Friday, April 28, 2023

The Great Rush of Birds in March 1911

Roseate terns at Rockabill lighthouse. I have no idea if they are migratory. Photograph  Aidan Arnold

On March 29th to 30th 1911, a great rush of birds was observed along the south and east coasts of Ireland from the Old Head of Kinsale up to Balbriggan. It was apparently so noticeable that newspapers commented on it for days afterwards. The excessive numbers appeared for several days afterwards but the night of March 29th / 30th appears to have been the peak.

Ornithologist, Richard Manliffe Barrington, whose work with lightkeepers in the last 20 years of the nineteenth century had done so much to aid our understanding of bird migration, wrote a paper on the event a few months later. Thanks to his lightkeeping connections, he was able to pinpoint the extent of the bird rush and suggest a probable cause. I quote from his paper.

Turning now to the light-stations on the coast, the most northerly from which any special number of birds was reported is BALBRIGGAN

Mr. E. A. Kennedy, light-keeper, at an interview said :-“A rush of Starlings commenced at eleven p.m. on March 29th , and continued until four a.m. the next morning. Fifteen were picked up dead.” This is a small mainland lighthouse at the end of a pier. Mr. Kennedy states that this was the only occasion during his six years residence that any birds were killed.

ROCKABILL: – Mr. Henry T. Murphy, light-keeper when interviewed said “The night of March 29th was dark ; wind E.S.E light, with drizzling rain, and that about 150 birds were killed, chiefly Starlings, one Woodcock and one Manx Shearwater, and a large number of Blackbirds and several Thrushes. Several Water-rail and Curlew were also observed flying about.

On March 31st I received from this station ;- Four Woodcocks, one Snipe, one Meadow-Pipit, two Water-rail, one Dunlin ; all said to have been killed on the night of the 30th. Possibly they struck on the previous night and were not found till the day after. Rockabill lighthouse is four miles from shore.

HOWTH BAILEY LIGHTHOUSE:- No report has yet reached me from the light-keeper, but the Secretary of the Irish Lights Board writes that the fog-siren was choked with dead birds on the night of April 1st.

No account has yet been received from three lightships all situated about ten miles from shore along the Dublin and Wicklow coasts, namely the Kish, the Codlings and North Arklow.

SOUTH ARKLOW:- Ten miles from the north Wexford coast. Mr. J. J. Reilly, light-keeper writes:-“March 20th, Blackbirds, Starling and Thrushes in large numbers about the ship all night ; from eight p.m. on 29th to four a.m. some hundreds striking, forty killed. Wind light, N.E., hazy. March 31st, Blackbirds, Starling, Thrushes in large numbers about ship all night until six a.m. Wind light, N.E., hazy. Birds going N. N.W., 80 killed striking. The ship was covered with Starling and Blackbirds on the morning of the 31st, and on April 1st Starlings in numbers rested on the ship from eight a.m. to four p.m., and then flew N.W.” Leg and wing of Water-rail received.

A “Chaffinch and Goldfinch” also seen. Two Goldfinches (leg and wing of one received) were killed striking on April 2nd and in this connection it….(Sorry! Missing end of page)

South Arklow lightship c. 1906

BLACKWATER BANK Lightship, ten miles from Wexford, send:- One Starling and one Thrush, killed on the 29th, also Water-rail and Wheatear, the former of which died exhausted, and the latter struck the mast.

Patrick Cogley, A.B., said in an interview that he came on the watch at four a.m. on the 30th, and “never saw so many birds at any night for thirteen years, ten to twenty Starlings were found killed, besides what fell overboard. Thrushes and Curlew were about the light, and two Wheatears, a Robin and a few Linnets.”

LUCIFER SHOALS Lightship:- This station has not yet forwarded any specimens, but Patrick Magrath, A.B., who was on board on March 29th, says that the birds began to strike at 9 p.m. Wind light E., hazy. He was on duty till 4 a.m., and birds were coming the whole time. About 60 Starlings were killed, besides those which fell overboard, also two Blackbirds, a Thrush and a few Skylarks.

TUSKAR Lighthouse:- Seven miles from shore. This is a famous lighthouse off the extreme S.E. corner of Co. Wexford. Mr. A. O’Leary, the keeper, writes:_ “There was an enormous lot of Starlings on the night of March 30th ; the rock and balcony were completely covered with them and several hundreds were killed. There was also a lot of Thrushes and Blackbirds.” Mr. O’Leary forwarded a Redwing, Wheatear, 2 Blackbirds, Water-rail, 1 Black Red-start, and a Meadow-Pipit.

BARRELS Lightship:- Turning the corner of the south coast of Wexford, we come to this station, ten miles from the shore, and here, the testimony of Mr. Grant, the light-keeper is most remarkable ; for he states that “no birds were killed during the month of March, and no unusual flights were noticed.” This can only be accounted for by the fact that the sky must have been perfectly clear close to the ship on the night of March 29th.

CONINGBEG Lightship: – This is about fifteen miles west of the “Barrels,” and ten miles from shore. Matthew Murphy, siren man who was on the watch from 8 p.m. and (was interviewed on March 30th) said – that in (missing last line here!! – sorry again). Forwarded was a Water-rail killed striking on March 29th.

HOOK TOWER: – A light at the extreme end of a long narrow promontory extending in a S.W direction at the mouth of Waterford Harbour. Mr. J. Devaney, the assistant keeper, writes, on March 30th. :- “I am forwarding a bird (Water-rail received) which struck the lantern this morning. Thousands of Starlings, Blackbirds, Thrushes and Manx Shearwaters were around the lantern all night and hundreds were killed. It was very dark and gloomy, and wind N.E.”

Hook Lighthouse c.1903

OLD HEAD OF KINSALE:- After Hook Tower there are no south coast lighthouse records until we reach this mainland lighthouse, from which Mr. Martin Kennedy, the light-keeper writes on March 30th, thus :- “I am posting today 6 Robins, 2 skylarks, 2 Wheatears (all received). They were killed at the lantern between 10 and 11.30 p.m. last night. It is most remarkable about the 6 Robins ; I only remember getting one before – at Rockabill. 136 Starlings were found killed or dying, this morning after the night, also 2 Shearwaters.” On April 2nd Mr. Kennedy forwarded a wheatear, Black Redstart, Stonechat, and Meadow Pipit, killed the previous night between 9 p.m. and midnight. He reports that the lantern and balcony were covered with hundreds of Starlings but not one was killed.

Sadly, the names of the keepers does not particularly help the lighthouse historian, as the 1911 census was taken three days later!

It seems that this phenomenon occurred east of the line from Kinsale to Balbriggan with towns such as Waterford, New Ross, Carlow, Kilkenny and Dublin also reporting huge quantities of birds.

Barrington's explanation was that these birds were migrating into Ireland, England and Scotland. It is a well known ornithological axiom that birds, in the Northern Hemisphere, usually breed in the most northerly portion of their range. Immense numbers annually towards the end of March move northwards through Spain and France to their breeding haunts. This year, for weeks previous to the 29th of that month, cold northerly or easterly winds prevailed over France and the British Isles, and birds though desirous to migrate were held back by the weather, and many species which would otherwise have traveled separately, collected in the South of Europe like passengers at a railway station, anxious to proceed upon their journey, but unable to do so owing to a breakdown on the line.

To this cause, I attribute the ‘extraordinary’ number of birds, and as the temperature was much milder on the west coast of France and in Brittany than in central France, they took a more westerly course than usual, unwilling to face the bitter N.E. winds.

Barrington mentions in his article that a similar phenomenon, "The Wonderful Battel of the Birds," was described in the Cork Archaeological Journal as having taking place between 12th and 14th October 1621. Presumably in this case the birds were heading south and the south of Ireland was the railway station where millions of birds were fighting over the last hang sandwich in the buffet, while waiting for the wind to change.

Of course, Barrington may have been wrong. The rush of birds may have been caused by the arrival of two lovebirds in a cage in the Isle of Man....

Sunday, April 23, 2023

An uncomfortable ride on the Barrels lightship

Barrels lightship c.1908. This was the LV Torch, an iron-framed ship, built in 1881, sold and scrapped in 1945

The Barrels lightship was established in 1880 at a point two miles south of Carnsore Point. It gave two red flashes in quick succession every thirty seconds, warning boats to keep to the seaward side of it. Like all Irish light vessels of the time it was painted black and had the words 'BARRELS ROCK' painted in large white letters on her sides. This was subsequently changed to 'BARRELS' in order to minimise painting costs.

Position of Barrels Lightvessel, centre of page, south of Carnsore Point. LV Coningbeg is bottom left of page

Life on board light vessels was no bed of roses  at the best of times unless the roses were the really thorny ones that can lacerate someone's finger just by looking at it. With no power and held in position by a massive chain, the crew had practically no control over the elements in a boat that was built with absolutely no notion of comfort in the plans. Yet many men stayed with the lightships all their lives, suggesting they were completely mad.
Bad and all as life on the ship was, it was nothing to what it was like on the very rare occasion that the chain actually broke. On these occasions, the men were powerless to control their direction of drift and were at the mercy of an ocean powerful enough to break a chain. Such a nightmare scenario occurred on the Barrels lightship in 1905, only nine years since the Daunt Rock light vessel took its eight crew to the bottom of the sea.

From the Skibbereen Eagle March 25th 1905. The cable actually broke on the 15th March and the ship drifted ten miles, passing the Tuskar on the inside, before being becalmed some three miles north of the lighthouse. The tugboat Wexford under Captain Busher arrived and towed the stricken lightship into Ballygeary harbour.

It appears that the lightship had been lifted out of the water and examined the previous September, with the cable examined by the Master of the Tearaght Light Tender and the Master of the lightship itself.
Of the men mentioned in the article, Captain Henry Thomson was a Dublin man and 50 years old at the time. He had previously served on the South Rock and Codling Bank stations before moving to the Barrels in 1895/6. He had moved on to Lucifer Shoals by 1911.
Daniel Wills was a 40 year old lamplighter, originally from county Antrim. He had married a local Kilmore Quay girl in 1895 and they went on to have three sons. He was on the Coningbeg lightship in 1911. He died in 1916, while still working for Irish Lights.
Nicholas Hogan was from the Faythe in Wexford. Despite being an ordinary seaman, he held a Mate's certificate.
Laurence Butler was 25 in 1905. He had been born to Ambrose Butler from Maudlintown and as such he is the of the same stock as Gerry Butler at Galley Head. He married Anne Cullen in 1907 and Laurence Joseph (Gerry's father) was born in The Faythe in 1915.
Other men who served on the Barrels lightship around the turn of the century were Joseph Oxford (1881); Michael Doyle (1882 -85); Charles McCabe (1885 -90); Edward Broad (1890-1); James Beahan (1891 -95); Thomas Luccan (1892 -96); John Doyle (1897); Henry Thomson, Robert White, Michael Power, William Hore, James Rochford, Thomas Whelan, Robert Murphy (all 1901 Census); J.W. Grant, Henry Higginbotham, Denis J. Lawler, Michael Power, James Rochford, William Kehoe, Laurence Butler (all 1911 Census)

Incidentally, Patrick McGrath who seems to have escaped uninjured in the 1905 incident didn't fare so well in a bad storm four years later, as reported in the Wicklow People of the 9th January 1909.

The Barrels Lightvessel c 1905. Whoever had the idea to place a barrel on top of the mast as a daymark deserved the raise they doubtless didn't get. The Barrels lightship was withdrawn from service in 1941, returned to service in 1960 and withdrawn a second and final time in 1970.

Barrels East Cardinal buoy today

Thursday, April 20, 2023

The riddle of John Halsey and Craignascarb


I should point out that I originally posted this article without any caption to the two plans used to illustrate this article. What a klutz. People correctly identified the plans as Rathlin East and assumed they came with the article. They didn't. I took photos of the plans when up in Rathlin lasyt year and there were no illustrations of the original 1858 article

A letter appeared in the Ulsterman of 30th July 1858 purporting to come from a John Halsey of Dublin, recounting an experience he had while a pay clerk with the Ballast Board. The writer said he was an English Protestant who, through his several careers had worked for one of the Irish railways, the coastguard and The Ballast Board and was now retired, and there was not a parcel of wild and untrodden land on and off the Irish coastline that he was not familiar with. He then described a Ballast Board visit to the island of Craignascarb which I reproduce in full, despite its length. (There will be questions afterwards, so pay attention at the back)

Okay, the first question is - where is Craignascarb? The island lighthouses off the Ulster coast were at Rotten Island, Rathlin O'Beirne, Aranmore, Tory, Inishtrahull, Rathlin Island, the Maidens, and Lighthouse Island on the Copelands. Of these, the only ones that fit the timeline - ie exhibited after 1846 - are the two Rathlins, which both shone forth in 1856. And of these two, only Rathlin Island fits the demographic.
I'm presuming all the names have been changed, as there was no island landlord called Edward Dunne. Could it have been Robert Gage, who was one of the very few owner / residents of an island? I have no idea what kind of a landlord he was.
Mr. Wrapper? Really?
Is it possible that the whole story is a fabrication? Three months later, the paper published a letter from one John Halsey, coastguard of Dublin, saying he had not written the letter and demanding a retraction. At least he existed. He married his second wife the following month and lived until 1891.

Sunday, April 16, 2023

David Hare's The Great Lighthouses of Ireland (the book)

The Great Lighthouses of Ireland published by Gill Books

(As a preface to this review of David Hare's book, I believe two points should be made.
Firstly, I am not a professional reviewer. Reviewing other people's work, that has taken months and years of their time, does not sit easy with me. Especially as it takes a mere hour of my life tapping away on a keyboard drinking coffee. I am not really qualified to write a review but seeing as this blog is about lighthouses and this book is a major addition to the library, I feel I should contribute a post about it.
Secondly, if a touch of malice is detected in the review, this is probably down to sheer jealousy. David Hare approached Irish Lights in 2013 and got access all areas to light stations and archives. I approached them in 2020 and again in 2022 and got a firm 'no.' And there appears to be little to suggest this will change any time soon.)

One of the many stunning and unusual photographs from David's book - the dwelling houses on Tearaght

The Great Lighthouses of Ireland is the third and probably the most commercially successful of the Irish lighthouse related books published towards the end of 2022. Like Chris Nicholson's Rock Lighthouses of Britain and Ireland and Dennis Horgan's Ireland's Guiding Lights, it is a chunky, good-looking book, well-presented and packed to the brim with incredible photographs. It is basically the book of the two television series that we all were glued to last year and a couple of years ago. It is a great read and encompasses many different facets of pharology, from the science of the lenses to the architecture of the towers and dwelling houses, from lightships to lightkeepers, detailing the history of many of our great lighthouses. While one might argue that it is difficult to take a bad photograph of a lighthouse in a stunning location, the application of light, exposure and a steady hand makes these photographs truly wonderful and, with the access given to David, the historical photographs add another dimension to the tales.

Plans for the Bull Rock dwelling houses. I had never seen these before. (Note William Douglass's signature bottom right) There is also  a painting with a good depiction of the Upper, disused Skellig Light before it was circumcised and many more pictures that are new to me.

One of the great skills of the book is that it can be read by anyone who has an interest in lighthouses and even by people who don't. It brings many unseen, unheard of lighthouses to the attention of the general public, which can't be a bad thing and it is written in an informative and interesting style that doesn't alienate those of us who wouldn't know a diaphone fog signal if it fell out of a tree and killed a sheep in front of us. And photographs, of which there are many, are very good.
I am a little confused by the title of the book (and the television series.) Is there a link to "The Great Lighthouses of Ireland" tourist initiative, which has earmarked various Irish Lights properties that have tourism potential? If there is a link, I would imagine that the likes of Clare Island, Black Head and St. John's Point Donegal would be fierce miffed that they don't appear in the book, whereas Poolbeg, Kish and the Old Head of Kinsale  - who aren't a part of the initiative - do.
If there is no link, fair enough. The author has therefore selected sixteen or seventeen of the most interesting lighthouses and focussed on them - a subjective judgement, which I can go along with, though not necessarily agree with his choices! But who am I?? It would be churlish of me not to admit that many of the unfeatured lighthouses do indeed crop up in the various chapters about keepers duties, accidents and wrecks and so on.
All in all, it is a great book and I have no problem recommending it. Shop around online as prices vary.

Another fantastic photograph of ILV Granuaile with the East and West Maidens lighthouses, against a backdrop of Kintyre or Jura

Saturday, April 8, 2023

Letter to Granny Part 2 - Tory Island


Tory Island lighthouse (Photograph The State Library of South Australia)

Following on the first post in this series, regarding Fanad lighthouse, this "letter to Granny" in the Weekly Irish Times 24th January 1905 won second prize in the Letter of the Week competition.

The powerful light that Shawn refers to is, I believe, the same optic that went to Mew Island and from there to the waterfront on Belfast's maritime mile.
However, Shawn, for some reason, did not give his real name. Luckily (for us), Granny mentioned that he was really Master Jack Watson aged 11, of Loop Head lighthouse. 
Jack was the son of James Watson (Service number 77) a Corkman born in Castletownbere to a coastguard. He had married in 1889 while living at Weaver's Point just across the Cork Harbour entrance from Roche's Point. James had served on Eeragh on the Aran Islands, the Old Head of Kinsale, Galley Head and Eeragh again. And presumably, Tory and Loop Head.
James' wife (Jane) died in 1915 at the Baily, Howth and James remarried in 1919 while living in Buncrana.

The sting in the tale is that James Watson did not have an 11 year old son called Shawn or Jack or John or James. He did however have an 11 year old son called Gilbert.
Which explains a lot.