Thursday, July 21, 2022

Scotchport, county Mayo

The lighthouse tender Rose in the storehouse at Scotchport (courtesy Sean Walker)

Scotchport, on the Mullet peninsula in county Mayo, is kind of off the beaten track. It is also off the unbeaten track. There is so little there that it doesn't even appear on Google maps. Well, it does, but under the name "Wavesweeper Sea Adventures," which may well be the Irish for Scotchport but is more likely the coastal location for a family tourism enterprise based in Belmullet.
It isn't really a place that you would pass by accident. Coming from Belmullet, you go through the village of Corclough West and continue until you hit the coast. The road to your right leads to Dún na mBó (where there is a blowhole) and the Eagle Island viewing point. The road to the left passes Scotchport and curls back around to Termoncarragh Bird Reserve and graveyard, which, if either was your destination, would have been more easily accessible from Corclough West.

The road to Scotchport

Scotchport is a small bay with an island partially blocking its entrance. This island protects the bay but it also means that, even on a relatively calm day, the narrow inlets either side of the island are transformed into a frothing mass of turbulent white water, angry at the obstruction. On the stony beach facing it, there is a boat hut, two small plaques, an upturned currach and a rusty winch. "Nothing to see here. Move on," they seems to say.

Last edition OS map showing the bay at Scotchport with the Storehouse. Eagle Island is two miles further north.

But, on this desolate, windswept spot, there is a story to tell. It is the story of a band of men who, over a period of 130 years braved some of the roughest seas in the world in tiny boats. The first line of the larger plaque reads:-

"Dear Lord
Be good to me.
The sea is so wide
And my boat is so small"

This is a prayer which must have often been in the minds of the men whose names are inscribed on the plaque. There were longer journeys undertaken by rowers to service lighthouses around our coasts but few as fearsome as this two-mile trek. The proximity of Eagle Island to the join of the European and American continental shelves means that the sudden shallowing of the seabed forces the ocean upwards into towering waves. One of the two lighthouses on the island, 200 feet above sea level, was completely destroyed by a storm in December 1894 and, viewed from the mainland, it is one of the best places to get storm photographs today.
The plaque continues

"In memory of the Crewmembers
Who rowed the "Rose" and
The "St. Mary" to and from
Scotchport and Eagle Island."

followed by the names of twenty-six brave souls, for whom the terrifying journey to and from the island, with both men and provisions, was a regular occurrence.

James Donoghue                                        Harry Williams
Martin Donoghue                                       Pete Williams
Anthony Gallagher                                     Patsy Kilker
John Gallagher                                           Tom Keane
Martin Gallagher                                        John Keane
Anthony Gallager                                       Johnny McAndrew
Mickey Dixon                                             Martin McAndrew
Jamesey Dixon                                            John McAndrew
John Dixon                                                  Paddy Tom Carey
Anthony Dixon                                           John Reilly
Martin Rua Dixon                                       Pake McIntyre
Anthony Rua Dixon                                    Mike Gaughan
Seamus Mor Shevlin                                   Anthony Gallagher

Ar dheis De go raibh ma agus
Solas siorai do n-anamacha"

The two plaques (unknown source)

As can be seen, many of the surnames are the same, fathers, sons, grandsons, brothers, uncles. It was the same at Slyne Head and Dursey Sound and, I suspect, with most lighthouse reliefs. 
Eamon McAndrew is the grandson of John Gallagher, one of the last owners of the tender and he very kindly gave me a copy of the biography of the boats, which is so concise and precise that I reproduce it here verbatim: -

The original boat contractor for Eagle Island lighthouses was Martin Donoghue of Termoncarragh. (The two lights on Eagle Island, incidentally, were established in 1835 and Scotchport appears to have been selected as the point of embarkation for the relief boat since that date)

The contract required trips to the rock every two weeks, weather permitting, plus a trip on the next suitable day. The boat often went out when conditions were unsuitable and occasionally was unable to re-enter Scotchport.

The Irish Light’s boat contractor’s responsibility included bringing lighthouse keepers’ food and materials from Belmullet to Scotchport and bringing those items by boat to Eagle Island West Lighthouse.

Eventually, men and materials were lifted onto the island by means of a hoist using a boatswain’s chair to lift people, and nets for materials, which made the operation easier and much safer.

Calm day at Scotchport

When Martin Donoghue got killed in an accident involving a horse and cart at the crossroads in Corclough West, the Commissioners of the Irish Lights continued the contract with Martin’s grandson Anthony Gallagher of Corclough West – although Anthony was only fourteen years of age at the time. Anthony was required to travel to CIL head office to sign the contract. (This would have been around the 1860s)

Anthony Gallagher remained the boat contractor until his son John Gallagher took over upon Anthony’s death in 1926. Anthony had been a lynchpin in many of the major events in the life of the lighthouse including landing on the rock two days after the storm of December 1894 when Eagle Island East was destroyed and later abandoned. This was the catalyst for the keepers' families being evacuated to the mainland and later housed in Corclough West. The last boat built for Anthony Gallagher was the 'Rose of Scotchport’.

The Rose at Scotchport c.1915 (courtesy Eamon McAndrew)

John Gallagher had the ‘Queen of Scotchport’ built in the late 1920s for the relief contract. The ‘Queen’ was destroyed on rocks in rough seas at Bun na Sconsa, west of Gladree, (the rocks visible to the North of the Mayo County Council car park) when it broke free from her moorings. Fortunately, there was no loss of life. If seas were too rough to re-enter Scotchport, the boat would head North to Och Lathaigh, Aughadoon to make land. 

The Queen of Scotchport arriving at the island in 1932 (courtesy Eamon McAndrew)

As a result of the destruction of the 'Queen’, John had the ‘Saint Mary’ built by Mr. Patten of Saula, Achill Island in 1936. The cost of the boat was £300. Some of the timber used in the construction of these boat would have come ashore, which has probably led to the boat’s longevity. The design of the boat is based on the traditional Achill yawl. The boat was originally designed to be rowed by means of oars by four men. Two others completed a six-man crew.

The St. Mary at Eagle Island in the late 1930s (courtesy Eamon McAndrew)

John Gallagher died suddenly in 1951, (his death certificate gives his occupation as 'boatman' ) following which his widow – Mrs. Nora Gallagher became the boat contractor until the helicopter service commenced in 1969. John and Nora’s son Anthony remained involved in the operation of the boat, while their son John Patrick joined the lighthouse service. In the 1950s a seagull outboard engine replaced the oars.

The St. Mary in the late fifties (courtesy Eamon McAndrew)

Occasionally the ‘Rose’ was brought back into operation when the ’Saint Mary’ was being repaired, until the ‘Rose’ was left permanently in the store.

Shortly after the boat relief was replaced by the helicopter service, the 'Saint Mary' ceased to be used and was stored in the Irish light’s store in Scotchport. In 2009, it was returned to the Patten family of Achill for renovation and is now occasionally used for deep sea angling - but only in fine weather.

The St. Mary at Scotchport in the late sixties, just prior to the helicopter service being introduced (courtesy Eamon McAndrew)

For me, there are two things that seem incredible about that story, apart from the fact that perfectly sensible men were willing to brave the wild Atlantic in such small boats. The first is that the 'Rose' survives. Her exact date of birth is unknown but it must be well over 100 years old and a wonderful piece of our maritime heritage. Its preservation must lie mainly in the fact that it lay practically untouched in the watertight Irish Lights boathouse at Scotchport since 1930. In more recent times though, a local adventure sports group managed to obtain a key to the boathouse and started leaving the door open  and hanging wetsuits over the side of the boat. Thankfully, local man, Sean Walker - whose family are real men and women of the sea - organised the restoration of the boat by sending it to Achill in October 2021 before the deterioration became irreversible. It is hoped to put the Rose on display somewhere in the future.
The second thing that I find amazing is that an outboard engine was only introduced as late as the 1950s. Prior to that, the six man crew used to have to negotiate the heavy swells by oar-power alone. It just leaves me in awe of these incredible men, well-deserving of the plaque on the stony beach. 

The Rose after refit at Achill (courtesy Sean Walker)

The storehouse on the beach appears to have stood since 1892, when its construction was put out to tender by Irish Lights. The notice to builders mentions the construction of a New Storehouse which gives the impression that there was an old storehouse but this is not mentioned on the First Edition OS map. The lights on Eagle Island were established on 29th September 1835 and Scotchport was mentioned by Samuel Lewis in 1837 as being the nearest port to the island, so it is fair to assume that the relief boats had always left from here, making some kind of boathouse or hut likely in the early years.

Seaward-facing side

Landward-facing gable

The storehouse itself is an incredibly beautiful stone building with red window surrounds and was obviously built by master craftsmen, having stood watertight for 130 years. One is fearful that Irish Lights, not having any further use for it, might sell it or knock it or simply allow it to decay, which would be a terrible shame.

The rusty winch at Scotchport, which was used for hauling the boats in and out of the water. The stony beach is difficult to walk on, let alone haul a heavily laden boat in and out of the water, so the winch was a necessity

The second plaque on the beach remembers a drowning tragedy in which two local men lost their lives in 1911. 

Charles Williams was 32, unmarried and a local farmer's son. Martin Gallagher was 23 and the son of the Anthony Gallagher, the boat contractor. They had been mackerel fishing in a dodgy currach and it capsized. Both men were strong swimmers but the habit of tying the fishing lines to their legs was their undoing. Details of the previous act of heroism by Charles Williams is detailed below.

Newspaper clipping from The Connaught Telegraph 9th September 1905


  1. So interesting , Peter. My Whelan were there in 1800’s.

    1. Catherine (Kate) was born there in 1872. I imagine she would have been flung from boat to island and vice versa when really small. At least she wouldn't have realised how terrifying that journey was!!

  2. Great detective work Pete, what a story, deserves to be told