Visiting a different world – Baltimore in 1942.

I was at the Military Archives a couple of days ago, starting what looks as though it will be a long piece of research on an unexpected personal project, the collation of as much information as I can find on the subject of the EIRE signs which are being documented here. It was my first time at the archives, indeed in any archives at all, so I want, at this point, to take the opportunity to state that I found the staff at the Military Archives to be helpful far, far beyond my expectations. They are an absolute credit to their employers.

Part of the reason I was at the archives was to look at the logbooks of the lookout posts to find references to the construction of the signs. As far as I am aware, the signs were built between late 1942 and early 1944 with various adjustments to the signs in between time. I don’t have anything more exact than that for the moment. This means I’m at some disadvantage when looking at the log books – there is simply no short cut but to go through them all. There are 82 sets log books, and so, this is no small job. In a way, it is absolutely daunting.

Given the constraints of time, I requested one set of logbooks initially to basically get a feel for the sort of information and data I would be working on and the station I selected was Baltimore in County Cork. The EIRE sign associated with this post is still in place having been, I believe, renovated a few years ago, and while there’s an argument for starting from the beginning, with number 1, I chose, for my own reasons to start with number 29 because I am from Cork myself, although a long way distant from Baltimore. The county of Cork is not that small in the Irish scheme of things.

I’ll cut to the chase and state that I drew a blank on any comment about the sign and this piece is not about the sign in any case, it is purely the reason that on a beautiful April afternoon, I found myself sitting in a reading room in Cathal Brugha Barracks in Rathmines, visiting a place and time that is quite far away now. I looked through the logbooks for 1940 and for 1942 (and came no place close to being finished with them) the other day and I was quite simply mesmerised at just what extraordinary documents they are. So much so that I have other plans for research ideas regarding these documents when the signs project is more or less complete.

The logbooks were written by volunteers of the coastal watch service during the war. There is an excellent book on the subject of the coastal watch called Guarding Neutral Ireland by Michael Kennedy which I strongly, strongly recommend reading if you are interested in Ireland’s history during the second world war. I want, at this point, to talk about some of the things which struck me most about the logbooks themselves, and the utterly different world that they pointed to. A world which I strongly suspect is now beyond the imagination of a lot of people in this country; not just because there was a war going on, but because it really, really was a completely different world.

The logs were written into specially printed books called LOP logbooks. LOP stood for Look Out Post, and Baltimore, in Cork, was L.O.P. number 29. There were 83 of these dotted around the coast at approximately 10-12 mile intervals – that would be 16-20km intervals for the modern amongst you – and they were located to maximise coverage. Their locations bore a lot in common with previous efforts to coastwatch in Ireland so many of them are near or in the shadow of 17th and 18th watch towers, for example. Baltimore is not an exception, it lies just in front of what I believe is Spain Tower, a 19th century signal station for that particular coast watch. The tower is in better condition now than the look out post is.

The first records from the look out post in Baltimore were written in pencil, between the nice wide lines which were pre-printed. They are largely legible, although the paper itself is very clearly old, from times past. It smells that way and above all, it feels that way. The front cover is missing off it; it is missing off at least another one. At some point in 1940, however, someone decided they would get more use out of the logbooks if they ruled between the lines as well. From then on, every page I read was ruled between lines either with a normal led pencil or a garish pink colour which I believe to have been a pencil rather than a pen. I need to look at it more closely.

The handwriting, for the most part, is immaculate, and very, very legible, be it in pen or pencil, although somewhat easier in pen, even where the books were subject to some sort of water damage. They contain the mundane “took over watch” and “handed over watch” comments at every watch change which was 8am, 4pm and midnight. Each change of watch was signed off by what I assume was the NCO for the post – I don’t know enough yet. Interesting things struck me – I could tell when the pen was refilled with ink, for example, between the heavier flow, and, additionally, the increase in the number of blots which were noticeable. There are key stylistic differences between the early 1940 log and the 1942 documents – the 1942 documents were much more regimented and organised. The 1940 log had, in certain respects, more detailed and frequent weather information. Descriptions of planes were significantly more detailed in 1942 (and frequent). One log describes a plane flying around the Fastnet a number of times.

Little detalis caught my attention – reports of explosions, followed some hours later of phone calls from Baltimore Garda Station inquiring whether specific local and overdue trawlers had been seen. I assume that with no further queries – every call was logged – the trawlers turned up.

The next nearest LOP to Baltimore was in Toe Head, and Toe Head occasionally called to see if Baltimore had noticed things they had, or to confirm the sounds of explosions. There were regular exchanges of information with respect to the locations of mines. Initially, every observation of note relating to shipping and trawlers, and aircraft, were reported to Cork IO; by 1942, the messages were being relayed to Cork Message Centre instead. The phones, while a technical marvel to be located where they were, were regularly subject to test calls. Most daily reports in Baltimore related 1 or more test calls from the Garda Barracks in Skibbereen, often noted as Guarda Barracks, Skibb, at least one a day from Skibbereen Exchange, and, as 1942 wore on, Cork Telephone Exchange started to appear every few days.

Mizen Head occasionally contacted Baltimore with expected arrival dates for Irish ships leaving Lisbon with the request that the LOP volunteers watch for the ships.

Vessels heading for Baltimore Harbour were reported to the Garda Siochána in Baltimore; the planes and other ships generally went to the Message Centre in Cork. On one occasion, the Barracks in Baltimore contacted the LOP requesting the volunteers to watch for a man who had been spotted near the Beacon with a receiving set, and to hold him if possible and contact them immediately on sighting. No further comments about that appear from which I only conclude that the man with the receiving set was not located by the volunteers of the LOP.

At the end of 1942, the authorities took a substantial interest in the behaviour and location of a Spanish fishing trawler in the area, to the extent that as its stay at an anchorage point outside Baltimore wore on, the volunteers at the lookout post were reporting whether it had moved or not almost every hour. This was very different to the comments about the various other trawlers which passed, either nationality unknown, or nationality British and a registration number or name given.

Mostly, ships and aircraft passed nationality unknown, but as 1942 wore on, the descriptions of the planes, in particular, become more detailed. And one ship which passed was marked as nationality Panama.

A lot of things fascinated me about the books such as I have had time to study the first of them. Certain things struck me about the use of language, even limited and all was it was to specific subjects. And for every one person who has a mobile phone with a 9 digit number, it’s remarkable to see comments about personnel calling Kinsale 21. Imagine that, a two digit phone number. The verb to make a call to another location was “call up” as in “Called up Skibb Guarda Barracks”, and yes, Guarda featured as a spelling on several occasions. That aside, the spelling was generally accurate with the occasional recourse to the less frequently used Mizzen head rather than the current standard, Mizen. Elements of the handwriting also fascinated me.

I have, at the moment, a mandate to review these logbooks to support one personal project, the Eire signs. But as I start to read them, to look at them, and seeing some of the comments about those logs in Michael Kennedy’s book on the coastal watch service, I see other projects, not necessarily war installation or direct war history coming out of them. If I didn’t have to work all day, I could spend my days reading them given how fascinating them are.

 

A Coruna, Northern Spain

This time last week I was in Galicia, northern Spain. I went with family who had always wanted to go to Santiago de Compostela, but on one day, we got a train out to La Coruna because I insisted on seeing the Tower of Hercules which is a world heritage site there.

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When the people at the Hook talk about it being one of the oldest lighthouses in the world, it’s because this is actually older. In fact, it’s one of only two surviving Roman lighthouses although based on my understanding of its history it may not have been in continuous use from the 2nd century to today. But it’s still about nine hundred years older than the Hook signal all the same.

And I wanted to see it, so we got on the train to A Coruna last Monday morning and went to see the lighthouse. And climbed the 220 steps in it, and walked around the foundations, and marvelled at the engineering skills of years and many years gone by.

I loved A Coruna. I probably hadn’t done enough research before I went to Santiago because we didn’t have a whole pile of time and what we had was already crammed. So I didn’t know, until we got there, that A Coruna was the second biggest city in Galicia, being two and a half times bigger than Santiago (which is the fifth biggest city in Galicia, despite being the capital). So while I knew it was a big fishing port, I didn’t realise that it was, for example, twice the size of Cork city.

I could bear living there I think. It’s a decent sized city with a surf beach right in the centre, a stunning looking beach at that. The Deportiva football stadium is on the sea front and looks like a glittering jewel in the sunshine. I’m not a football fan but this looked quite impressive. The whole way a long that beachfront is a stunning prom to walk along which is even more stunning than the Promenade des Anglais in Nice. Seriously. Up the coast from the Tower of Hercules are rocks with breaking white water that acts like adrenaline to a wave and spray junkie like myself.

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Of course, the one problem is my Spanish would take some improving. I got by but have big vocabulary gaps particularly in the area of food which surprised me. I can still remember a lot of the grammar and I was told by quite a few people that my Spanish wasn’t so bad.

I’ve spent lots of dream time thinking how nice it would be to live in a city with a decent job and a decent beach and the ability to go surfing almost at will. The existence of a three hour lunch break such as most of the shops appear to have would facilitate that as well. I thought that really, Cork was going to be the closest I’d make it in Europe, or maybe Biarritz, but frankly, even though I’d probably have to live in an apartment, A Coruna is suddenly top of the list. Even though I can barely speak Spanish and really have no qualifications in the fishing industry. Maybe they need junior statisticians down there.

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Collector of things.

Being an art collector is not such a bad thing apparently. It signifies class, worth, wealth, taste. Apparently. We don’t necessarily attack art collectors for having lots of art because well, they’re clearly the right sort of people. Collectors of antiques as well, we applaud for their taste, nous, ability to recognise that yesterday’s tat is tomorrow’s inflation beating value holding pile of wood.

And yes, I watch the Antiques Road Show. RIght.

I was shopping yesterday. In fact, I intended to go to the Art and Hobby Store, pick up a single hole punch, maybe some decorative washi tape and go home. It didn’t quite work out like that. I bought stuff I don’t need (pens) more stuff I don’t need (beautiful notebooks), a book (like my personal library isn’t already out of control and some bookmarks which will work grand on the books but not necessarily on the Kindle. When I started locating space for this, I realised that in fact, I’m probably not that different to an art collector or an antique collector. Nor a Star Wars memorabilia nerd, nor a music fanatic with 9 metres of shelving for their extensive vinyl collection. We all collect stuff and in some ways, it’s a mild addiction, which I usually write off as being healthier than alcohol.

The girl at the shop reckoned she had a problem with notebooks. I think her problem was worse than mine because she typically only used a few pages before tossing them and starting a new one. I have many beautiful notebooks, this is true. However, a substantial number of them are full (because I collect memories of my life in the journals I have kept since I was 20 years old and all of them get pushed into some use. I have some beautiful notebooks.

I collect pens as well. I’m not a collector in the grand scale of collectors of pens but I have seven Caran D’Ache ball point Ecridors of one sort or another, a Caran D’Ache fountain, three Cross pens, ten Lamy fountain pens, a Papermate fountain pen and a Parker fountain pen and at least another 10 other fountain pens of indiscriminate marque. I have several disposable Pilot fountain pens in pink, aqua and purple. And beside me there are 8 bottles of ink not including the couple of spare bottles of ink. And no, I don’t really do calligraphy. I have nice handwriting but that’s about it. However, I own three calligraphy pens with a view to doing some (and you don’t want to see my baby steps efforts.

I have a substantial collection of loose leaf teas, accumulated over some time and which I have decided needs to be the subject of de-stashing. At some point in the next week I will be down to 0g of Fuego by La Compagnie Anglaise des Thés, a state of affairs not known since about 2004. So you could argue I’m making progress there. But that would be to deny the discovery of Marco Polo by Mariages Freres and the collection of Nordqvist Teas brought from the last trip to Finland.

I also have a personal library of cookbooks which is rather impressive for someone who typically cooks for one. I remember a time when my cookbook collection accountet to one, a Clairefontaine notebook (surprise surprise) bought in France with all sorts of things stuck into it from all sorts of magazines, post cards and the backs of chocolate wrappers. I still have it, actually; it’s in remarkably good nick and it contains my go-to-recipe for Sunday morning pancakes which was on a postcard I bought in Brittany. But in addition, I have an interesting mixture of which The Cork Cook Book, sold in aid of Cork Simon about 10 years ago is my most valued, not because I’ve every done much out of it (although the bread and butter pudding in it is pretty brilliant), but because it’s not still available. I probably don’t need all these cookbooks, but there is something comforting about them, and something extremely beautiful about some of them. The Tessa Kiros books in particular are bought not to be cooked from (this would be a fringe benefit) but to be looked at in quiet enjoyment late of an evening after work.

I don’t, on the other hand, have much of a wine collection – there are some bottles there but mostly other people’s taste because, living on my own, I don’t open bottles that often (but have been known to freeze very good white wine for future cooking projects rather than waste it 3 days after it has been opened).

I accumulate hobbies as well. I have an extensive collection of yarn linked to crochet and knitting. And several tapestries because I do that too. And tools of those trades. I have quite a lot of crochet hooks and am aware that there is an inherent danger in looking at the collection of gorgeous crochet hooks on sale on Etsy.com.

LInked to this, I have a substantial collection of shelving and storage and boxes mostly bought in IKEA and Homebase to store and organise all my things. And a substantial number of tins (because they are pretty and what is life if it is not beautiful and also I have this rather substantial collection of tea to be stored and yeah, about a million different cookie cutters and many different plastic bowls to cook with and all these things need to be organised and stored…

There are times – with a heavy dose of nostalgia – I look back on when my life could, for the most part, be stuffed into one rucksack and one carry all and I could move onto the next stage without having to do it in 94 car runs. In a way, the accumulation of things, life experiences and life attempts, is a mark of the passing of time. I do have kitesurfing gear, camera gear, climbing gear, bodyboarding stuff and all that. I never look back wishing I didn’t have all this stuff because this stuff is of my life and I may as well wish I didn’t exist.

The interesting thing, for all the inveterate collecting and hoarding of stuff, I’m not all that different to an antique or art collector. It is the same instinct; the same desire to appeal to a sense within yourself. Only difference in perception is that the antiques and the art represent the perception of an increase in wealth where as my collections represent the perception of an increase in clutter.

Beautiful, pretty, clutter that I would not be without.

The Calf Rock lighthouse disaster

The coast of Ireland is peppered with lighthouses, of which the Fastnet is probably the most famous, the teardrop of Ireland. Further to the west, beyond Dursey Island is the lighthouse at Bull Rock. It was built to replace the lighthouse on Calf Rock which was destroyed in a storm just fifteen years after it went into operation. .

Initial plans for a lighthouse in the area were to locate the light on Bull Rock but in the time that elapsed between first considering the matter and actually implementing the construction of a lighthouse, there was a decision made to situate the light on Calf Rock rather than Bull Rock. The lighthouse, I believe, was designed by George Halpin, responsible for a good number of lighthouses designs in Ireland, and following construction, the light was established in 1866. In relative terms, then, it was not a particularly old lighthouse.

The lighthouse was constructed of cast iron and in a storm in 1869 it suffered substantial damage when part of the balcony was swept away. As a result, some reinforcement work was done to protect the new lighthouse. That storm was not without local cost however; six fishermen who went to check on the safety of the lightkeepers drowned on their way home.

I started looking into the history of this lighthouse because the storm of 27 November 1881 is mentioned in the list of storm waves in L O’Brien’s recent paper on extreme wave events in Ireland and I had, in fact, forgotten it ever existed.

We tend to forget how different life is now to life in the late 19th century and it is probably hard to imagine that at the time, night was completely dark, except for the light from the lighthouse. The only light came from candles and the odd oil lamp. Without wanting to think too much about it, it’s pretty likely that the arrival of the lighthouse brought a substantial change to the nightscape at the western end of Dursey Island.

On 27 November 1881, however, it went out. There were six men on the rock, all fortunate enough to be in the base of the lighthouse when the top of the lighthouse was blown off above the reinforced section, and literally just washed away. They got to spend another 12 days on the rock, however, because it was not possible to safely land on the rock. Two British Gunboats attempted and failed the landing; in the event, the men were retrieved by the courage of the attendant boatman, Michael Shea, who lived on Dursey Island who went to retrieve them using a small boat and some of his fishing colleagues from the island. Considerations regarding the rescue were coloured by the loss of six men following storm damage to the lighthouse in 1869. You can find an account of the rescue here on a New Zealand Archive. The rescue also made the newspapers in New York, albeit in some less detail and a similarly short note made the Argus in Melbourne in Australia. Reports suggest that Michael Shea and his colleagues received a reward from the captain of one of the naval vessels attending.

Prior to the rescue, Henry Grissell, who built the lighthouse, wrote an account of the construction of the lighthouse and some comments regarding the suitability of the design of the lighthouse to the Times of London. You can find the text of his letter here (also in the New Zealand archives) at the end of that piece. The construction took 4 years and provided ample evidence of the difficulties of constructing the offshore lighthouses. He gave an account of the expedient efforts they made to relieve construction workers on the rock and provide them with supplies when the boats could not approach. He noted that the lighthouses, 90 foot high sat atop a rock which was 60-90 feet above sea level. The fury of storms sometimes hid the top of the tower for two minutes at a time. He noted that the tower was cast iron lined with brick. He felt that brick was not suitable as it would possibly allow condensation and water get between the inside of the iron and the brickwork, thus causing oxidation.

There is an interview with the head lighthouse keeper here, given to the correspondent of The Standard which syndicated to some of the Australian newspapers (this link goes to the Horsham Times). He notes the substantial rust remaining in the lighthouse and also suggests that it might have been possible to retrieve the men from the rock after 2 days had an approach been made from the other side of the rock.

The wreck of the lighthouse is still to be seen on Calf Rock and its fate was to impact on discussions on the value of cast iron lighthouses whose design was subsequently phased out.

The story appears to have caught the imagination of one of the writers of the Standard, who subsequently endeavoured to reach Dursey Island to give an account of life on the island. It is a fascinating and sobering account of life in West Cork in the 1880s.

At Ballynacallagh I called on Jerry Harrington, one of the three richest men on the island. He came out clad in a tattered flannel shirt, an old hat, a pair of frieze trousers, and a pair of boots which an English beggar would not pick up, half his right foog and half of the toes being exposed as he walked in the heave rain.

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The little community governs itself and strives, with poor success, to feed itself.

Economically, the island was a basket case. About 200 people lived on it, of which 80 were children, and there were 23 farms. A number of the farmers had a secondary source of food in the fishing and there were twelve households whose sole occupation was fishing, working a total of five boats.

Most of the farming was for grazing with a small bit of planting done for potatoes or sometimes oats.

In 1881-1882, the potato crop was a total failure, and all but one of the fishing boats were knocked to pieces by the recent storm (I assume this is the November 1881 storm which destroyed the lighthouse) and anyway, it had been a bad fishing season too.

The farmers were tenants of Lord Bantry, whose agent, passing through 12 years previously, had substantially increased the rents. But Dursey was not really a cash economy and no one had any actual money. They survived, insofar as they could, on what they could fish or grow, and what credit they could obtain from the shopkeepers in Castletown Berehaven (Castletownbear). The piece described Michael Shea as having a large farm, one sufficient to support four cows. His rent had been increased on the visit of Lord Bantry’s agent from fifteen guineas to seventeen pounds.

Michael Shea also owned a fishing boat and earned income as the tenderman for the lighthouse (I suspect he is the Michael Shea who retrieved the men from Calf Rock at the start of December). In Dursey Island terms at the time, he almost certainly could have been considered well off. But with the lighthouse gone and the fishing poor and substantial rent, he enjoyed at best, a precarious situation and if he was well off by Dursey Island standards, the simple truth was he was not well off at all. He and his family lived on Indian meal and fish, with some buttermilk from time to time. He sold butter to the tradesmen who sold him the Indian meal. He may have earned 6 pounds on the deal but he still owed them forty. In the context of annual rent of seventeen pounds and one stream of income completely gone, this was a substantial debt.

In the early 1880s, apparently every man owned two to three years rent to Lord Bantry, and were afraid of the possibility of evictions to be carried out by Lord Bantry’s agent. The notices were apparently already at the post office at Allihies and so no man would go to collect his post as they could not afford to receive knowledge of their notice. The tradesmen in Castletownbear who traded with the islanders received no cash. On Dursey Island, the scope for paying rent or tax was as good as non-existent.

It is my firm conviction that these poor people would be willing to pay the arrears if they had the means ; but it is clear that they cannot pay in money.

The Standard’s correspondent noted that the people would be willing to pay off their arrears in alternative work (he mentions the construction of a road on the island) if they only had the opportunity.

Following the destruction of the lighthouse on Calf Rock, a temporary lighthouse was established on Dursey and according to Bear Tourism, the remains of the temporary lighthouse can still be seen. In the meantime, a new lighthouse was built on Bull Rock and it was established in 1889, roughly 8 years after the Atlantic had claimed the light on Calf Rock.

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Notes.

Most of the contemporaneous reports of the Calf Rock lighthouse destruction came from newspapers in the New Zealand archives (mainly because they are online) with the interview with Thomas Fortune, the head lightkeeper coming from the Australia Archives (Trove). It’s worth noting the delay in the detailed reports – the cablegram reports (three lines) appeared in December; the detailed reports were published around the start of February 1882. The account of life in Dursey Island made the newspapers in New Zealand in March. I loved this comment from one report prior to the rescue of the men on the rock though:

The persons who were on the Calf Rock lighthouse when it was swept away in the late storm and who were saved only by a miracle are still there ! 

from a report in the Otago Daily Times in February, two months after the men were retrieved from the rock. European news arrived in New Zealand either by cable gram (brief and to the point) or by ship (two to three months after the events in question).

You can access some of the New Zealand archives on this matter here.