Tuesday, July 25, 2023

Heneghans and Henaghans - Irish lightkeepers Part 1

The 1880 lighthouse at Cape Saunders, New Zealand

For a blog that is almost universally dedicated to Irish lighthouses, it seems somewhat incongruous to start a post with a lighthouse located about as far as one can get from our green and pleasant land without resorting to space travel. But bear with me, all will be revealed in my usual long-winded and meandering manner.
Twice upon a time, in the 1850s, there were two boys born at Tarmon, next to Blacksod at the southern tip of the Mullet peninsula in county Mayo. One was called Patrick, born on the first day of 1853, and the other was called Anthony, born in 1857; their parents were Thomas Heneghan and Mary (nee Needham)
They had other siblings of course but these two are the relevant parties of this story. 
Tarmon was just a few yards down the road from Blacksod and the now famous lighthouse there began construction in late summer 1864. It is not unreasonable to assume that both boys took a great interest in the light, maybe forging a link with lightkeeping that would endure, in one of their families, until the late twentieth century.
But there was not much else in Blacksod at the time. Assisted emigration would be eagerly taken up in the 1880s but Patrick, now aged 23, jumped the boat, so to speak, by travelling to London where, with 409 other emigrants, he sailed aboard the full-rigged sailing ship, the Euterpe, to Wellington, New Zealand. The voyage took 124 days and they arrived at the end of one of the worst winters on record, to a country starting to groan under the weight of the numbers arriving. (Incidentally the Euterpe - rechristened the Star of India in 1906 - is still apparently afloat in San Diego harbour)

Patrick Henaghan

On arrival at Wellington, Patrick was quarantined on Soames Island before being despatched to the Otago district in the south-eastern part of South Island. It is said that, while being documented at Immigration, a mis-spelling on his baptism cert led to the family name in New Zealand being changed from Heneghan to Henaghan. Family legend says that he joined the Hokitika gold rush on the north-western coast of South Island but found nothing. In actual fact, the rush was completely over by the time Patrick arrived, although gold mining still continues there to this day. 
As Plan B to the fame and fortune that he had hoped to garner in Hokitika, Patrick joined the New Zealand Lighthouse Service. It was a relatively new organisation, with the first New Zealand lighthouse only being established in 1858. Having probably helped out in the lighthouse in Blacksod in his day, he certainly had an advantage over other applicants in that he knew what the job entailed. 
If you were an unmarried applicant, you were appointed as a relieving keeper, similar to the SAK in Ireland, being sent off to stations anywhere and everywhere around the country, as the need arose. If you were married, you could be appointed to a permanent position (AK), although the permanency only lasted two years and then you were transferred. That way, everybody got a fair share of the desolate rock stations and the cushy, next-to-the-pub positions.
So, it is fair to assume that Patrick covered a good number of the stations before he married Manchester-born Wellington resident Sarah Anne Kershaw in 1879, after which the lighthouses came in two-year blocks. The couple's first two children, Ellen and Thomas, were born in 1881 and 1882 respectively at Puysegur Point, constructed in 1879 on the extreme south-west point of South Island. It was a wooden tower eventually burned down in 1942 by a deranged gold prospector.

Puysegur Point lighthouse with keepers' houses prior to its destruction in 1942

Such was life at this highly-inaccessible lighthouse that in 1880 the Principal Keeper had written to the authorities that “We often have to work in very bad weather, besides being tormented with thousands of sand flies while working. Therefore I hope, Sir, you will grant us a rise in salary for each of us is doing our best to deserve it!” 
Far from an increase, all government salaries were actually reduced shortly afterwards!
Their two years finally done, the family of four were moved to Cape Saunders, 15 miles east of Dunedin on the south-eastern coast of South Island. (The lighthouse is shown on the top of the page) The cape had been named by Captain Cook as he dished out geographical names in honour of his crew and cronies.
Again, this was a new lighthouse, the wooden tower constructed in 1880, and it was not quite as remote as Puysegur Point but if the family thought their troubles were over, fate intervened and made the stay a particular tragic one.
On 19th March 1883, a group of children - quite possibly the PK's children? - were playing with matches in an outhouse and a fire broke out, engulfing two-year old Ellen, who died shortly afterwards. She was buried inside a small enclosure surrounded by a picket fence near the lighthouse. Roughly three months later, one-year-old Thomas joined her after succumbing to meningitis.
In 2013, the graves and picket fence, which had been in a bad condition, were restored and repainted by the Otago Peninsula Museum and Historical Society.


By December of 1883, the family had been transferred to Dog Island, three miles south of Bluff Harbour on the south coast of South Island

The south of New Zealand's South Island. Bluff is shown at the bottom. Cape Saunders is located near the final letter of Dunedin. Puysegur Point is at the most south-westerly point of the mainland.

Further hardships for Patrick and his wife! The tallest of all New Zealand's lighthouses, it had been built in 1865 and almost immediately developed a slight list which engineers have tried ever since to rectify or at least contain. It is also one of only three NZ lights to be painted with a band, rather than plain white and was the last to be automated in 1989.
When Patrick arrived, it was a three-keeper station and, according to the Maritime New Zealand site, "the original light on Dog Island caused extra tasks and difficulties for the early keepers. Every hour the mechanism had to be wound up. In 1883 the principal keeper died after falling down a 23 meter shaft that ran down the middle of the tower. He fell while adding an extra weight that was used to increase the speed of the revolving light." 
The PK who died was probably James Clark.
In the five years that Patrick and Sarah Ann remained on this otherwise deserted island, three children were born - Ellen, in December 1883, William in 1885 and Florence in 1886. Thankfully all three survived.
From the Otago Nominal Index for 1890, we know that Patrick was, in that year, resident in Hillgrove, suggesting very strongly that he and his family were back on the east coast of South Island at Katiki Point lighthouse aka Moeraki. This was one of the keepers' favourite stations, with its access to shops and schools and a rail link to Christchurch and Dunedin.
I have uncovered little of the family's remaining stations. We do know that he was on Stephens Island in 1898 because he achieved international fame for rediscovering the Tuatara lizard, which had been thought long extinct. First seen on one of Cook's expeditions, the lizard is supposed to be triassic in origin and incubates its eggs for thirteen months. PK Heneghan is credited with rediscovering and protecting them, thus going some way to restoring the conservation reputation of the lightkeeping industry after the previous keeper's cat killed the last few flightless Stephens Island wrens, causing the species to go extinct.

The tuatara lizard

With the three children practically reared, Patrick and Sarah adopted a girl in 1904 called Emily.
Patrick was also listed as Principal Keeper at Godley Head lighthouse in 1907, when he was 54 years old. This station was situated on top of a headland east of Lyttleton and south of Christchurch.

Godley Head lighthouse

Patrick retired from the lighthouse service in 1915 and died in Dunedin, where his son William worked as a dentist, on 12th March 1934, aged 81 years.
But what became of his brother, Anthony, who remained behind at Blacksod, halfway around the world? 
To be continued ...

Sunday, July 23, 2023

Herbert Park, Ballsbridge (lost lighthouse)


Postcard depicting the Helter-Skelter lighthouse at the Irish International Exhibition in Dublin in 1907

I am fortunate enough to remember helter-skelters which were a feature of travelling fairgounds, although, even as a child, I considered them a lot of hard work for a few seconds exhilaration. Basically, they were a glorified slide which spiralled down around a tower, ascended by a metal staircase which gradually filled up as gobshytes forgot to lift their feet when coming down and came to a halt halfway. The Beatles had a song about one, later covered brilliantly by Siouxsie and the Banshees,
My grandad, had he been the sort to have spent his hard-earned tuppence on such frivolities would, apparently, have known them as a 'helter-skelter lighthouse,' so called due to their resemblance to an actual lighthouse. Maybe they had a light shining from the top as evening fell? Anyway, I suspect they served little purpose as aids to maritime navigation, particularly this one, located as it was a long way from the sea. Though I do have a picture in my head of bearded, old, Edwardian lightkeepers shouting out "Wheeeeeeeeeee!!" as they descended from the lantern after a four-hour shift.

The Irish International Exhibition was one of those science and art  extravaganzas designed to promote Irish industry abroad, probably a bit like the Venice Biennial. The plebs, such as myself, were also catered for with various entertainments designed to fill the viewer with a sense of wonder. Aside from the helter-skelter lighthouse, there was an ants and bees exhibition, which I'd certainly have handed over 3d to see and also a genuine Somali village which, I'm sure was recreated without the slightest hint of latent or overt racism in evidence.

The exhibition ran in Herbert Park in Dublin from early May to November 1907 and appears to have caused a fair degree of agitation from the start and not only from the ant and bee enthusiasts. It was condemned at the outset by John Redmond and his Parliamentary Party, according to the Morning Post, the Gaelic League and other national organisations.

Whatever the thoughts of the Nationalists at the outset of the exhibition, on its final night, it seems to have been the pro-British lobbyists (or Rowdies, as they were endearingly called) who took umbrage at the exhibition and ran riot, smashing everything up, including the highly popular lighthouse. I'd imagine the organisers of the exhibition said 'Feck this for a game of soldiers.' This from the Freemans Journal

The only disappointment appears to have been that the Somali villager didn't make a speech on technical education. I'd have loven to have heard that.
So began and ended one of the shortest-lived lighthouses in Irish history. Wikipedia, which is never wrong, tells us the origins of the helter-skelter lighthouse:

The first known appearance of the helter skelter was at Blackpool Pleasure Beach in 1906, which survived for thirty years until 1935. However, the ride's development began around the turn of the 20th century, when a helter skelter was built on Great Yarmouth's new Britannia Pier.

Which may be very true but then again, how would they explain this photo from the Earl's Court Exhibition of 1887?

Monday, July 17, 2023

The Way, the Truth and the Light

Wedding photograph of Elizabeth Healy and Peter Lavelle in Bangor in 1903. The bride's father Matthew Healy is almost recumbent, bottom left. The groom's father, John Lavelle, could well be the gentleman standing on the right. The officiating minister was William Lavelle. (photograph courtesy Trish Lavelle)

Trish Lavelle, down in Cork, recently sent me an incredible document that I have been poring over and checking and re-checking and fitting into the narratives I have for old lighthouses and keepers. It is a transcript of an interview that some very insightful person did with one of her ancestors, 'Granny Lavelle.' It was carried out in the late 1960s or early 1970s and is a general chat about her life and reminiscences.
'Granny Lavelle' was born Elizabeth Healy on Eagle Island in 1882. She was the daughter of lightkeeper Matthew Healy, who himself was the son of keeper John Healy. Her sister, Catherine, married keeper Jeremiah Meehan. Her brother, also called Matthew, became a keeper, as did another son, Patrick. She, herself married Peter Lavelle, another famous name in Irish lightkeeping.
There is so much information contained in the transcripts that I'm nearly tempted to write a book about her! But it is not simply the facts and the memories that are fascinating. One point she picks up on very early in the transcript is the number of children of keepers who entered holy orders.
Of course, it is well-known that in old Ireland, the first son inherited the land and the second son became a priest. Surplus girls - I use the term facetiously - had to be married off or sent to the convent. But Elizabeth Lavelle seems to indicate that this was even more prevalent in lightkeeping families.
In her own family of ten, one of the girls was a reverend mother and another was a nun, teaching in Rathmines. The Phelan family, who used to live in the house she was interviewed in (possibly Tarbert?) contained four girls who became nuns and a boy Stuart, who was ordained in Belgium and was lost in the Battle of Jutland in WW1 while serving as a chaplain.
Her brother-in-law Charles Meehan, had two daughters, both with Oxford degrees who became nuns, and a son, Father Meehan, who spent twelve years in the African missions. One of the Donovans became a priest in Inchicore, Mr. Ahern also gave a son to the church and Mr Roche had four girls who became nuns in Australia ... the list goes on.
While researching keeper Michael Moore (whose daughter died on Little Samphire Island) I discovered that, of his other three children, one became a priest in Australia and the other became a nun in South Africa.

Holy Cross Sister Louis Carmel Moore, daughter of keeper Michael Moore, who died in South Africa in 2012 aged 100

Which kind of led me to thinking - was it something specific to lightkeeping that led to such an influx in the holy orders? Was it a case that, with the remoteness of rock stations, children were less influenced by their peers and more by the spiritual power and beauty of the natural world? I have heard it said that, whereas the Fastnet may not have been most keepers' favourite station, few were left unaffected by it in some strange way. (I know that that no children lived out there but if grizzled old keepers could be affected by it, could not more impressionable adolescents not be moved by their experiences on the Skelligs or Tory or Eagle Island?)
Or was it simply a case that the likelihood of ever meeting an eligible young keeper, or the son or daughter of another keeper were naturally diminished and the priesthood or convent simply seemed one possible path in life?
I don't know. What I do know is that I bless the person who got Granny Lavelle's thoughts down on tape and on paper.

Matthew Healy and his wife Elizabeth (nee Broderick) begetters of lightkeepers, priests and nuns (photograph courtesy Trish Lavelle)

Thursday, July 13, 2023

The death of lightkeeper Thomas Hourigan

Unfortunately I cannot find the names of the people who sent me the photographs on this page due to my sloppy record taking. My apologies to all.

No doubt former Irish lightkeepers will be scratching their heads and trying to recall a former colleague called Hourigan, wondering if their memory is starting to fail. Don't worry. Its doubtful you will have heard of him. Though, of course, that doesn't necessarily mean that your memory isn't failing.
The beautifully castellated lighthouse in the pictures is Spillane's Tower aka the Snuff Box which still shines forth on the approaches to Limerick dock. I wrote about it here a few years ago in case you want to learn a bit about its history. It was built on an area of reclaimed marshland called Corcanree or Corkanree (the Marsh of the King) on the embankment of which the people of Limerick would stroll on fine evenings.

Aside from being the man who lit and dowsed the light at the top of the tower, Thomas was also the 'Caretaker in Corporation Grounds'  - presumably this area of Corcanree - as he describes himself in the 1911 Census. He also kept some cattle on the reclaimed land and described himself as a farmer on his marriage to Mary Lynch in 1885, when he had an address of Dock Road. In 1903, the Limerick Port Authority increased his salary from 16s 8d to 24s per month (or, for young people, €1.20.)
The couple had four children, one of whom, Mary, died aged nine of TB in 1895, when the family were still in Dock Road. In 1901, they lived in Courtbrack; in 1911 in Ashbourne Road; and on Thomas' death cert in 1916, he was back in Dock Road. He died after a five week battle with pneumonia, aged 67 years.

 The Limerick Chronicle of 24th February 1916 described him as "an old and esteemed employee of the Corporation," adding that "for some forty years, he was caretaker of the Corkanree Bank, and also lightkeeper of Spillane's Tower." The latter is slightly ambiguous for, though the Corkanree Bank and Spillane's Tower were established in the 1870s, the light on the tower was first lit in 1885, so he only tended the light for a mere 31 years maximum. "Active and courteous in the discharge of his duties, he was very popular with the public," the paper continued, but the real eulogy was left to a correspondent named Amicus, who penned a beautiful poem that would have torn at my heart strings, if I had any.

As per the poem, Thomas lies in the family grave in the Mungret Abbey graveyards, with his parents and brothers. The lettering is still decipherable.

Erected By
In Memory Of Her Beloved Husband
Who Died 7
TH Of SepT 1886
Aged 82 Years
Also His To Sons
Died 26
TH April 1923 Aged 75 Years
Died 24 Jan. 1926 Aged 90 Years
THOMAS HOURIGAN Died 16. Feb. 1916
HANORA KELLY Died 5. June 1929
May They Rest Peace Amen

AGNES HOURIGAN Died 3 Aug 1969

Thursday, July 6, 2023

Exciting news from South West Donegal

Le phare de l'île pourri, as a bad French student might say

I have photographed, in my time, almost all the lighthouses in Ireland, some from a nearer vantage point than others.
When it comes to actually ascending the tower and getting in the lantern room, however, the total is much smaller. Off the top of my head, I can count Hook Head, Ballycotton, Old Head of Kinsale, Galley Head, Valentia, Blacksod, Fanad, Rathlin East, Rathlin West and Donaghadee, a small total that does little credit to my claims of being a lighthouse enthusiast.
Of course, there are not many more that are open to the public - St. Johns Point, county Down; Loop Head; Wicklow Old High light (annually); Clare Island. Tarbert has had open days in the past and may do so again. I think Little Samphire Island is either open or is opening. But you get the point. The opportunities are limited.
So it is fantastic news that Killybegs Sea Safari in south-west Donegal have announced two new tours departing Killybegs. One is a sea journey to Rotten Island with a guided tour of the lighthouse; and the other is a sea journey to St. John's Point, Donegal, again with a guided tour of the lighthouse. As such, they have been partnered by the Great Lighthouses of Ireland initiative and give visitors and locals to that beautiful part of the world the opportunities to get up close and personal with two iconic lights each over 175 years old.
It seems that you can do the two lighthouses consecutively on the same day, though any non-lighthouse nuts in your party may claim overkill. Of course, you can get a 'free' tour of St John's Point simply by staying there!
You'd think I'd be delira and excira by this development and truly, I am. But I only heard about it on Monday, two days after coming home from a fortnight in south-west Donegal.

Le phare du point de St. Jean

Sunday, July 2, 2023

In advance of the bi-centenary of Haulbowline lighthouse

Carlingford Lough aka Haulbowline lighthouse. I believe the Paddle Steamer is the Waverley

This post first appeared in the wonderful Afloat magazine last year regarding the approaching bi-centenary of the Carlingford Lough lighthouse next year. It was written by fellow ALK member, sea swimmer and goatherd (the "fellow" bit only applies to the ALK) Lee Maginnis, whom I met in Belfast last year, and I am delighted to reproduce it here as he is also a much better writer than what I am.

Lee Maginnis notes the 200th anniversary of the great granite Haulbowline Lighthouse on the County Louth coast will be in 2024

Haulbowline Lighthouse, that feat of granite engineering sitting on a wave-washed rock in the mouth of Carlingford Lough. Northern Ireland on one side, the Republic of Ireland on the other. Not that the nesting Cormorants on the window ledges know or care.
There was another lighthouse on Cranfield Point; it became a victim of the erosion going on a lot longer than many care to admit. But the old light had already been replaced by the time it fell into the sea.

It had been in the wrong place. Invisible to ships in the West and not marking the dangerous rocks at the mouth of the lough. George Haplin designed and built Haulbowline in 1824.
That makes the remarkable Haulbowline nearly 200 years old. Remarkable. Sitting out there on a rock that can rarely be seen. Battered by the waves. Strong currents racing past the base.
The tower was white until 1946. Now it is back to its natural stone.

Many other features have long gone. It seems a pity to many that they were not retained. The metal ball hoisted and lowered to indicate the tide level. The half-tide lantern displayed on the seaward side, halfway up. The red turning light. Explosive fog signals...
On 17 March 1965, Haulbowline had the dubious honour of becoming the first Irish major offshore light to be fully automated and remotely monitored and controlled from shore. The dataphonic system installed sent pre-recorded voice messages ashore by telephone about the status of the light and equipment. This was the beginning of the end of the lighthouse keeper.
The fog signal sounded, and the light flashed if visibility was poor, day or night, back then.
The light still flashes three times every ten seconds. Still from a height of 32 metres in a tower 34 metres tall. But it is an LED now, range down to 10 nautical miles.
The fog signal is gone. It is missed by many.
Generators are no longer heard humming; now, a solar panel charges the batteries that provide power during the night.
Thankfully Haulbowline is still there and is listed. It is active. A monument to the past, but still capable of stirring up a strong sense of adventure and mystery today as it guides ships and guards the mouth of Carlingford Lough.