Thursday, December 1, 2022

The Ballycotton lighthouse fog-bell


Ballycotton lighthouse and fog bell back in the day. CIL photo album in the NLI

The coast of east Cork is notorious for dense fogs, so much so that the only Irish Lights station without a lighthouse - Poer Head - was established there in 1879 and survived through to 1970. The lighthouse at Ballycotton had been established in 1851 with a flashing white light that could be seen for eighteen miles in clear weather but was obviously rendered useless in thick fog.
Cue the Reverend George Sackville Cotter Hingston, local Protestant curate, who became a veritable thorn in the side of the Ballast Board in his agitations for a fog bell at the station. A letter to the Cork Constitution in March 1855 lays the blame for the wreck of the Choice (a barque loaded with barley) the previous month firmly on the lack of a fog bell on the station. He also relays another story whereby a wreck on the island itself during a snowstorm was narrowly averted by the lightkeeper (Mr. Nolan) and his assistant shouting at an approaching boat at the tops of their voices!
A letter from George Halpin (junior) in the same paper assures the reverend gentleman that "the subject has been under consideration, and I trust that a bell will be erected there during the approaching summer."
One might have thought that lessons would have been learned from recent history. In 1853, 83 people died when the PS Queen Victoria sunk off The Baily lighthouse at Howth during a snowstorm. One of the reasons was the lack of a fog bell. Seven years earlier, another Board of Trade enquiry had recommended that a fog bell be established at the Baily. The Ballast Board explained this hadn't been done because other projects had taken priority.
(Incidentally, the Assistant Keeper at the Baily at the time of that disaster had been one Denis Nolan, probably the same Mr. Nolan who was in charge of Ballycotton in 1855.)

By June 1956, there was still no sign of the promised fog bell and the Cork Constitution wasn't happy.

By the 5th August, after another near miss, the paper was apoplectic, obviously not realising that the Ballast Board operated on a 'Sure, whenever" principle.

However, in this latter instance, the Shipping Gazette chipped in and muddied the waters a bit

Four days later, the Ballast Board issued some good news: -

which naturally invoked a predictable tirade, of which I only copy the first part

According to the Irish Lights website, there was presumably some delay in getting the equipment moved to the island but eventually at the start of December 1856, the Cork Con was able to break the incredulous news that the fog-bell had been installed.

The bell had been cast at Mr. Sheridan's Eagle Foundry, Church Street, Dublin, as were the great bells at Dun Laoghaire East Pier, the Baily and, eventually, Roches Point. An inspection of Ballycotton lighthouse in 1859, three years later, noted that the station consisted of a Principal Keeper at £64 per year; an Assistant Keeper at £46 per year and a Fog Bell Winder at £36 per year. It added that "the weight of the machinery that rung the bell had a fall of only 12 feet and required to be wound up every three-quarters of an hour."
Maybe this was why the fog bell wasn't operating that same year?

Things obviously took a turn for the better for the fog bell lasted another 50 years, when it was replaced, on 30th December 1909 by a reed horn fog signal, which later morphed into the rather unlovely contraption above.


  1. Alas, Pete. Something we will never hear....when I grow up I want to be a bell winder 🔔

  2. Not any old bell winder, Andrew. It would need to be a fog bell....