Dundalk Pile Light and Bellurgan Folk
On one occasion in August 1884, at about half past three on a Saturday evening, she started for home after finishing her shopping in Dundalk. There was such a dense fog over the river that the ferry man, a feeble old person, feared to attempt the passage. It would seem that a coastguard named Barnes, from the nearby Coastguard Station at Soldier's Point, had a light and altogether unseaworthy skiff, which had been lying unused for a couple of years. In this he offered to take Miss Roddy across the river.
She thankfully accepted, not knowing the dangerous state of the craft. About mid-way across the river the boat half filled with water and capsized, throwing the occupants into the water. Now here versions of the story differ!
One version states that while the coastguard managed to hold on to the overturned boat, Miss Roddy was carried out the river by the fast ebbing tide. The following morning, at low water, the Lightkeepers on Dundalk Pile Light noticed a black bundle lying close to the river retaining wall not far from the lighthouse. They went along to investigate and discovered Miss Roddy alive but unconscious. They semaphored ashore and the relief boat brought her to Dundalk where she was transferred to hospital. She made a complete recovery.
It was maintained that she was kept afloat by the voluminous clothing which was the fashion of the period! I believe this was printed in The Irish Times at a later stage, but I think a possibly more accurate account can be gleaned from the local Dundalk Democrat, which states that -
Neither could swim, so that their lives were in imminent danger. Miss Roddy caught the boat at the stern and the coastguard caught the boat at the bow, and thus they held on and drifted seaward. Their screams for help were unheard and they remained thus hanging on for about three hours. In this time they drifted nearly four miles outward and at length got on to one of the guide walls about two hundred yards from the lighthouse. Here Miss Roddy left the boat and proceeded along the wall towards the lighthouse, shouting for assistance. Her cries were heard by the Lightkeeper, a brother of Miss Roddy, who immediately proceeded to the assistance of what he supposed to be a man in distress, but on coming close he found to his consternation that it was his own sister. She held up bravely in body and mind up to this time, but on seeing her brother her strength gave way and she fainted, falling flat on the wall.
Mr Roddy took the inanimate form in his arms, waded to the lighthouse and carried her up the iron stairs. Returning, he also took the coastguard to the lighthouse and attached to his body a rope with which he was assisted up. At this time Miss Roddy was in an utterly prostrate condition, and for some time her life was considered in imminent danger. She was kept in the lighthouse during the night and the following morning was conveyed to her home. She was on Sunday attended by Dr Callan, and we are happy to say that she is rapidly recovering from the effects of her long exposure to weather and water, and gallant struggle for life. The coastguard did not suffer much from the effects of the accident.
It is possible Miss Roddy's skirts did help in her survival, if not by creating a floatation effect then more so by providing insulation against the cold. She went on to rear a large family, many descendants of which are alive today. The Roddy and Hearty names still survive in Dundalk. One of the first three Keepers appointed to Dundalk Pile Light was a local man named Roddy who may well have been the same man or, if not, certainly his son.
The Pile Light originally had a stairway spiralling anti-clockwise to the deck but this was later removed, probably due to damage as it was made of cast iron, and replaced by two vertical ladders.
Edward McCarron in his book Life in Donegal 1850 - 1900 relates his first appointment as a Lighthouse Keeper, arriving in Dundalk on 25th March 1867 and reporting to Robert Tyrell, the Keeper-in-Charge. He goes on to tell of the uncomfortable journey to the Pile Lighthouse. 'The boat contractor was a decrepid old man, and the boat was much the same.' He gives a very clear account of the four mile journey and mentions climbing a ladder, so the stairway may have been erected later, to be replaced once again by ladders after 1884.
He goes on and in great detail describes his three and a half years on Dundalk Pile, but the most interesting part is his description of the Keepers. Two resided at Philips Cottage, which the Commissioners had divided into two apartments after they purchased it from Captain Philips. The third was a man named Joe Roddy, a Second Class Assistant Keeper, who lived on his farm at Bellurgan! It seems that the Roddys had a long association with Dundalk Pile Light.
Frank Ryan, ex-Principal Keeper of Dundalk Pile Light, now owns one part of Philips Cottage. The other part is owned by Mrs Isobel McMahon, whose late husband Brendan was also stationed at Dundalk. Frank Ryan tells me that his father was also a Lightkeeper at Dundalk and knew the Roddys well. Miss Roddy's brother used to signal to Bellurgan Point for a horse and cart from their farm to come out across the strand at low water to bring her back home from the lighthouse. On spring tides the strand dries out to beyond the lighthouse, and in those days it was quite common for carts and livestock to be driven across the extensive strands of Dundalk Bay.
In June of this year another long time boat contractor to Dundalk Pile Light, Pat Gaskin, who also has a small farm at Bellurgan, decided to retire.
But I'm glad to say, as will many Service personnel who have had the pleasure of meeting him, that Edward McCarron's description of his boat contractor would not be accurate in the case of Pat Gaskin or his boat. A more efficient or amiable seaman would be hard to find. Long may he enjoy retirement on the Bellurgan shore where his boats lie peacefully to anchor.
© Charley McCarthy, June 1996