Islands of Ireland: Valour in the jaws of death

On the morning of November 28, 1881, the people of Dursey Island, Co Cork, looked out on the Calf Rock to an extraordinary sight. The tower of the lighthouse was gone, swept away in one of the most severe storms of the century. The lighthouse had been constructed in 1866 with its light 136ft high.

Islands of Ireland: Valour in the jaws of death

On the morning of November 28, 1881, the people of Dursey Island, Co Cork, looked out on the Calf Rock to an extraordinary sight. The tower of the lighthouse was gone, swept away in one of the most severe storms of the century. The lighthouse had been constructed in 1866 with its light 136ft high.

Disaster was fresh in the minds of the islanders as 12 years earlier six men drowned in another severe storm after they attempted to rescue the lighthouse keeper and workers from the Calf only to find the men didn’t require help after all. They were lost on the return journey.

Visiting on a calm September day with skipper Des O’Shea from Caherdaniel’s Skelligcoastdiscovery.com, the evidence of our eyes bears witness to the peculiar tides at the Calf Rock. While all around is calm, a vicious current surrounds the Calf, making landing impossible.

In 1881, a massive storm bore down on the coast. As it lashed the south coast, all six men in the lighthouse were given up for lost, presumed dead.

However, three days later a figure was seen dashing across the rock, which measures no more than 60m by 30m. When the storm struck, the men had rushed in to a small store room as the towering seas smashed the tower to pieces. And there they were now huddled, up to their knees in water. Alive but cut off.

An emergency call went out to rescue the stricken men. A sea crossing from the mainland was impossible. Two British gunboats, the Seahorse and the Amelia, had been stationed at Castletownbere and rushed to the scene.

Owing to the incredible power of the sea and intense winds, they were unable to effect a rescue. By now, on day five, food was scarce.

The Cork Examiner’s reporter visited on December 7 and wrote: “The sea was running mountains high, and the noise of the waves as they broke on the rugged and rocky shore was awe-insipring in the extreme. Hope must almost have died within the breasts of the three workmen when they saw this evening’s sun go down on this their wild rocky home.”

The assistant engineer to the Irish Lights Board, a Mr Bergin, stated that the men had 40 gallons of water but that 100lb of preserved meat was probably lost. Attempts to send in potatoes, brandy, and other supplies failed. The days passed but so sign of rescue was obvious.

Cometh the hour.

With the men on Calf Rock by now in desperate straits, something special was required. Under the direction of Mr Bergin and Mr Duggan, the lighthousekeeper who was on the mainland when the storm struck, seven Dursey islanders put to sea in a small boat and rowed 5km into the maelstrom.

Michael O’Shea and his men succeeded in landing a rope to the men and over the next few hours dragged each one of them through the seas and on to the boat.

Salvation after 12 days of terror.

The day after the rescue, December 12, the Cork Examiner reported: “The gunboat Seahorse, and its commander Captain Gravener, and crew, played an important part in the rescue of the poor creatures, but as the men themselves say, it is mainly due to the intrepidity and courage of O’Shea, the Dursey boatman, that they owe their snatching from an almost living death.”

And as a PS: “O’Shea’s name deserves to be printed in letters of gold.”

After the storm of 1881, a decision was made to build the lighthouse on the nearby Bull Rock. That station was completed in 1888 and in 1991 it was automated. A plaque on the Dursey Sound was erected in 2013 by the descendants of Mick Kelly.

The rescuers were later honoured for their bravery at a ceremony in London.

Rescued: Thomas Fortune (Wexford); John Young (England); John Harrington (Dursey); John Byrne (Dun Laoghaire); Mick Kelly and William Lowney (Ballaughbee);

Rescuers: Captain Michael O’Shea and his son Michael; Daniel Healy and his son Denis; Tade Dudley; Darby O’Sullivan; Batt Lynch

How to get there: Tours with www.skelligcoastdiscovery.com / www.irishlights.ie

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