Thursday, September 1, 2022

The life and tragic death of lightkeeper Thomas King

Slyne Head. Photograph by Simon Wall

The King family was synonymous with Slyne Head for 130 years. It was they who held the contract to supply the two lighthouses at the northernmost point of Galway Bay probably from 1836 when the lights were first established until the 1960s, when helicopters took over the business of transporting food and mails and men to the tiny island. 
It was Thomas King who, in 1852, was allegedly shamed by a lightkeeper into making the short but hazardous journey during a fully-blown storm, resulting in the deaths of seven men, including Thomas himself, his brother Festy and his son or nephew, John, not to mention the lightkeeper.
Following Thomas' demise, the Ballast Board contract was taken over by his son John, who held the position for roughly fifty years. John seems to have been a remarkable man who, it is alleged, fathered roughly twenty children. One of the first of these was Thomas King, born in 1866 and named for his grandfather, 

The uber-fertile John King. It is said this photograph was taken during one of his trips to Dublin, possibly on lighthouse business

Thomas, it appears preferred to be ferried, rather than doing the actual ferrying. He joined Irish Lights, aged 24 years, obviously due to his connection with the relief boat tender. He was by all account an ardent Gaelic scholar and actively promoted the use of the language wherever he went.
Thomas' first posting, in 1890, was to Inishtearaght, the most remote of the Blasket Islands, an inhospitable spot that would either make you or break you. For Tom, it was the former. Three years on and he was transferred to another off-shore island, but a much more benign one - Ballycotton in East Cork. In 1895, it was back to another of the big south-west lights, the Bull Rock. It was while here in 1895 that he took a wife, as they say, a Castletownbere girl with the unusual name of Mary Murphy. A son Jack was born unto them the following year.
After six years in service, he was 75% of the way to attaining the big four - Fastnet,  Tearaght, Bull Rock and Skellig Michael - when he was posted to the latter in 1896. Another son, James was born on the rock in October 1897. As the rock was about to be made relieving - with the families moving to purpose-built houses in Valentia - James had the distinction of being the last child born on Skellig Michael.

Thomas King

In 1899, the family made the long journey up to Fanad, only to be sent back down to Inishtearaght the following year. The family was no longer resident on the island this time around but in the Valentia cottages. However, mainland living did not solve all their problems for unfortunately their five-month-old daughter died of bronchitis before a doctor could get to her.
Then it was the Baily in 1902, Ballycotton again (1908), the Old Head of Kinsale (1912), Inis Oirr aka South Aran (1914), Rockabill (1916), Arranmore Island (1918), Wicklow Head (1919) and Ballyglass aka Broadhaven in county Mayo (1923).

Last of the Skelligonians - James M. King

A few months short of his 60th birthday, on 29th December 1925, he retired from Irish Lights with 35 years service under his belt, more than half on offshore islands. Out of all the lighthouses they had been on, Wicklow Head was the one they had enjoyed the most - despite being raided by the National Army in 1923 - and so they decided to retire there, to a small house near the lighthouse at a place called Dunbur. (Many years ago I used to accompany the Hayman Doyle from Blainroe Crossroads to Dunbur to check if his herd of (two) cows were still alive and not ambling off down the road to Magheramore)

The three existing lighthouses on Wicklow Head, evidently around the time of World War 2 judging by the pristine condition of the 'EIRE 9" sign by the old High light. The whole head is in the townland of Dunbur.

The next ten years passed uneventfully. The Kings were near neighbours with a family called Wolahan and a couple named Earls, with whom they got on well enough, with the exception of one of the young Wolahan men, a troubled young man who for some reason seems to have taken a dislike to the King family. He had threatened some of the King lads at various times but nothing more than that.
One moonlit evening Thomas King took a short cut across the fields to his friend John Wolahan's house, to enquire about the health of the latter's daughter who was in hospital. After a couple of hours, he left to return home. 
Shortly thereafter, John Wolahan's youngest son was returning home from Wicklow and, taking the same short cut across the fields, stumbled across the dead body of the former lightkeeper, his body badly mutilated by a billhook. Shocked, he ran to the Earls' house which was nearby and then ran for his father.

Around the same time, John Wolahan's eldest son strolled into the barracks in Wicklow Town and casually announced he had just killed Thomas King and would they lock him up? The Guards were incredulous but, on checking the story, found it to be true.
Not only the whole town but the whole country were shocked when the details of the senseless killing came to light. There was a lengthy inquest and a lengthy trial but in the end it was deemed the defendant was incapable of entering a plea and he was placed in the care of an institution. Sympathy poured in, not just for the King family but also the Wolahans. Two families had been ripped apart by an act that defied logic.
Mary King continued to live in Dunbur, where she died in 1953, aged 83 years.
Two of Thomas' sons went on to work for Irish Lights. John became a keeper while James - the last Skelligs baby - worked on the maintenance staff. James had actually been an SAK for two years but was dismissed for refusing to be posted to the Bull Rock in 1921!

Thomas King c 1935

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