundreds of miles across the Atlantic without being able to take a reading, mistakes the Hook for the Eddystone and comes a cropper by being embayed among the rocks of the south Wexford coastline. Three lights would avoid the possibility of any mistakes. Great Saltee, with its fresh water supply, could support a family and was large enough for three lights, whereas Tuskar, with all the additional problems of construction was a non-runner. Alas, though, it was end of the tax year time and Revenue were unable to act upon the suggestions.
When Revenue, in 1810, gleefully slapped down all their lighthouse files on the Ballast Board's desk and ran off giggling, things finally started to get done. George Halpin immediately set about erecting a lighthouse on Tuskar which shone forth in 1815.
Emboldened by his success, Halpin then proposed to erect a tower on the Coningbeg Rock, notwithstanding that it only uncovered 2 hours 10 minutes after high tide and even at low tide, its thirty yards by ten yards surface was constantly washed by large rollers. It is not known if this lighthouse ever got started. Bill Long in "Bright Light White Water" suggests it got no further than the proposal stage; a report into the foundering of the Westindiaman "Tiger" in 1819, says that a lightship was established at the rock in 1824 "after a failed attempt to erect a lighthouse there."


The lightship was better than nothing but, as many maritime observers pointed out, in rough and high seas, when its reassuring beams were needed most, they could be lost in giant troughs and remain unseen by passing vessels. And, as it transpired, the bloody thing had a habit of drifting away from its position in stormy weather, sometimes being found over ten miles from where it should have been. (Incidentally, the ball on the top of the lightship - see photo below - was taken down when the vessel was known to be 'off position.')
George Halpin is rightly regarded as the leading light (ha!) in lighthouse construction in this country but he was crap at naming his children. He had a son George who also became Inspector of Irish Lights and who slowly took over from Dad from the 1840s onwards. Consequently, it is difficult to know which Halpin made the next attempt to build a light on the Coningbeg Rock in the 1840s. Was it Dad, seeking to put to bed the one light that had eluded him? Or was Junior eager to make his mark by succeeding where Dad had failed?
The plan was to erect a version of Mitchell's pile light on the rock. This would be done by drilling nine holes into the rock and then inserting the piles and grouting them with lead. It is not sure what the timeline expectations were at the start of the operation but it must be the slowest ever construction of a lighthouse anywhere in the world. Ever.
Work commenced in the summer of 1843, when workmen were landed on the rock to begin drilling the holes. It was not until the summer of 1849 - six years later - that the ninth hole was completed. By this time, one pile had been sunk in November 1848 and grouted with lead and this solitary pile at least served as some kind of daymark for a year. The late summer of 1849 and early summer 1850 then witnessed an unprecedented spurt of activity that saw the remaining eight piles being sunk and grouted, leaving the rock primed and prepared to take the building and looking like a giant pin cushion in the middle of the ocean.
Cautiously, it was decided to leave the piles in position for two years before adding the dwelling and the light, just to make sure everything was okay. And it very nearly passed! However, during a vicious southwesterly in the winter of 1852 / 53, the piles were twisted beyond repair. One quick inspection later and the decision "feck it" was issued.
Unbelievably, in March 1872, the Board of Trade and Trinity House put it to the Commissioner of Irish Lights that a fixed light should be erected on the Coningbeg, after a number of notable wrecks on the coast, notwithstanding the lightship. Our old friend John Swan Sloane was sent out to survey the half-tide rock and he came up with plans to build a concrete tower at the location at an estimated cost of £60,000. However, in true Irish Lights style, nothing happened.
Due to the lack of any contemporary photographs, it is unknown if any of the twisted piles still remain sticking out of the rock. Local diving clubs state that, diving south of the rock, you come across "discarded metal pylons" and some broken crockery, so the answer is probably no.

The Coningbeg lightship, taken during a CIL inspection in 1906. The three-masted, two fixed lights of 1824 had been replaced by one main mast, one jib mast and one revolving light in September 1878.

The Coningbeg lightship in the 1980s, around the time it became fully automated. The lightship was finally withdrawn in 2007, making it by far the longest serving lightship station at 183 years. It was replaced by a superbuoy. (I'm wondering if that is the Coningbeg on the right of the picture above?)

The Coningmore and Coningbeg Rocks from the gannet colony on the southern tip of the Great Saltee Island. Roughly low tide. Late August 2022

Friday, April 1, 2022



Lying in bed with the Covid, not really relishing pulling all the information for Wannabe lighthouse No 3, I thought I'd post up here an anonymous poem I found in the Tralee Chronicle of 16th February 1875.
I appreciate it is not really lighthouse-related but, having written about lighthouse deaths, it strikes a chord with the lonely boatmen going out at night to look for victims of known shipwrecks, a very common practice considering the amount of drownings suffered off our coasts for many years.


The flashing lighthouse beacon pales before
The ruddy harvest moon's intenser ray
That bathes, and changes into sparkling ore
Its stones of granite grey.

A single boat steals down the moonlit track.
Through the still night, its oar-strokes echo far;
Fringed with cleft light, the outline sharply black
Heaves on the harbour bar.

What strange freight fills it? Yonder heavy sail
Covers some form of blurred and shapeless dread;
Rude is the pall, but fitted well to veil
The ocean's outcast dead.

His name? his history? Vain it were to guess
But short to sum: a waif - a mystery;
Death's mocking gloss upon life's loveliness;
A secret of the sea.