Saturday, June 22, 2024

Alphonsus O'Leary, Straw Island and the Lusitania


The Old Head of Kinsale (photo from Afloat)

On 7th May 1915, the Lusitania was nearing the end of her 202nd transatlantic voyage and was passing the Old Head of Kinsale  en route from New York to Liverpool. It is said that many people picknicking on the grassy slopes next to the lighthouse watched her pass (this was long before the golf club restricted access) although why there should be picknickers there on a Friday afternoon is unclear.
Suddenly the air was rent by an explosion from a torpedo fired by a German U-Boat, followed by a second explosion within the ship. It is said the ship sank in 18 minutes, watched by the crowd on the Old Head. Of the 1,960 people on board, 1,197 lost their lives, primarily because all but a few lifeboats had been disabled in the two explosions.
Very shortly thereafter, the bodies began to wash up on the south coast of Ireland. Mass graves were dug, the victims photographed and buried. After a time, some more bodies drifted around to the west coast. Five weeks after the tragedy, Assistant Keeper Alphonsus O'Leary, stationed at Straw Island lighthouse off Inis Mór in Galway Bay found the body of a woman washed up on his shoreline. He immediately contacted his superiors in Irish Lights: -

Alphonsus O'Leary had been born in Sligo (Irish Lights records) or Cork (1911 Census) in 1881 and joined Irish Lights in 1902 with the Service number 193. He was on the Tuskar on the 1911 Census and, as seen, on Straw Island in 1915. Presumably he had a sister or a mother with him, as Straw Island was a single family station. He was transferred to Sligo Lights in August 1916, was made PK in 1929 and appointed to Blackrock Mayo. Stints at Fanad, Wicklow, Sligo (again), Rotten Island, and Duncannon followed until his retirement in 1941, when he was made attendant at the latter station. He retired to Wicklow where he died in 1954 aged 73, still unmarried.

The unfortunate lady was apparently not the only Lusitania victim to have washed up in the vicinity.

(Incidentally, the registrar recorded the date of the finding of the body incorrectly. It should have been the 11th June)

Further examination at Kilronan, revealed further details about the body: -

1. #4. Female. 45 years. Recovered at Straw Island. Very decomposed. Wore blue
linen dress, black boots and stockings. Hair short, turning grey.
Property.- 1 ring, apparently gold with three stones: 2 blue, 1 supposed
diamond; 1 expanding bracelet and watch (latter damaged) apparently
gold, initials 
Buried Kilronan Graveyard, June 11, 1915.

Irish Lights inspectors walking the beach to the lighthouse in 1903 (photo National Library of Ireland)

109 years after the sinking, the lady, like over fifty others, remains unidentified.

Thursday, June 20, 2024

Fanad Farmhouse Beer


Idly waiting in the off-licence in Lidl yesterday for my wife to make up her mind between the Riesling and the Sauvignon Blanc, my bored eye suddenly fell on a picture of a familiar lighthouse. Sure enough, on closer inspection, it turned out to be Fanad lighthouse on the label with a bottle of Kinnegar beer sitting on the Limeburner Buoy off the coast.
Fair play to Kinnegar for featuring this and other local landmarks on their advertising and fair play to them for getting into Lidl. Probably won't be long now before they're taken over by Diageo or Carlsberg, which seems to be the fate of many small, local breweries.
It did strike me as rather odd that a lighthouse, which was always strictly dry, with no alcohol permitted, should be used to promote an alcoholic beverage. Not that they were ever completely dry, of course. Just officially so.
Did I buy one? No, I am a boring old fart and only drink draught Guinness. At home, sitting out in nice weather, with my legs in traction, I would go for cheap bottles of lager. Never cans. Never craft beer. And not at €3 a can.
And the wife went for the Riesling. Eventually.

Sunday, June 16, 2024

A late-blossoming lighthouse from the Beara peninsula

Another of Ireland's under-the-radar lighthouses, Ardnakinna lighthouse on Bere Island

Joy Tubby's recent fascinating journal of her lighthouse odyssey of the south and southwest coasts of Ireland (published in Lamp 138-140) mentioned Ardnakinna lighthouse on the western tip of Bere Island in Bantry Bay.
I last wrote about this largely unknown light eleven years ago, when I craftily managed to include it in a hike with my brother-in-law. The reason for this lapse was probably because it didn't appear to have had much of a history. It only acquired its light in 1965 and never had a keeper and so, what was there to write about? Joy's article made me take a second look.

According to the Irish Lights websitea beacon to mark the western entrance to Castletownbere was first recommended in 1847 by the Admiralty. It was agreed to build a beacon tower on the west point of Bere Island (Ardnakinna). Construction took place in 1850 and the beacon was left in the care of a local man. The caretaker remained until 1863 when the tower was capped and his services were dispensed with.
This, of course, was not unprecedented. Only ten years previously, the fledging lighthouse on Capel Island had been capped in case it was ever needed again. So far, it hasn't but Ardnakinna has.
The Cork Constitution of 28th December 1852 raises the possibility that this was not the first tower on the site: -

Certainly, there is no 'disused fort' at Ardnakinna Point on the 1st edition OS map, nor indeed anywhere in the vicinity but it is noteworthy that the current grounds at the lighthouse are surrounded by the remains of a wall, for which the beacon itself had no use. However, these bits of rectangular wall certainly seem newer than the early 1800s, so perhaps I am wrong on this. 
What is interesting is the 'old watchman,' who could well have been the caretaker alluded to in the Irish Lights snippet.

The following article from the Kerry Evening Post 16th June 1860 makes it clear that, ten years after the tower was built, it was still in the Ballast Board's mind to make this tower a proper, card-carrying lighthouse.

However, the plan seems to have been scuppered by the end of 1861, as reported in the Cork Examiner of 23rd December of that year. A Captain Greenway, an old seaman, 38 years at sea, speaking at a Famine Meeting in Castletown, put forward a resolution that was passed.

However, Lord Palmerstown, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, refused to sanction these famine works on the grounds that the work would be completed by skilled specialists from outside the area and thus would not help alleviate the famine in the area. The Ballast Board, according to an 1894 report also made the decision not to proceed with the light as it would have been unsafe for sailing vessels to access Berehaven via the narrow strait at Ardnakinna and should circumnavigate the island via the far (eastern) end of Bere Island, where a beautiful lighthouse (Roancarrig) proudly sat.

Ardnakinna from the mainland, the Sheeps Head peninsula behind 

Ridiculously, I have been unable to find a sketch, photo or oil painting of the unlit beacon, which, although a bit of a trek to reach via land, is in plain view from the mainland. Maybe the fact that Bere Island was for many years a large British naval port explains the secrecy. 
During the First World War, the British coastguards built a lookout dwelling in the corner of the lighthouse compound, clearly visible in the top two photographs to the left of the tower. A submarine net was also established from Ardnakinna to the mainland to stop German U-boats attcking the British fleet in Berehaven harbour as they did at Scapa Flow.
The above-mentioned lookout dwelling was inadvertently responsible for the death of 'a British military caretaker,' one Thomas McClure in 1934. Obviously satisfied that there was no further need of a lookout station on the west end of Bere Island, Thomas and a man called James Sullivan, were told to pull the building down. Unfortunately, while doing the job, an eight foot square section of wall fell on top of Thomas and he died of shock from his injuries. He left a widow and a young baby girl.

A much better view of Ardnakinna from the mainland (photo by Pat Tubby)

Eventually, during the 1960s, over 100 years after it was first constructed, Ardnakinna achieved its light. On the 23rd November 1965, the Evening Echo wrote

The article also said that a road had been built to the lighthouse from the landing place in 1860 but this had been totally reclaimed by nature and a new road had to be built. A new landing place also had to be constructed 'opposite,' which I'm taking to mean on the mainland. Hopefully they removed the submarine net.
In conclusion, the Echo said, the lights would be exhibited that evening at a special ceremony attended by the bigwigs of Irish Lights. But, it seems, it was not to be, as T.G. Wilson explains, in his 1968 book, The Lighthouse Service: -

The new light, now nearly 60 years old

Wednesday, June 12, 2024

The Lost Lighthouse of Sackville Street


Nelson's Pillar looking out over a strangely deserted Sackville Street in 1811 (Wikicommons)

From its inception in Dublin's main thoroughfare in 1809, Nelson's Pillar received criticism from the city's inhabitants, criticism that slowly increased as the mood of nationalism and anti-empiricism grew over the next 150 years. To be fair, much of the displeasure centred on the top and bottom of the edifice. The top was decorated by the 13ft (4m) figure of an admiral of the British Navy, sculptured by Alexander Kirk, and the bottom commemorated four naval battles he won - Trafalgar, Copenhagen, St. Helena and the Nile. Tourists could climb the 166 steps for a small fee and gaze from the figure on top to gaze upon the symbol of anti-British resistance - the GPO - a few yards away. And other buildings, of course.
Generally, though, the bit between the top and the bottom, received little criticism. Built of black limestone and Wicklow granite, the 120 ft (37m) doric column, largely escaped the ire of the population, except maybe for an anonymous versifier (it could well have been John Swan Sloane!) writing in the Irish Builder of 15th June 1876: -

It is well-known in Irish history that a combination of the IRA and the Irish Army blew up the offending monument in 1966. It has since been replaced by a the decidedly non-pharological Millennium Spire.

Of course, Nelson's Pillar was never a lighthouse, nor indeed any kind of navigational marker. I mean, the mere idea of placing a British naval officer on top of a large column as a way of warning ships from a rocky coast, is quite ridiculous.

The Metal Man, Tramore, county Waterford, featuring a petty officer of the Royal Navy, sculpted by Alexander Kirk. 

Tuesday, May 21, 2024

The Ashfield Cross Roundabout Lighthouse

The Tuskar Rock. One of the first Irish lighthouses to be built by the Ballast Board and its inspector, George Halpin, way back in 1815. Its been standing guard on its treacherous rock for over 200 years and is as much a national monument as an aid to navigation.
The only problem with it, is that its not a great photographic subject. Just that little bit too far off the coast of Rosslare unless you have a camera that costs as much as a month's rent in Ballsbridge. And there are no boat tours out to the Tuskar, even though I imagine they'd be very popular.
However, although Mohammed can't get to the mountain, thanks to Wexford resident, Damian Mcaleenan, the mountain has obligingly swum up to Rosslare and waltzed up the Dublin road in search of that esteemed gentleman.
I wrote last year about plans by the Rosslare Municipal District to install a replica of the Tuskar on the Ashfield Cross Roundabout on the otherwise uninteresting main road out of the port. In that article, I said it was expected to be complete by the year's end.
Well, it wasn't and as time dragged on, I started thinking it was going to be one of those projects that never saw the light of day. But again, I was wrong for a couple of days ago, artist Damian Mcaleenan got in touch to say the replica light was going to be up and running on Monday 20th May.
Damian was fortunate enough to be given a VIP tour of the Tuskar when he was drawing up plans for the replica. Other than that, he's a very likable chap and he's done an excellent job of reproducing the distinctive outbuildings and tower. The structure had been ready to move into position for quite a while but the wheels of local authority run slowly.
But finally its up and its a great addition to the port hinterland! Damian very kindly sent me a video of its establishment

together with some shots in the warehouse previously

Incidentally, my apologies for my absence from the blog. Too much on my plate at the moment and something had to give. Sorry.

Sunday, March 31, 2024

Trying to untangle the Boyles

The Newry River front light (tended by Tom Boyle?)

There have been a lack of posts here recently as I try to put some manners on the Eagle Island book so, just to give myself a break from it, I decided to try and sort out the Boyles and O'Boyles, prompted by a Facebook post from Phil Boyle.
The earliest Boyle I have is Charles Boyle, (Keeper 20) who was born in county Donegal around 1840. His father was a farmer and he joined the Ballast Board (the precursor of Irish Lights) in May 1866. He was in Mine Head in 1871, where he met his wife, Mary Power. They married in 1875 when he was stationed at Poolbeg in Dublin. He was at Drogheda East and West in 1881, on Straw Island  on the Aran Islands from at least 1882 to 1885 (with Mary as his Female Assistant) and Rotten Island in 1901. He retired to Killybegs and died in 1929.
One of his sons, Mick Boyle (144) became a keeper. Born in Mine Head in 1876, he joined the firm in 1897. One of his first stations was Eagle Island. He married Julia Kennedy from Sligo in 1903 and served at Mew Island, Fanad and the Maidens amongst others. He died in Donaghadee, three years short of retirement in 1933.

Mick Boyle and Julia

Mick and Julia had two sons who became lightkeepers. Michael Patrick Boyle (327) was born in 1908 and joined Irish Lights in 1926, serving at Sligo, Tory, Fanad and Inishtrahull, amongst others. He was known as 'Biff.' 
And Martin Anthony Boyle (351) who also seemed to end up in the northern part of the country, serving at Inisheer, Rathlin, Tory, Fanad and Inishowen. Michael joined Irish Lights in 1926 and Martin five years later.
Martin, incidentally is the only keeper I can recall off the top of my head who was ever shot. Himself and William James were duck shooting on Rathlin and, crawling through a hedge, William's gun accidentally went off, the bullet passing through Martin's wrist and into his thigh. Thankfully, he survived.
There was another keeper called Charles Boyle (314) who, based purely on his first name, may have belonged to this branch of the family. He was cerrtainly a contemporary of Michael and Martin. And Patrick James Boyle (204)  might fit in here somewhere as well.
We then travel to Malinmore near Glencolumbkille in south-west Donegal for another branch of Boyle lightkeepers. John James Boyle (261) and Patrick Francis Boyle (297) Both were musicians who played in the St. Columba's Fife and Drum Band. Their father was a carpenter and JJ was renowned for playing Irish and Scottish airs on a fiddle made by him. Both sons added the O' to their names at various times in their lives. It seems to have been optional. One joined just before WW1, one just after. The story for Patrick was that, after waiting five years to get into the service, he ended up breaking his back due to a fall during painting and retired back to Malinmore.

John James Boyle (photo courtesy Phil Boyle)

There was also a Thomas N. O'Boyle (510) who is possibly related to the two lads as there is a newspaper clipping of him getting married in 1959. The text says that he was an AK on Inishtearaght and that his father  was Sergeant John O'Boyle of Glencolumkille. It is interesting to note that Charles Boyle (20) above was born in Donegal and retired back to Killybegs, so it may well be that they are one big happy family.

Patrick Francis Boyle (photo courtesy Phil Boyle)

Peter John (PJ) O'Boyle (569) was possibly a Galway man who was 31 years a keeper before retiring from the Baily in 1996. He was a dream capture for Irish Lights, being highly-skilled in carpentry, mechanics and engineering. And also a true gentleman, by all accounts. 

PJ O'Boyle c. 1970 (photo courtesy Alex Hamilton)

A nineteen year old youth called Phil Boyle has been described as assistant keeper at Arranmore lighthouse  in the mid-1920s. As his parents lived on the island, it was more likely that he was a temporary keeper, drafted in whenever one of the two keepers was indisposed.
The story goes that, in January 1925, he was winding up the weights in the lighthouse and the chain slipped, cutting off his fingers. He was rushed to Letterkenny hospital where theuy patched him up as best they could. His mother and father collected him from the hospital and travelled back to the island aboard the Burtonport extension railway. Only it was a wild night and, crossing the Owencarrow viaduct near Creeslough, two of the carriages were blown off the track and over the edge of the viaduct. The carriages ended up hanging there but one of the roofs got ripped off and four people fell to their deaths, including Phil's parents.

The Owencarrow viaduct disaster

It may be coincidence, as there are a lot of Boyles on Arranmore, but Neil Boyle served as attendant at both  Ballagh Rocks lighthouse and Arranmore lighthouse in the first decade of the 21st century.
And Andy Newman tells me that Charlie Boyle was the attendant at Arranmore prior to that. Father of Neil?
Which only leaves us with Thomas Boyle, a 64 year old county Down native, who appears on the 1911 census as a 'Lightkeeper Under Harbour Authority' in Drummullagh, county Louth. This is interesting because Drummullagh is the townland just opposite Warrenpoint harbour and the only lights I know of 'under harbour authority' are the unique round towers in Narrow Water, just upstream from the harbour. They are more on the county Louth side than county Down. I have never heard of a keeper for these two lights. I'd like to think it was old Tom.
As per the comments below I am delighted to add that Thomas Boyle, Drummullagh, Omeath was a seaman and later a pilot for Newry. He was a son of Owen Boyle, a farmer and married Margaret O'Hagan from the same townland (whose father was also a seaman) in 1874. He died on the 16th Oct 1921 age 72.

The Newry River rear light

Wednesday, March 6, 2024

Eagle Island - a final call to arms

Eagle Island 1970s (photo by Alex Hamilton) Note the pre-circumcised lantern. And paint on the walls.

As some of you may be aware, I've been banging on about writing a book on Eagle Island for a couple of years now. I was hoping that the long-promised Irish Lights archives might have come out online, or even the establishment of a reading room to access them but, at this stage, I suspect we'll be celebrating Ireland winning the World Cup sooner.
Anyway, the book is largely complete now. Over 120,000 words about fourteen acres of land. I still have a couple of people I need to talk to and a lot of proof-reading to do but its more or less in its final shape.

The Queen of Scotchport arriving at the south landing 1932 (photo courtesy Eamon McAndrew)

However, I am still happy to talk / correspond with anybody who might have any knowledge of the island, however small or quirky or seemingly insignificant. Topics include, but are not limited to: former keepers, tradesmen, technicians, boatmen, helicopter pilots (or anybody who may have Eagle Island anecdotes about any of them); flora (is there anything except grass, seapinks and mushrooms?) and fauna (birds, animals, insects, fish, sea mammals); WW1 and WW2; the Stientje Mensinga; the generators, fog signals, lantern, lighting, radio direction beam etc; storms of 1836, 1850, 1861, 1886, 1894, 1921, 1935, 1986, 1988 and others; boats damaged or sunk in the vicinity of the island.

Photographs and / or anecdotes relating to any of the above would also be very welcome. (I'm particularly short of photos of any of the Gallaghers, McAndrews, Kilkers, Gaughans, Williams etc who rowed from Scotchport to the island for the lighthouse reliefs.)

If you can help, or know of anyone who can help, with any of the above, please contact me at (As I'll be selling the book on a non-profit basis, I'm afraid I can't offer a free copy in return for a photograph. Sorry!)

Photo by Richard Cummins

Saturday, February 10, 2024

The sole keeper at Roches Point


Roches Point 1862

Roches Point sits at the entrance of one of the largest natural harbours in the world - Cork - and, naturally enough was regarded as one of the major Irish lighthouses of the nineteenth century. It was so necessary that, in 1832, the Ballast Board decided that the light built there in 1817 was too small for the job, so they took it down, brick by brick, and shipped it off to Duncannon in county Wexford, and replaced it with a larger lighthouse.
It was, however, not so important as to waste the expense of a second keeper at the light. From 1817 to 1861, Roches Point was a one-keeper station, the sole keeper being expected to stay alert and vigilant during the 14 hours of winter darkness, to attend to all the repairs and painting and cleaning. 

Atkinson painting c. 1848

For nearly twenty of those years, the keeper at Roches Point was a guy called Bradley Sole, who had been born in Deal in Kent in 1812. Eight miles further down the coast he would have been a Dover Sole but you can't have everything. His grandfather had been a boat builder in Deal, so the sea loomed large in his life. 
Somehow, on 12th May 1836, he ended up as a rookie lightkeeper at the newly-erected lighthouses in Sligo harbour and the following year he married Anne Meredith, daughter of the local Sub-Inspector of the Constabulary. After stints in Sligo, St. John's Point (Donegal) and Balbriggan, they rocked up to Roches Point with at least two, and probably more, baby Soles in tow around 1845. They were to remain there until 1864.

A sketch of Roches Point by Ballast Board, later Irish Lights commissioner, Robert Calwell in the 1860s.

For those of you who yearn wistfully for the tranquil and romantic life of a lightkeeper, the following excerpt is taken from an inspection committee report of visiting the station in 1859, when Bradley was still in Sole charge.

The illuminating apparatus is catoptric, fixed; 9 red chimneys to seaward, 8 white towards harbour. There is only one keeper. He has 12 children. Receives £64 a year. He repeatedly asked for an assistant. There are no signals. He breaks a chimney every night. There is no water cistern. The keeper complains of the hardship of having stone floors in his dwelling house. Everything in this lighthouse appears to be in good order, all the reflectors were covered with brown paper. The accommodation is good for a small family. The keeper informed us that on one occasion a duck got into the lantern through the cowl, and , fluttering round, broke nearly all the chimneys and put out the light.
As there are great complaints of this lighthouse not showing well beyond a short distance to seaward, we think it advisable to state that we saw no symptoms of neglect anywhere. If, however, lights require careful and constant attention to prevent them burning dull, we deem it probable that where there is only one keeper, considerable intervals will elapse without any attention being paid to the lights. It is not possible that in a long winter night of fourteen hours, one keeper can keep his attention constantly alive. He will, we believe, inevitably go to sleep.

(The duck story, incidentally, is mentioned here - note the report mentions the keepers (plural) in the lighthouse)

Irish Lights inspection photograph by Sir Robert Ball at Roches Point c. 1905 (Photograph courtesy the National Library of Ireland)

By mid-1862, the family was down to nine children. Three had left, either died or fled the nest for somewhere with nice plush carpets. And there was still no sign of an assistant. The Commissioners probably decided he had enough children to keep the light in order. One child, John Bradley, born in 1851, would indeed later go on to be a keeper in his own right.
Brad was eventually transferred to Valentia in June 1864, another shore station, deemed a one-person station. There was some slight relief in April 1866, when the position of Female Assistant Keeper was created. In this, Bradley was assisted, not by wife, Anne, but by their 17-year-old daughter, Elizabeth.
The Soles finished up the lightkeeping business at Balbriggan in 1872 and, at some stage thereafter, appear to have moved up to Donaghadee in county Down. Bradley died there in 1883 aged 70 of general debility and dropsy.
Roches Point became a two-keeper station a year or two after Brad's departure.

Roches Point, around ten years ago, taken from Weaver's Point, on the western entrance to Cork harbour

Thursday, February 1, 2024

Repairs - a poem

I came across this unattributed poem in Beam 11.2 (1979-80) I'm assuming it was written by somebody in the Lighthouse Depot, at the end of his tether trying to figure out what 'the yoke at the end of the yoke' meant.

 A Tale of Repairs

The P.K. gazed with heavy frown
Upon his diesel, broken down,
And hastened to his Radio Phone
            to get repairs.
He told the Mizen of his woe,
About the fog (he had to blow)
But not a number did he know
            nor seem to care.

"The part I want," he wisely said
"is hollowed out and painted red.
I had the number in my head
            but I forget.
It holds the thingimibob in place
About an inch from the long brace
That fastens to the big main base,
            and keeps it set."

"They'll surely know the part I mean,
It broke before on this machine.
The what-you-may-call-it is between
            and just behind.
The thing that moves along the slat
About as big as an old hat
Would be, if you could smash it flat,
            I think they'll find."

The D.M. sighed and shook his head
"I don't know what he means," he said.
"We'll have to search the old back shed
            so come along.
If he would only tax his brain
So that the number he'd retain
or send the old part in, 'tis plain
            we'd not go wrong."

From end to end they searched the bins,
Clawed over castings, bolts and pins.
They skinned their fingers and their shins -
            it made them cuss.
But still they searched, with sinking heart
(They had their other work to start)
And in the last bin found the part,
            'Twas ever thus.

Friday, January 26, 2024

100 Lighthouses of the USA

This is an Irish lighthouse blog and in all the years I've been writing it, I have never featured a lighthouse from the USA or indeed from Liechtenstein, Uzbekhistan or the Central African Republic. So this is a first and probably an 'only.'
My thanks go to Carissa, one of the students at Fuller's Library in New Hampshire. They wrote to me a while ago, requesting information on lighthouse sites I would recommend to help them with a maritime project they were doing. I sent them back a list I put together and wished them well.
One of the lighthouse sites that I failed to include was this one which features a wonderful graphic of 100 lighthouses of the USA, together with a footnote about the oldest, the tallest etc. Carissa thought I would like this chart and, through one of her tutors, Mrs Skye Olley, forwarded it on to me. 
I have to admit it is a terrific graphic. I have seen only about five of the hundred and it has certainly whetted my appetite to visit some more. It is great to see all the different colours and sizes and shapes on one page, emphasising the tremendous variety of lighthouses in the States.
It also makes me wonder if a similar chart could be done for Ireland? Get Irish Lights or the Great Lighthouses of Ireland team on the job and produce a tick-off chart for all our coastal beacons. It could be great to get younger people interested in our own maritime heritage.
So again, my sincere thanks to Carissa. Hopefully, her kind act may spawn something beautiful over this side of the pond.


Extracts from a lighthouse diary


The roseate terns for which Rockabill was famous. Evidently they weren't there in the early 1900s

I came across this piece recently in the Irish Naturalist Vol 18 No.3 (1909), which I heartily recommend for a spot of light reading unless, like me, you keep getting confused by Naturalists and Naturists. The piece is prefaced by a person called R.H. Scovell who was the type of scientist who probably liked to keep his (or her) clothes on. R.H. was interested in bird migration and came across our old friend Benjamin Robert Jeffers, a lightkeeper and Open Brethren, who, with his dog, saved a bunch of people from drowning off Straw Island six years later.
Benjamin, who was the keeper at Rockabill at the time, offered to copy out extracts from his journal that mentioned birds on the 'Bill and these extracts were published in the Irish Naturalist, once B.R. had established it wasn't a nudie mag. I reproduce them in full.
Nov 10, 1906 - Our larder was replenished last night to the tune of a brace of Woodcock, a pair of lady Blackbirds, a couple of Fieldfare, a Thrush and a Starling.
Nov 14 - 19 Blackbirds, 4 Thrushes, 2 Redwing, 4 Starling and a few Larks came to grief last night.
Dec 24 - Early part of the morning, a lot of birds about Lantern, 5 Blackbirds and 6 Thrushes, also one carrier Pigeon (No. 102, Louviere, ringed in 1906, very nicely marked) came to grief. They will make a nice pie for Xmas whilst our comrade enjoys a turkey or goose ashore.

B.R. Jeffers, lightkeeper and pie-man

Feb 8, 1907 - We had rain last night, and snow and rain during the small hours of the morning: a few Redwing and Thrushes paid their respects to the light about 3am
March 15 - A number of Starling, Redwing and Blackbirds about light from 7 to 9pm.
April 14 - Over a score of birds killed last night.
April 25 - A Redstart, Goldfinch , Willow Wren and Wren caught.
May 6 - A lot of birds struck during night. 10 Corncrakes killed and a number alive on Rock during day; 9 Willow-wrens and several other birds killed also.
May 9 - A great number of birds struck during night, many were caught and let go in the morning, amongst them were a Swift and Whinchat, Wheatears &c; the following were killed:- 8 Corncrakes, 28 Whitethroats, 1 Garden Warbler, 146 Warblers (assorted), 4 Wheatears, 1 Blackstart, 1 Whinchart, about 200 killed altogether. There were a lot of crakes about the Rock during day, also a couple of Redstarts; 1 was caught... Corncrakes make very good soup and also look well when stuffed.
May 9 - Eleven Corncrakes have been stuffed by keepers during past few days.
June 12 - A Spotted Flycatcher (?) got ... and a Manx Shearwater on Friday night.
August 19 - Hawk attacked Charlie and Dick (the Goldfinches) in their cage. Dick was stretched but came to after the Hawk was driven off.
Oct 5 - Some Blackbirds and Thrushes were killed during night.
Oct 8 - Some Blackbirds, Thrushes and Larks struck lantern this morning.
Oct 9 - Blackbirds, thrushes and Larks killed during the night
Oct 10 - A few Blackbirds, Thrushes, Redwing and Larks, also a Missel Thrush and Ring Ouzel killed during the night.
Oct 15 - A large number of birds, chiefly Blackbirds, struck lantern during the night, over a score being killed, including a Missel Thrush, a few Thrushes and Redwing, and several Larks. Wind, north, 5 to 6, showery.
Oct 18 - A great number of Blackbirds flew against the lantern last night - or rather this morning from 12 to 5, also a few Thrushes, a Missel Thrush and some Starlings.Only about a dozen birds were killed by striking.
Oct 29 - Plucked a number of birds and had a grand dinner; 261 all told killed at lantern last night, including 3 Woodcock, 2 Lapwing, 84 Blackbirds, 58 Fieldfare, 11 Chaffinches and 103 Redwing and apparently a few rare ones, 1 Black Redstart.
Nov 1 - A number of birds striking but carried away by the storm; 1 Woodcock found turned inside out.
Nov 2 - About 285 birds killed at lantern last night; 1 Woodcock, 2 Lapwing, the remainder Blackbirds, Redwing, Thrushes and Fieldfare

Jan 1 1908 - A couple of Blackbirds, three Thrushes, a Starling and a Snipe came to grief last night.
March 13 - Kittiwakes arrived this morning.
April 24 - Two handsome Duck or Geese flew around the Rock several times and landed on the 'Bill,' then flew straight for the islands. Probably they are tame - black head and neck with a dark red band around breast and back, back white, tips of wings black and bill red. Sheldrake probably.
May 3 - A number of small birds struck during the night but only a few were killed - 3 Corncrakes on Rock, 2 Redstarts
May 4 - A male Redstart caught in the gas house but died in the afternoon. A Spotted Flycatcher also found disabled.
May 5 - A Turtle Dove paid us a visit today, occasionally finding his way into the garden.
May 6 - The Turtle Dove still cruises around the Rock, together with a carrier and another Pigeon.
B.R. Jeffers,
Rockabill Lighthouse, co. Dublin

R.H. Scovell makes the point that the number of blackbirds killed during migration must be quite enormous, as those killed at Rockabill must necessarily be but a tiny proportion.
A couple of other questions come to mind :-
  • What became of the corncrake stuffing industry?
  • Is this the origin of the four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie?
  • When he says corncrakes make very good soup, is he praising their culinary skills?
  • How did the woodcock get turned inside-out and did anybody think to take a photograph?

Friday, January 19, 2024

Barr Point Fog Signal - duelling poets


The fog-bell as taken by Sir Robert Ball on a Commissioner of Irish Lights inspection tour around 1908 when the bell was comparatively new. Photograph from CIL Album 7 in the National Library of Ireland

The Fog Bell

Gloomily through the white sea fog
   Comes the boom of the Barr Point Bell,
Telling at regular intervals
   The warning it has to tell;
It warns the mariner far at sea
   Of the crags at its rocky base,
And the helmsman hears and quickly steers
   Clear of this dangerous place.

For the white sea-mist, the grey sea-mist
   That blots out Isle Magee
Is creeping, slowly creeping
   O'er the harbour and the sea.

Short is the time since a sturdy ship
   Was rent on those cruel teeth.
And the gallant crew went down to their fates
   With the white sea spume for a wreath.
Loudly, loudly, the fog-bell tolled
   Through the gale and the murky gloom.
Not steam nor sail could fight that gale
   And the vessel was dashed to her doom.

For the white sea-mist, the grey sea-mist
   That blots out Isle Magee
Is creeping, slowly creeping
   O'er the harbour and the sea.

As I listen its gloomy monotone
   That through the night air floats,
It seems to me as though ghostly hands
   Were tolling those mournful notes:
As if those who had died in the wrath of the sea
   Had come back to earth once more
And were warning their fellow sailormen
   Away from that rock-bound shore.

The anonymous poem above appeared in the Larne Times of 15th June 1907. It was written in response to "Nemo," a columnist who had published the following poem in his Larne Times column, the previous week.

A Suggestion

Oh, hang that blethering Barr's Point Bell,
   With its mournful, monotonous note.
And hang the groans and the dismal moans
   That come from its rusty throat.
If, far, far out on the rolling deep,
   A glimpse of fog's in sight,
It starts its dolorous monotone
   And I get no sleep at night.

It gets on my nerves with its boom-boom-boom.
   It gives me the 'blues' with its croak;
When it starts to ring, I consign the thing
   To regions of sulphurous smoke.
Yes, really and truly, dear reader,
   It's enough to make one swear;
But seeing it's there for the sailorman's good,
   I suppose I must grin and bear.

But still, I have a suggestion to make,
   Though it mightn't improve the thing much.
Why don't they arrange for the Bell to play
   Light opera music as such?
And, every summer evening,
   They could make it sweetly play.
The Stranraer boat could go gracefully past
   To the tune of 'Sail Away.'

It could tinkle of 'Diamonds in Amsterdam
   By the side of the Zuyder Zee,'
Play 'Home Sweet Home' for those fortunate folk
   Who summer in Islandmagee.
It could boom to the sailors in deep-toned notes
   Of a 'Life on the Rolling Deep.'
It could hush us to rest in the eventide
   With the strains of 'Sing me to Sleep.'

The Barr Point Fog Bell was erected on the Islandmagee side of the approach to Larne Harbour on the next headland up from Ferris Point. According to a Notice to Mariners on 1st March 1905, the bell had been established already and would be rung once every ten seconds in thick or foggy weather. It was, it said, suspended from the top of an open iron framework 40 feet high. Judging by the photo at the top of the page, it doesn't look six keepers high to me!
Even by 1906 (Londonderry Sentinel 23rd June) it was already facing calls to have it moved to Skernaghan Point (the next headland up) on the grounds that "its present position is unsuitable, as the sound is carried in the wrong direction, and does not go far enough out to sea."
However, the fog-bell persevered until the end of 1931, when it was replaced by the old fog-gun from Rue Point on Rathlin Island, much to the local population's dismay. As the Larne Times commented, "It is well to remember that there were also many complaints when the 'mournful bell' was installed and that constant familiarity deadened the first distaste."

The present-day fog-signal station at Barr Point, discontinued since 2006, flanked by two sultry Maidens