Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Turkeys and amputations, Rathlin Island

As the Association of Light Keepers will be in town from Saturday to Tuesday and a trip to Rathlin Island has been scheduled in, this is an opportune time to highlight a tale from The Irish Press, 21st November 1944. 

CIL Inspection trip c 1905 The accommodation for the families of the West Light keepers were also located at the East Light.

The two lights at Rathlin East (or simply "Rathlin" before the Rathlin West light was established in 1919) were established in 1856. The lower, fixed, baby light was discontinued in 1894. The cave system in the cliffs below the lighthouse is supposed to be the place where Robert the Bruce had his arachnid experience.

Rathlin East was one of the last lighthouses on the Irish coast to go automatic, holding out until 1995. 

It was also the scene of a terrible accident in 1912. Dennis 'Denny' Duff was an AK at the lighthouse, four years into his career with Irish Lights. The Princess Maud steamer, laden with tourists, was passing the island and the three keepers decided to fire a salute. A first salvo from the 18 pound fog gun was fired and the lads decided to make it a three-gun salute. Denny hurried to load the gun but forgot to swab the barrel with water first, with the result that the burning remains of the first shot ignited the second prematurely. The explosion practically severed Denny's right arm and would have killed him had one of the keepers not spotted a White Star liner, the Megantic, approaching over the horizon.
Hurried signals brought the ship's doctor ashore and he quickly arranged for Denny to be transferred to the ship's hospital where he was kept alive until the ship got to Liverpool, successfully avoiding all icebergs on the way. An ambulance was waiting on the dock and he was rushed to hospital where his life was saved but the arm was operated above the elbow.
Denny's career as a lightkeeper was over and he moved to England with his wife and family. Struggling to find work, he contacted Irish Lights and, through their intervention, he got a job with Chance Brothers in Birmingham, the famous lighthouse lens manufacturers. Here he worked as a very popular gatekeeper for twenty years. One-armed Denny Duff died in 1958. (Information from Thomas Tag - "The Anatomuy of a Lighthouse Story")

Denny Duff

Monday, September 26, 2022

A sweep of the Copelands from Whitehead


Another beautiful wee video from the elusive Nick from Holywood (check out his Irelandscapes videos on YouTube) who documents ordinary life both rural and maritime mainly in counties Antrim and Down. This one is taken from Whitehead on the south Antrim coast and features the islands and marine traffic of the outer Belfast Lough. As such we see the old Lighthouse Island (38 secs) and Mew Island (44 secs) in quick succession.

Saturday, September 24, 2022

Ballycotton lighthouse, county Cork Part One - across the water


Something a little bit different for this post, please forgive the indulgence. 

I recently had the good fortune to visit Ballycotton (or Ballycottin, as it was often written) on a beautiful warm summer's day in East Cork. I will write about the visit and the history in a subsequent post or posts but I recently came across a short, short story called "A Keeper's Woman," written eight years ago by a multi-talented lady named Henrietta McKervey. I requested permission to reproduce it in full on the blog and Henrietta kindly agreed.

A Keeper’s Woman

We’d say to one another, and we’d nod saying it, wasn’t herself the luckiest woman in Ballycotton? And though they had gone and painted the lighthouse black, and in our hearts we wondered was that the worst of luck, we would say what great fortune Enagh had, that she’d always know where her husband was, and what he was up to. He’d not be touching a drop out there neither, one of us would be bound to say, and Josie would let a wail out of her till whoever was nearest would grab her hand and go, ah don’t mind, your Tommy will come right yet. And Enagh would give us that thin smile of hers that isn’t a smile at all, only the thing she does with her face before she walks away. And back she would go to her house on the hill. We’ve heard it said the Commissioners above in Dublin send her and that little lad the best of everything. Coal, and wool. Schoolbooks. Soap even, so we’re told. And when winter falls and the days die without ever getting to grow into themselves, we would watch Enagh standing alone at the harbour, staring across the black water at the lighthouse sprouting strong as a weed over on the island. We’d watch her two lips touching each other as she waited for him to light the lamp. She would count to ten between each flash, the boy shivering beside her. Ah sure, don’t be worrying yourself Enagh, we would say. What man ever came to harm in a lighthouse? And black or not, we’d mean it too. Yes. We all wanted to be a keeper’s woman.

As you are doubtless aware, my literary talents know no beginnings and I can only dream of being qualified to review that piece of work, but it really touches a part of the world of lightkeeping that I often think about - the unsung heroes. I mean, God knows, the keepers themselves are very much the unsung heroes but the wives and families, the painters and tradesmen, the provisioners and rowers are even more unsunger. The piece above says so much in so few words and says a lot more without saying it at all. Makes me glad I wasn't married to a lightkeeper (even though some of them look very dashing in their uniforms and caps.)

Looking back to Ballycotton from the balcony of the tower

Enagh's view (old, not so sunny photograph) The lighthouse is on the second of the two islands from the coast. The first island is Small Island or Little Island or Tiny Island, which is actually larger than the lighthouse island when the tide is out.

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

So you'd like to have been a lightkeeper? Black Head, Antrim


Black Head lighthouse, county Antrim

I was searching recently for a man called John F. Connell who had posted two fascinating photos of Eagle Island in an old Beam magazine (I was trying to trace him to see if he had any more!) I enlisted the services of Gary Google, who came up with a listing for Black Head lighthouse in a Northern Island Government Historical Buildings document. Among all the technical information was an appendage entitled "Notes c1999 from John Connell, Lighthouse keeper. In his 63rd year in Irish Lights (retired at 60, now aged about 82)"
I will quote the passage in full, with but two comments. Firstly, I have no idea what the timeline for the passage is but Mr. Connell was 20 in 1935, so it had to have been after that. And secondly, lightkeepers needed to be reasonably literate, so I am assuming the dreadful spelling - which is mostly decipherable - must be down to the transcripting by the Historic Building people.

'Opn lighthouses ye'd always get lots of bitrds to eat, blackbirds and thrushes wad always be killed against the light, not starlings, they're too intelligent, members of the crow family, they'd stick their undercarriages out and skid past the light, but every morning the first thing the keeper on watch wud do was to go round and pick up all the dead bitrds, and throw them in a pot with a piece of old onion. But ye hasd to watch them for they'd fall to pieces, they're so small, amnd not muich eating on them, but betterb flavour that a moy Park. Thye'd make lovely soup , and you'd have cold birds for yir tea at night.' The watyer in lighthouses was unfiltered rainwater. All lighthouses hacve a notivce up.Tank open/tank closed. The tank was up on the roof and before ye'd run water into it ye had to get all the gash waskhed ogff it, salt,gull dung etc, and check the taste till it was running cleqar. Non smoker's were good for testing it. Two kepers were necessary to run a light in watches, and a third keeper was needed if theree wasa forlight (someone to fire the maroons every five monutes). There#s a spring down beloww, 'comes bubbling up above a limestone crack and itrs like lemonade, heavily dosed with lime, like liquid gold it is'. First radar station was at Bloackhead, next at Cpelands but rrmoved because of effect on birds. Usd to kep meat and pigs feet on the shelf above the earth closet. Undeerground tank in front of houses stored rainwater for washing. Irrigation channels on gd floor front room cill forrain blowing in. Built in presses as on plans, also dressers all in yellow pine. Cvats iron foreplaces in bedrooms generally, but mopdern in gropund floor fires. Wistle pipes partly present (if you wwere't on watch you put in a a stopper).

I have to admit that throwing all the road-kill (light-kill?) into a pot with an old onion sounds particularly appetising and in the unlikely event that I'm ever invited onto Masterchef, this would be my signature dish. I also like the idea of getting the non-smokers to taste the rainwater for seagull shit. To paraphrase Dougal, it's great being a lightkeeper, isn't it, Ted?

It appears that John Frederick Cullen died in the Carrickfergus area on 2nd March 2005. Can't find much about him except that he was one of the few lightkeepers I have come across who was sentenced to imprisonment while a keeper. In both 1948 and 1949, while serving on the Maidens, he was found guilty of failing to pay income tax, "although he was in a position to do so." I have no idea if the incarceration ever took place and what Irish Lights' reaction would have been!
In 1950, he was to be found at Mew Island, an AK at the time young Richie Power was tragically drowned.

He had been born on Scattery Island in 1915 to parents John F. Connell and Florence Pavlovsky. These two had met at the Old Head of Kinsale when John senior and Florence's dad were keepers there. John senior was a Rosscarbery man and son of a Coastguard. The couple had the distinction of fathering and, indeed, mothering the last child - Florence in 1910 - to be born on Rotten Island off the coast of Donegal.

National Library photograph from a CIL inspection tour c 1905. The light would have been only three years established at that time and the tower was painted red, presumably to mark the starboard boundary of Belfast Lough for a ship entering the harbour. It was changed to white in 1929. The station was made unwatched automatic in 1975 and the houses are now available to rent from the Irish Landmark Trust.

Monday, September 19, 2022

The Guide Bank Lighthouse, Little Island, Waterford

Photo Andrew Doherty

Harbour lights, in general, get much less coverage than the CIL lighthouses, probably because they employ awful PR consultants, who simply take the money but don't produce the gigs. Yet they each deserve to be recorded in the annals of maritime navigational history before the inevitable happens and they are replaced by rectangles on sticks.
The Guide Bank light is situated on the approach to Waterford port on the very eastern point of Little Island. Here, the river Suir rejoins itself after splitting in two to circumvent the island. The northern channel - known as the Queen's Channel - is the normal route as it is straighter and simpler, though smaller craft can negotiate the longer King's Channel. Prior to 1818, the Queen's Channel was often shallow enough for Kilkenny people to cross from the northern shore, a state of affairs that the Waterford people could not tolerate for long.

E-Oceanic chart

The Guide Bank light is located at the end of a 700 foot training wall which effectively divides the two channels. It is a 5 metre high cast iron tower, painted black with a white band. The natural flow of the river is actually down the unfavoured King's Channel and mariners must be careful not to let the helm swing with the currents to port. The Guide Bank is a front light, with the rear light, set on the grounds of Faithlegg, fixed to a less-interesting white pole.

The Faithlegg rear light

As early as 1872, the Waterford Harbour Board engineer declared that he had held talks with the Commissioner of Irish Lights in Dublin regarding the erection of a light on the Guide Bank. The latter, he said, had absolutely no objection to the erection of a lighthouse at the location and he left the matter with the Harbour Board as to how to proceed. Two years later, during an inspection, Irish Lights declared themselves satisfied with the cleanliness of the buoys but were wondering where the much-needed Guide Bank light was.

Photo Andrew Doherty

By 1877, the realisation of the project was nearly at hand, notwithstanding the sarcasm of one Mr. Slattery ...

The reference to the Clyde Commissioners is noteworthy. The Clyde Shipping Company - the first steamship company ever established - had started a weekly service to Waterford in 1859 and would later take over the Waterford Steamship Company and its three ships. Having invested so much in Waterford, naturally their opinions would be listened to, and a notice to mariners was issued, announcing the establishment of the light on (or after) 1st April 1878

The Glasgow connection to the light was not limited to Clyde Steamship Co. pushing for it. The tower was actually built by Robert Duncan's Partick Foundry, who could also turn their hand to shipbuilding and agricultural machinery. While deliberations had been going on about the lighthouse here, a detailed plan of a lighthouse on the Clyde was submitted to the board for their consideration. Sadly, due to my incompetence, I haven't been able to identify the light in question

Photo by Andrew Doherty

There was a case before the courts in 1882 when the Reginald, owned by the Waterford Steamship Company, ran aground on the Guide Bank near the lighthouse and did what was allegedly £50 worth of damage to the stone fitting of the bank. One of the witnesses called was a John Habberlin who was "in the employ of the Harbour Commissioners attending the lights." This is the only lightkeeper / lamplighter I could find for the Guide Bank.

John Habberlin and those who came after him probably rowed over to the light to do so and tied up there. Photo Andrew Doherty

In the mid-1920s, there was a spate of vandalism to the light, which kind of puts a hole in the oft-stated assertion that this is only a modern-day phenomenon.

Eventually the old light was replaced in 1932 by a new light, though the light source is unclear. It could well have been gas, as Andrew Doherty of the wonderful Waterford Harbour Tides and Tales blog, somehow managed to get access to the inside of the tower a couple of months ago and very thoughtfully sent me on photographs, many of which appear on this post. Inside there are two large gas cylinders which obviously lit the light at some stage though there is currently a LED light powering it.

Photographs by Andrew Doherty. Incidentally, these photographs show that the inside of the tower is accessible to humans, which thereby fits my definition of a lighthouse as a purpose-built building containing a light as an aid to maritime navigation which is large enough to fit a person inside.

Another Andrew Doherty photo showing the Kings Channel (left) and the Queen's Channel (right) and the 700 foot-long Guide Bank.

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Slyne Head, up close and personal


Slyne Head - like Bull Rock or the two west coast Black Rocks -  is one of those lighthouses that many of us Irish lighthouse fans only get to see from a distance, often hazy in the mist and not on the route of any commercial ferry. Given the lighthouse-connected drownings that occurred off the island in 1836, 1838, 1852 and 1859, it would probably cost a fortune in public liability insurance to set up such a concern.

Consequently, we lighthouse spotters have to make do with views from the Golf Course in Ballyconneely or Omey Island. Or get to see glimpses of the real island through wonderful, of short, documentaries like this one by Eleanor Mannion.

Monday, September 12, 2022

Mine Head, Waterford


The magnificent lighthouse at Mine Head in the county of Waterford should really be more well known than it is. A major sea-light on the south coast of Ireland, it has the highest elevation of any of Ireland's current lighthouses - 87 meters - and in 1851, along with Ballycotton, helped to fill in a large swathe of black coast between Roches Point and Hook Head. Yet it is said that even locals are sometimes unaware of its existence, located on a largely human-free headland at the end of a tortuous route of tiny country lanes. Indeed, when last I was there in 2008, when Google Maps had never even registered in my Luddite head, I completely failed to find it, having to make do with a middle-distance view over many fields.

This time around, I was more successful. Last time I had heeded all the 'Private Property - trespassers will be disembowelled' signs but Google Maps is the God who knows everything and He led me carefully down a pot-holed road that threatened the tyres on my car at every turn. It really is a beautiful lighthouse, its broad black stripe added in the mid twentieth century and it appears in excellent condition, as do the lightkeepers' cottages. Richard Taylor, in his beautifully written but boringly titled "The Lighthouses of Ireland" says that it was a two-keeper light during the summer but a three-keeper light during the long winter nights.

Lightkeepers of yore include 
Arthur Oxford (1856) - begat a child
William Wilson PK and Charles Boyle AK - (1871) CIL pensions list
Robert Armstrong (1874-76) - marriage cert and birth cert of child
John Williams (1881-82) - gas maker - birth of children
Joseph Hammond (1881-82) - bird reports
Hugh Duggan (1885-86) - bird report and child's birth cert
Edward McCarron (1885-88) - bird reports
Francis Ryan (1885) - son's birth cert
Henry Williams (1889-91) - bird reports
Thomas Potter (1891-92) - children's birth certs
H. Kelly (1892) - bird report
Charles Hawkins PK (1897-98) - bird report and Dunvegan wreck report
John Hamilton PK (1901) - Census
Neal V. Gillespie AK (1901) - Census

From a Ballast Board Inspection report 1859

c 1905


Tuesday, September 6, 2022

Stirring stories for boys - Arranmore Island

In 1870, Edward McCarron had been transferred from Dundalk lighthouse to his second station on Arranmore, as Assistant Lightkeeper to Richard Stapleton. In his book "Life in Donegal," he recounts a rescue in 1871, about which a lingering taste of bitterness still lingered.

Edward did get a reward  though, as per the Nautical Magazine of 1871:

Edward McCarron and family at a later posting. Picture courtesy Gay McCarron