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


  1. Intriguing Pete, thanks, hope more info emerges

    1. Ah, there's some interesting comments coming through on FB!!

  2. Fascinating and informative as usual Pete. Thanks!

    1. Good man, Roger. Long time no hear. Still take your book down and leaf through it!!

  3. New YOUR DAD and grandfather GOOD times WITH YOUR DAD

    1. Feel free to share any stories if you can! You can contact me through Pete.