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)


  1. Fabulous story Pete, the family images really enrich it ....well done on the research

    1. Thanks Andrew, yes, lucky to get the photos. A very reticent man apparently!

  2. Great article Peter. Thanks

  3. A lovely story , unsung heroes . Great photos too

    1. Unsung heroes is right, John. I wouldn't be able for it myself.

  4. My grandfather. Died before I was born - great bit of family history. Thank you 😊

  5. So glad you liked it. Its a way of life gone forever and its difficult to appreciate what they had to do for a living.