Thursday, March 23, 2023

Tarbert Lighthouse (still the Irish one) - Part Two - the keepers


Photo from

Following on from my recent post about the early years of Tarbert lighthouse, on the Shannon estuary, it is time to put some flesh and bones on the cut limestone and detail some of the keepers who watched over this important light from 1834 onwards. The list is far from comprehensive and any additions or corrections would, as usual, be gratefully received.
The first keeper at the station was a man called Richard Fleming, although even here there is a touch of ambiguity. When Robert Steele visited the lighthouse on the night of its establishment, the Dublin Observer reported that "he and the light-keepers (plural) and the boat's crew" partook in drinking a toast. Later on, Mr. Steele is quoted as calling Mr. Fleming "the man entrusted with the charge of the light," which again does not say if he was the sole keeper. The likes of Broadhaven and Little Samphire were one-family lights, with the wife or daughter expected to act as assistant and this may have been the same in Tarbert.
A year later, Mr. Steele was back inspecting the lighthouse and thanked Mr. Fleming for the excellent order that he found in every aspect of the station.
Richard Flemming was still at the lighthouse in 1841 as he had been awarded an extra 'm' in his name for good conduct. This he earned for prosecuting Patrick Hanlon for stealing 4 cwt of lead from the lighthouse. The lead could possibly have been for use in the bridge that was newly erected joining the lighthouse to terra firma.
By 1844, though, he was gone, as a notice in the local paper announced the marriage of Harriet, daughter of Richard Fleming, "the late lightkeeper at Tarbert." At least this reinforces the one-family theory, as Harriet probably had to do her fair share of lighting and extinguishing but it is still ambiguous for it doesn't make clear if Richard was dead or retired. Or indeed, simply late for everything.

View from the Tarbert - Killimer ferry, one of my cloudy-day specials

One Thomas Moore is listed as a Tarbert keeper in the Valuation Records of 1846,  In 1854, an 18 year old Thomas Moore joined the lightkeeping service being an "occasional temporary keeper, being son of a lightkeeper." It is probable that Tom was the son of Tom (the Tom Tom Club?) Tom junior's son, Michael, had a lighthouse-eye view of Roger Casement being landed on the Kerry coast by the Aud, whilst keeping light on Little Samphire.

The lantern room at Tarbert. Screw-in or bayonet? (

We have a large gap then to 1864, when Edward Gregory and family were known to be the lighthouse custodians. They had risen to fame, or possible notoriety, in 1859, when Edward's wife, Anne, was arrested for the murder of temporary keeper John Doyle at Slyne Head. Edward had been sick and Anne was apparently fuming that the Ballast Board had sent a replacement down, when her own son, Jacob, was perfectly capable of doing the job. It was alleged that she poisoned Doyle, whereon he fell into the sea and was drowned. 
Nothing was ever proved however and Anne was eventually released and the Gregorys were shunted off down to Tarbert where, in 1864, Edward was up before the Petty Court for not paying a mason 18/- for work completed and Jacob was done for robbing apples from an orchard.

After the Gregorys had departed, we next find Peter Corish and his young family on the island. The Corishes are one of those lightkeeping dynasties that span the entire era of lightkeeping from the early 1800s to the late 1990s and Peter Corish  was a vital link in that chain. Peter had started out in Drogheda West lighthouse in 1854 and had served at Oyster Island before arriving in Tarbert. In late August1868, his daughter Elizabeth Rose was born here. A few weeks later, his fourteen year old daughter Ellen died and was buried in nearby Kilnaughtin graveyard.

Ellen Corish grave

More tragedy in the offing, I'm afraid, when William Callaghan and his wife Kate came to the island. They had already buried two children on Skellig Michael and had requested a move, as the third one was sick. They had three children at Tarbert, Margaret in 1870, William in 1871 and Michael in 1873. Shortly afterwards, they started on their travels again. In all, they had eleven children - seven died young and only four achieved adulthood, including the three from Tarbert.
A touch of the exotic then came to town, as we welcome our old friend Edouarde Lezarde, aka Eddie Lizard, whom I posted about some weeks ago. Edward was born in France and he came to Ireland when his father was appointed Professor of French here. He was a witness in the 1880 Irish Lights fraud trial case when a shipper and an accountant were accused of falsifying the books and receiving payment for goods not delivered. In the witness box, Edward said that he had been at Tarbert for six years.

Photo Screen Kerry

Another long gap, I'm afraid to the census of 1901, when veteran keeper Thomas Fortune and his family were at Tarbert, having moved there some time in the previous two years from Scattery Island (he had purchased a dog licence on Scattery in 1899.). He had a large family and had been the Principal Keeper in charge of the Calf Rock lighthouse in county Cork in 1881 when the walls came tumbling down. Incredibly, none of the six people in the lighthouse were hurt, though ten days soaking wet and cold on a tiny rock might subsequently have impinged on their euphoria.
Again, we don't know when exactly he left the station to go to Youghal but it would have been 1906 at the latest. He attended a funeral in Tarbert at the end of 1903.

Thomas Fortune with two of his daughters (Copyright estate of Eileen Kates, used by permission.)

Patrick Lynch in "Tarbert - an unfinished biography" lists one John Widdicomb as the lightkeeper here in 1906. Unfortunately, I can't find anybody of that name in the CIL records. There is a Richard Widdicombe all right, a Principal Keeper who married whilst on Rathlin Island and was nearing the end of his career. Tarbert was that kind of station. A relatively easy number after a lifetime of rock stations, bosuns chairs and separation from families.
If indeed Richard was on Tarbert in 1906, then he was succeeded by another county Down Church of Ireland keeper, William Sampson. He rolled up with three sons and two daughters, between the ages of 10 and 20, as appearing on the 1911 Census. His wife was called Anne Simpson, which was quite brilliant and well orchestrated.


More sadness at the end of the decade when Daniel David Twohig died at the lighthouse. A married man with a wife and family, he was 51 years of age when he contracted the so-called Spanish flu on 16th December and died four days later. He was one of 23,000 Irish people to die of influenza in the 12 month period from March 1918 to March 1919 and one of four Irish lightkeepers to succumb.
Around this time, two important changes happened at Tarbert. Firstly on April 1st, the light was made unwatched, meaning there was no need for the keeper to light and dowse it every night. Also, a new depot to maintain, inspect, repair and service all the lighted buoys in the Shannon was established. The keepers now had a dual role.

They put the lighthouse on a stamp in 1997. Did nobody say "You haven't got a better picture than that, have you?"

Robert John Phelan was a keeper at Tarbert for many years. Born on Rathlin Island, son of a lightkeeper, he had married when in his fifties in 1923 and stationed at Poer Head in county Cork. He served at Tarbert during the 1920s and 1930s and died in Tarbert in 1943 aged 76, though he had retired before that.
Brendan McMahon succeeded Robert Phelan. Both his parents (Stephen McMahon and Marion Brennan) were Scattery Islanders and Stephen became a lightkeeper. The youngest of eight children, Brendan was only one month old in 1922 when his mother drowned at Hook Head lighthouse. Stephen managed to keep the other children with him but Brendan was sent back to Scattery.
Thirty years later in 1952, Brendan was the lightkeeper at Tarbert when his father, Stephen, who was retired and living with him, died suddenly of a heart attack.

Photograph ScreenKerry

John James Kelly succeeded Brendan McMahon at Tarbert. He was a third generation keeper, having been born at Blacksod when his father Richard was serving there. He was 75 years old when he retired to nearby Templeglantine in 1967. Sadly, his retirement was not destined to be a long one, as he died the following year.
And finally, arriving in Tarbert in December 1967, was James 'Jim' Lavelle, a fourth generation keeper. His two grandfathers, John Lavelle and Matthew Healy both served in the 1800s and his father, Peter, had been on Eagle Island during the famous storm of 1894.  Matthew Healy's father, John, had also been a lightkeeper.
With his wife Eileen, whom he married in 1933, Jim was widely respected around the community of Tarbert. He he took a keen interest in all things maritime, right up until his death  in November 1996 aged 89 years. (He also owned the Morris Minor in the bottom photograph of the previous Tarbert post!!)

Jim Lavelle

As you will have noticed, there are plenty of gaps in this brief history of the keepers serving at Tarbert. Any help in filling them in, or indeed correcting my brief chronology, or providing additional information, would be very welcome.


  1. Thank you so much for this and previous history about the Tarbert Light. When I first visited "home" in 1984 (my father's family came out of Tarbert in the Famine) coming across the Shannon on the Ferry from Kilimer, the Tarbert Light was the first thing that caught my eye. And, I must say, along with all the good people of Tarbert I still have the good fortune to know, has held it (and my heart) since.