Wednesday, June 28, 2023

The James gang


On holidays in Ireland, my wife and I will sometimes ramble around an old cemetery, reading the gravestones, seeing which are the dominant surnames in the area and keeping our eyes out for unusual inscriptions.
Yesterday we visited St. Columba's Church of Ireland in Glencolmcille, an 1828 structure, built on the site of another Protestant place of worship, a good distance away from the main part of today's village and quite near to the old lightkeepers' cottages there. Some of the headstones are very ancient, mere rocks with no markings but there are a number of quite legible slabs dating back to the 1700s and others with interesting hieroglyphics depicting freemason membership! The dominant surname, far and away, is Maxwell, with Blain being a long-distant second.
Located just up the road from the cottages where the off duty lightkeepers from Rathlin O'Beirne lived, I had idly wondered if any old keepers or their wives or offspring were buried there, as many of them had been Protestant. Thus I came across the grave in the photo above of William James and his wife Louise.
As you can see, the headstone contains the Irish Lights corporate logo with "In Salutem Omnium" underneath the picture of the lighthouse and light vessel. Does anybody know if this was an option for former keepers, provided by Irish Lights or would the family have had to fork out for this themselves?

The former keepers' cottages in Glencolmcille

The James family were a well-known lightkeeping dynasty in Ireland. William Henry James was born in Cork in 1841 and his father, also William, was a lightkeeper. In 1868, William Henry James married Eliza Jane Brunell, herself a part of a lightkeeping family. The Brunells aka Brownells originated in county Meath and spawned many a keeper and a keeper's wife down through the years
William Henry James and Eliza had two sons who both became keepers. 
Richard Henry James(Service no 119) was born in 1871 at St. John's Point, Donegal. One of his sons was called William, born 1907. Actually, he was called William Jervis James (Jervis Brownell (5) was an old Brownell keeper) and went through life known as Bill. He had a long career, finishing up on the Skelligs 1956 - 60 before becoming attendant at Donaghadee from 1966 to 1982. Despite the name he is NOT the William James buried in Glencolmcille.
William and Eliza's other lightkeeping son was called George William James(139) born 1875. In 1902, he married Annie Jane Brownell - yes, really - daughter of George H. Brownell(6). Two of their sons - George(329) (1904) and William Frederick (350) (1910) both became keepers.
William (1910) was born at Dursey Sound and is the keeper buried in Glencolmcille. He seems to have developed an affinity for the place. His wife - Louise Maxwell - was from there and they married there in 1941. It appears from the clipping below that William might have adopted his second name, Frederick, to avoid confusion with his cousin.
And, as the photo above shows, they were buried there too.

Friday, June 23, 2023

Rathlin O'Beirne - a few photographs


All photos except the bottom one taken from Malin Beg

The last time I was in South west Donegal was a flying visit to photograph 1) the lighthouse at Rathlin O'Beirne 2) the keepers cottages at Glencolmcille 3) Rotten Island lighthouse and 4) St. John's Point lighthouse, as well as trying to find evidence of a short-lived lighthouse at Bruckless.
Naturally enough, the day I chose for my blitzkrieg was overcast and cloudy and the photos I had travelled so far to get were kind of disappointing, particularly those of Rathlin O'Beirne, half-shrouded in a murky mist.
So, this time, we are actually staying in between Carrick and Kilcar and so, visiting the incredible beach at Malin Beg and the even more incredible cliffs at Sliabh Liag, I was able to get a few snaps of RoB, with a blue sky background.

On the Mullet peninsula in county Mayo, the keepers used the Napoleonic signal tower at Glosh to semaphore Blackrock lighthouse. I wonder if they did the same here?

The lady in the Glencolmcille Folk Park told me that a good photo exists of the three Jones lads rowing out to the island, one of them with a cigarette in his mouth. The contract for the lighthouse supplies was owned by the Jones family from the 1800s right up to the introduction of the helicopter service in the 1960s and one of the family continued as attendant after automation

This one was taken from much further away (the Sliabh Liag viewing platform) hence the haziness

Tuesday, June 13, 2023

The Suzy Solidor* of the Irish Lighthouse scene


The sinking of the Gunboat Wasp off Tory Island, stylised sketch that appeared in the Illustrated London News 4th October 1884. By all accounts, the sea was relatively calm at the time!

When the question is posed - as it is regularly at dinner tables across the country - as to which is the most photographed Irish lighthouse of all time, bitter arguments normally ensue. Fanad and Hook are soon at loggerheads while the Fastnet tries to stand aloof and watch the bedlam unfold. In the meantime, Poolbeg nips out to rob some hubcaps before returning to the fray. In short, there is no definitive answer to the question and all claimants to the throne have merit on their sides.
When it comes to paintings, however, most lighthouses reluctantly admit there is only one real Supermodel on the coastal beacon scene. And the answer is quite surprising as it is a difficult subject to approach without a large volume of retching (well, in my case, anyway) - Tory Island.

"Evening (from Derek Hill's hut)" by Derek Hill 1980

Derek Hill was an Englishman, born in 1916, who was a world-famous portrait and landscape painter in the second half of the twentieth century. He fell in love with Donegal and Tory Island in particular, renting a small disused hut on the island from Irish Lights from the 1950s onwards. The story goes that he heard about Tory from lightkeeper Bill Dunnigan on a train journey and, intrigued, had to see it for himself. The hut - which is still there - had no sanitation and Derek would get water from the lighthouse. He built up a considerable body of work on Tory Island and naturally the lighthouse looms large (as many lighthouses do!)

"Tory Island lighthouse, Donegal" by Derek Hill

"Tory Island Lighthouse" by Derek Hill (whatever about the paintings, the titles could lend themselves to a little more imagination)

Before he died in 2000, he became one of the few men to be bestowed with honorary Irish citizenship.
The story goes that, one time, Derek was painting at his hut, when one of the islanders, looking over his shoulder, declared that he could do better than that. Delighted, Derek offered him paints and brushes, which the interloper refused, preferring to make his own brushes from the hair of a donkey. James Dixon, who was 72 and had rarely left the island, produced his painting, which the flabbergasted Hill managed to sell for him. The Tory School of Art was born.

James Dixon's "Tory Island" The art gallery on the island is named after him

Numbers grew and over the next sixty years the islanders have created a large body of work that forms a pictorial history of the island. Painters like Patsy Dan Rodgers, RuairĂ­ Rodgers,  Anton Meenan and others became highly sought after. It would be both patronising and incorrect to say that the lighthouse features strongly in their paintings due to the lack of other focal points on the tiny 6 kms x 2 kms island as the place is full of history, both natural and man-made and there is a photograph or painting at every turn, such is its wild beauty.
But, the lighthouse is indeed regularly painted, as it tends to stand quite still when asked to do so.

"Tory Island lighthouse at sunset" by Patsy Dan Rodgers

"Tory Island lighthouse" by Anthony Meenan

"Tory Island, county Donegal" by RuairĂ­ Rodgers

Inspired by the Tory Island painters, many other artists have since visited this artistic haven.

Dave West (2022)

Verner Finlay

Hugh Frazer (2022)

Gill Tyson

Not forgetting of course, the wonderful Roger Reilly, whose "Lighthouses of Ireland" featuring his own paintings of our lighthouses is a book I still regularly take down and marvel at.

A video about the Tory Island painters can be found below

Derek Hill's hut on Tory. It apparently housed the old fog signal.

*Suzy Solidor - French singer and actress who apparently sat for nearly 300 artists during her lifetime. She was the Kim Kardashian of her day, which was well before digital cameras and selfies.