Friday, September 29, 2023

The story of Denis McCallig - a fish out of water?

The LV Seagull when she was on the Coningbeg Station in 1908

On the 10th April 1930, Denis McCallig of Dunkineely joined Irish Lights to work upon the lightships. He was a week shy of his 27th birthday and was one of the sons of William McCallig, a farmer cum fisherman and Mary Anne McBrearty of Ballysaggart, halfway down the sliver of a peninsula that runs down to St. John's Point. Like lighthouse keepers, lightshipmen had their own service numbers. Denis was 108.
Life on any of the ten light vessels on the south and east coasts of Ireland was tough. The vessels had no engine and had to be towed into position by one of the Irish Lights tenders when required. They were kept in position by an incredibly long chain and anchor and thus, when things went wrong, as with the Daunt lightship outside Cork harbour in 1896, they were completely at the mercy of the elements with no way of manouvering the boat to ride the waves. As such, the crew were on the receiving end of a buffeting more than others though they were sometimes regarded by ocean-going mariners as 'not real sailors,' doubtless by men who had never experienced the conditions for themselves.

Denis McCallig in 1935 (photo courtesy Rita O'Driscoll)

In 1930, the ten light vessels, located over sandy ground where lighthouses could not be constructed were, in alphabetical order, Arklow, Barrels, Blackwater, Codling, Coningbeg, Daunt, Kish, Lucifer, Skulmartin and South Rock. The latter two, off the county Down coast, were in Northern Ireland, though the lightships, like the lighthouses, all came under the jurisdiction of Irish Lights.
There is an interesting list in the Irish Lights archive showing the home towns of all 139 lightkeepers on the books in 1930, the year that Denis McCallig joined:

Antrim (3) - Larne (3)
Clare (5) - Carrigaholt (2), Scattery Island (2) and Kilrush
Cork (3) - Crosshaven, Kinsale and Cobh
Donegal (1) - Dunkineely
Down (17) - Portaferry (11), Belfast (2) and one each from Millisle, Ballywalter, Newtownards and Portavogie
Dublin (19) - Kingstown (9), Rush (4), Dublin City (2) and one each from Blackrock, Dalkey, Monkstown and Skerries
Louth (2) - Clogherhead and Drogheda
Wexford (78) - Wexford town (63), Kilmore Quay (9) and one each from Bridgetown, Carrickbyrne, Courtown, Duncormick, Enniscorthy and Killurin.
Wicklow (11) - Wicklow (8) and Arklow (3)

The figures clearly demonstrate the existence of a Wexford mafia on the lightships, though of course half of the vessels were situated off the treacherous coast of that county. And sixteen of the nineteen county Downers served on the the two county Down lightships.
Denis joined the crew of the LV Shamrock on the South Rock station, which was by far the more cosmoplitan of the two county Down vessels. On the vessel were six from county Down, three from Wexford and one from Louth. In contrast, on the LV Seagull at Skulmartin, there were ten from county Down and one from Antrim.
Even allowing for the toughness of Donegal fishing families, it can't have always been a bed of roses for Denis being the odd man out - the soft-spoken Dunkineely man amongst a crew who had probably known each other for years. Of course, the more time under his belt, the more integrated he would become.
After five years on South Rock (four on the Shamrock and one on the Seagull), Denis then joined Skulmartin, spending at least five years on the Seagull. (The Shamrock was withdrawn in 1936 and sold for scrap after being in service since 1867)  The Seagull was a newer boat (1901)
By this time, the whole dynamic of crew composition seems to have changed. He was still the only Donegal man, but his companions comprised four from county Down, three from Wexford and one each from Antrim, Louth and Dublin. At least there were now a few fishes out of water.

The LV Shamrock when she was stationed at North Arklow c 1908

A year after transferring to Skulmartin, Denis married Margaret Veronica Gallagher of Bruckless at Killybegs. In June 1937, J.J. Byrne (Service number 81) joined the station from the Kish as Mate, later Captain. In 1938, M. Loughrey (150) from Balbriggan joined the crew as AB. Another famous lightkeeping name, Billy Dumigan (50) was Captain in 1941.

J.J. Byrne and M. Loughrey (Beam 31)

In Beam 31, J.J. Byrne's daughter, Una Reddit, told a terrifying story that her father used to tell about the war years when the name of the station was erased from the side of the boat to avoid helping German bombers.
On a dirty night in January 1940, the crew of the lightship watched in horror as a mine slowly approached the ship. In gale force winds, the ship rolled constantly, the lantern practically touching the sea on each side with each wave. At the mercy of the tide, the floating mine came closer and there was nothing the men could do except watch and pray. Indeed the captain led them in five decades of the rosary and the men with rosary beads took them out. All the while, the boat was going down on the port side, down on the starboard side, down on the port side, down on the starboard side, like a metronome. The mine came up right amidships as the boat went down on her port side. The crew knew that when the ship righted itself and came down on her starboard side, that would be the end. The boat righted itself ... and then miraculously went down on its port side again. When it next came back up, the mine had drifted by.

The Skulmartin lightship, probably the late 1940s

It is unknown when Denis retired from the lightships but a local Donegal paper said he was 'on leave' in 1955. He would have been obliged to retire in 1963 at the latest, when he was sixty. In the latter case, he would have retired slightly before the Skulmartin light-vessel itself. In June 1967, the Light Vessel Guillemot on the station was towed away to be replaced by a high focal plane buoy. The famous deep roar of its fog signal was gone forever.
One presumes that, like the lightkeepers, as he worked in British waters, he would also have received a British pension on top of his Irish Lights one.
When Denis died in 1976 aged 73, one newspaper report said he had served for many years on lightships and lighthouses, though I can find no evidence he ever served on a flat and stable surface. There is no doubt at all that working on the lightships was an arduous and thankless job and everybody who served on them, quiet-spoken Denis included, was a true hero.

Denis in 1970 (photo courtesy Rita O'Driscoll)

Monday, September 25, 2023

Little Samphire Island


They say I shot a man named Gray and took his wife to Italy
She inherited a million bucks and when she died it came to me
I can’t help it if I’m lucky

Okay, well I'm not as lucky as Bob and I've had my fair share of rainy day holidays in the past but sometimes the gods nod my way.
Five nights near Banna Strand in September. I knew Little Samphire lighthouse wasn't far away but I'd already seen it from Great Samphire seven years ago, so I'd only really be repeating myself. I made a few enquiries about old photographs or artefacts that might be still in the area and then Mary Browne - who had helped me greatly while I was writing the book - asked "We have a tour on Saturday at 2pm, if you're interested?" Hmm, let me see, I'll check my social calendar...

A nasty little rock in between Great and Little Samphire called the Wheel Rock. The light on it came down in the winter gales of 1946, 1965 and 1967 to name but three!

Mary and Alan Browne run (0852553331 / 0863048650) from Fenit marina. They do Eco-Scenic Tours, Sunrise and Sunset Tours, Sea Angling, Harbour Tours and, of course, lighthouse tours. Due to regulations, a member of Kerry County Council needs to accompany all landings on Little Samphire. John also acts as tour guide to the lighthouse and knows his stuff. They actually run all year round. I think you need four people to guarantee a tour but I was able to piggy-back on another group's tour, so happy days.

You arrive at the small stone pier and use the rusty handrail (which is about one yard short at the top!) to get to ground level. It is evident that Little Samphire, which was first established in 1854 to warn traffic entering Tralee Harbour from Tralee Bay of the nasty rocks around, needs a little TLC. Paint is peeling and wood is splintering, but, outside at least, both the tower and the keeper's two-storey dwelling house are intact. John said the Council are trying to secure funding to stop it deteriorating further.

The lighthouse was automated in 1956 and converted to electricity in 1976. In 2011, Irish Lights handed it over to the Tralee and Fenit Harbour Commissioners who, like a hot potato, quickly offloaded it to Kerry County Council.
Tommy O'Connor, writing in The Kerry Magazine 26, provided a very detailed list of the occupants of the lighthouse from 1854 onwards. And I leave you with a small portion of the thousands of photos I took on the trip.

(I also have a Michael O'Donnell on the station in 1882, the same year that James Williams was there. Perhaps the latter replaced the former. I can also place Robert Phelan there in 1886 and 1887; George Donleavy there from 1894 to 1896; Matthew Healy there 1897 to 1899; and Charles Meehan definitely there in 1900)

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

The 1912 lighthouses of Belfast harbour

Belfast's East Twin Light c.1912 (From the John Kempster album, courtesy Senan Molony)

On the morning of April 2nd, 1912, the ship groaned inwardly and eased out from the fitting-out jetty, as the crowd cheered excitedly.

Gazing at the delirious scenes ashore, Able Seaman Charlie Dumigan’s 45-year-old hands lightly rested on the handrail, and his thoughts strayed back to the Ailsa Craig and the deafening lack of fuss whenever she sailed. There was much to be said for coastal steamers, he thought. Far less hullabaloo and watching your language. At least, they were only delivering this girl to Southampton and then they’d be back home to Portaferry, while she sailed the world for many years.

Escorted by four tugboats, the ship approached a curious wooden structure on the quayside, maybe twenty-five feet tall and bearing a resemblance to a Chinese pagoda. Fortunately for this semi-factual account, Charlie Dumigan was a lighthouse enthusiast and recognised the East Twin Light immediately.

The lighthouse dated back to the first tentative steps of the Belfast Harbour Commissioners in their attempts to transform the swamp that imprisoned Belfast into a manageable and accessible port.  As the first dredgers scooped out centuries of mud and silt, they deposited it in a thin line along the centre of the channel. Soon, this silt became a long Chile-shaped island and a lighthouse was placed at either end. As the buzz around land reclamation intensified, the island grew and soon lost its insular status. ‘This is the spot where they will place the Mew Island Optic a hundred years from now,’ mused Charlie, who was also a bit of a clairvoyant on the side.

Belfast Lough lighthouse featuring on a 1930s tourism poster

Purring along the quayside, the ship passed the two triangular lights on either side of the entrance of the Victoria Channel: one at the end of West Twin Island, the other at the end of the East Twin. Both had been erected when the New Straight Channel had been developed in the 1890s and both showed green lights, though Charlie knew that would doubtless change in the future. The three West lights were on a pole but the East Twin lights were affixed to the house at the end of the peninsula, wherein the keeper John Harrison and his wife Elizabeth resided.

There were three pile lights, about a mile apart, leading out of the port and into Belfast Lough, but these were unwatched and automatic. Each had once had resident keepers when constructed in 1891 but, when two of them were ploughed into (with, incredibly, only two fatalities), the keepers were withdrawn and smaller, light-only structures were erected.

Out in the centre of the lough, the liner passed the outermost pile light called, with great imagination, Belfast Lough lighthouse. Many people called it Mitchell’s lighthouse, after the blind Belfast engineer, Alexander Mitchell, but in fact Mitchell’s original 1844 pile light had been located opposite Holywood before being knocked off its pins by a rampaging Earl of Ulster (the Fleetwood paddle-steamer, not a belligerent member of the aristocracy) in 1889.

Fortunately, for this narration, at this point, our hardened and gnarled old sailor quickly moved to the front of the ship, where he belted out ‘My heart will go on,’ whilst taking in the two relatively new lighthouses at the north and south entrances to the lough itself.

Blackhead county Antrim c.1907. Commissioner of Irish Lights collection in the National Library

On the port side, Blackhead lighthouse, only ten years old, sat up on her perch on the cliff face, staring boyishly at the passing liner. Charlie smiled wistfully as he remembered that his grandson, Billy Dumigan, would one day serve at this light.

Above it loomed the grey bulk of Muldersleigh Hill, where Sir Robert Reading had constructed the first state-sponsored lighthouse in Ulster way back in 1667. Unfortunately, it had only lasted a few years, as Bob was more interested in collecting dues from passing ships than maintaining this (and his five other) lights.

On the starboard side as they left Belfast Lough, Charlie noticed the tall, black tower of Mew Island. “It will look even better when it gets its white band in 1954,” he mused. Mew Island was the outermost of the Copeland Islands. A light, the ruins of which Charlie could just discern, had been established on the middle Copeland Island – coincidentally called Lighthouse Island – in either 1715 or 1735, depending on which book you read. This, like Muldersleigh Hill, had been a coal-burning, cottage-type light, until decent towers were built in 1790 and then 1820. It was only then that people started wondering why ships were still being wrecked on Mew Island and maybe the light was on the wrong island, despite the name. With the lighthouse authority’s characteristic speed of action, the Mew Island lighthouse eventually shone forth sixty-four years, and many wrecks, later.

The black lighthouse at Mew Island. Charlie found it hard to imagine it with a white band.

“Dumigan! Stop pfaffing about and do some work!” yelled a familiar voice. Charlie sighed and hopped to it as the ship began manoeuvres. Later that night, he might spot the elegant white tower at Donaghadee and then tip his cap to the Skulmartin and South Rock lightvessels. He well knew, another grandson – also named Charles – would serve as Master on the South Rock many years hence.

The LV Petrel on the South Rock light station c.1907 Commissioner of Irish Lights collection in the National Gallery

As he set about his work, he idly wondered how many lighthouses the ship would pass after he left her at Southampton. “Not many, actually” his inner voice answered.

Boat passing the East Twin lighthouse 2nd April 1912. One of the figures near the bow may have been Charlie Dumigan. (From the John Kempster album, courtesy Senan Molony)

Thursday, September 14, 2023

The lightkeeper's dwelling on Scattery Island

A few years ago, I came across a video on Youtube of someone who had entered the lightkeeper's cottage on Scattery Island and recorded the dereliction thereof. I was therefore not expecting very much improvement last month when I visited Inis Cathaigh courtesy of Scattery Island Tours. It was actually the day after Storm Betty and my morning trip was cancelled, but they managed to go in the afternoon and a very enjoyable experience it was too.

A short 15 minute walk down a green road lined with blackberry bushes (I should have brought a bucket) and I was at the cottage and the lighthouse beyond. The lady in the tour boat office in Kilrush had asked me not to enter the cottage as it was unsafe, but it seemed all locked up anyway. It seemed in pretty good condition. I shrugged and went on to the lighthouse, which I will cover in another post.

Returning past the cottage, there was a couple sitting in the front garden and the front door was open. We got chatting and I explained my interest in lighthouses and could I have a look around the house? Not a problem, they said. Can I take a few photographs? Not a problem. So I delightedly clicked away like I was photographing Claudia Schiffer for a photo shoot.

A very nice couple, I found out they were called Hamilton and they were doing up the cottage. I immediately assumed they were from one of the two Hamilton lightkeeping dynasties but no, Irene Hamilton's father, Brendan Griffen was a Scattery Islander and her mother had lived in that very house. Irene also was the owner of the Scattery Boat Tours initiative which had brought me over. Her husband - whose name, I am ashamed to say, I cannot for the life of me remember - was a lovely chap and he very kindly showed me around and pointed out all the work already done and the work yet to be completed. The latter far outweighed the former but at least they had made the cottage watertight, so it wouldn't deteriorate any further.

The cottage basically consists of a corridor from the front door, leading down to a kitchen down the book. Off the corridor are two rooms on each side, probably used as bedrooms, though one at the front could have been a front room. Out the back were some outhouses, sheds and the remains of an outside loo. 

As you can see from the photographs, the renovation has only just started and it is certainly a project that will take a long time completing what with the problems of ferrying builders and materials to the island but at least the cottage will be preserved for posterity, unlike many of the current cottages which are slowly being left to nature.

Scattery Island was always a one-keeper station with the wife acting as assistant keeper. The lighthouse and cottage were built in 1872 and Clare County Library has thoughtfully traced some of the families who lived there.

Incidentally, behind the lighthouse is an old battery, now being overrun by brambles. There is also that very rare building, a round tower with a ground-level entrance, a plethora of ancient ruined churches and views to die for. The OPW give free tours of the tower and churches but the rest of the island is small enough to see all of it in the two hours plus you get on the island.

Goodbye, Blackberry Way