The name Slyne is an anglicised corruption of leime, which is also the name given to the island closest to the mainland in the Slyne Head archipelago, Illaunaleama or Leap Island. The actual island upon which the lighthouse station is positioned is called Illaunamid (6"O.S.) or Illaunimmul (Admiralty Chart). It is the largest and most westerly of the islands forming Slyne Head, 11.7 hectares in area, 27m high and is composed of metamorphic type rock known as gneiss. Its name puzzled me for some time, Illaun is island but 'amid or 'immul' proved more difficult to nail down. Irish speakers in the office gave me wood, timber, margin and border. Principal Keeper Brendan Garvey, who is also an Irish speaker and was on the rock when I visited it in the summer of 1983, feels that wood or timber island is the translation due to the amount of flotsam, mainly timber that is washed up and collected by mainland locals in their currachs.
With Galway's increasing trade and commerce early in the nineteenth century the mayor, corporation, bankers, merchants and traders (mariners) looked for lighthouses to be erected on the north island of Aran (Inishmore) and Mutton Island between 1806 and 1810 and added Slyne Head in 1810. The Ballast Board agreed they were desirable but they were short of funds to carry out new works. This monetary deficiency obviously improved and by 9th December 1813 Trinity House had sanctioned two of the three lighthouses looked for by the Galwegians - Mutton Island and Inishmore but regarded Slyne Head as wholly unnecessary. Mutton Island was established in 1817 and Inishmore in 1818.
An unsuccessful request for a light on Slyne Head was made in 1819 by Captain C.S. Whyte, HMS 'Cyrus' of the Coast Guard, stationed between Broadhaven and Loop Head and it was not until towards the end of 1830 that things began to move for Slyne Head. Numerous memorials from the Coast Guard, the mayor, merchants and shipowners of Galway and the inhabitants of Roundstone and Clifden looked for improvements to the lighting on the west coast; lighthouses at Slyne Head, Blackrock (north of Achill Island) and Eagle Island were mentioned. In his report Inspector George Halpin recommended two lighthouses with revolving lights at Slyne Head so as not to be confused with Clare Island to the north and Inishmore to the south. He also recommended two stationary lights at Eagle Island, here again not to be confused with Clare Island to its south and Aranmore to the north.
Trinity House concurred with Inspector Halpin's recommendations and sanctioned two lights at each station, Slyne Head and Eagle Island, adding that the towers should be positioned so as to give a lead to clear the rocks and shoals north and south of the proposed stations. Approval was received early in 1831 from the Lord Lieutenant.
In May 1831 Inspector Halpin reported that he had contacted a Mr O'Neill landowner who proposed to sell the island at £10 per annum for twenty-one years' purchase. The Board agreed and referred the subject to the Law Agent who examined O'Neill's title to the estate and found that the island was not mentioned by name but it had been let attached to a farm by O'Neill and his father; it was also charged by marriage to O'Neill's deceased sister and now vested in her three young children. The Law Agent recommended that possession should be by an inquisition. The latter was held in Galway on 19th August and a value of £210 was put on the island which was divided up as £199.14.0 to Mr J.A. O'Neill, four shillings to Lord Plunkett and one shilling each to the Marquis of Clanrickard Wm. Le Grand. The £10 was to be awarded to the tenants.
Inspector Halpin designed and supervised the construction of the towers, dwellings (two per station) and outhouses, all of which were built by the Board's tradesmen. Stone from the island seems to have been used throughout the buildings and walls except for granite and sandstone which was brought onto the island.
During the building of the stations two boating accidents occurred, one early in 1832 when a man by the name of Hallam lost his life whilst carrying stores - his wife and four children were awarded twenty guineas. The other on the 27th March 1836 when a boat overturned and eight men were drowned. Here £6 per annum pensions were awarded to the two widows, one of whom lost her husband and a son, £3 per annum to children under sixteen years of age and a donation of £3 each to three sisters who were supported by one of the men.
A coppersmith by the name of John Smith covered the two domes towards the end of 1835 for £60 each, and in March 1836 J. Dove of Edinburgh was engaged to construct the revolving machinery for one of the lighthouses. This is the first mention that only one of the lights was to be revolving, sanction in 1830 was for both lights.
By June 1836 Inspector Halpin reported that the lighthouses would be ready for lighting on 10th October, although there was still quite a lot more work required to complete the stations.
Both towers were painted white and, for all intents and purposes, identical except for a few minor differences, mainly in floor heights and internal granite stairs. The 1875 Admiralty List of Lights states that the towers were 79 feet (24m) from base to vane and 142 yards (130m) apart; also the north's first order catoptic revolving light which gave one red and two white flashes alternatively every two minutes was 115 feet (35.om) above high water, the south's fixed first order catopric light was 104 feet (31.6m) above high water. The south tower although discontinued since 1898 still retains a large percentage of its slate weather-hanging but strong winds are slowly peeling off the slates.
The cost of the two stations to end of the year 1840, according to Commissioner Robert Callwell, was £40, 314.19s.3d, for those days quite a lot of money in comparison with mainland stations like Ferris Point and Broadhaven which cost around £7000.
Another boating accident occurred in Slyne Head's earlier years on 22nd October 1852 when a keeper who had gone ashore to make arrangements to convey his wife and five children to Kilcredaun was drowned along with the boat crew of six when returning to the rock. At that time keepers and their families lived at stations both on the mainland and on rocks. It is also interesting to note that of the six boatmen, three were by the name King, father and I presume two sons. The King family held the boat contract right up until the helicopter took over in 1969.
Whilst I was on the rock in June 1983, Brendan Garvey mentioned to me about a murder that had taken place at the station involving a Mrs Harrison. In minutes written up during 1894 I located Mrs Harrison along with Mrs Harris both of whom had lodged a complaint against the Board for the wrongful dismissal of their husbands from the Service. The charge against the keepers was for insobriety and leaving the station in a boat. The wives claiming that Messrs. King (temporary keeper) and Roach, who had filed the complaint against the two keepers, were men of bad character and frequently before the bench for drunkenness and fighting. I am sure straight addiction to alcohol would have sent them to another station but going ashore from the rock was a mortal sin! Obviously Mrs Harrison was not involved in murder but an earlier incident in September 1859 was the supposed suicide of Assistant Keeper John Doyle and mentioned in the Board's minutes as a drowning. In a paragraph in the 'Clare Champion', January 18th 1985 entitled '125 years ago, lighthouse keeper poisoned', it mentioned the death of John Doyle and that the Coroner's Court jury returned a verdict that he died of poison administered by Mrs Anne Gregory, the Principal Keeper's wife, and committed her to trial. An interesting twist occurred in July 1860 when the Inspecting Committee reported to the Board that they had opportunity of inquiring into the state of Gregory's family and the Committee were fully convinced that the accusation levied had been groundless and that Mrs Gregory had suffered many months imprisonment coupled with the fact that the Gregorys had a large young family, the Committee strongly recommended that a land station should be selected for them. The Board concurred and the Gregorys were to be sent either to Clare Island or Tarbert.
At a Board meeting on 15th June 1883 Inspector Captain Boxer recommended the abolition of one tower at each of the two tower stations Eagle Island and Slyne Head. Trinity House doubted the practicality of marking dangers with sectors from one light and requested further information. In July 1886 the Inspecting Committee reported and recommended a first order triform fixed oil-gas light with red sectors to clear dangers; again Trinity House requested further information. Plans were forwarded and the Engineer Mr W Douglass attended a meeting with the Elder Brethren and by January 1887 Trinity House had granted statutory sanction to discontinue one of Slyne Head's towers and to introduce a triform oil-gas light with a red sector landward. It appears that consideration to reduce Eagle Island to a one-tower station was postponed but as it happens Eagle Island is prone to very heavy seas and one such storm in December 1894 seriously damaged both the dwellings and the lantern of the east station. The Board with sanction from Trinity House reduced Eagle Island to a one-tower station and brought the families ashore. This action set a precedent for families to be brought ashore to shore dwellings from all rock stations, which became relieving over the next few years.
Early in 1892 the Board of Trade questioned the large cost of oil-gas conversion so the Inspecting Committee recommended a biform optic using oil. Trinity House sanctioned the modification but the Board of Trade postponed sanctioning until September 1895 due to the condition of the Mercantile Marine Fund.
Improvement of Slyne Head commenced early in October 1895; a temporary light comprising an eight foot (2.4m) diameter lightvessel lantern positioned towards the top end of a 53' 6" (16.3m) long, 17" (432mm) diameter timber mast supported on timbers through the windows and stone work of the third and fourth floors. The mast cleared the tower balcony and the lightvessel lantern was positioned above the level of the north tower dome. A small clockwork weight driven rotation machine was positioned in the lightvessel lantern. The 1836 north tower lantern, granite blocking and lantern floor were replaced by a Chance Brothers cylindrical lantern with diamond panes. Edmundson & Co. of Dublin supplied the biform optical apparatus and Curtis and Sons the six wick burners and pressure lamps. The flight of granite steps up to the new lantern floor were rebuilt being steeper with a flush underside.
The new fixed light showing white seaward and red landward went into operation on 1st January 1898 and at the same time the south fixed light was discontinued and on Mr Douglass' recommendation its lantern, granite blocking and apparatus removed so as not to obstruct the new light to the south.
Soon after the station had been made single, the Engineer Mr W. Douglass recommended that it be made relieving, a request made by the keepers in 1896 but postponed until the station had been modified. The Inspection Committee concurred with the Engineer's recommendation and extended it to all rock stations.
During November 1898 the Inspector, Captain Galwey and Engineer, Mr Douglass had been instructed to find a suitable site for shore dwellings at Clifden and by March 1902 the Engineer, Mr C.W. Scott, reported that of the two sites visited the one nearest the quay on the Bodkin estate was particularly suitable and could be purchased for £225. Documentation was completed by 1904, the block of four standard flat roofed Scott designed houses were built by Mr R. Calwell of Belfast in 1905 and were completed and occupied by the keepers in 1906. Slyne had been a relieving station from April 1898, six weeks on and two off, the keepers and their families were accommodated in lodgings in Bunowen until the dwellings were built at Clifden. The two keepers' dwellings at the north station received the Scott treatment during the winter of 1905-06; that is the pitched roofs were converted to flat and staircases to the attic rooms removed.
Slyne Head's relief was perhaps one of the most elaborate around the coast and although I was never involved in a boat relief, Mr A.D.H. Martin, Engineer-in-Chief at the time, wrote a very descriptive article in the staff magazine Beam, Volume 9m No. 2, December 1977.
The decision of the relief was in the hands of the boatman for obvious reasons and when conditions were favourable he hoisted a 'bat' against a wall near his cottage which informed the keepers on the rock that the relief was 'on'. He then journeyed 2½ miles (4km) to Bunowen to inform the cart contractor or more recently van contractor, a journey made by horse, bicycle or if early enough a child going to school. The cart (van) contractor proceeded to the shore dwellings at Clifden, 8 miles (12.8km), picked up the relief keeper, mail and perishable foodstuffs, the other items having gone ahead to Slackport a day or days before. The cart went as far as the boat contractor's cottage where the relief was transferred to donkeys with creels or panniers across their backs. Since the war a motor van was used from Clifden as far as the Connemara Golf Links or "the airfield" where before the war, that enterprising aviation entrepreneur Sir Alan Cobham held his flying circus. There the road petered out and a horse and cart took over as far as the donkeys. The donkeys set off across rocks and heather for about three quarters of a mile to the boat slip at Slackport where the relief was finally transferred into a currach and rowed out 3 miles (4.8km) through the islands and rocks which form Slyne Head to the lighthouse. Soon after 1962 the road from the boat man's cottage to the boat slip was surfaced by one of our coast tradesmen Michael Keane, it became known locally as "the M1" and allowed the van to travel from Clifden to the boat slip. From October 1969 until the station became unwatched the relief between Clifden and the lighthouse was carried out by helicopter in about six or seven minutes!
To return to the earlier part of this century, on the 3rd October 1906, the Engineer, Mr Scott reported on an instruction to him by the 1903 Inspecting Committee on Tour, that both towers should be painted black; he said that 1907 would be the year for the tower painting. Sanction was obtained for the colour change from both Trinity House and the Board of Trade and a Notice to Mariners was issued to the effect that the towers would be painted black as and from the summer of 1907. Someone forgot to inform the Hydrographer or he mislaid the information, and it was not until 1910 that the List of Lights was amended. By this time, the multiwick oil lamps had been converted to incandescent paraffin vapour burners, 13th March 1909 to be precise.
In October 1924 the Inspection Committee submitted its reports and recommendations for new works. Among them was one for an explosive fog signal at either Eeragh or Slyne Head. The latter was chosen and included in the 1925 - 26 estimates. The signal was established on 1st September 1928, with a character of two reports every seven and a half minutes. This was changed to one report every five minutes on 1st June 1934. The apparatus was quite different to other stations where the explosive charge was attached to one end of a jib and swung up and detonated above the lantern dome or firing house roof. At Slyne a special rail was attached to the lantern balcony, outside the railway, on which ran a rope operated circular carriage. One of the windows of the upper floor was converted into a door with a porch so that the keeper could attach the explosive charges to a bracket hanging down from the carriage then using the rope to turn the carriage through 160° to the opposite side of the tower where a baffle had been set up close to the window to "reflect" the explosion and prevent damage to the tower and lantern. This unusual type of explosive fog signal lasted until 1951, except for a period between 1941 and 1948. In 1951 a new fog signal house was built in the north west corner of the compound and the charges were attached to the end of a jib. All explosive fog signals around the coast were discontinued in 1974.
Towards the end of July 1933, the Inspecting Committee on Tour recommended that the fixed light at Slyne Head should be improved. The subject was referred to the Engineer, Mr J.W. Tonkin, to report. This he did in October and also submitted an estimate for conversion to electric. The pros and cons of intensity, electric in a minor third order optic, incandescent in biform first order double flashing minors were weighed up between the Commissioners, the Board of Trade and Advisory Committee over the next three years. By March 1936, sanction was obtained for an incandescent biform double flashing apparatus and Chance Brothers' tender for the biform optic with mirrors was sanctioned in October 1936. Mr Tonkin inspected the apparatus at Chance Brothers works in June 1938.
Whilst the new optic was being installed a temporary fixed light was established, 8th May 1939, on the top of the disused south tower comprising an eight foot (2.4m) lightship type lantern with a six foot (1.8m) diameter barrel lens and triple 35mm oil burner showing a fixed white light all around, except for a few degrees where it was obscured by the north tower.
The new optic came into operation on 26th July 1939 giving a double white flash every fifteen seconds (05s x 2.0s x 0.5s x 12.0s) and the red landward sector, in the north tower, was discontinued.
During the 1939 - 1945 war three local incidences were reported by the keepers. Two were when shipwrecked mariners came into the island and went ashore using the contractor's boat and the third was when American airmen came ashore on 16th September 1944 in a rubber dinghy near Lough Aillebrack, 6km east north east of the lighthouse. Their Liberator aircraft had crashed into the Atlantic and they had spent two days drifting towards land. The crew were not as lucky as Alcock and Brown twenty five years earlier, five were taken to Clifden hospital, one in the dinghy was dead and four others were missing presumed dead.
The Inspecting Committee on Tour recommended the establishment of a red auxiliary light to cover the dangers north and south of the island in July 1952 on which Mr J.H. Grosse, Engineer-in-Chief, reported and the Board approved but the Ministry of Transport with-held sanction the following year.
With lightkeepers generally declining to live at shore dwellings for rock stations, the dwellings at Clifden were considered for disposal in 1971 and were sold in 1973 but an access was retained to the helicopter base and store adjacent to the dwellings.
In 1973, the Commissioners presented a Forward Policy Paper, which included a ten-year development programme. Slyne Head was scheduled for electrification and a radio beacon to replace the explosive fog signal and was to take place in the year 1975 - 76. With the decision to discontinue all explosive fog signals in April 1974 speedily cleared the way for a radio beacon. Conversion to electric went ahead with an engine room cum radio beacon house being constructed outside the eastern wall of the compound. The radio beacon aerial being slung between the tower and a lattice steel mast. The light was converted to electric on 19th October 1977 using a 3500-watt lamp in the upper biform optic and the standby lamp is in the lower. The radio beacon grouped with Loophead was established on 9th December 1977.
The lighthouse was automated in 1990 and the Keepers were withdrawn at the end of March that year. Since then the station has been in the care of a part-time Attendant.
The radiobeacon was discontinued on 6th December 1991 as part of a new radiobeacon operational plan adopted by the Commissioners for the Coast of Ireland, following international discussion and agreement.
The station was converted to solar power on 26 August 2002.