Tuesday, August 29, 2023

Ballynagard Light, co. Derry


Ballynagard light, on the west bank of the River Foyle

It has been a while since I posted about a River Foyle or Foyle estuary lighthouse, which is a shame because this little-known stretch of coastline (in lighthouse terms) deserves much more exposure for the glittering array of lighthouses, pile lights and light-vessels that helped ships navigate their way between the port of Derry and the open sea.
The river flows through Derry, where it widens out, before narrowing again and snaking up to Culmore. Just past Culmore, the river turns into an estuary and on the west bank you enter the Republic from the North at Muff, which gives me the opportunity to show this wonderful photo of the highly-fortified customs post at Muff in the early days of our nation.

Derry of the Past Facebook page, shared by Michael Burns

The Londonderry Harbour Commissioners started to light the Foyle in the late 1840s. The lighthouse at Ballynagard was not one of the first wave of navigational lights but the Historic Buildings people give it an establishment date of between 1860 and 1879. It does not appear on the 1864 Ballast Board report into harbour lights, so that narrows it down further.
It is located 1500m upriver from the Culmore light and does not appear to be very accessible from landward. It is best seen from the river anyway, though my photographs are all from the opposite bank.

Culmore and Culkeeragh lighthouses at the river/estuary meet (top right), Ballynagard bottom left

The accepted colouring scheme at the time was red for lights and buoys on the starboard side coming into port and black for the port-side. A 1917 nautical guide says that Ballynagard was white, with a red base, so presumably it was the same as the present light in the top picture, but with a red base. (The colour scheme in Ireland changed from black and red to red and green in the 1940s)

The same 1917 guide says the light was white and fixed, which tallies with the 1907 O.S. map. The 1957 map says it was white and flashing. Today it is still operational and flashes once every three seconds.
The lack of anything near the light tends to give the impression that it is quite small but Russ Rowlett in the Lighthouse Directory says it is a 20 foot concrete tower, which is quite substantial.
I could only find three keepers of this light. The first was a man named James Magee (aka McGee) who, in 1892, gave evidence in the terrible Albatross / Mayflower collision on the Foyle the previous year. Eighteen people aboard the latter vessel died. James, described as 'an old seaman,' gave evidence as to whether the vessels were adequately lit that fateful night.
Neither the 1901 nor the 1911 census lists a light-keeper at Ballynagard, though it is evident that James Hughes (described as an agricultural labourer) kept the light at that time. On the birth cert of his son, David, he is noted as being a lightkeeper.

The Belfast Newsletter of 9th February 1914 reported that a Rural Council meeting was told that the house behind the lighthouse, wherein the keeper and his family lived, was in a very poor condition. The sanitary sub-officer (the officer in charge of sanitary subs?) said the doctor had called the condition of the house 'dangerous to health.' The matter had been reported to the Harbour Board five months previously but nothing had been done. One member - obviously a devout Christian - said that pursuing the matter might incite others to stop keeping their houses in good repair, doubtless unaware of the Harbour Board's reputation (at the time!) of paying very little to its keepers.

The son born in 1909, David Hughes, eventually took over from his father as the lightkeeper. By that time, James had been combining the Ballynagard job with minding the Boom Hall light further upriver and David continued this double-jobbing. In 1920, James found a body in the river and, with his son in the boat, towed it down to Boom Hall. David had been unaware of the body and when he queried the noise of the deceased person's head banging against the rear of the boat, he was told that it was an old tree stump that his father had collected for the fire.

David Hughes in 1993

The lamps were originally lit by oil, then acetylene, then electricity (through a window at the top of the light) and nowadays by solar panels on the roof. There was a door at the back where the keeper gained access and then had to climb up inside to do the lighting. The oil lamps had a leak and the family used to collect the spilt oil for use in the house on the river bank. (I wonder if that's the origin of the phrase 'Take your oil,' that Derry fans always use when coming to play Shels at Tolka Park?)
David Hughes and his family remained in the tiny cottage until automation in the late sixties. When they moved out, they didn't know themselves, suddenly discovering the wonders of electricity and a bathroom, amongst other mod cons. The house fell into disrepair and now only a portion of the chimney remains.

The lighthouse and tied cottage as it was in its heyday. Note the green base on the lighthouse.

The big pile on the hill is Thorn Hill

Thursday, August 24, 2023

Shameless bid to get more likes on Facebook .....

I suppose you can say that this is the way the world is these days. Social media is the be-all and end-all. Somebody writes a really interesting poem and posts it on Facebook and gets three 'likes.' Somebody else posts up a picture of last night's spaghetti bolognese and whoa! twenty thousand little love hearts. You've written a book or a song and the thing any potential publisher wants to know is 'how many likes'? So here is my bid for a record blogpost, featuring lots of cute and cuddly animals (ahhh, lookit!) 
(Actually, I simply spotted a theme among my photographs and wondered how many 'lighthouses + animals' snaps I could come up with.)
The photo above is Lee Maginnis' dog, Cane, at Donaghadee.

Don't know if this is a horse or a pony but its at the old Cape Clear lighthouse

A goat at the Muglins. Not sure why I'm telling you what the animal is. 

Galley Head. Yup, it's a cow.

Pretty sure this is old Inishtrahull. Also with a cow. But not the same cow as at Galley Head. Different personalities.

Sheep things at Sheep's Head lighthouse. Maybe I could sell this idea to John Hinde for a 2024 Calendar? Aberdeen Angus at Angus Rock? Rats at Rathlin West? Oysters at Oyster Island? A bear at Bere Island? Bull Rock? Calf Rock? Wolf Rock? Chicken Rock?


Cane again, in Champion the Wonderdog pose at St. John's Point, county Down. 

Sunday, August 20, 2023

Sampson and the Leap of Faith


This weekend, I was booked in to go to Cross Island, one of the Copeland Islands. It's the island that had the lighthouses before Mew Island light was established in 1884 and is now run by the RSPCB and I was doing a 48 hour stint there. Unfortunately, someone called Betty kicked up a storm, and the boat was cancelled.
So, with a couple of days free, I used one of them to head down to the Shannon Estuary and took a tour of the lighthouse at Loop Head. And there I came across an interesting tale about which I'd never heard.
Loop Head is a corruption of Leap Head. There are a lot of Leaps in Ireland from Priests Leap on the Cork / Kerry border to Leixlip in co. Kildare. And of course Leap itself, also in Cork. They all have legends associated with them, all of which are highly improbable.
If you've ever been to Loop Head, you'll have obviously noticed the long, skinny rock lying parallel to the coast at the very end of the Head itself, home in spring to thousands of seabirds. Its like a sea stack, only much longer. The legend here is that Chu Chulainn was trying to escape the advances of an old hag called Mal (short for Malcolm?) who had chased him amorously around the country. Arriving at this headland, our hero made the incredible leap onto the rock. Mal followed. Chu Chulainn leapt back. Mal leapt back too but didn't make it and fell to her death into the foaming ocean below. Where her head washed up was called Hag's Head and where her body was washed up was called Mal-bay, as in Miltown Malbay. (The story is also told with Dermot and Grainne as the two protagonists)

Now, believe that or not, there is an information poster in the lighthouse reading room that says that "In July 1893, a woman called Mrs. Griffin was the second person ever to make the crossing to "Sampson's Island," as it was called then, across Lovers Leap on the newly built contraption by Lighthouse keeper, Mr. Sampson."
The board was accompanied by a photograph of said contraption which, to me, looks suspiciously like a half a bridge. Maybe you took a long run and then leapt from the end of the bridge? Fair play to Mrs. Griffin, if that was the case.
Of course, I had to find out more and, back home, found a couple of sources online, predominately the Loop Head Peninsula Facebook page and a wonderful blog by an Aussie in Clare called Singersong. And the Lawrence photographic collection in the National Library

The photograph above in the library catalogue, actually names some of the people in the photograph

To the left, there are Elizabeth Sampson, daughter Alice, Mrs Simpson and Miss Simpson. By a wonderful piece of name management, William Sampson, lightkeeper, had married Elizabeth Simpson in 1885. Presumably then, the two Simpsons are Elizabeth's mother and sister.

There are actually two photographs in the Lawrence collection, taken relatively close in time. Two of the men in the two photographs are definitely the same. The one nearest the contraption is William Sampson, lightkeeper and contraption builder. The bearded man looks like he is one of the camera crew, possibly even Robert French himself. The third man is in profile in one photograph and in portrait in the other. He may be the same man - I can't tell. Possibly William or Elizabeth's father.

There is a sign on the rock. As far as I can tell it reads "Sampson Island / Landed" and then a date. The inference is that the first landing on the rock was not long after happening.

So who were the Sampsons? Well, William Parnell Sampson had been born in county Down around 1858, the son of a Royal Navy carpenter. The reason for the unusual middle name is uncertain, as the Uncrowned King of Ireland, Charles Stewart Parnell, would have only been twelve years old at the time. There is evidence that William joined the army as a young man but by 1885, when he married Elizabeth Simpson, he was a lightkeeper at the Queenstown (Cobh) pile light in Cork harbour. Elizabeth's father, John, possibly in the photographs above, was an army pensioner.
Due to the paucity of Irish Lights records in the 1800s, the best way of detailing William's career is through the births of his children. (This works with an unusual surname like Sampson but not with say, Ryan or Byrne) Thus we know that he was on the Fastnet when son William was born in 1887; he was on the Bull Rock when Alice (the girl in the photo) and Emily were born in 1889 and 1890 respectively; at Loop Head when Hugh (1891), Ada (1893) and John (1894) were born. The family were also in Blacksod (1897-1900); back on the Spit Bank in Queenstown for the 1901 census; and in Tarbert for the 1911 census. William later retired to Larne, where he died in 1936, aged about 77.
But what of Mrs. Griffin? Who was she and did she really do a death-defying long jump over the gap? Well, to answer the second question first, no, not quite. We are fortunate though to have a remarkable painting of the actual crossing:

It appears as though Mrs. Griffin grasped a hold of a trapeze, rather like standing up on a swing, and then the hoist swung around and landed her on the far side of the chasm. Not quite so death-defying as a leap of faith, but I wouldn't be over-eager to chance it meself, particularly in front of a large audience. I later found out that two of the steel bolts that affixed the contraption to the side of the cliff are still visible, as per the photo below on the Singersong blog As she rightly says, for God's sake, take care, if you visit and are trying to find them. One small slip and you end up like poor old Mal.

Amy Griffin (she was born Amelia Griffin) was quite a remarkable lady. Born in Ennis around 1856, she spent her childhood between Dublin and Kilbaha (the last village before Loop Head). She was an avid diarist and later was well-known in the locality as a poet and a painter. She married Dr. John Griffin (yes, same surname), a widower of Kilkee, in 1883. (I had originally written Kilkeel, which was questioned very nicely. My bad!) She was roughly 27. He was 74. She was widowed three years later.
A political animal, gender reforms meant she was one of twelve Kilkee Town Commissioners elected in 1901. But she is best remembered as a poet and two of her poems commemorating West Clare tragedies are transcribed on a memorial at Kilbaha. The Five Pilots Poem details an 1873 disaster when five Kilbaha men were drowned trying to board a brig entering the Shannon; and The Grave of the Yellow Men concerns the washing up on the shore of eleven yellow-skinned bodies whose origins are to this day still a mystery. She died in Kilkee in 1910 aged 53.
As Amy was a painter, and the name of the painter of the scene is unknown, might it not be possible that Amy herself painted the picture?
Finally a couple of contemporary newspaper clippings of the time. The 'well-known inhabitant' is of course Billy Sampson, who may have asked for the Times to omit his name in case the bigwigs in Irish Lights decided to transfer him to somewhere like Blacksod. It also dates the building of the contraption to 1893. There had been a bit of surmising about this on the Facebook page.

The Lighthouse Inn, Kilbaha in 2006 (now the Loop Head Lodge)

The Grave of the Yellow Men

None knew from whither those drowned men came,
Swept in by the foaming tide.
So a grave was dug without a name,
Where they slumber side by side.

Their deeds are not spoken above the clay,
They perished we know not when.
Only a green mound marks today,
The Grave of the Yellow Men.

Even the wild wind sings their dirge,
While the sea birds in echo cry.
And eternally wet by the briny surge,
Is the spot where the strangers lie.

Benefiting for those whose lives are dark,
And whose death was full of pain,
But never recording stone doth mark,
The Grave of the Yellow Men.

Fond wives may have wept through the dreary night,
For the husbands they loved so well,
And at first faint dawn of welcome light,
Arisen, their beads to tell.

To hear the babes as the brightly wake,
Has father come home again?
Oh, hearts may have longed they might only break,
On the Grave of the Yellow Men.

We know they died on the raging deep,
But they lived we know not how.
Well their secret those slumberers keep,
None will ever tell it now.

But we know that the name of each lost one there,
Has been graved by his Maker’s pen.
Nor will He at last have forgotten where
To seek for The Yellow Men.

Friday, August 11, 2023

The Tuskar Rock lighthouse, Ashfield Cross

The Tuskar on its rock

According to this week's Indo. a replica of  the Tuskar Rock lighthouse is to be erected in the middle of the Ashfield Cross Roundabout by the year’s end. The brainchild of the Rosslare Municipal District (RMD), efforts to signpost what is the first roundabout visitors to the country encounter when they depart from Rosslare Europort have been ongoing since 2019.
Concerned at the boringness of the road leading out of Rosslare Europort, the RMD has sanctioned and planned the installation of the replica lighthouse roughly three miles from the port. As such, they are taking a leaf out of Arklow's book - further up the coast in the best county in Ireland - who, four years ago installed the lantern of the Automatic Lightfloat Skua on one of the motorway slip roads to the town.

The Skua lantern off Junction 20 (Arkla) on the M11

Now, bearing in mind that Rosslare say the lighthouse will be a replica rather than a miniature, I am assuming that the installation will feature a 34 meter high tower, complete with keepers' accommodation, foghorn, gas-making plant and assorted huts and outhouses. I also assume that the light pattern will be 10s(G) 180s (R) as most of our traffic lights appear to be. Being visible at 24 miles should give approaching vehicles plenty of time for motorists to judge the changeover to perfection.
Naturally enough, it will need at least one keeper to mind it and I would like to formally apply for the position now. Like the girl in the Ponytails song, I was born too late for Irish Lights to notice me, but this could be my big reprieve. I am completely antisocial and enjoy my own company and, as my wife will tell you, my gas-making talents know no bounds. I also spend a lot of time making bottles and putting them into ships much to the bewilderment of my grandchildren.

Coming soon, to as roundabout near you

I really think that the authorities might have hit upon something here. Seeing as Irish Lights are allowing many of our lights and dwellings to go to rack and ruin, why not recreate them on land, where they can be seen and enjoyed by a motoring population joyously inching into work? At least the keeper wouldn't get marooned at Christmas, unable to cross the road due to crap weather. And I'm sure the happy motorist would be willing to fork out a few pence per ton for the upkeep of the light, the way that ships pay light dues ...

Four-year-old artist's impression of what the new roundabout will look like

Friday, August 4, 2023

Oyster Island Lighthouse - when it was two

L'Île d'huile, I suppose they might call it in France. I don't really need an excuse to post a picture of Oyster Island. The white wall makes it look like its standing in a saucer.

A couple of newspaper reports from the relatively early years of the lighthouses on Oyster Island. Yes, once upon a time there were two lights, which formed leading lights to guide ships up the channel between Oyster Island and Rosses Point on the approach to Sligo. Established in 1837, they were knocked when the channel moved in the 1890s, to be replaced by the lighthouse above. 

Griffiths Valuation map showing the positions of the North and South lights on Oyster Island, as well as the unlit Metal Man

I'm having little success in finding Mr. Kelly's first name. A Richard Kelly had been AK on Inis Mor (Aran Islands) in 1921. Could have been him, I suppose. A James Kelly was on Tory and Poolbeg in the 1830s. John Kelly was on the Skelligs for many years from 1838 to at least 1856 so it couldn't have been him. Another John Kelly who got married in 1867 records his father, William, as being (or having had been) a lightkeeper.
At least I have a little more success in pinpointing our next keeper.

John Arthur Murray had been born in Atticonaun (various spellings) a couple of miles east of Belmullet in 1843, give or take. Son of a farmer, Felix Murray, he somehow managed to get into the lighthouse service in 1861. His gun accident doesn't seem to have hampered him greatly for he married Kate Ward the following year while still stationed at Oyster Island. Their first child Bridget was born there at the end of 1869 after which they transferred to Eagle Island, Rathlin Island and Rathlin O'Beirne Island. Quite the islander.
After travelling the country, John retired back to Atticonaun, where the two censuses list him as a farmer. His death certificate in 1930 lists him as an 89-year-old ex-light keeper.

Rare photograph from Robert French in the National Library showing the two lighthouses on Oyster Island

Some lightkeepers stationed on Oyster Island when there were two lights include (dates show when we know they were on the island. They could have been there longer):

Kelly (1850)
Peter Corish (1857-61)
Charles Page (1862 -65)
Charles Dillon (1863)
Henry Stocker (1866 - 69)
John Murray (1867-69)
William George Kennedy (1869-71)
John Walshe (1871)
John Kennedy (1876-80)
John Young (1881-83)
William Corish (1883-85)
Edward Rohu (1883)
Joseph Hill (1883)
Thomas Sweeney (1884)
James Friel (1890)
John Connell (1890)
Hugh Cunningham (1890)