Lighthouses might seem like unlikely targets in the Civil War - but their supplies of explosive and useful equipment meant that there were over twenty raids on lighthouses between 1922 and 1923. Eoin Kinsella explains what happened.
As the General Lighthouse Authority for the island of Ireland, the Commissioners of Irish Lights have ensured the safety of Irish coastal waters since 1867, operating under a constitution that dates to 1786. In the early decades of the twentieth century, with mass travel still by sea, the international sea lanes off Ireland were among the most significant in the world and of immense geopolitical importance. Along with buoys and other local markers, Irish Lights’ system of aids to navigation was underpinned by the seventy-four lighthouses and eleven lightships dotted around the island, most heavily concentrated along the south and southwest coasts.
If Irish Lights’ ability to fulfil its mission was heavily disrupted by the First World War, the War of Independence and Civil War brought new and even greater challenges, their impact on Irish Lights and its staff more keenly felt. Beginning in the summer of 1920, the IRA initiated a systematic campaign of raids on lighthouses. In contrast with attacks on coastguard stations, lighthouse raids never resulted in violence or more than incidental destruction of property.
Instead, the raiders sought equipment such as telescopes and signalling lamps and, above all, explosives. Vast quantities of explosive charges and detonators were stored by Irish Lights around the coast for use in its fog signals - vital elements in the network of aids to navigation on a coast where heavy fog could lie for days.
With the British military unable to protect individual lighthouses from raids, by the end of 1921 Irish Lights had taken the drastic step of transferring most of its explosives away from remote and vulnerable lighthouses and fog signal stations. The result was an increase in the dangers of navigating the Irish coast, with fog signalling suspended at several stations, including Hook Head, the Old Head of Kinsale, Mizen Head and Loop Head.
Raids on Lighthouses in 1922
The signing of the Treaty on 6 December 1921 and its ratification by the Dáil the following month offered some hope that raids on lighthouses would cease; that hope was soon dashed. When Dungarvan and Rotten Island lighthouses were raided in February and March 1922 by men claiming to be from the IRA, there was some confusion at Irish Lights’ headquarters. Were these not the forces of the Provisional Government? Even as they sought clarification from the new Ministry for Economic Affairs as to whether it had sanctioned these raids, it quickly became apparent that they in fact were early signs of the emerging split over the Treaty.
Between February 1922 and April 1923 there was a total of twenty-two raids or similar incidents at eighteen different lighthouses and fog signal stations. The frequency of raids intensified when the simmering tensions of early 1922 boiled over into outright war in early summer. All but one incident involved anti-Treaty forces; the exception was an operation by the National Army, seeking to capture an IRA member believed to be sheltering at Wicklow Head Lighthouse.
By the time the Civil War began, Irish Lights had learned the hard lessons from the raids of 1920 and 1921. Fog signals remained suspended, and explosives were stored more securely. Irish Lights also implemented a policy of refusing to replace stolen equipment, hoping to further minimise the attractiveness of lighthouses as targets for anti-Treaty forces.
‘Simply Doing his Duty’
Irish Lights’ first indication that they were not yet out of the woods came in February 1922, when the principal lightkeeper at Dungarvan in Co Waterford, Benjamin Jeffers, informed head office that the IRA were active in the vicinity and had occupied the nearby coastguard station.
Seven months later his replacement, John Moore, reported that the IRA had appeared at his door demanding a cask of paraffin oil to burn down the coastguard station. When he refused, five armed men returned and demanded the oil more forcefully:
I was compelled at point of their revolvers and rifles to give them 30 gallons of paraffin oil. I regret I had to give way, as I had no means of defence. Most likely they would raid the station during night and cause a lot of damage, as they have been about station night and day since Sunday.
Moore also reported that the IRA had heavily mined the pier at Helvick Harbour in anticipation of a sea-landing by the National Army, and after burning the Coastguard station had left the area.
When a party of six armed men landed on Rotten Island in Co Donegal in March 1922 and insisted on entering the lighthouse, lightkeeper Murtagh Byrne refused them access:
They told me they could go where they liked, as they were I.R. Army. They were all armed with revolvers, and were more or less abusive, one of them calling me a ‘hooligan’. It is rather hard to have to put up with the like of these parties and a man only simply doing his duty, and carrying out the orders issued.
Lightkeepers around the coast had no training in dealing with raiders, and few guidelines to follow other than to use their common sense. Some, like Moore and Byrne, attempted to refuse entry to raiders, though this clearly carried risks. Byrne’s account - slightly humorous in retrospect - hints at the threat of violence that occasionally threaded through lightkeepers’ interactions with raiders.
On several occasions they were directly warned not to speak to the National Army or Civic Guard and left in little doubt as to the potential consequences. After a raid on Poer Head Fog Signal Station in Cork in March 1923, Lightkeeper Frederick Coupe went to considerable lengths to prevent his report from being read by prying eyes:
The raiders swore they would shoot both [Assistant Keeper] Johnson and I if we spoke to anyone outside about them, consequently I have not reported the matter to Civic Guard or military, as I would be afraid to be seen speaking to them. Any action taken on information given must be done in Dublin. Fearing my letters might be intercepted I had to send by special messenger my first report to Cork, this I am doing likewise to Middleton [sic].
On one occasion the danger came from the National Army, which raided Wicklow Head Lighthouse in August 1922 - the only raid during which shots were actually fired. The army was searching for a wounded ‘Irregular’, suspected of sheltering at the lighthouse. With no sign of the ‘Irregular’, matters soon got out of hand.
The soldiers began to fire indiscriminately and without warning, sweeping the lighthouse and keepers’ dwellings with a hail of bullets. Lightkeeper Thomas King complained that not only were the keepers’ families terrified by the army’s actions, but the soldiers were acting on faulty intelligence and ‘didn’t understand the seriousness of injuring [the] light apparatus’. When Irish Lights demanded an explanation from the Provisional Government, King’s account was dismissed as an exaggeration.
Paraffin Oil and Telephones
Not every raid carried such a threatening edge. When sixteen gallons of paraffin oil were stolen from Roches Point Lighthouse in Cork on 9 August 1922, the lightkeeper was given a receipt.
While carrying off the telephone from Kilcredaun Lighthouse in Clare on 13 January 1923, the raiders apologised to the lightkeeper for troubling him, but said they were obliged to carry out their orders. On the same night a party of armed and masked men raided Loop Head Lighthouse, just seventeen kilometres away, where they also proceeded to dismantle and steal the telephone.
By the time of the final lighthouse raid, at Slyne Head in County Galway on 12 April 1923, the Civil War had entered its final phase.
From the very outset of the conflict, lighthouses had made increasingly poor targets when compared to similar raids during the War of Independence. Civil War raids yielded little tangible reward beyond the odd telephone, signalling lamp or bicycle. At Slyne Head the raiders made off with a telescope. Nine days earlier a raid on Hook Lighthouse in Wexford had secured some explosives - the only one during the Civil War to do so. The ‘bounty’ was, however, just fourteen detonators and two cotton powder charges - a paltry haul compared to the thousands of detonators and explosive charges stolen from Irish Lights by the IRA during the War of Independence.
Note on Sources
Accounts of lighthouse raids between 1919 and 1923, from the perspective of the raiders, can occasionally be found in the records of the Bureau of Military History and Military Service Pensions Collection. Only a handful of the raids that actually occurred appear in these sources. Each raid was, however, carefully recorded by the lightkeepers present at each station and reported to the Commissioners of Irish Lights. Lightkeeper reports on lighthouse raids during the War of Independence and Civil War can be found in the War and Raid Files Collection, housed in the Irish Lights’ archive. This article draws upon that collection, which will be available to view online via UCD Digital Library in early 2022.
For more on raids on lighthouses during the War of Independence, see Century Ireland.
This article is part of the Civil War project coordinated by UCC and based on The Atlas of the Irish Revolution edited by John Crowley, Donal Ó Drisceoil, Mike Murphy and John Borgonovo. Its contents do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ.