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


  1. Excellent.
    Though, in fairness, Nemo’s poem was much better.

  2. Hmm, tricky one, John. I actually feel Anon has more feel for the meter than Nemo!