This weekend we commemorate the loss of the ships SS Formby and SS Coningbeg in December 1917. It’s a topic I covered last week with a view to promoting the commemoration this weekend. In thinking about the sailors who perished this week I came to realise that the last sight of the harbour the crew would have ever seen was the lighthouse at the end of the eastern tip of their home harbour. So today rather than the event itself, I thought I might blog about the sentinel that lights the harbour.
The Hook, as I guess most locals call it, was often the last sight of home for my mother also, as she sailed away to work in England on theSS Great Western. Many, she told me, would delay at the ships rails, watching the light slip away, their last tangible link with home until they, if fortunate, would be back again at Christmas or for a short summer break.
A Clyde shipping promotional poster of a ship rounding the Hook.
Unfortunately its an artists impression of the Hook!
Photo courtesy of Paul O’Farrell
One of my earliest childhood memories was listening to the long moaning sound of the fog horn that reverberated around the harbour and was clear to be heard on our perch on the hillside of Coolbunnia. As older children we were often out walking the roads at night and the light was a familiar feature sweeping the skyline, and in particular when it reflected off low lying cloud. As we did not have a car at home a visit down to the the Hook was out of the question, and I suppose my first proper sight of it, must have come when I first went drifting for herring in the winter of 1983. Is there any better way to see a lighthouse? David Carroll in a previous guest blog gave a lovely description of a 1960’s drive with his dad to the Hook from Dunmore.
The Hook, has been a beacon for sailors and fishermen since the 5th C AD. St Dubhan, on founding a monastery at Churchtown saw a need for a warning light and a fire was lit on the tip of the headland. Some say that’s where the name Hook derives from; Dubhan being Irish for a fish hook.
Following the Norman Invasion William Marshall saw the need to protect shipping heading into his port of New Ross and the Hook tower was constructed between 1210-30. Apparently the goodly monks again took on the light-keepers duties and so it remained until the dissolution and routing of the holy orders circa 1540.
In the 1670’s the light was reinstated, using coal, but also with a protective screen from the elements. 1791 saw a whale oil fueled lamp instated following repeated complaints from mariners. 1871 saw the introduction of Paraffin but it would be 1972 before electricity finally reached the outcrop.
I’m old enough to remember the hue and cry nationally about the automation of the lights and the removal of men from the lighthouses, which finally happened at the Hook in 1996. Isn’t it incredible to think that for 1500 years the Hook was manned only for the tradition to stop due to an accountants abacus. In 2011, the fog horn was decommissioned, technology it was decided, can replace the human ear. In the last two years I noticed the latest change to this wonderful public institution. Someone, somewhere has decided that the strength of light from the hook is no longer required, and now when you walk the harbour the light is only visible from close by. No longer does it sweep the sky at Cheekpoint, and even from the Minaun its a stretch to witness it. If you don’t believe me travel to Dunmore East at dark, and look across the harbour.
Despite, or perhaps in spite, of the changes the Hook still endures as a powerful symbol. It has been a silent witness to thousands of ships and sailors down the millennia, a final farewell to home, a reassuring signal of safety. How often those men of the Formby and Coningbeg must have stood at the rails giving thanks at rounding the Hook on a return trip during those bitter war years, when every journey was potentially their last. How sad to think that 100 years ago this weekend they went to the bottom so far from home.
The Hook is now a major visitor attraction and Mark Power of Waterford Epic Locations has shot some wonderful footage of the Tower in all its glory https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lowH1T_5wJc
For a more detailed reading on the history, you could read nothing better than Billy Colfer’s The Hook Peninsula pp 84-91. You can buy it here from Kennys for €43.61. Certainly make someones Christmas! And speaking of books for Christmas…
My book on growing up in a fishing village is now published.
Book can be bought directly or from local stockists in Dublin, Wicklow, Wexford, Cork and Waterford. Get further details on the book, reviews, local stockists etc here
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