Mizen Magic 11: Rock Island

It was a pleasure and a privilege this week to tour Rock Island with Aidan Power, author of the book Rock Island, Crookhaven, A Coastal Townland’s History Since 1800. Published in 2006*,  this was a huge undertaking for Aidan, an amateur historian, accomplished with a high degree of professionalism and meticulously researched.

This photograph was taken from Brow Head and shows Rock Island’s location in relation to Crookhaven (foreground) and the rest of the Mizen. The furthest peak is Mount Gabriel

Aidan was living on Rock Island at the time and he knows every inch of it and every story that is embedded in the rocky soil. Today, there is only one permanent resident on Rock Island, but at its height it was home to over 100 people and a very busy place indeed. There were two populations – government employees working for the Lighthouses or the Coast Guard, and local people working in the fishing and provisioning industries.

While the lighthouse remains in the care of Irish Lights, the cottage is now in private hands and includes an ultra-modern addition with views to envy

Location was key – Rock Island is situated at the entrance to Crookhaven Harbour, a natural haven conveniently located at the extreme south west tip of Ireland – the last and first post of call for ships on the transatlantic route. As such, a Coast Guard presence was necessary, since smuggling was a way of life and foreign vessels apt to drop in or take refuge. Having sustained a French invasion by sea in 1796, the British government was on high alert for any further signs of foreign-assisted uprisings. Nearby Brow Head had a manned signal station which needed support and housing.

Lighthouse cottages

It was also the most convenient centre to build, maintain and provision two lighthouses: Crookhaven Lighthouse on Rock Island itself, and the famous Fastnet Lighthouse, 12 kms out. The east end of the Island was the centre of lighthouse-related activity. Aidan showed us the keeper cottages, one of which he had lived in but all now in use as holiday cottages. One set of houses was for the Crookhaven Lighthouse and the other for the Fastnet. He showed us where the Fastnet components had been assembled, tested and shipped out to the Fastnet Rock – a feat of engineering still breathtaking in its scope – see more about it in our post An Carraig Aonair: The Fastnet Rock.

Upper: The Fastnet assembly station. Lower: The road to the lighthouse is beautifully constructed – this lovely arch leads to the sea

The Western end was occupied by the Coast Guard end and was also the extent of the original road – see Robert’s companion piece today, The Rocky Road to Nowhere, for more about this road and the engineer who built it. The revenue officers, according to Aidan’s book, were very unpopular as smuggling was endemic on the West Cork Coast. One of the officers was called the Tidewaiter – yes, he waited for the incoming tide so he could board ships. It was a dangerous job – Aidan quotes Pococke’s account from 1752: . . .they have a term of hiding an officer, which is knocking in the head and putting him under a turf. There have been many instances of officers never heard of.

Rock Island as viewed from Crookhaven

The Admiralty started a serious crackdown on smuggling in 1816 and that’s when their lease on the West End of Rock Island began. The Coast Guard eventually became a reserve of the Royal Navy and later was controlled by the Admiralty. Its vicissitudes on Rock Island are chronicled by Aidan, including its less-than-stellar performance during the Famine. His account is exhaustive and provides a detailed picture of a British service that was deeply disliked and where the officers felt constantly under siege, culminating in a series of attacks by the IRA in 1920 and the eventual abandonment of the post that year.

Today the former Coast Guard Station has been beautifully renovated and the houses are used for holidays. They look magnificent in their flashy paint, reminders of both a colonial past and a Celtic Tiger economy.

The easterly tower

I have mentioned the two towers in a previous post, both of which have been incorrectly described in the National Monuments records and the Buildings of Ireland site. They are described as belvederes by National Monuments (see my post on Belvederes for an explanation) and as signal towers by Buildings of Ireland.

Brian Lalor’s sketch of the tower, also incorrectly identified as a Napoleonic-era Signal Tower, based on information from National Monuments

The most likely use for the westerly one, according to Aidan, was as a pilotage tower. Pilotage was a competitive business, and whoever could first see the ship at sea and get to it first with an offer of service, had a distinct advantage over others. The easterly tower was used by the Coast Guard as a look out.

At the north side of the island is a sheltered harbour which from the 1920s to the 1970s was the centre of a lucrative lobster and shellfish industry which created a certain level of prosperity in the area, until the inevitable over-fishing caused a decline in the lobster population. Today the remains of the lobster ponds can still be seen, along with a large building that was used in the 1980s and 90s as a food production facility making, improbably, garlic butter.

Upper: the remains of the quay by the lobster ponds. Lower: Aidan, Amanda, Peter and Robert on our Rock Island tour

I have only given you a flavour of Rock Island – it’s also a place where bird and plant life is abundant and where seals pop up to say hello as you wander around the coast.

Sea Campion

It’s a tranquil place from another time, staggeringly beautiful and seeping history from its pores.

This curious castellated boat shed is one of a pair on the north side

We are currently using this image as our Facebook Page header – you could mistake it for a Greek island on a sunny day

*The book is available on Amazon, or contact us for the author’s email address.

A Change to The Fastnet Lighthouse

Way back in 2014 I wrote about An Carraig Aonair: The Fastnet Rock and I have decided to repost that today, but with some updated information and photographs, because of an upcoming change announced by Irish Lights. Depending on the story, this is either a relatively benign but majorly cost-saving switch to LED lighting, or a change we must be vigilant about to make sure the Fastnet is left “intact and unharmed”.

Irish Lights tells us that structural repairs. . .are necessary to ensure the metal lantern room is properly secured to the granite tower and modernisation of the light source to an energy efficient rotating LED lantern. When these works are completed the outward appearance of Fastnet will be unchanged. The work will improve our environmental impact by significantly reducing the need for diesel and generators and by removing all mercury from the station. The range of the light will reduce from 27 to 18 Nautical miles.

This photo was taken from our house, 12 miles (or 10.4 nautical miles) away

While this seems like a sensible and inevitable modernisation, with (according to this letter to the Irish Times) a very significant saving of €100,000 per year, those of us who live around Roaringwater Bay want more information: we want to be sure that the change does not negatively impact on the safety of our sailors and fisherfolk, and does not rob us of the iconic flash that is so much part of our lived experience in West Cork. There will be a meeting on Monday (March 5, 2018) at the Schull Sailing Club to discuss it all.

What follows now is the text of my post from June of 2014, lightly edited and with some newer photographs inserted.

Robert has written about our field trip to Cape Clear Island and I can now reveal that the journey also included a thrilling sail around An Charraig Aonair (Karrig Ane-er, The Lone Rock) better known as the Fastnet Rock; or to thousands of emigrants for whom it was the last sight of their home country, Ireland’s Teardrop.

We had been looking forward with great anticipation to visiting the rock close up. We can see it from our home, a far away mystical crag abounding with lore and legend. We have been awestruck by the waves crashing over the lighthouse in winter storms and wondered at the lives of the lightkeepers who once manned that treacherous outpost. We watched through our telescope as enormous yachts rounded the rock in the biennial Fastnet Race last summer, following the progress of the race on a special iPhone app. I have written elsewhere about the awful tragedy of the 1979 race, in which Gerard Butler and his fellow lightkeepers on the Fastnet played a crucial role in monitoring the participating yachts in the mountainous sea conditions. 

The signal station and the first lighthouse, on Cape Clear Island

The Fastnet was built to avoid such tragedies. Its first iteration was in 1818 as a lighthouse tower on a high point on nearby Cape Clear Island, beside the Napoleonic-era signal tower. However, the light was frequently obscured by fog and after the wreck of the Stephen Whitney in 1847 with 92 souls lost, it became clear that the best place for a lighthouse was on the Fastnet Rock. 

The great era of lighthouse building in Ireland got underway in the mid-nineteenth century. The engineering, design and construction expertise necessary to build lighthouses are impressive enough. Add to this the logistics of building on a tiny and inhospitable rock in a heaving sea on the edge of the Atlantic, and the sheer accomplishment of the objective is  staggering. The first attempt, started in 1849, was of steel and needed constant repair.

The first lighthouse on the rock – it was made of steel and didn’t last

It was decided to replace it with a structure of Cornish granite and the current lighthouse first cast its beam over the waters in 1904. Eamon Lankford in his book Fastnet Rock: An Charraig Aonair describes the building process and provides old photographs illustrating how the granite blocks were ‘floated’ and hoisted on to the islet, having been first assembled and tested in Cornwall. The website Digital Irish Lighthouse Experience by Sandra Michler has an animated sequence showing how this was accomplished. it took eight years.

We were fortunate to have Eamon Lankford as one of our guides on our trip to the Fastnet

One of the best accounts of the building of the lighthouse was in a 2008 article in The Economist called Light on a Lonely Rock. The piece gives fascinating details into the dedications and hardships of the builders and calls the lighthouse “a monument of man’s gift to mankind.” I don’t know who wrote it, but it’s a terrific essay.

According to the Irish Lights website, Fastnet is the tallest and widest rock lighthouse tower in Ireland and Great Britain and was a monumental achievement when completed in 1904. Each of the granite stones of the tower is dovetailed into those around it, bonding the structure into a virtual monolith. This webpage also has several excellent photographs of the lighthouse from the air. What all photographs of the rock also reveal is that the lighthouse is a thing of beauty. Tall, slender and elegant and boasting two balconies, it personifies form and function in the most admirable fashion possible. (Take a look, for example, at Dennis Horgan’s website – he’s an acclaimed aerial photographer and his photograph of the lighthouse is probably the most iconic shot of them all.) Today the Fastnet is fully automated but in The Lightkeeper Gerard Butler describes what it was like to live on the rock in fair weather, when he fished and swam from the steps, and foul, when the seas crashed and roared over the lighthouse as it quivered and shook all night. 

The lighthouse showing the full extent of the Cornish granite and the stub of the old steel tower

One of the stories we heard from Eamon concerned  a daring midnight raid on the lighthouse carried out by an IRA ‘Flying Column’ (experts in guerilla warfare) in 1921 during the Irish War of Independence. They were after the explosives used on the Fastnet to power the foghorn. [EDIT: I have some errors here – please see Finbarr O’Driscoll’s correct information about the raiding party in the comments section.] In researching this story further, I found an article in the 1999 Mizen Journal (no longer in print) by Frank Lannin, based on the eyewitness statement of Sean O’Driscoll.*

The Rock, showing the landing platform, steps and store

Here is part of Lannin’s account:

The breeze had freshened and caused the usual swell around the Rock and there was a rise and fall of several feet. The anchor was let out and the boat moved slowly to the landing place. Positioned on the bow was John O’Regan, a rope tied around his waist, a revolver in his pocket and balancing himself with the rise and fall of the boat. He would have to select the right moment to jump on the Rock and catch the iron ring which was fixed to the Rock. He knew where the ring was fixed, but to grasp it in total darkness was a feat that few would attempt. His vast experience as a seaman was now to be put to the test. As a wave was rising he jumped. It was a tense moment. As the wave covered him he grasped the ring with both hands. (It was an occasion for handclapping, but not tonight.) In seconds he had made the boat fast and the rest of the raiding party were landing on the platform. The huge steel door of the lighthouse was not locked. John was first up the spiral stairway leading to the room where the Lightkeeper was on duty. He put up no resistance and as a precaution the wireless was dismantled. Seventeen boxes of gun cotton and three boxes of detonators and primers were loaded on to the “Maire Cait” by means of the lighthouse derrick. in all, the spoils weighed but one ton. The daring mission was accomplished.

A Flying Column (this one from Tipperary)

The fog signal, together with the light, was an important aid to navigation for ocean going vessels. It was only in 2011 that the Fastnet foghorn was permanently discontinued, as modern navigation equipment rendered it unnecessary. All around the world people are missing the haunting sound of foghorns now, a sound so many of us grew up with. But at least we can see the light from Carraig Aonair every night and count its ‘character’ – one two three four FLASH…one two three four FLASH – and know that it’s doing its part to keep our mariners safe on the seas that roll outside Roaringwater Bay.

*See pages 18 to 20 of Sean O’Driscoll’s statement for his dramatic story of the raid.

 

In Search of Ghosts

ruin

Lonely and wild – Brow Head is the most southerly point on the mainland of Ireland. There are ghosts here: ghosts of ancient people who created the stone monuments, perhaps 5000 years ago, that are now inundated by every tide in the bay at Ballynaule below this Irish ‘Lands End’; ghosts of early farmers who began to lay out field boundaries criss-crossing this windswept promontory; ghosts of the defenders of an empire who feared a French invasion that never happened; ghosts of the prospectors who sunk two shafts – now barely protected by rusting wire – during the nineteenth century copper mining era; and, lastly, ghosts of the pioneers of our own digital age, represented in the brooding ruins that crown the hilltop here above West Cork’s remotest village, Crookhaven.

Brow Head - haunt of ghosts

Brow Head – haunt of ghosts

Charles Motte

Napoleon setting his sights on the British Empire 1804 (Charles Motte)

Facing up to Napoleon: Brow Head Signal Tower, built in 1804

Facing up to Napoleon: Brow Head Signal Tower, built in 1804 in anticipation of a French invasion

We can be very specific about one ghost: Guglielmo Marconi – born at Bologna, Italy, on April 25, 1874 to Giuseppe Marconi, an Italian country gentleman, and Annie Jameson, daughter of Andrew Jameson of Daphne Castle, Enniscorthy, County Wexford, Ireland. The Jamesons were and are renowned distillers of Irish Whiskey. It’s reasonable to say that Marconi was an ‘Irish Italian’, and that heritage was reinforced when in 1905 he married Beatrice O’Brien, daughter of the 14th Baron Inchiquin. Marconi’s fame is that he pioneered the commercial application of electromagnetic waves – or Radio.

Marconi - wishful thinking!

Marconi – wishful thinking!

At the age of twenty one, Marconi was able to demonstrate to his father how, without any visible physical link (without wires), he could transmit dots and dashes through the rooms of their home in Pontecchio. “…When I started my first experiments with Hertzian waves…” he is quoted as saying, “…I could scarcely believe it is possible that their application to useful purposes could have escaped the notice of eminent scientists…” His parents used their influence to help him travel to England to meet the Engineer-in-Chief of the British Post Office with the result that in 1896 Marconi obtained the first ever patent in wireless telegraphy.

Signal Station at Poldhu, Cornwall, 1914

Signal Station at Poldhu, Cornwall, 1914

Marconi’s ambitions started in a room in Italy: by December 1901 he was able to send messages from Poldhu, Cornwall, to St John’s, Newfoundland, a distance of 2100 miles – an historic achievement. In his attempts to bridge the Atlantic with Radio waves he had explored the west coasts of Britain and Ireland for suitable telegraphic locations. One of his destinations was Crookhaven, which he visited many times – using the Flying Snail en route!

The Marconi Wireless Telegraph Station at Brow Head - exactly 100 years ago

The Marconi Wireless Telegraph Station at Brow Head – exactly 100 years ago

Brow Head was one of a number of transmitting stations set up by Marconi and it got off to a flying start soon after opening in 1901 when, in the presence of Marconi himself, Morse signals were received from Poldhu, 225 miles away. The fact that the Atlantic gap was conquered only a few months after this shows the rapid pace of developments at that time.

Calling America...

Calling America…

The village of Crookhaven had long been the first and last port of call for ships going between Northern European ports and America. Over the centuries ships stocked up here with provisions before tackling the open sea. Because of this, the major shipping lines had agents here. Reuters and Lloyds had flag-signalling and semaphore equipment on Brow Head to communicate with the maritime traffic, superseded by the telegraph station. At the end of the 19th Century it was said that “…you could cross the harbour on the decks of boats…” Up to 700 people are reputed to have lived in the area at that time: now, Crookhaven has a permanent population of no more than 40. An article written by one of the telegraph operators in 1911 summarises:

…As Crookhaven is the first station with which the homeward bound American liners communicate it is naturally a busy station. By the aid of wireless all arrangements are made for the arrival of the ships, the landing and entraining of the passengers and mails, whilst hundreds of private messages to and from passengers are dealt with. Messages are also received from the Fastnet Lighthouse, which is fitted with wireless, reporting the passing of sailing ships and steamers. These messages are sent by vessels not fitted with wireless by means of signals to the Fastnet, thence by wireless to Crookhaven, whence they are forwarded to Lloyds and to the owners of the vessels…

Engraving by Mary Francis Cusack, 1875

Engraving by Mary Francis Cusack, 1875

We have some first hand accounts of the workings of the signal station in its heyday from the handwritten log books of Arthur Nottage – for many years landlord of the Welcome Inn at Crookhaven – who died aged 90 in 1974. In 1904 he arrived in West Cork (from England) to work on a shift basis with one other man as Marconi telegrapher at Brow Head. Until 1914 he operated the Morse code apparatus with a salary – generous for the time – of £1 per week.

Arthur Nottage of Crookhaven

Arthur Nottage of Crookhaven

A hundred years ago telegraphy had advanced to such a stage that it was no longer necessary for stations to operate close to the shipping lanes, and small, isolated sites such as Brow Head were closed down. Legend has it that in 1922 the Irregulars destroyed the buildings during the Civil War.

Becoming Archaeology: the ruins on Brow Head today

Becoming archaeology: the ruins on Brow Head today

Finola and I have both been inspired by the landscape and atmosphere of this Atlantic frontier. It’s a place we will return to. All West Cork landscapes are impressive, but this is a place apart. If you want to feel at the end of the world, walk here: you won’t meet many others, even in the height of the visitor season. Perhaps that’s because it’s haunted – but in the best possible way. Like so much of Ireland the world has come here – a mark has been made – memories have been left behind. Now, you hear the ghosts in the ever-present currents of wind and surf.

Base of Marconi's mast at Brow Head

Base of Marconi’s mast at Brow Head

(I am grateful to Michael Sexton and the Mizen Journal (Number 3 1995) for many fascinating items on the Crookhaven Telegraph Station not recorded elsewhere.)