The Lives and Afterlives of the Guillemot Lightships
The Guillemot’s service as a working lightship had come to an end in 1968, when it was sold to the Wexford Maritime Museum Committee. Strictly speaking, this was in fact Guillemot II. It had been built in the early 1920s to replace the first Guillemot lightship, which reached the end of its service in much more dramatic fashion.
Lightship 1917
Dr Eoin Kinsella

As the year 2012 drew to a close, so too did the lifespan of the lightship Guillemot. While it had been embedded in concrete in Kilmore Quay since 1986, the Guillemot’s service as a working lightship had come to an end in 1968, when it was sold to the Wexford Maritime Museum Committee. Strictly speaking, this was in fact Guillemot II. It had been built in the early 1920s to replace the first Guillemot lightship, which reached the end of its service in much more dramatic fashion.    
The original Guillemot was one of four lightships built for Irish Lights by All sup and Co. of Preston, in the 1890s: Shearwater, Guillemot, Kittiwake and Seagull. Constructed from steel and wood-sheathed, it cost £9,170. George Idle, Irish Lights’ Naval Architect and Surveyor of Shipping, was present for the Guillemot’s launch on 24 November 1893:

 I have the honour to report that the second of the new lightships was successfully launched this morning at 11 o’clock. She was then placed on the gridiron for cementing and coppering. Her draught of water was 6’1” forward[and] 6’5” aft … I made a complete [inspection] of the bottom inside … 3 hours after launch and found her to be as tight and dry as the first vessel was. One or two bolts in the keel alone show signs of leakage, and strangely enough, they occupy the same position as the previous launch. 

By 1917 the Guillemot was stationed at South Arklow, at a time when German U-Boats hunted shipping in Irish coastal waters. UC-65, captained by Otto Steinbrinck, was particularly active in the Irish Sea during March 1917, sinking seventeen ships between 24th and 28th of the month. On the 28th, the Guillemot became another of UC-65’svictims. At considerable risk to himself and his crew, the Guillemot’s Master, James Rossiter, gave the order to begin signalling nearby ships to warn them of the U-boat’s presence. Captain Steinbrink and UC-65 soon surfaced alongside the lightship and, after boarding and thoroughly searching the Guillemot for anything valuable, ordered all on board to leave before sinking her - see here for a detailed account. Irish Lights had specifically warned its crews not to signal passing ships, precisely to avoid such a scenario. Yet Rossiter was unrepentant in the explanation he offered to the board:

 In my opinion, in the circumstances, I was justified in warning by any and every means at my disposal, a British ship, who was very close, where this ‘submarined evil’ was waiting to destroy her … My duty as a British sailor was plain. I would do the same in like circumstances … I was desirous of doing my bit, in my humble way, for the Empire, and it is beyond question, I took my life in my hands to keep the flag. 

In the circumstances, the board could hardly justify reprimanding Rossiter and later supported the crew’s application for compensation for clothing and personal effects lost in the sinking, as well as the awarding of the ‘Torpedo Badge’. Fearing the loss of further lightships, the board wrote to the Admiralty to request increased protection for the several aids to navigation. The Vice Admiral at Queenstown replied that though it was impossible to station patrol vessels in the vicinity of each lightship, ‘such protection as is possible shall be given’.      

The sinking of the Guillemot stretched Irish Lights’ resources to the limit. Immediately after the sinking a lighted buoy was placed on the station, which was soon afterwards replaced by the Gannet, one of the reserve lightships. With another reserve, the Petrel, considered condemned and slated for replacement even before the sinking of the Guillemot, the need for a new lightship was acute. Sanction was sought from the Board of Trade for an expenditure of up to £25,000 to replace the Guillemot. Part of the cost was to be offset by a claim for £11,452 (equal to the value of the hull) from the British Foreign Office, which in turn claimed the money as war reparations from the German government.      

In a note attached to its estimates for the 1920–21 financial year, Irish Lights stressed the urgency of its needs:

‘It is essential that this vessel should bere placed without delay in order to avoid the danger, which now exists, of a breakdown in the lightship service’.

Specifications for a new iron and steel vessel, equipped with fog signalling apparatus including a siren, submarine bell and firing jibs, were drawn up and tenders sought in September 1920. Replies were received from a multitude of shipbuilders, including Harland and Wolff (Belfast), Charles Rennoldson (Lawe Shipyard, South Shields), John Cranand Somerville (Leith), Burntisland Shipbuilding Company, J. Samuel White &Company, and the Dublin Dockyard Company.      

The tenders varied from £33,400 to £46,500, and the initial estimate of £25,000 seemed woefully insufficient. The knock-on economic effects of the First World War were to blame, with the difficulty of sourcing iron after the war contributing to a sharp increase in price. Desperate to avoid such enormous expenditure, Irish Lights explored the possibility of constructing the lightship entirely from steel. George Idle, who had overseen the construction of the original Guillemot, reported that the only objection he could see was that the lightship would have a shorter life. Nevertheless, that shortcoming that could be mitigated through good maintenance and dry-docking at least three times in the first two years, to prevent incipient corrosion and to secure a permanent and substantial covering of good composition for the bottom.    

Idle’s report swayed the board, which approved the drafting of a brand new specification and issued invitations to re-tender in early 1921. Twenty-three responses were received on this occasion; John Cran and Somerville were awarded the contract with a tender of £17,700, significantly lower than all other bidders - a point that was of some concern to Capt. W.H. Davis, Irish Lights’ chief engineer.      

Davis’s concerns proved ill-founded, and Guillemot II left Leith under to won 11 March 1923. On arrival in Dun Laoghaire Harbour, its starboard fenders were found to be missing and several other defects were noted, including suspected damage to the bilge keel - dry docking for inspection was recommended. Nonetheless, Idle regarded the vessel as sound: ‘It is manifest that the new ship has been severely tested during the passage from Leith to Kingstown around the South of England; but beyond the few defects pointed out, the appearance and condition of the ship generally are excellent.’ It would serve Irish Lights for the next 45 years.

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