On the morning of 12th February 1869, tragedy struck at Calf Rock Lighthouse in West County Cork, when a boat capsized and claimed the lives of seven people. The tragedy unfolded after Assistant Lightkeeper Richard Howard responded to what he thought were distress signals sent from the Rock and accompanied by six boatmen, he proceeded to make his way across from the shore. Upon their return to shore, the boat capsized and Howard and accompanying men all sadly lost their lives.
Archive & Heritage Officer
Calf Rock Lighthouse, established in 1866, is situated on the Beara Peninsula in West County Cork. On the morning of 12th February 1869, tragedy struck at the Rock when a boat capsized and claimed the lives of seven people. Included in the casualties were Richard Howard – Assistant Lighthouse Keeper, and six boat attendants, namely, Timothy Sullivan (Coxwain and owner of the boat), Denis Fane, Timothy Houlihan, John Duggan, John Conroy and Philip Conroy (boat attendees). The tragedy unfolded after Mr. Howard responded to what he thought were distress signals sent from the Rock and accompanied by the six boatmen, he proceeded to make his way across from the shore. It is recorded in the Lighthouse Journal for 1869, that on that particular morning the weather was ‘most unfavorable, and the chance of landing very remote’. After leaving the Rock having found the keepers safe, the boat capsized and Howard and accompanying men all sadly lost their lives.
Captain E. F. Roberts, Inspector of Lights, recorded the following, “It is my painful duty to submit to the Board the accompanying report from Mr. Sloane, giving an account of a most melancholy accident in connection with the Lighthouse Service, wherein Richard Howard, Assistant Keeper at the Calf Rock Lighthouse, and six men belonging to the attending boats for that station, all met a watery grave from the boat capsizing while they were returning from the rock to the shore on Friday last, the 12th instant, leaving seven widows and twenty two young children…” .
Following interviews with the Principle Keeper -Thomas O’ Reilly - it was learned that the signals being sent were not of distress but rather to summon Howard to return to the Rock to relieve the Principle Keeper - 'he having failed to get on the Rock the previous day when he landed provisions.’ The boat and crew were described as being ‘the best in the neighbourhood’; boats which were ‘manned by a first mate crew who had long experience in carrying out the service’.
In response to the tragedy, Captain Roberts ordered that the sum of £28 be distributed amongst the families of the seven casualties. The Commissioners of Irish Lights decided a gratuity of £30 be awarded to the widow of Mr. Howard and £5 for each of her three children. In addition, it was decided to allow £25 to each of the widows of the boatmen, £5 to each child and in respect of Duggan and Conway, £5 to their aged mothers.
The tragedy was a consequence of a storm which occurred two weeks prior on the 30th of January, which swept away eight feet of the balcony and balcony rail of the Lighthouse. The Keepers were still stranded on the Rock some twelve days later as the seas were still too rough to land.
On 27th November 1881, Calf Rock Lighthouse suffered yet another catastrophe when it was destroyed by a violent storm which completely severed the top of the tower. Luckily, the Keepers escaped unharmed.