Thursday, June 27, 2024

Patrick O'Donnell, Lighthouse Builder


Hooker approaching Spiddal Pier (photo by Major Ruttledge c. 1892 National Library of Ireland)

Among the glittering pantheon of Irish lighthouse builders, with star-spangled names such as Burgh, Rogers, Halpin, Halpin junior, Sloane and Douglass, it is very possible that the name Patrick O'Donnell doesn't rank very highly among the lighthouse cogniscenti. Very possibly, it doesn't rank very highly in his own family but this master builder, determined to light the seas for confused navigators on the north shore of Galway Bay, deserves belated recognition.
It is unknown when Derrynea native, Patrick, first took an interest in marine navigation. A tenant farmer, he was in his early sixties when his innate yearning transferred to a more physical demonstration of the pharological art. Unfortunately for the world of Irish architecture, it was a short-lived and controversial foray into the field.
The story began on 8th December 1916 at around 8.30pm, according to the court reporter of the Galway Express. The night, as nights frequently were, and are, was dark and the pier at Spiddal was just a vague block jutting out into the black waters. The light at Mutton Island could be discerned to the east and the Straw Island light on the Aran Islands was also visible southwards to sea but there was no light to guide a boat into the harbour at Spiddal. And Patrick knew there was a boat out there, desperaterly seeking the harbour, the captain probably stiff-faced and stoic, trying to pick out landmarks. Any women and children would probably have been hugging each other and praying for salvation. But what was a poor tenant farmer to do?
It is unlikely that O'Donnell used concrete or limestone to build his lighthouse. It was probably constructed of wood, maybe some shrubs pulled hurriedly from the shore. The focal plane would probably have been the height of the pier and the light characteristic white and probably waxing and waning. And flickering.
Constable Finn, in his evidence at the Petty Sessions in February 1917, declared to the court that he had found the defendant sitting on top of the pier next to the lighted fire. When he questioned why, he was told that Mr. O'Donnell intended it as a guide for an incoming boat. Obviously not in favour of safety at sea, the constable ordered him to extinguish his Aton, which the farmer proceeded to do.
Charged under the Defence of the Realm Act, Mr. O'Donnell said in court that it wasn't any harm as he had been guiding a boat into the quay. The judge asked him whether he wanted the Germans to come in but unfortunately the Galway Express did not record the reply. Maybe he had been guiding a U-Boat into Spiddal.
For his spontaneous and altruistic efforts, he was fined 6d. George Halpin surely never suffered such ignominy.

The lights on Spiddal pier today, built on the legacy of Patrick O'Donnell, to whom there isn't even a plaque

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.