The old Inishtrahull lighthouse (photo John McCarron)
Wednesday, December 21, 2022
The first Inishtrahull keeper
Every month, I attend St, James' Hospital in Dublin to donate platelets. It is far from a selfless act. It assuages my guilt that I do very little for the community and I can go on being a mean bastard for the rest of the month. Anyhow, taking advantage of the free city centre parking, I have taken to nipping down to the National Archives about 20 minutes walk away to do a bit of lighthouse research. Yes, I know, dead nerdy. Anyhow, on my last visit I ordered a file of letters relating to one Robert Irvine, the first Inishtrahull keeper. The reference is CSO/RP/1823/689. I have transcribed all but one of the letters but, sadly, it is far too large (over 2500 words) to reproduce here. So I shall just give a brief resume.
Scotsman Robert Irvine arrived in Dublin with a fistful of money and a cargo of herring around the time of the above notice and applied for the job. He got it and, shortly afterwards, on April 12th, was told to immediately report to his new post. Not wishing to bring his herring and his fistful of dollars with him, the Secretary of the Ballast Board (the above Mr. Bigger) agreed to take the two commodities and invest them until as such time Irvine wanted them. He also wrote out a promissory wrote for Irvine explaining that he owed him roughly £140.
So Irvine sent off and, on arriving, sent back a list of his expenses for the journey, which is a brilliant commentary and something I have never come across before.
So basically, it seems Irvine was the PK and on arrival on the island he wrote back to Bigger asking him to liquidate his stocks and send him up the money. This Bigger did and a while later Irvine asked for the balance of his money, as he had a friend in dire need in Derry who needed it. At the same time, he listed further expenses he had incurred, which was great fun trying to decipher.
(Incidentally, the only one I didn't get was the one Corvock at 2s 6d)
Irvine's final letter was written on 22nd July 1813, three months after commencing the job. In it, he thanks Bigger for sending up the balance of the money and the two of them were now all square. He also acknowledges receipt of his quarterly salary. And then .... nothing.
The reason that Irvine's four letters come to light is that one of the other letters in the file is from 1823, written by a Robert Gallagher of Malin to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, seeking £72 from the Ballast Board. This sum he had given to Robert Irvine in July 1813 on being shown Biggar's promissary note and being assured by Irvine that the Ballast Board was good for it.
The Lord Lieutenant's secretary sent it to the Ballast Board. The Secretary at the time, John Cossart, wrote to Bigger and Bigger replied with the four letters from Irvine, plus a covering letter explaining the situation.
The transactions between himself and Irvine had been outside the Ballast Board remit and were purely personal, he said. In July 1813, Irvine said he was going to Coleraine and never returned. Bigger had also received a letter from a gentleman in Cavendish Row seeking recompense for lending Irvine money. Bigger had replied to him that his transactions with Irvine were complete and he needed to take it up with Irvine, who had never been seen or heard of again.
All in all, its a fascinating set of letters full of little nuggets of information. The journey from Dublin up to Donegal is wonderful for its detail. You had to hire a coach and a coachman and hired guards. Sounds like the Wild Wild West. The fact that Irvine sails into Dublin - "a complete stranger" Bigger calls him - and gets the job just like that is quite astonishing. The private transaction between the keeper and the secretary of the Ballast Board would never be countenanced nowadays.
Irvine may not have set out to be a rogue but there is little doubt he wormed money out of Robert Gallagher and at least one other man on false pretences. I can picture him sitting up above on Inishtrahull thinking, "You know what? I could probably buy half the Inner Hebrides with the money I'm sitting on."
I just hope he got home and lived his life out in luxury and didn't get murdered for his money and his body thrown into the sea.
One of the old "duelling" houses at Inishtrahull (photo John McCarron)
Stop Press - The legend that is Frank Pelly got in touch to inform me that a keeper called Michael Heffernan received his quarterly pay at Inishtrahull on April 1st 1813, preceding the 'first keeper,' Robert Irvine by nearly two weeks. The light was first exhibited on 17th March 1813, a week before Bigger's call for a keeper. Evidently Michael Heffernan was the assistant keeper, possibly one of the workers on the construction site.