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 ...


  1. Amazing research Pete, can't wait for the 2nd installment

    1. Thanks Andrew. My first foray into New Zealand lighthouses!