Rotten by name but certainly not by nature. A former lighthousekeeper on this island, Michael Moore, described this island as “a lovely place”. Rotten Island is a mere sliver of an island at the mouth of Killybegs Harbour in Co Donegal. Were it not for the lighthouse established there by the doyen of lighthouse construction, George Halpin Sr, in 1832, it would probably have been
disregarded as being an island in the first place. Over time the 150m by 50m rock came to be known as Rotten Island, a corruption of Naomh Rotain, who is thought to have had a hermitage on the barren granite. A miniature Skellig. In Irish it is an tOileán Bréan or Foul Island which probably followed the naming after the saint.
The lighthouse was designed by Halpin, who also designed the nearby lighthouse at St John’s Point (which is curiously referred to as an island on occasion), and which was established in 1838. The lighthouse at St John’s Point was established in 1832 to provide safe passage for ships to the deep-water port of Killybegs. The town is famous for its thriving fishing industry and in recent years this has been supplemented by the arrival of huge cruise ships which disgorge their passengers to feast their eyes on the wonders of Co Donegal. In the 1830s, the two lighthouses worked in tandem to keep seafarers safe. The dangerous conditions claimed the lives of three workers during construction.
The island’s population peaked in 1841 at 11 people. Considering the population of the country at the time was 8m, it is not surprising that more workers were deemed necessary to carry out the duties on the lighthouse. In those early days, the lighthousekeepers were known as wickies, a reference to their job of trimming the wick that lit the flame of the lighthouse. In addition to the head man and assistant lighthouse keeper, there were roles for boatmen and maintenance crews.
As the general population declined over the years and technology advanced, fewer people were needed to run the lighthouse. No one lived there in the closing decades of the 19th century but by 1911 lighthousekeepers were again living on Rotten Island with their families. It even recorded a birth as a J Carr was born there in the 1910s. Being a short row to the shore at Killybegs or shorter to the pier at the townland of Benroe meant supplies were easy to get and the occupants were never isolated as they were in many of the lighthouses — to wit, Eagle Rock, Co Mayo, Fastnet Rock, Co Cork, or Tuskar Rock, Co Wexford. Donegal County Library installed a library on the island in the 1940s so the workers would have a diversion from their duties.
Rotten Island’s main claim to fame is that it was the last lighthouse in the country to have a female assistant lighthouse keeper. William A Hamilton was appointed lighthouse keeper in 1950 and his wife duly took up the role of assistant. Mrs Hamilton, from Co Down, was from one of three generations of the family to serve Irish Lights.
In 1959, the Donegal News reported: “The light was converted to from incandescent to acetylene and although the changeover to acetylene no longer requires the services of a lightkeeper Mr Hamilton has been appointed to pay an occasional visit to the island to see that the island is functioning properly and to charge the gas supply.”
In 1963, this apparatus was replaced by an electrically charged beam.
A poignant tale of loss in these waters is memorialised in the Phil Coulter ballad ‘Donegal Danny’ as sung by Pecker Dunne, The Dubliners, and others. Excerpt:
“One fateful night in the wind and the rain We set sail from Killybegs town There were five of us from sweet Donegal And one from County Down
“We were fishermen who worked the sea And never counted the cost But I never thought when that night was done That my fine friends would all be lost
“By St John’s Point in the early dawn I dragged myself on the shore And I cursed the sea for what she’d done And vowed to sail her never more.”
Enquire at Killybegs pier, Co Donegal.
Irish Lighthouses, Sharma Krauskopf, Rowman and Littlefield; www.irishlights.ie