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The Power of the Sea

The oceans cover about 71 per cent of the Earth’s surface, hold 97 per cent of its water, are essential to life on Earth, regulate climate and weather, provide a major source of food, are a key part of the global economy through the essential basis of shipping and, according to recent studies, could have over a million different species of creatures, including fish, mammals, reptiles, invertebrates. Scientists and oceanographers divided the global ocean it into four regional l areas – the Pacific, Atlantic, Indian and Arctic oceans. The waters around Antarctica, the Southern Ocean, have since 2021, been described by many oceanographers as the fifth ocean on Earth. The physics of the sea are continuously studied in attempts to predict its power, never-ending scientific search for ways to predict tsunamis, storm surges, rogue waves, El Niños and climate change caused by global warming.

On the Beara Peninsula along the West Cork coastline there are three rocks with bovine-themed names, one of which shows that power, with memories of tragedy and survival. One is known as the ‘Heifer,’ the larger one close to it, is called the Calf. The stump of a lighthouse that was smashed apart by the power of the sea in November 1881 is still visible on the Calf. The remains of the lighthouse are a testimony to man’s failure to understand the power of the sea. It was built there after the Royal Navy requested the then lighthouse authorities, Trinity House and the Board of Trade, for a lighthouse on another bovine-named rock nearby, the Bull. The lighthouse authorities rejected that and chose the Calf after protracted discussions and negotiations which also involved Cork Harbour Commissioners.

The Calk Rock was in the property portfolio of Queen Victoria and was bought for £26.5s.0d – twenty-six pounds sterling and five shillings – It was not a good decision!

Remains of Calf Rock Lighthouse

The legendary engineer George Halpin submitted plans and an estimate for a cast iron tower, with floors of Valentia slate similar to the tower on Fastnet Rock, which was at that time four years old. Henry Grissell of Regent’s Canal Iron Works, London, secured the contract for building in 1861. The tower was completed by Autumn 1864, the lantern, optic and revolving machinery were added the following year making the tower 37 metres high. The light began operating on June 30, 1866, 136 feet above high water. Shore dwellings for off-duty Keepers and families were built on the mainland at the south end of Dursey Sound. Lightkeepers were stationed for duty periods in the Calf Rock Lighthouse.

On February 12, 1869 a severe storm washed away a section of the balcony rail and a hut containing stores. Ashor,e an off-duty Lightkeeper thought distress flags were being flown by colleagues on the rock. Six local boatmen volunteered to accompany him in what they thought was a rescue attempt, setting off from Dursey Sound pier. After getting through heavy seas, they found the Keepers on the rock were safe.There was no modern communication technology in those days. On the way back to shore their boat was overturned by the violent seas. All seven drowned.

During 1870 the base of the tower was strengthened, increasing it to 31 feet. A cast iron skirt was added.  

On 27 November 1881 the lighthouse was hit by a violent storm. The tower and lantern were snapped off above the strengthened base and fell into the sea. Three Keepers on the Rock and three workmen were carrying out work on the landing area took shelter in the base where they survived for twelve days. Captain Michael O’Shea of Dursey Island and crew on his six-oared fishing boat rescued them. A lifebuoy with a rope attached was thrown down from the remains of the lighthouse, One-by-one the marooned men worked their way down to safety.

It was the end of a lighthouse on the Calf. “Repair thoughts turned back twenty years to Bull Rock being the most suitable of the three rocks the Calf, the Cow and the Bull for a lighthouse,” records the Commissioners of Irish Lights website. “In February 1882 the Commissioners recommended Bull Rock. No difficulty was experienced in securing the rock, as it too was owned by Queen Victoria.”Having handed over the asking price of £21 to the Queen for the deeds, building began. It was completed in 1888. The light began operating on January 1, 1889. The lighthouse is 91 metres above sea level. Even at this height, waves are known to have crashed over it during severe sea conditions.

In Spring 1991 the Bull Rock Lighthouse was automated and Lightkeepers withdrawn. The particularly notable feature about Bull Rock is the natural tunnel that runs through it.  

BULL ROCK. Photo by Dursey Boat Trips who run trips around the rock

One of the stories, immersed in local history about the 1881 Calf Rock rescue of the three Lighthkeepers and three workmen is that, while all survived, the clothes of one of the workmen, Mick Kelly, were found along the shoreline before the rescue and he was presumed lost. Local history says that his funeral ‘Wake’ was underway when he walked in and “had the distinction of being the man who smoked a pipe at his own ‘Wake’.

Believable or not, the story of the Calf Rock shows that the power of the sea should never be underestimated!

Tom MacSweeney

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