Thursday, November 30, 2023

Scattery Island lighthouse


Scattery Island lighthouse

Back in September, I wrote a post about my visit to Scattery Island and the renovation of the keepers' cottage thereon. I also promised to write about the lighthouse itself and then promptly forgot. Being over sixty, I now can blame all inaction on the febrile tendrils of my mind - one of the perks of getting old.
Scattery Island (Inis Cathaigh) was the bailiwick of St. Senan, who, like St Kevin of Glendalough, was one of Ireland's great misogynistic saints. It lies off Kilrush at the mouth of the Shannon estuary and for many years was the headquarters of the river pilot industry on the Shannon. 
Lightkeeper Don Scanlan, himself a Scattery man, wrote in his wonderful book "Memories of an Islander" how the pilots had originally operated from Pilot's Hill in Kilbaha, close to Loop Head, but after a tragedy in which five of them were drowned, they moved to Scattery. Near the summit of the only real hill in the centre of Scattery, they used to light fires at night to guide the ships in and then row out in their gandalows to guide them down to Foynes, Kildysart, Kilrush, Ballylongford, Cappa, Tarbert and, of course, Limerick.

The south-facing view from the island summit where the first fires were lit by the river pilots

The Scattery pilots spawned many a lightkeeper and a lightshipman and the island became a place synonymous with maritime industries, along with the Faythe in Wexford and Moville in Donegal.
If we count the fires on the hill as the first lighthouse, then the second lighthouse was officially sanctioned by the Ballast Board / Irish Lights in 1866. It had a short but unusual existence. Located at the very southern tip of the island, where it commanded a grand view of all boats passing up and down the estuary, it was located in the grounds of the military battery there. (The battery is still there and would be a great addition to tourism on the island, if one could clear the hawthorn and blackberry bushes away from it) The lighthouse, which was begun in 1868, consisted of an iron framework with a lantern room from which the light would shine in all its brilliance. Even more brilliant was the fact that they built on the firing range but unfazed by this minor detail, they built it on rails, so it could be wheeled out of the way when the gallant soldiers wanted to let fly at imaginary enemies. It must have therefore looked something like the lighthouses at the mouth of the Boyne estuary which were also built on rails.
Sadly, a storm sent the whole shebang flying into the Shannon. All that was left apparently was one stanchion which still remains, just south of the present light. Unfortunately, "just south of the present light" is in the centre of a copse of 20 feet high brambles, impenetrable to a Disney prince come to rescue the princess and even more so to this puny specimen of manhood.

Lighthouse from the battery 

Rather than resurrect a failed project, they decided to erect a more conventional lighthouse closer to the cottage. To do this, they built a pier next to the house on the seafront to land building materials. It was certainly better than landing at the regular pier and then carting it to the end of the island. The pier is still visible though nearly obscured by rocks and shingle.

Irish Lights pier

The contract for the keeper's dwelling went to a Mr. Morrisy of Kilrush; while the tower was built by Messrs. D. Crowe and Sons, Dublin. The lighting apparatus, first lit in 1872, went to another Dublin company, Edmundsons. The station cost a miserly £1625 6s 8d.
The light was converted from oil to acetylene in 1933 when the keeper was withdrawn. It was later converted to propane and since 2002 has been solar powered. The light which served for 130 years can now be seen in the small OPW centre on the island.

Scattery Island was repopulated in the 1670s (women were allowed onto it by then!) and reached its highest population in 1881, when 141 people were listed on the census. The last residents departed in 1969.
Scattery Island Tours offer morning and afternoon trips to Scattery during the season from Kilrush marina.

Lighthouse with dwellings, county Kerry behind

Lighthouse, dwelling and battery

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

The darkness before the light


I came across a report recently dated 10th November 1848. It is a report on memorials received by the Admiralty relating to harbours and lighthouses in county Cork; memorials which were received from 1) the Grand Jury of county Cork and from the inhabitants of 2) Kinsale and Bandon; 3) Courtmacsherry and its environs; 4) Clonakilty and its neighbourhood; 5) Inishannon and its surroundings; and 6) the residents of Skibbereen and Schull. The report is the Admiralty's response to the memorials in the person of Captain John Washington.
The map is indicative of the deplorable state of the lighting of the southern half of the country at the time. Reading from top left and working anti-clockwise around the coast, there are coastal lights at Loop Head, the Skelligs, Cape Clear, Kinsale, a small harbour light at Roches Point, Hook Head, the Coningbeg light-vessel, the Tuskar and the Arklow light-vessel. 
Captain Washington comes down firmly on the side of the memorialists.

In conclusion, he says,

The Foze is a rock near the Blasket Islands off the Dingle peninsula. Instead of erecting lights at the Foze, the Bull and the Fastnet, the Ballast Board went for Inishtearaght (1870), Calf Rock (1866) and the Fastnet, discontinuing only the upper light at Skellig when Tearaght was established. And the Fastnet replaced Cape Clear in 1854.
The fixed light on the Coningbeg never materialised, though they spent many years trying to build it. But Galley Head, Ballycotton and Mine Head all  came about.

Saturday, November 18, 2023

Girls, girls, girls...


Seeing as it's nowhere near International Women's Day, I thought maybe I'd salute some of those pioneer women who first managed to wrestle a few shillings out of the Ballast Board for doing the same job that they'd probably been doing for most of their lives. 
Up until the 1860s, lightkeeping was a very male job, at least officially. The men got paid for keeping the light, whilst the women kept the house, did the cooking, reared the children and, doubtless, kept the light as well, whenever hubby got man flu or there was a match on the telly. Of course, there was a lot of physicality to the work in the old days, so I shouldn't really diss the male keeper. My point is that women did their fair share of lightkeeping too.
(The lighthouses here would not be the rock lighthouses but small stations that two people could manage.)
Up until the 1860s, these stations frequently employed a Principal Keeper and an Assistant Keeper, single men who would share the one house provided for the job. God help one half of a pairing who couldn't abide the other. If you got married, you would probably be moved. The men would be expected to cook and wash and keep the house. Shock, horror. The Ballast Board would have to fork out for two sets of wages - £64 12s 4d  per annum for a PK and £46 3s per annum for an AK.

Our old friend, John Swan Sloane naturally tried to take the credit for alleviating all these issues. He had a history of this but there may be some justification on this occasion. Give these smaller lighthouses to men with wives or daughters and create the role of Female Assistant. No more loneliness. The cooking and the washing is sorted. One house is sufficient accommodation. And, although I haven't been able to discover how much a Female Assistant was paid, one suspects it might not be quite as much as an AK. But sure, the family would be happier as they would have two wages coming in!
Another fact I have been unable to discover is why, on these two-person lighthouses, the male keeper was sometimes a PK and sometimes an AK. If I was to hazard a guess, it would be that a PK would retain his rank if rewarded towards the end of his career with a cushy station. But, 

And so, on the 15th April 1866, twenty-one woman took their rightful place in the pantheon of lightkeepers, all in the new role of Female Assistant. For the record, their names are listed below, together with age and relationship to the male keeper (which, of course, is vital information)

Balbriggan - Sarah Maginn, 58, wife
Broadhaven - Matilda Page, 25, wife
Charlesfort - Margaret Kelly, 39, daughter
Crookhaven - Elizabeth Doyle, 16. daughter
Donaghadee - Margaret Gardiner, 39, wife
Drogheda North - Margaret Redmond, 50, wife
Duncannon North - Anne Jane Lovell, 29, daughter
Dungarvan - Catherine Gillen, 22, sister
Dunmore East - Elizabeth Williams, 48, wife
Fannet Point - Kate M. Callaghan, 28, wife
Ferris Point - Catherine Duffy, 30, wife
Greenore - Anne Lyndon, nr, daughter
Inishgort - Mary Anne McKenna, 44, wife
Inishowen East - Anne Page, 30, daughter
Kilcredaun - Mary Stapleton, 30, wife
Kingstown West - Mary Anne McKenna, 17, niece
Lesser Samphire Island - Ellen Cunningham, 22, wife
Mutton Island - Bridget Carolan, 38, wife
Rotten Island - Margaret Redmond, 25, wife
Tarbert - Mary Anne Corish, 42, wife
Valentia - Elizabeth Sole, 17, daughter

(Just to forestall people pointing it out, yes, Mary Westby does appear to have been the keeper of the Loop Head lighthouse in 1771 but she was very much a one-off.)

Saturday, November 11, 2023

A poem by William Redmond (aged 190)

Haulbowline light, Carlingfored Lough c.1906

I came across the following poem in an old Beam magazine and, of course, I had to follow it through to its logical conclusion. 

Okay, just to get the housekeeping out of the way, a 'penion' is a large marine whelk. It is unlikely that the keeper is envying the birds their large marine whelks, so it is probably a typo for pinion -  a wing or feather.
Jestic on the other hand has me stumped. It may be another word for 'majesty' - majestic, jestic - but then, for all I know, it could be a slang, lightkeeper term for ringworm powder and the barque is bring a supply of this over the bar.
So, who was William Redmond and did he ever serve at Haulbowline?
Well, William was the son of Hugh Redmond, who became a keeper as far back as 1818. Hugh served on the Skelligs and lost a son over the cliffs there. In 1839, he was serving on the South Maidens when his daughter, Mary Anne eloped with the son of a keeper on the North Maidens.
Hugh had two sons who became lightkeepers. One was William, the poet. He was born in Wicklow in 1834 and joined the Ballast Board in 1852. He served at Howth Pier lighthouse for many years until, sure enough, in 1870, his wife Ellen (nee Cheastey) gave birth to a baby girl, Mary Josephine, at Cranfield, co. Down, when her husband was serving at Haulbowline. The following year he was transferred up the coast to St John's Point, county Down. He may have served at Youghal for a time too, for his daughter Ellen was living there when she married in 1890. 
On the 1901 and 1911 censuses, William is retired in Dungarvan and living with Mary from Kilkeel. He died in 1921 aged 86 years.
To affirm the assertion that William Redmond was F.J. Ryan's great-grandfather's brother, Hugh's other son, Henry (William's brother), was the first keeper at Little Samphire Island, off Fenit, in county Kerry, when it was built in 1854. His daughter, Mary Redmond, married Francis J. Ryan.

Francis J. Ryan and Mary Redmond, very possibly on their wedding day (or maybe it was simply normal gardening attire)

Francis and Mary had three sons who became lightkeepers - Tom, Henry and F.J. Two of their daughters, Lizzie and Polly, were with Tom on Eagle Island in December 1894 (when the East Tower and dwellings got absolutely battered) and were the authors of the famous letters to their father about that event. Polly married Neil Loughrey and another dynasty was started.
The third son, FJ, also had two sons who became keepers, one of whom, I am assuming, was the Francis J. Ryan who wrote the letter to Beam. As far as I am aware, their interest in the jestic trade did not go further than great-uncle William.

Sunday, November 5, 2023

I see a lighthouse and I want it painted, Black


James and Billy Black at Eeragh

The problem with lighthouses was that the Halpins and the Douglasses and the Stevensons always used to insist on building them next to the sea. Not in Athlone or the Galtees but right on the seafront, where salt-laden gales would scour off the paint in a matter of hours.
Being daymarks as well as guiding lights at night, they naturally needed painting and there was a dedicated team at Irish Lights who would go around the country in pairs and do just that.
I can find no articles about Irish lighthouse painters on the net (except, perhaps, the famous one about Brendan Behan at St. John's Point, county Down) and it is definitely an area that should be gone into. I bet the painters had some great stories to tell.
I'd never really thought properly about the painters. Must have been some job swinging about at the top of a 100 foot tower in the biting wind. I'd say they developed some muscles in their forearms too. I paint a ceiling and have to lie down for a day.
I received a mail recently from Elaine Black, asking if I had any information on her great-grandfather and grandfather, James and Billy Black, lighthouse painters. That's them in the top picture after making sure inward bound ships could see the lighthouse on the northernmost of the Aran Islands. Elaine said, "My family history of lighthouse painting is also an inherited one quite like the keeper families. Seems that James, then Billy and some of Billy’s sons all painted (not sure if my Dad did as he was one of the youngest and he also died when I was little hence my fragmented history.) 
'Billy, a Dubliner  met my nana at her mother's boarding house in Castletownbere and apparently impressed her with his motorcycle! They moved to Dublin, he continued to paint with Irish Lights and they had a bunch of kids, later moving back to Castletownbere to take over the family business. I think Billy went back to painting local lighthouses (the Bull, Roancarrig etc) for a while."

Sherkin Island lighthouses, badly in need of painting!

I had always thought that lighthouse painting was a job done by the keepers but it appears that the dedicated lighthouse painter goes way back. A marriage certificate from 1853 in Larne, details the marriage of Thomas Gribben, painter, of the North Maidens Rock, to Priscilla Stocker, daughter of Edward Stocker, lightkeeper, also of the North Maidens Rock. Thomas' father, also Thomas, was listed as a painter too and may well have been in situ on the rock with his son. (It should be pointed out that there was not enough space to swing a crab on North Maidens and the Gribbens were not staying at a nearby set of holiday apartments)
But to get back to the Black painters, the earliest reference I have found is a marriage cert from 1902 between James Black and Mary Greene, quite an ideal pairing for a painting family. Curiously, it gives James' residence at the time as the South Rock Dwellings, Portaferry, which are the four cottages at Newcastle, just south of Cloghy, used for the keepers of the South Rock lighthouse and then the lightship. He was probably painting the cottages. I would imagine the lightship would get a lick of paint when it came into dry dock for maintenance.
James was seemingly born in Oban on the west coast of Scotland around 1880 but in 1901 he was lodging in Rathmines. He died in 1946 in Ranelagh aged 66.
Billy Black was born in 1904 in Rathmines in Dublin. A lot of the painters I have come across were Dublin men, for some reason, so Billy was not out of place. He died in Castletown in 1966 aged 61.

Sherkin Island lighthouse, freshly painted (note the brightly painted Baltimore Beacon, easily visible in the background)

Elaine also said that it was a tradition that lighthouse painters used to leave their initials somewhere at the station they painted, like in a wardrobe or on the back of a piece of furniture, which I think is a wonderful idea, and another prime example of why Irish Lights should at least have photographed everything they dumped out of lighthouse cottages over the past few years.
Speaking of graffiti, an archaeologist called Alan Hayden has spent a serious amount of time collecting, collating, recording and trying to identify all the lighthouse graffiti on the Skelligs and quite a few painters appear in his list, including one J. Black in 1921, evidently James Black.
In a recent post on Tarbert lighthouse, I had a reply stating that her mother remembered a story about a painter called Black Jack falling from the lighthouse there in the 1920s. This may of course may have been a pirate doing a spot of holiday work or it may have been Jack (James?) Black on a bad day. The painter apparently survived.
Elaine says her dad, Donie Black, wanted to join Irish Lights but his health issues prevented it. He did work for a while as a steward on the Ierne, operating out of Castletown. 
I don't want to make this post too long, so I will detail in a later post more about the painters in general together with a list of names I have come across. If anybody has heard of the Black lighthouse painters, please get in touch, either in the comments or by email - 
In the meantime, I leave you with a lighthouse painter who probably is NOT related to Billy and James.

From the Kerry Reporter 2nd February 1884