A guest Blog by Pete Goulding. Last month I mentioned in the story about 1790 navigation into Waterford that my good blogging buddy Pete was working on a story of the lighthouses at Duncannon. It’s one of those stories I always wanted to tell, but let’s face it, when it comes to lighthouses Pete’s the man, certainly in an Irish context. So over to Mr Irish Lightouses!
Reposing in the shadow of Hook Head (not literally, except during very peculiar astronomical events), the lights of Duncannon Fort might not enjoy the limelight of its illustrious neighbour but it has an interesting history nonetheless.
The problem for shipping bound for Waterford in the 1700s was that, having breathed a huge sigh of relief on rounding Hook Head, they then got caught out by a nasty bar just south of Duncannon Fort. Not the sort that sells frothy pints and stale pies, but a sand bar, lying from one shore of the Suir to the other. A French visitor in 1784 wrote that it was the only natural obstacle to the harbour, with a draft of only 13 feet at low tide. Sayer’s Sailing Directions (1790) – the full title is the length of a short story in itself – clarifies this by saying that the thirteen feet only applies to low tides when accompanied by a northerly wind. The only feasible crossing place for this bar was on the Wexford side of the river at a place only 600 feet (a cable length) wide.
The above-mentioned publication also gives two methods of crossing the bar in 1790. One was to line up Newtown’s Trees and Hogan’s House, which must have had many a foreign sea-captain scratching his head. The other was to keep the two lights in line.
The Lighthouse Digest suggests a date of 1774 for the foundation of a light station in the fort, as does a handwritten note in a 1930s Commissioners of Irish Lights ledger. Certainly, the lights were there by 1790, as per Sayer’s above. However, a Notice to Mariners for 1791 states that “a new lighthouse” would be established on 29th September of that year. The two lights, one above the other, would shine like “two stars of full magnitude” and, when the fort was passed, only one light would show.
This would seem to indicate that the 1791 lighthouse, with its two lights, one above the other, superseded an older arrangement, maybe a light from a fort window or flat roof lined up to a perch on the coast, probably coal fires. The 1791 light was, almost definitely, the first of its kind in Ireland, with its two lights in one tower. The lights incidentally were white and fixed and powered by three Argand lamps. They could be seen for 8¼ miles. The tower was 25 feet tall and the top light sat 53 feet above high water.
The notion of having a lighthouse in a military installation was not new, however. The first light at what became the site of Charlesfort on the approach to Kinsale was at Barry Og’s castle in 1665. When the castle was destroyed, the light shone from a window in the newly built Charles Fort. Similarly, Rosslare Fort at the entrance to Wexford harbour also had a lighthouse. Not only did this move safeguard the lighthouse from vandalism by forces who saw the harvest of shipwrecks as a God-given right, but the Commissioners of Barracks were made responsible for lighting Ireland’s shores from 1767 to 1796. As such, they killed two seagulls with one cannonball.
Funding for the light was not straightforward. An allowance was given to the Lighthouse Superintendent Samuel Newport but he had to convene a hurried meeting with the Waterford merchants and shipowners in 1793 as the money was practically gone!
Duncannon Fort was one of fourteen coastal lights that were handed over to the Ballast Board (the precursor of Irish Lights) when that body was charged with lighting our shores in 1810. According to Engineer John Swan Sloane (writing in 1880) the cost of repairing, converting and upgrading the light at the time was £845 10s 6d.
By 1832, the lights were paying their own way, costing £83 for maintenance and salary per year, and taking in £308 in light dues, out-performing all other harbour lights, except Poolbeg, and indeed many sea lights such as Loop Head and Clare Island.
In the 1830s, a new light was erected at Duncannon North (Blackhead), though one suspects this had more to do with the situation at Roches Point at the mouth of Cork Harbour. Basically, it was decided the small light there was too insignificant for such an important headland, so they decided to build a new one and move the old lighthouse somewhere else. Duncannon North came to mind and so the new light, half a mile to the north of the Fort, was established on 1st June 1838., after being transported from Cork in two boats.
Because of this, the top light at the Fort became the front leading light, with Duncannon North as the rear leading light. The lower light at the Fort became a tide light, only showing at half-tide or less.
In 1859, the light was classed as a 3rd order catoptric lens, using prisms to concentrate the light. A red light was added in 1882.
Unfortunately, none of the names of any of those early keepers, who came to light the light, have come to light. During a Trinity House inspection cruise in 1859, though, it was reported that the keeper at the time succeeded his father in the job. As he was not required during the hours of daylight, his pay was only £21 per year, compared to his counterpart at Duncannon North, who raked in £46 per year.
The first name I could find for a lightkeeper at Duncannon Fort was one John Redmond who served there as Attendant Keeper in 1871. Through the years, the two Duncannon lights, with others such as Donaghadee, Dungarvan and Broadhaven, were regarded as handy numbers. Not for them the isolation of the rock stations, the relief in mountainous seas and the life without medicine or religion. As such, it was often regarded as a nice, pre-pension station, a reward for those who had spent their years battling the elements of inhospitable cliff faces.
The further complication of having two keepers in Duncannon, each managing one of the lights, means that very often we do not know who was at the Fort and who was at the North light. Maybe when, or should I say if, Irish Lights ever get around to publishing their archives, we should get a better idea. But until then, there’s a lot of either / ors. (Post Publication edit: see comment from Attendant keeper Martin Kennedy below)
For example, George Brownell, 58-year-old keeper at Balbriggan, county Dublin, states on the 1901 census that he was born at Duncannon, county Wexford. His father, Michael, was a keeper and so was likely the keeper at one of the two lights when George was born in 1841.
Similarly, a newspaper report from 1881 reports that one of the keepers, Hugh Duggan, fell down the stairs of his house and was killed. The other keeper in town, Timothy O’Leary, was called as a witness.
My sincere thanks to Pete Goulding for this excellent reprise of the navigation around Duncannon. Pete is the lighthouse blogger at Pete’s Irish Lighthouses. And author of When the Lights Go Out – a detailed history of deaths associated with Irish lightkeepers and their families.
 Freeman’s Journal 20th September 1791
 The Irish Builder 15th June 1880