Belmullet is a quiet isolated town and a bridge-head for the Mullet and to a lesser degree villages and hamlets bordering Blacksod Bay and Broadhaven, it is also the main shopping and market town for north west Mayo. I noticed too, in 1962, that there was almost every day at the main street bus stop, somebody saying goodbye to someone, usually a youngster heading for Dublin or England which in Ireland included Scotland and to a lesser degree Wales. But to counteract the exodus of younger people there seemed to be a large community of older folk and retired Irish-Americans who had returned to their homeland living in dozens of homesteads dotted all over the Mullet. This was very noticeable compared with the wilderness between Crossmolina, Bellacorick and Bangor Erris when approaching Belmullet from Ballina.
My association with the southern tip of the Mullet 16 km south of Belmullet had to wait a further fourteen years when I made a Technical Data survey of the lighthouses at Blacksod, Broadhaven on the north east coast of the Mullet and again another visit to Eagle Island.
Blacksod is picturesquely situated on the south east corner of the Mullet backed by low lying hills and to the south the magnificent back-drop of Achill Island. Close to Blacksod are quarries of high quality red granite which has been, over the years, shipped to many parts of the world. A narrow gauge tramway was laid from these quarries over the shoulder of the hill and down to the harbour through the compound of the Irish Lights dwellings of the keepers attached to Blackrock Lighthouse which is 20km west of Blacksod. The tramway was operated partly by gravity and partly by winch, positioned on the shoulder of the hill, which hauled the loaded wagons up the incline from the quarry or the empty wagons back up the hill from the Blackrock Shore Dwellings compound. The line was laid in 1889, taken up in 1891, relaid in 1900 and taken up again in 1910 when the plant was removed to Pickle Point on Broadhaven 2.5km east of Belmullet.
Whether it was ever used there I have not been able to ascertain, but a pier at this point served Belmullet and was used for over forty years from the turn of the century by the Sligo Steam Navigation Company's vessel SS Tartar which was Government subsidised on behalf of the Congested District's Board, on a run to and from Sligo calling at Rosses Point, at the entrance to Sligo Harbour and Ballina, Ballycastle and Balderg on the north coast of County Mayo.
A lighthouse at the southern extremity of the Mullet was first mentioned in 1841, the result of a letter from Lieutenant Nugent of the Coast Guard stationed in Belmullet and forwarded to the Board by Mr James Dombrain, Inspector General of the Coast Guard. James Dombrain was later to be knighted and also became a member of the Ballast Board from 1848 to 1867 and of the Commissioners of Irish Lights Board from 1867 to 1871. The letter from Lieutenant Nugent requested a lighthouse to be placed on Blackrock but in Inspector George Halpin's report to the Board, he disapproved of a light on Blackrock as a general sea light but stated that it would be a useful light to lead vessels into Blacksod Bay with a light also on Blacksod Point, the Mullet's southern extremity.
The subject was postponed until 1857 when it was brought up again by the Inspecting Committee. Blackrock received sanction this time to go ahead but Blacksod Point was not mentioned and had to wait a further four years. In June 1861 the Inspecting Committee recommended placing a light on Blacksod Point which would, in conjunction with Blackrock, make Blacksod Bay a safe anchorage, a navigational aid which 273 years earlier would have been appreciated by one of the Spanish Armada commanders Martin de Berthendona of the ill-fated La Sancta Maria Rata Encoronda when he turned into Blacksod Bay, only to run aground the following day near Doona or Fahy Castle as it is called today-but that is another story.
The Inspecting Committee reiterated their remarks again in their Inspection report June 1862. These together with another letter from the Coast Guard and a report from the Board's Inspector, Captain E. F. Roberts were all sent to Trinity House in August 1862. The Elder Brethren replied in November stating they would defer coming to any decision on Blacksod Point or Inishtearaght, which was also being considered at that time, until they had an opportunity of visiting the localities in the spring of 1863. This inspection took place on the 8th and 9th June, Inishtearaght and Blacksod respectively, there and then it was agreed that Blacksod Lighthouse should be near Blacksod Point pier, locally called Termon pier (not the actual Blacksod Point which was about 1.6km to the south west previously mentioned) with a fixed white light and red shade over Ardelly Point. The following month Trinity House and the Board of Trade sanctioned Blacksod Lighthouse and they again emphasised that the light was to be positioned on Blacksod Point pier as far seaward as practicable and should not be seen by vessels entering the bay until they can prudently haul up to anchorage. Also, they agreed to the placing of a buoy at the end of the spit off Blacksod pier.
Plans were submitted in September 1863 by Mr J. S. Sloan, the Board's Superintendent of Works and Foreman, and were sent to Mr C. P. Cotton, the Board's Consulting Engineer who approved the design. The Board of Trade's approval was obtained in October subject to a slight modification, they suggested an octagonal lantern instead of a square lantern as shown on top of the square tower; the plans were altered but retained the two masonry sides of the square lantern and introduced a semi-circular eight sided glazed lantern seaward over the bay. In November the Secretary, Mr Lees was instructed by the Board to apply to the proper quarter to obtain land and by December the Reverend W. Palmer's offer to grant one statute acre of land for £1 per annum for lighthouse premises was approved. During May the following year, 1864, the reverend gentleman who also owned and worked the local granite quarries kept his eye to business and wrote to the Board offering granite for building at a sum of £100 to be paid for at the commencement of the works. The Board informed him his letter would be referred to the contractor when declared.
Four tenders were received for building the lighthouse dwelling, which were opened in June 1864 and considered by the Board who selected Mr Bryan Carey's tender for £2,100. With the Board of Trade's sanction which was received in late July, Carey must have commenced building in August or September, because payment of the first instalment was made in October and the contract was sealed in November.
As I mentioned earlier the Reverend W. Palmer was associated with the local granite quarries and having agreed to rent an acre of land for the lighthouse and its dwelling objected early in August 1864 to the Deputation taking possession of the land as it would prevent his access to the quay from the quarries. Inspector Roberts suggested the area be moved back twenty feet (6m) to allow a roadway between the lighthouse compound and the sea; Palmer agreed to this modification, but in October 1865 Palmer informed the Board that the twenty foot roadway had not been left. Inspector Roberts replied that stones from the roadway had been used by the contractor and Palmer had been paid for them.
A proposed alternative was turned down by Palmer as being too awkward for the railway he intended to run on the roadway, so a compromise was agreed by building a storm sea wall and leaving twenty feet for the road. Today if one follows the raised track bed of the old tramway out westward from the wall of the compound of the dwelling which were for the keepers of Blackrock, the remains of what looks like a branch track bed comes in from the seaward side of the Blacksod Lighthouse compound. This obviously was the "main line" from the quarries to the quay via the southside of the lighthouse until June 1877 when this section close to the lighthouse finally fell victim to the powerful seas off the southern point of the Mullet. There are times when these seas toss boulders, of up to 600 mm in diameter, around like peas being shaken in a colander. With this section of the quarry road or railway gone the Blacksod Granite Quarry Co. who later had taken over the quarry looked for an alternative route in 1887 for their tramway to the quay, this time through the ground which then had been acquired by the Board for the shore dwellings for the keepers at Blackrock. This was granted and the tramway ran via this route for two periods between 1889 and 1891 and 1900-1909.
When the Board opened the two tenders in May 1865 for the 3rd Order Dioptric Apparatus, one from Messrs. Chance Brothers, the other from Messrs. Wilkins & Co. they found that the quotations were identical, £340, so the Board agreed to draw lots! The result gave a preference to Chance Brothers.
By the summer of 1865 Bryan Carey had completed his building contract and the Inspecting Committee expressed their satisfaction with the work, recommending that the tower was ready for the lantern. In March 1866 a Notice to Mariners was issued stating that the fixed light showing white from 210º to 018º (168º) and red over Ardelly Point 189º to 210º (21º) would be exhibited on the night of 30th June 1866.
All seemed to be in ship shape and Bristol fashion after the light was established on 30th June 1866, but early in 1869 the Board received a letter from Francis Beaufort Palmer, son of the Rev. William Palmer, questioning the ground being leased by the Commissioners. The letter was referred to the Law Agent who reported that under the terms of the lease the Commissioners were bound, within twelve months from the date of the lease (1866) to build a storm wall five feet high around the premises and not to interfere with the approaches to the quay from Rev. Sir William's quarries. The Law Agent also pointed out that if the Commissioners have built within their limits Palmer should have no cause for complaint.
F. B. Palmer still doubted if the lighthouse had been built within the limits and that the twenty feet (6m) ostensibly left for access and eventually a tramway between the boundary wall and the sea was in places less than seven feet (2m).
Inspector Roberts reported fully on the situation and stated that in effect twenty four feet (7.3m) had been left and during construction Rev. Sir William had allowed the contractor to buy and take stones from the foreshore thus exposing the space left for the access roadway. The sea, on more than one occasion, almost destroyed the access altogether.
When the 1869 Inspecting Committee on Tour visited Blacksod they met F. B. Palmer who still adamantly adhered to his statement that the conditions of the lease had not been complied with. The Committee also met Rev. Sir William's bailiff and Mr Carey (the contractor who built the lighthouse) both of whom were present at the staking out of the 7.3m boundary and they confirmed that the site was set back to allow for the proposed tramway. The Committee, taking into consideration that erosion had taken place as reported by the Inspector, stated that Palmer had no rightful claim against the Board in this matter but they agreed to let him have an angle of the ground for the purpose of bringing his tramway to the pier at a convenient curve around the inner wall of the premises, providing Palmer surrendered all claim to a boundary between the outer wall and the sea.
Francis B. Palmer disappeared from the scene at this point and for four months references to the property at Blacksod lay dormant but in November 1869, a notice was served on the Secretary, Mr W. Lees, notifying him that the properties of Rev. Sir William Palmer were about to be sold in the Landed Estate Court.
The Board instructed the Law Agent to offer twenty five years purchase for the ground, and the Board of Trade were in favour of an alternative sum of £17:8s:4d but neither of those sums were accepted and the land was bought by an outsider. Eventually the Commissioners bought the title in 1948.
In July 1877 sanction was granted by Trinity House and the Board of Trade to 'colouring' the tower white with either paint or whitewash. Prior to this, the List of Lights noted that the tower was a reddish grey granite, and indeed, continued to do so up until 1893, sixteen years after the tower was painted! Today only the lantern is white. I have not been able to ascertain when the tower reverted to its reddish grey granite, but I have a suspicion that perhaps it was never painted or whitewashed; even the Victorians would have had respect for the very fine reddish grey granite stone-work.
The Blacksod Granite Quarry tramway episode fitted in around this time 1889, and as access to the quay around the south side of the lighthouse premises had been eroded by the sea the Granite Company were allowed to take their tramway through the site rented by the Commissioners for the Blackrock (Mayo) shore dwellings. The Granite Company had to remove the rails in 1891when the boundary wall for the dwelling was about to be built. After further negotiations around the turn of the century, agreement was reached again to allow the tramway to pass through the Shore Dwellings compound from 1900 to 1910. Today, one can still see the raised trackbed leading up to and through the compound and the rebuilt walls which the Company had to make good when they ceased operating.
Progress was certainly made during 1909 and I am sure the Keeper and his wife were overjoyed when an earth closet was built into the back yard. However, proper bathroom/toilet facilities and running water did not happen until the mid nineteen sixties!
The Inspecting Committee on Tour in 1923 recommended making a number of stations unwatched, Blacksod being one of them. Approval for unwatching was granted, but Blacksod was postponed. The question of unwatching came up again in 1929 and it was agreed to make provision in the Estimates for 1930-31, as an unwatched acetylene station. Two Moyes 56lb acetylene generators were fitted into one of the store rooms in the back yard and the light source was changed from an oil lamp to a group of seven 20 litre burners. The optic remained but the character changed from fixed white and red to group flash (2) white and red every 7.5 seconds on 23rd December 1931.
At first, the relief Keeper ashore from Blackrock looked after the light, but on the 1st November 1933 Mr Edward Sweeney was appointed as the Attendant.
At this point I do not really have to mention that a book could be written around Ted's activities in the Service, but two incidences come to mind.
During the last war American and British meteorologists used to look out of their respective windows and very rarely came up with the same weather forecast. Obviously, an accurate forecast was essential for the D-day landings in France in 1944. The Americans predicted bad weather for the whole week, the British agreed, with a break for the better mid-week. The Allies also listened to the German forecast; that lined up with the American prediction, so much so that Field Marshal Rommel left the front to visit Berlin. The weather report, which made up the minds of the British to prove they were correct and recommend invading came from the Blacksod Point Meteorological Station! Well done, Ted. Little did you realise that your report would eventually set umpteen wheels in motion and change the course of the war!
The second incident is associated with one of Ted's other activities. He was also the local Post Master. Between 1969 and 1972 the Commissioners, and I presume the Post Office, gave him permission to set up the Post Office in the lower room under the square lighthouse tower. The reason for this was that the old cottage where the Post Office was housed was being pulled down and in its stead a new bungalow built with a new Post Office attached. This, as far as I know, is the only time a Post Office has formed part of an Irish Lighthouse.
Blacksod, like most of our other lights, fell victim to modernisation and was converted to electric on 31st May 1967, complete with its standby diesel electric generator if the electricity failed.
Towards the end of 1969 Blacksod became the helicopter base for Eagle Island and Blackrock, and now boasts in its compound an eleven metre diameter concrete helipad, store and waiting room. Gone are the days of having to patiently wait in Belmullet before the relief boats could get out to either Eagle or Blackrock. And correspondingly, having to wait even more patiently on either of the two rocks to get ashore and replenish the food cupboard.