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


  1. Superb piece. Hardy men back then!

  2. Must have been some experience sitting in those tubs in a SE gale

  3. They were some men all right! I wouldn't have lasted a day. Pete