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


  1. My husband and his family lived in the house belonging to Ballynagard lighthouse.. David Hughes was his father and my husband Winston was one of 9 children who lived in there. They moved to the " new" house in the Woodlands in 1965 but continued to use the gardens of the house. I have a lovely picture of the lighthouse and the house hanging proudly in my house. There was no electricity or water so they had to make their own entertainment. Linda Hughes

    1. Hi Linda. There were nine children and two parents in that house? That's quite incredible. Must have been a hard life but, if you knew nothing else, I suppose it was just the norm. Pete Goulding