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


  1. I did little to mention that shout out, what a great piece of research though. If only, and what great service by those successive lightship men

    1. My dad Capt Jimmy Busher was skipper on the Coningbeg for many years

    2. I have no idea how men spent all their lives rolling about in those ever-moving buckets. I wouldn't have lasted eight hours. Pete