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)

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