Other Writings


  • Ryan’s Daughter in Dingle – A 50th Anniversary Recollection.
  • The Well – story of the Garraí well in Dingle.
  • Phoenix Paradiso – A brief history of the Phoenix Cinema in Dingle.
  • Boatbuilding in Dingle.
  • Dingle Coastguard Station.
  • Historic Bantry boat slips.
  • Union Hall Memorial.
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image-8.png

Ryan’s Daughter in Dingle – A 50th Anniversary Recollection

They were heady times in Dingle in 1969. There we were, minding our own business and suddenly, poof, Dingle was a star. Early on, rumours abounded about some kind of film that was being made – it had the tentative name of Michael’s Day. Then gradually, more tangible expressions surfaced viz: “I saw Robert Mitchum in Garvey’s shop buying the newspaper”, and, “Trevor Howard was drinking in Ashe’s bar”. The intercalation of Hollywood stars, English Stage and Abbey Theatre actors with the people of the town happened in tandem with the building excitement and eventual realisation that Dingle had been singled out for something special.

In the early months of the year (1969), with the attendant influx, Dingle gathered pace to satisfy the demands of making a Hollywood blockbuster with a budget of $13,000,000 (now equal to $90,000,000 approx.). Actors, directors, writers, technicians and general crew had to be accommodated in the town. Whole estates and private houses were given over at handsome rates to famous stars, while more lodged in guest houses and local hotels. Sheds, barns and assorted outhouses were renovated by the film construction crew to house make-up, wardrobe, electrical, plumbing and other departments necessary to bring David Lean’s story of Ryan’s Daughter to the screen.

Busloads of extras from Tralee were transported to Dingle and joined the indigenous locals to act as extras in the crowd scenes of the film. The Tralee contingent would stop in Bawn’s pub in the morning on the way to the set for refreshments, which went on the slate till the evening return to settle up, when the group had been paid. Before arriving on the film set the troupe made a brief stop at make-up to ensure dress and haircuts were compatible with the 1916 setting of the story. A Tralee woman, Mrs Coffey, playing the Old Woman, was tailor-made for the era and became famous worldwide after getting a speaking part – “What will they do with them lads, Father?” – in the film against stringent opposition from the Abbey actor’s union. But director David Lean was having none of it – this was his woman for the part. It is obvious in several scenes that ‘good’ local faces are to the fore – Lean assiduously applying his craft.

The hordes had to be fed. A roving canteen, mostly situated in the purpose-made village, moved from set-to-set to serve the considerable throng of extras and workers. A cooked breakfast was served when early morning scenes were being shot. Elevenses of sausage rolls and scones took the edge off till a four course mid-day lunch of soup, main, dessert and tea and biscuits. At four o’clock tea and sweet cake broke the evening and if late day scenes were called for a fry-up meal was had at six. No one was hungry on the set of Ryan’s Daughter. The big names, Mitchum, Sarah Miles, John Mills, Christopher Jones, Trevor Howard, Leo McKern and David Lean had cars and chauffeurs at their disposal. Local businessman Seán Moran provided a fleet of new Zephyr cars and seconded, to Faraway Productions, several of his workforce who were on call ‘round the clock’, to drive locally between sets and be at the whims of the famous for round trips to Shannon Airport to pick up personnel and equipment.


On a drive in the hinterland Robert Mitchum’s car being held up by a herd of cattle prompted Mitchum to wind down the window and remonstrate the herdsman for the delay with: “Do you know who I am? I’m Robert Mitchum … move along there please”. The casual response from the farmer, “I don’t care if you are Robert Emmett, my cows will do what they always do”, is part of the extensive film lore which the project generated.

Leo McKern, who played Ryan in the film, was frequently seen around the town in tweeds and in a somewhat unkempt appearance wearing the beard and long hair of his character Ryan. McKern drank in Bawn’s and had the good fortune to be in the pub one day when a local character, Joeen, returned from the dog track after having good winnings. Joeen bought a round of drinks for his friends and after seeing what seemed like a downtrodden caller at the far end of the bar said to the proprietor, “…and give that poor man there a drink as well”. Thereafter, according to lore, McKern would buy Joeen a drink, whenever they crossed paths in a pub. John Mills had to spend several hours in make-up to transform him to Michael, the village idiot, for the film. While in character, Mills often had to wait around between scenes before he was called again and during such a break, he took possession of a new Rolls Royce, which he had purchased. Mills was naturally anxious to get behind the wheel and go for a drive, which he did in his character’s regalia. Subsequently, John Mills was stopped while driving by a local garda and had trouble proving who he really was and not the tramp who had stolen a Rolls Royce.

Economy Boost

At the time of the film, the average industrial weekly wage in Ireland was €280 (about £225, the currency was Irish punts then). The rates on the film set varied for workers depending on skill sets etc. Tradesmen were getting two to three times their normal rate; adult extras were paid by the day and the schoolchildren in Shaughnessy’s classroom had their own rate. If weather hampered the filming, the workers and extras were fed and paid regardless. The local construction providers, P&T Fitzgerald, got a huge boost mainly because of the construction of the film village, Kirrary, on a mountain top overlooking Dunquin and the Blasket Islands. The Moran company, providing the fleet of vehicles, was uniquely placed to avail of the boon at the time. Rentals for accommodation and ancillary activities dug in further to the MGM account and buoyed up the economy immeasurably. Shops, pubs and hotels got their share of the budget too. Among ancillary workers, a local ‘runner’ had the job of travelling to the accommodations of the main players informing of schedule changes and cancellations due to weather etc. – email and texting had not yet arrived. Dingle Boatyard, where Leo McKern had his wooden yacht pulled up for repair, got a piece of the action too. It was estimated that the production company left £1,000,000 (punts) in Dingle before the film was completed in early 1970.


The purpose-built village of Kirrary, which was built on a hill overlooking the spectacular vista of the Blasket Islands, was in the main fabricated of solid façades and faux-carcasses. The cobblestone street was the real thing with peripheral street-side rocks and boulders made of fibreglass. The schoolhouse was a complete solid and authentic structure with sandstone masonry and king-post trusses. It remains today, though now in a dilapidated state and still draws a significant number of visitors annually. Its location is a cinematographer’s dream, with the sea below carpeting the way to the Islands.

The woodland scene where Miles and Jones had the clandestine love scene is a mix of a Kenmare estate, Burnham Woods and Murreagh Hall. Due to inclement weather, completion of the scene was not possible outdoors. The flora, fauna and lighting were expertly replicated on the boards of the hall, which was strictly out of bounds to non-essential personnel when the controversial scene was being filmed.

The storm scene, which is considered a significant recreation for its time (pre-CGI) was filmed in the Bridges of Ross in County Clare and cut in with scenes of the landing of guns in Coumeenole beach in West Kerry. Lean waited several months for the right conditions before decamping the crew to a Carrigaholt base for the imminent storm.


In 1936 the Irish Tourist Association produced a travelogue titled ‘The Irish Riviera’, which featured the south-west coast of Ireland. The Dingle Peninsula was included with scenes of the town of Dingle, Ballydavid and Dunquin showcasing the area at the time. In the mid-1950s an American television production company arrived in the town and made a similar film for the American audience. These productions were a precursor to, and perhaps laid the foundation to, Lean’s grand spectacle, which showcased the area through the medium of storytelling in 1969.

In 1969 when Rosie Ryan walked on Inch beach with her parasol, Neil Armstrong walked on the moon; it was the year when British troops were sent to Northern Ireland, Thin Lizzy were formed in Dublin and the half-crown was withdrawn from circulation. Dingle had a thriving boatbuilding industry – the Saint Anne was launched and the Saint Colette was under construction. A significant fishing fleet existed and farming was doing well.


Before David Lean came to Dingle, he had two Academy Awards (Oscars) under his belt as well as two Baftas and two Golden Globes. He had made three epics: Bridge on the River Kwai, Doctor Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia as well as the acclaimed, though on a lesser scale, Brief Encounter and Great Expectations. But being the times, they were, and the communications that existed, we had no idea of the talented personage in our midst. Following the release of Ryan’s Daughter, the critics in the main slated the film. It was described variously as a load of expensive gush and as being too small a story for the large scale of the canvas. However, the magnificent scenery captured by Freddie Jones, the cinematographer who won an Oscar for the film, helped put the Dingle Peninsula on the tourist map – it was the start of real tourism in Dingle, as we know it today. Great anticipation awaited the release of the film at a local level. A contingent travelled to London the see the premiere at the Lester Square Theatre. One local man commented after the curtain: “…the biggest load of raiméis (balderdash) I ever saw”.

Ryan’s Daughter was seen to be dwarfed by Lean’s earlier epics, but a new assessment today sees the film reappraised as a significant piece of film-making, which showcases David Lean’s exceptional craft. John Mills won the Oscar for best supporting role, for his portrayal as the much-tormented village idiot.


It took time for Dingle to come down from the high of those heady days. Workers settled back again to ordinary wages and ordinary living – albeit many were set up for the future following their brush with the mighty of Hollywood. Posters and autographed pictures from the famous actors adorn many establishments. Milltown House, where Robert Mitchum stayed for the duration, is now offering luxury accommodation in the Mitchum Suite. Rosie Ryan – Sarah Miles, has remained a friend to Dingle. She has returned and officiated at the Dingle Film Festival. Documentary films have been made about the making of Lean’s penultimate film – 14 years later Lean directed his final film, the critically acclaimed, A Passage to India.

Stories are still told 50 years on about the Hollywood production, which had a huge impact on the Peninsula. There is a yearning in the telling of the stories; a local tradesman who worked for the entire duration (about 14 months) on the project laments: “… if only Ryan had another daughter”.


The author wishes to thank Noel Brosnan (local worker on the film, for his recollections) and Thomas Ryle for his information about the fleet of Zephyrs and the Moran input.

Note: This article was published in The Kerry Magazine by The Kerry Archaeological and Historical Society.

John O’Connor – 2019.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image-8.png

 The Well

In this year which has been designated U.N. Year of Water Cooperation, it is opportune to pause and think about that vital resource which sustains all. The second thing we generally do each morning after arising is to turn on a water tap; it will be the first of many visits to the spigot before we lie down again for the night. For ablutions and consumption, we take for granted the precious liquid that pours forth from that shiny tubular fixture.

On returning from a December holiday some years ago I found that my plumbing pipes had frozen from lack of flow; for a number of days over the Christmas period I had to haul cans of water from a nearby well. I found the task laborious and boring at first, but with familiarity it became part of my daily chores. Eventually the pipes thawed and released their captive liquid, and I cannot think now how I then filled-in the ‘water-carrying’ portion of my day.

In Dingle at the top of the laneway called The Garraí, there is a well which has flowed for several generations and beyond into time for perhaps hundreds, if not thousands, of years. From the earth and stone beneath, the spring breaks forth and makes its way to an enclosure of bordered masonry which was constructed (time unknown) to accommodate the precious resource. The well is now maintained by a couple who know the value of water and history.

In the early decades of the twentieth century, twelve families drew from the well; in all, upwards of seventy souls relied on the sustenance it provided. The families of Bowler, Brosnan, O’Connor, Moran, Devane, Kennedy, Long, McKenna, Moore and Johnson were in the remit of the well’s gift. In jugs, buckets and basins the water was carried to the various branches of humanity in its environs.

The well flowed through all of life’s big events. Through Christenings, marriages and deaths the water flowed on; the one constant in a changing lifespan. It was owned by none and owned by all. It saw the old out and welcomed the new. Before world wars, electric light and penicillin, the well flowed.

While a river runs, often hurriedly, and a spout spews forth with a particular urgency; a well evokes and lends to contemplation though it’s still water is always on the move. I look into the well and fancifully think of my reflected image being borne off by the water to join my ancestors.

The well still flows.

John J. O’Connor – 2013

Phoenix Paradiso


In the 1988 award-winning film, Cinema Paradiso, a young boy named Toto, in an Italian town is enthralled by the films he watches with a kind projectionist named Alfredo who fosters his love for the magic of the silver screen. In the film, which is set in the years after WW2, the audience is heard booing and kicking up a ruckus when kissing scenes have obviously been deleted – this under directions from the local priest. In another scene there is pandemonium as the patrons await the arrival of a film’s second reel which has been delayed in transit. In the Phoenix Cinema in Dingle several of the scenes from the story of Paradiso were mirrored on a regular basis – right down to the trickster in the balcony launching ‘missiles’ on the rabble below. The Phoenix had its own version of Alfredo and often uproar which included the loud banging of boots on the wooden floor would erupt when the second reel of a film would, in error, be spooled out first. The ensuing ruckus was a protest against the befuddlement of our young minds. Similarly, chaos would abound when the projectionist would be late changing the reels due to his late return from a local hostelry after a quick pint while the first reel was playing.


Nearest to the screen were six rows of backless wooden benches (we called them stools) which were preferred by a varied collection of hardy boys. The rows were seldom wholly occupied and often the empty benches to the front were toppled in the dark, domino-like, resulting in a thunderous clatter followed by remonstrative roars from the innocent and furious finger-waving from the caretaker in the direction of the usual suspects. A solemn scene on celluloid would be turned into mayhem in a matter of seconds. Behind the stools and split by the aisle in the middle were several rows of straight-backed benches which housed the more sedate and discerning movie fans – some of whom had their seats marked by dint of long and historic usage. On the left side of the aisle, three rows back, and against the wall, Michael ‘Francie’ O’Sullivan (who would in the future own every seat in the house) laid claim to a spot from whence loud guffaws would be heard at key moments during a performance. Jim Long also occupied left of aisle, outside end, where he could make a quick getaway if the film was not up to scratch. Jim never waited for the end of a film: he would leave nodding his head to a chorus of boos ten to fifteen minutes before the credits rolled. My favoured spot was right of the aisle, well back, where I soaked up the adventure of cowboy films like The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and the derring-do of Gregory Peck in The Guns of Navarone.

The rear third of the cinema floor had twelve rows of soft seats which were dearer and had a separate entrance – and were boarded-off from the plebeian hoard to the front who had to settle for hard oak. These plush accommodations were occupied by a more refined set whose ranks would rarely be infiltrated by stray ways from the uncouth rabble to the front. The balcony overhead was home to a similar patronage as those directly underneath and included some who desired a more intimate cinema experience. We (my brothers and cronies) cared little about our place in the house; while we had our fifteen pennies (there were 240 pennies in a pound note then) for the admission fee we blocked out all the travails of the day and enjoyed the experience where the lines between fantasy and reality were blurred for a few hours each week.

In the 1940s and 50s the Phoenix Cinema experience included a pre-show which was provided by two local musicians; a saxophone player and an accordionist who performed on the cinema stage for a half hour before the main event. This assured a modicum of order in the room while the gathering audience assembled a couple of nights a week and took their seats – on Thursdays for westerns and light-hearted fare and on Sundays for more serious drama. The cinema turned in to a ballroom on Saturday night for dancing – the wooden seats were removed and stored, and the softwood floor was taken up to reveal the hardwood dance floor on which the boys and girls lined up on opposite sides at the end of a set to await their chances next time round. The balcony was used as a retreat for successful pairings where lemonade was drunk and talk of love and the future began.


In July 1921 the Dingle Picture House, which was in operation for several years and owned by the Houlihan family who also owned The Dingle Electric Light and Power Company, was burned down in a huge blaze which also destroyed adjoining businesses owned by Messrs Houlihan. The picture house was adjacent to the Mall River where a millwheel was situated to harness the power to serve the Houlihan industries in the corner of Dygate Street and Avondale. As the 20th century progressed to using diesel generators the mill wheel became redundant and two large generators took over. At that time (of the cinema fire) several houses in Dingle had the electric light installed by the Houlihan power company and the lighting of the Dingle streets was going ahead. After reconstruction the picture house reopened as the Phoenix Cinema – named after the mythical bird that rose from the ashes. In those early years films didn’t have sound – written captions appeared between scenes to guide the audience through the thread of the story unfolding on screen.

In Aug. 1939, following an application to the district court for a dance hall licence, the Phoenix Ballroom with its sprung Canadian maple floor came into being and more than thirty years of dancing to bands like The Troubadours, Rhythm Aces, DJ and the Kerry Blues and The Vanguard Six would follow. This dual purpose of cinema and ballroom beginning in late 1939 followed more than a year of reconstruction of the Phoenix into the cinema we know today. During the rebuilding the townspeople were without their main source of entertainment and had to endure the long months of deprivation from the venue in Dygate Lane which drew hundreds to its doors each week – one local man describes the feeling of loss aptly: ‘it was a lonesome old time’. But when the new Phoenix reopened in Oct 8. 1939 with a two-night run of Girl of the Golden West starring Janette McDonald and Nelson Eddie, the prolonged hiatus was forgotten, and all was as it should be again.

The cinema, under the proprietorship of James and John Houlihan, was also used regularly for concerts and meetings pertaining to the social and business life of the town.

Activities (sample)

Apr. 1924 – Dingle and Listowel badminton tournament

May 1924 – Inaugural meeting of Dingle Golf Club

Jan 1925 – Big Wren Dance

May 1925 – Licensed Vintners Meeting

Jan 1928 – Play, An Doctúir Bréige, produced by the local branch of the Gaelic League

Apr 1930 – Sweepstake under the auspices of Dingle Golf Club. Prizes: 1st £5, 2nd £3, and 3rd £2

July 1930 – Dingle GAA, meeting to discuss erection of paling around the sports field

Nov 1932 – Concert in aid of Dingle, Lispole and Ventry church fund

Aug 1933 – National Guard Meeting

The preferred films in the early decades, especially by rambunctious patrons, were westerns and gangster films. Carnegie Hall, a film made in 1947 – a story of opera and classical music – had the cinema audience in uproar caterwauling and exiting in droves. A patron who witnessed the spectacle said: ‘It was a ruckus the likes of which was never seen before, the commotion could not be quieted by the caretaker for love nor money’. At a concert in the cinema in aid of the St Vincent De Paul Society in 1955, the Very Rev. Canon Lyne, PP, thanked the new owner of the Phoenix, John A. Moore, for the use of the hall and mentioned the generosity of the Houlihan family, the previous owners, down through the years in giving the hall freely to community activities. The Houlihan regime had come to an end and in the following year (1956) a demolition sale for the Dingle Electric Light and Power Company was held in the cinema. Under the Moore regime the tradition of cinema, dancing and concerts continued. Films were shown more often, and film posters were exhibited throughout the town in shop windows advertising the attractions for the coming month. Laid out before us were (thirty films, some showing for two nights) the expected treats of westerns, war films and assorted dramas along with a couple of duds.


Notable events

In Aug. 1961 the actress Siobhán McKenna who was filming The Playboy of the Western World at Inch presented prizes to the sea angling festival winners at a dance in the Phoenix.

In Feb. 1963 at a ‘twist’ competition in the cinema, Dingle brother and sister dancing duo, Patrick and Mary Ellen Cronesberry, won first prize for their exuberant exhibition of the new dance craze of the day.


In June 1969 the Western Ballroom opened in Dingle and thirty years of dancing at the Phoenix were coming to an end. One of the last dances, in 1970, included an appearance by Dana who sang her Eurovision winning song, All Kinds of Everything, to a crowd of 1300 people on the night after her big win in Amsterdam. The gig was a considerable coup at the time for the organisers, the Dingle Regatta Committee.

For twelve days during June and July in 1972, crowds flocked to see the Dingle Premiere of Ryan’s Daughter – with many hoping to catch a glimpse of their own seconds of fame as extras. In 1979 the Phoenix changed hands again and opened in July 13, 1980 under the ownership of Michael F. O’Sullivan with Kramer vs. Kramer.  


Michael (O’Sullivan) who was an avid movie fan and a regular attendee of the Phoenix long before I discovered its wonders, spared no expense on the new-look Phoenix. The quality of the new projection and sound systems was hi-tech and there were soft seats for all. And while the Phoenix Nuovo (again mirroring the film Cinema Paradiso where the cinema was bought by a lottery-winning film fan and refurbished) was a welcome rebirth, the old cinema experience where off-screen stories and shenanigans were part of the ticket, was gone forever. However, some of the old cinema remains intact: the balcony is as it was first day as is the foyer with its terrazzo image of a rising Phoenix evoking memories of the past. The O’Sullivan family continue to keep the show on the road and have introduced new generations to the grand experience of the lights dimming, the curtains streaming open and the silence descending in expectation of the thrills to come. Michael F. O’Sullivan also founded a Film Club, in 1989, which has proved hugely successful and a valuable extension of the Phoenix programme.

Unlike the cinema in the story of Cinema Paradiso which was eventually demolished, the Phoenix Cinema which is one of a few independent cinemas remaining in Ireland, lives on and continues to stream film over our heads in a beam of light from the projection booth to the screen where the magic of film comes alive. The little boy, Toto, watching in the story of Paradiso – that was me watching the magic in my home town – it was my neighbour; it was the boy who ran home along Dygate Lane after seeing a western at the ‘pictures’ slapping his rump to the beat of the William Tell overture while singing ‘to the dum, to the dum’, in the days when our hum-drum lives were often enriched by the wonder of film and the possibilities it portrayed in a time of innocence.


Note: This article was published in the 2018 edition of the Kerry Architectural and Historical Magazine. John O’Connor – Dingle – 2018.

Boatbuilding in Dingle


The tradition of boatbuilding in Dingle goes back to a time before the BIM boatyard which produced its first vessel in 1954; long before that a local shipwright, Michael Long, who had served his time as a shipwright in the Isle of Man, built a number of boats which were Isle of Man ‘nobbies’ in a laneway called the Garraí a few hundred yards from the boatyard that would follow. The (Long) boats which included the Brigid and Katherine were rolled across the street on their sides on tree trunks to the slipway by the pier. The nobby was introduced to Ireland in 1890 and much of the Dingle fleet at the turn of the 20th century consisted of nobbies; the Manx lugger (another Isle of Man import) also made its way to Dingle. At that time these trawlers were powered by sail only, engines would be added in the second decade of the century. Maintenance of the boats was carried out on the slipway and on the strand at low water; repairs would often be done at a frenetic pace between tides. In the 40s, shipwright Paddy Moriarty from Holy Ground built canoes and wooden punts in a small shed beside Hudson’s Bridge.

 In 1952, An Bord Iascaigh Mhara was established under the Sea Fisheries Act and set up boatyards in Dingle, Baltimore and Killybegs; boat construction then began in a structured and organised way. A client applied to BIM for a boat to be built under a grant scheme; the plans were drawn up and the templates for the frames and deadwoods along with the drawings and general specification were sent to Dingle. The first fifty-footer, the Ros Glas, was two years under construction before its launch in the harbour; a half dozen workers were employed at the time of the historic undertaking; several Rosses followed including the Ros Mult and the Ros Arcan.

During my first week as an apprentice shipwright I saw the spectacle of more than twenty men lifting a thirty foot balk of oak into position to start the keel of a new boat – and that was only part of the keel. Afterwards I remarked on the primitive nature of the activity to a seasoned hand who replied: ‘you ain’t seen nothin’ yet’. The work was heavy and hard in the early days before machinery and chain lifts. Some jobs were dreaded, like working on the band-saw wheel which controlled the bevelling of the frame; here one had to keep pace with the cutter as the blade traversed the sawing line where each point had a different angle of cut – this operation gave the eventual double-curvature to the hull. The slabs of larch for the planks, and oak for the frames, lying in the yard would have to be cut to length using a two-man crosscut hand saw – it could take two men over half an hour to cut a four inch slab of oak. That’s the way work was done in the 50s and 60s and it was done with enthusiasm in spite of the hardship.

 ‘One machine can do the work of fifty ordinary men.

No machine can do the work of one extraordinary man’. (Elbert Hubbard)

There were also moments of levity which took minds off the more arduous aspects of the job. When a group of grown men are banded together, inevitably individuals will reveal hidden talents and others will show a propensity for the lighter side of life. There were a few good story tellers in the mix and the odd trickster – one of whom irked a senior shipwright by asking him how much water was to be put in the boiling pitch. At the eleven o’clock morning break there would be a scattering to the local hostelries along the street for ‘coffee’. Some of the older tradesmen were possessive about their knowledge and reluctant to divulge too much to a newcomer while others saw the need for fostering apprenticeship and imparted freely from their considerable store of knowledge.

In the mid-sixties a fleet of ten clinker-built twenty six footers took up the whole yard where a shipwright and apprentice were assigned to the construction of each vessel; a number of thirty two foot half-deckers followed. The work on these vessels was light and almost leisurely in comparison with the black-hulled fifty-footers which started the yard and the larger boats to come whose footage in length would be in the fifties, sixties and seventies. A new shed was built in 1973 and more modern machinery was gradually introduced. Larger boats were undertaken and it was a relief in winter to be inside from the rain and snow – with the smaller older shed much of the work was done in the open yard. The new shed was in truth an ugly building – the sensitivities with respect to tourism and the built environment came second to the requirements of a boatbuilding industry which was thriving and helping to feed a large number of families. More than forty five people worked in the boatyard in the eighties; they included shipwrights, apprentices, engineers, general workers and office personnel. A couple of shipwrights left the yard after completing their apprenticeship to set up their own small boatbuilding enterprises. In 1979 the boatyard switched to private ownership: Dingle Boats Teoranta, under the ownership of Joe O’Boyle, continued the industry with the same work force and produced vessels to the high standard the yard was accustomed to. One of the first vessels, Ronan Padraig, constructed under the new regime was a 73 foot trawler which was costed at £650.000

By ten in the morning the white mist from the steam box, where a plank was being scalded within, would herald a flurry of activity by workers in preparation for clamping the plank stubbornly into shape and coaxing it home to its designated place on the hull; the success of the operation was dependent on the pre-work done on: the spiling (a method for determining the shape of the plank), cutting and bevelling the plank and fairing the frames to accept the thirty-foot wriggling length of the species Larix Laricina (larch). When the plank came out of the box it was necessary to get it to its spot on the hull with all haste before it cooled down; hands would be hot from the steam and if one was not prepared with hessian sacking or similar to act as gloves, a tormenting number of minutes was assured. As both the port and starboard sides of the hull were planked in unison, two working crews, each operating on one side often competed to finish first with the planking assignments.

In the afternoon the loud hammering from the mauls would be heard along the street as they drove the plank home with galvanised iron spikes. After the last plank closed the last gaping hole in the hull, the caulking mallets would introduce their own unique echoing rataplan to the neighbourhood – this symphony would go on for several days as three quarters of a mile of oakum was driven into the plank seams in preparation for paying with putty and white lead. The sounds of the industry were accompanied by a wide range of aromas: bags of oakum and boiling pitch competed for dominance over the olfactory system with the bland smell of linseed oil and the sweet aroma of turpentine; a shipwright’s overalls carried with it this unique combination of smells.

The adze and draw-knife shaped the myriad curves which the spokeshave finessed and caressed to a finer requirement. Tools unique to the craft were carried in every shipwright’s tool chest. I had the privilege to assist a senior shipwright who had the job of boring through six feet of solid oak where the stern tube would be installed – beginning with an augur and finishing with a genius contraption of a long bar with protruding cutters which gradually enlarged the five-inch tunnel for the brass tube that would house the propellor shaft. On completion of the week-long operation, the tube fitted with a ‘pop’ – like an oiled piston.

As the town bell rang the Angelus in the evening, the boatyard descended into quiet apart from the odd groan from the newly-fitted wooden parts settling in to their new environment. The prized shipwright’s tools of the trade were locked in their chests and the ground was cleared of the day’s debris of sawdust and wood chippings. Men queued at the clock to stamp their cards; some weary, some anticipating the continuance next day of the craft they loved. The predominantly local workforce embraced a school of skills which contributed to the completion of seaworthy boats bearing a renowned reputation; many of the boats given life in Dingle are still functioning. The family names of the shipwrights through the years included: Begley, Brosnan, Devane, Donegan, Ferris, Flannery, Hanafin, Leahy, Leonard, McCarthy, Moriarty, Murphy, O’Connor, Regan, and Sheehy. Birmingham, Collins and Courtney were among the engineers who fitted the engines. Noel Brosnan, who was the electrician for the boats, was also the sign-writer who wrote all the names (except two) beside a carved shamrock on the boats built in Dingle.  The boat names began with Ros, Cill, Loch and Beal; some were called after saints and several were named after loved ones.


The Dingle-built boats enhanced the local fleet and scores were commissioned for ports around the coast. Throughout its forty year existence, the Dingle yard built one hundred motor vessels. Recently the boatyard slipway was bulldozed from existence; it was the only testament to the skilled craftsmen who grew the ships from keel to truck (the uppermost part of a boat – the cap on the top of the mast). Now there is no reminder of the once flourishing and unique trade that existed in the town. Wooden boatbuilding and the exactness of craft it demanded eventually gave way to the expediency of more cost effective forms of construction. The skills of the shipwright are still held locally by a small number of people; the guardians of the boatbuilding legacy in Dingle which goes back (in modern times) to Michael Long, no doubt ponder on the future of the exceptional craft.

john o’connor – May 2017

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image-8.png

Dingle Coastguard Station

The red-bricked ruins where I played as a boy were the remains of a once imposing and substantial building, which had the capacity to house eight families in separate quarters. The 1911 Census of Ireland records 45 persons living in the complex; Johnson, Rudd, Jenkins, Sansom, Laccohee, Thomas, Mullroy and Douglas are the family names logged. A curious finding is that the 1901 census lists eight different families, indicating a complete turnover of personnel in ten years. Possibly upwards of 150 people lived within the Station during the three decades of the buildings useful existence (a short life for a building that would normally last for more than 100 years). Becoming too friendly with the locals was discouraged for fear of collusion especially in the days when smuggling was rife – hence the frequent turn-over of personnel.


The origins of the coastguard service go back to the early-1800s, when after the Napoleonic Wars the government (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland) turned to domestic affairs. One needing attention was smuggling around the coasts, which had become rife during the war. In 1809 the ‘Preventative Water Guard’, an operation, which comprised of watch houses and riding officers on shore and revenue boats at sea, was formed. In 1816 a more streamlined and unified service was put in place and in 1822 the Coastguard service came into being; it was administered by the Admiralty under the Board of Customs. Coastguardsmen served on ships at sea and in Coastguard Stations on shore. The first Coastguard instructions which provided for lifesaving and lifesaving equipment were issued in 1829, and in 1831, under a recommendation from the Admiralty, the Coastguard also became a reserve force for the navy which drew up regulations for the recruitment of officers. At the end of the Crimean War, 1865, control of the service was transferred wholly to the Admiralty; smuggling had waned and it was determined that the lifesaving and naval reserve aspects were more significant.


From the old Coastguard Stations a boat would be launched from a slipway and propelled to the distress area by oar or sail.  This slow operation necessitated a chain of stations in close proximity to each other. An index of Coastguard Stations in Kerry in the 19th century reveals a total of 27 in the county including eight (Knightstown, Coonanna, Kells, Cromane Pt, Minard, Dingle, Ventry and the Blasket Islands), which were around the periphery of Dingle Bay (see map 1). A total of 89 Coastguards were in operation around the coast of Ireland in 1867. Before the construction in 1889/1890 of the coastguard building in Emlagh West, Dingle, the coast-watching service was situated in accommodations in what is now Station Row, Dingle. This station had six cottages for the servicemen and further south along the shore a boat slip and a watch house. In a later Ordnance Survey map these are called Emlagh Cottages (see map 2). In many remote coastal areas watch houses only were set up, the Coastguard cottages would be built as close as possible to house the personnel. The areas would be divided into districts which would have a naval officer, a district commander overseeing.

The following are two excerpts from www.coastguardsofyesteryear.org relating to Dingle Coastguard:

The crew of the ‘Veronica’, of Belfast, wrecked on Sunday night at Dingle Bay, passed through the town on Saturday last. We have great pleasure in stating that a liberal collection of 40 pounds was made up in the small town of Dingle, to help forward the poor fellows on their journey, principally through the benevolent exertions of Captain Bowie, Inspecting Officer of the Water-guards.

(Morning Register, 18th December 1828)

Tralee, December 24th. A brig from Liverpool to Limerick laden with Pot ashes, Captain Jones, master, and six hands on board, struck on a sunken rock called the Old Man, outside Dingle Bay, on Saturday night week last. She drifted for a few minutes towards the land, by which the crew were enabled to escape from the bowsprit on shore, two or three minutes before she went down in very deep water. The crew arrived at Dingle the following morning where they were shown every kindness by Captain Bowie, Commander of the Water Guards through whose humanity and exercise, a subscription was collected to defray their travelling expenses back to Liverpool.

(Dublin Evening Post, Thursday 29th, December 1825)

The drawings for the new station were prepared in 1889 and construction began the following year. The original drawings are available for perusal at the National Archives in Dublin. The plans show each unit having a parlour, living room, dining room and kitchen on the ground floor and bedrooms above. The individual building, on the right of the ground plan, was more spacious and probably housed the officer in charge or the District Commander who would have had several coastguard stations under his remit. Wash rooms and offices were in a separate building to the rear (north in map 2) of the main building. The stables were to the rear also, as were the coach house and coal bunker (every two units shared an eight-flue chimney). Concrete water cisterns were situated along the front and rear- walls to collect rain water from the roof. Some of the upper windows had viewing balconies. On the shore end of the site a boathouse with slip and a house for the rocket cart were located.

In the age of sail, ships were mostly safe while at sea; it is when they came close to shore and were unable to manoeuvre away from it due to unfavourable winds and sea that they ran into peril. When a ship found itself on the rocks close to shore a distress message, by way of flares or otherwise was sent. The ship’s crew and passengers were rescued by way of a breeches buoy. A rocket with a light line was fired onto or across the ship and picked up by a sailor. This line in turn hauled a stronger line aboard, which then hauled a stronger line; this was secured to the ships mast or other high point and anchored to the shore. A breeches buoy – a circular life buoy with canvass breeches sown-on (thus the name), would traverse the tautened line by means of pulley blocks, back and forth from ship to shore collecting the stricken sailors. All of the accoutrements for the lifesaving operation would be conveyed to the cliff-top by horse and cart (several of these carts and accoutrements remain in various museums and local storage houses). The Coastguard personnel were assisted in manning the lifesaving apparatus by dedicated teams of local volunteers. Long after Dingle Coastguard Station ceased to exist as an official entity, the cliff top rescue operation continued in the same fashion as in olden days. The last rescue performed with the use of breeches buoy by the Dingle unit of the Coast Lifesaving Service (CLSS as it was called after 1923, later renamed the Coast and Cliff Rescue Service), was in 1982 when a cargo ship, the Ranga, got into difficulty near Dunmore Head in Dingle Bay. Most of the 15 crew were rescued (before a RAF helicopter arrived to assist with the remainder) using the system that had been in use for more than a century.

Many of the old Coastguard Stations were looted and burned down during either the War of Independence, 1919–1921, or the Civil War that followed. The Dingle station (at Emlagh West) was not spared and fell to the follies of war after a short life of service. The remains were eventually demolished in 1967 to facilitate the building of a hotel. The boat house, the rocket apparatus and cart and other miscellaneous lifesaving equipment are all that remain of the original operation. Evidence of the slipway exists; the rocket cart house remains and has been subsumed into the base of operations for the present day Coast Guard Volunteer Coastal Unit (CG CU). Around the coast, a number of the old coastguard houses are intact – renovated and serving as private homes or houses of guest accommodation. They are distinctive in their style of construction and easily recognisable as once having a noble purpose. The old boat houses, which were built close to the shore and away from the larger domestic accommodation, are also to be found around the coast.

Since 1923 control of the UK service has changed several times.  In Ireland, the service, now known as the Irish Coast Guard (the two word variant) has evolved into an efficient quick-response body, which has adapted to the changing times and the new demands imposed on lifesaving and safety at sea. While the Royal National Lifeboat Institution is long established as the pre-dominant lifesaving force at sea; the inshore Coast Guard Volunteer Coastal Units (CGCUs), capable of search and cliff and coastal rescue, are an invaluable asset to the lifesaving service. Coast Guard helicopters have taken over from the ‘rocket-firing’ crews and now pluck seafaring people from imminent danger from ships at sea and those gone aground along on the coast. The Irish Naval Service gives assistance with deep water incidents. The main roles of the modern Irish Coast Guard are to rescue people from danger at sea or on land, to organise immediate medical transport and to assist boats and ships within the country’s jurisdiction. The Coast Guard service, aided by coast guard radio stations, police the waters around the coast enforcing fishery laws, respond to pollution incidents, take charge of wrecks and  provide an effective response to marine casualty incidents.

John O’Connor – 2016

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image-8.png


This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image-8.png


The flags are still today, the wind is gone and the crowd returned to the sameness of their daily lives. The corner is quiet, just a few casual browsers scanning the slabs of stone; perhaps seeking out a relative from the ninety-nine names. I am alone most of the time, checking the architecture of the memorial and the carved plaques which are housed there. In keeping with the theme, spliced ropes form a guardrail around the perimeter. Flowers, which I saw being placed and tended on the day’s previous by wives, deck the background garden of the site. Today I see a third flag added representing the county from which one of the most recent victims hailed.

A large anchor dominates the centre of the space and it has its own story inscribed at the base. I overhear an elderly man question the veracity of the anchor’s tale and his younger companion’s response: ‘Sure if they asked the right people about it… but no, they had to do it their own way.’ I was amused at the exchange and thought that no matter how well a community pulls together there will always be a couple of naysayers.

However, it was evident from the previous day’s ceremony that this community had indeed pulled together in their quest to honour the dead who had been taken by the sea. The memorial which was planned prior to the recent sinking of the fishing vessel Tit Bonhomme, Jan. 15, 2012, where five fishermen lost their lives, found a new impetus following that tragic event. The last plaque in the memorial has the names inscribed of the five souls whose bodies were subsequently recovered from the waters around Glandore following  a never ceasing voluntary effort from the rescue services and the wider fishing community.

The first plaque recalls the ship Pulcinella where in 1874 (the year my grandfather was born) twelve were lost in Blind Harbour, one hundred and thirty-eight years later the Tit Bonhomme tragedy unfolded; in between these two tragedies, plaques contain the names of other souls’ young and old, men and women (five listed) who perished while in the pursuit of work, leisure and travel on the sea, east and west from this focal point.

While heretofore the names of the lost were mentioned in the homes of their decedents – they are now tangibly connected in this family of souls at a crossroads in the village. There may be one, two or a handful missing from this place of reflection as articulated by the Master of Ceremonies,  but if so it was because of human failing and though their names be absent from the granite they too will be remembered here in spiritual fellowship with the unforgotten.

The proceedings leading up to, and including the unveiling of the memorial were dignified and professional. Musical interludes provided a suitably sombre note to the progression of events. Officiators spoke plainly and respectfully while an attentive gathering from the community and beyond listened unhindered apart from the clang of a fatigued bell from a nearby church which was called into service to give strikes in tandem while the names of those lost were called out by members of the coastguard service.

The throng of living souls around me, and extending to fill the ‘Y’ of the junction were a mix of ages, shades and stature; many were in their Sunday best and most were tanned from the previous day’s sunshine. Several family groups spanned three generations; their solemn bearing adding gravitas to the occasion. Two brothers stood side by side each with their hands hung low and crossed; an elderly farmer gaining support from a gnarled home-made stick rubbed his eyes as a name was called. I saw several whom I knew to be involved in the recent magnificent effort at recovery in the harbour. A crying baby who thought it was just another Sunday was quickly removed to the rear by a parent. A barking dog soon followed.

All gathered there were determined that reverential harmony be maintained; a motorbike roared through the access avenue created by the Garda and there was a collective change in the body language of the spectators which let their disapproval be known. How insensitive to have their reflection intruded upon in this way (The biker was a passing stranger and oblivious to the solemnity of the event).

The crook of the ‘Y’ junction where the memorial is sited is apt in how it represents the coming together of the ‘branches’ which are oriented towards the parishes from which people are being remembered. Within the gathering there were people who were never at sea in the sense that those being remembered were; this group were there out of solidarity with the relatives of the sea. Some visitors to the area who happened to walk in to the event decided to stop and linger; I and some friends were present because we visited the area at that time every year. Whatever road or reason brought us there we would all for a while share common thoughts and unite with the core group in remembrance of the ones they lost.

As a sailor I can say that I am aware of the sea; I dare say that I know it and would not presume to have the competence to describe it. But I have experienced its behaviour through a range of moods: from timid to boisterous, from challenging to downright mean. The sea owes us nothing and it will in cooperation with its fuelled-up ally the wind; treat us with contempt for being presumptuous about our assumed knowledge of its plan. The sea does not always vent its fury while claiming a soul; it can at its most benign, sneak up on one when least expected and take its prize – the depth of loss for the bereaved is the same regardless of which guise the sea presents. In many cases the sea does not give back what it takes and these selfish interludes exacerbate the grief and helplessness of the bereaved.

For those who make a living from the sea there is a concomitant risk which ghostly prevails in their terms of employment. These men have to take on board the challenge of the sea and with that its risks and unpredictability. The coastline of Ireland is dotted with fishing towns where tragedy has befallen the men who stood on the decks of boats as they toiled in the throes of intemperate weather and unforgiving seas. They are a tenacious and tough breed those who rise to the challenge each day. Then that one day comes when the elements conspire to deprive them; to call a halt as it were to their noble endeavour, and sometimes perhaps to  punish their intransigence.

As a sailor, one who uses the sea for leisure, I am always supremely aware when setting out on a voyage that I am not in charge, that I am in the hands of the sea – to the point even that when I am telling family or friends of an ETA at a particular port I say: ‘I hope to be in Valentia…….’ or, ‘I hope to be in Oileán Chléire…….’ at a particular date or time. Never do I say that I will be in such a place. I do not take my voyage for granted and I am sure that the same holds for the myriad users: fishermen, ferrymen, passengers, sailors and all other seagoing souls.

The memorial is quiet today and this is how it will be into the future, as it should be, a place of private reflection. Many will come in their own time to seek out a name; some will come from far-off communities which have their own memorial and identify with the need which established this one. It would be imprudent to think that no more names will be added to the granite here, but a fervent wish prevails that, in view of our much improved coastal and lifeboat services and the camaraderie of all seafarers, the carver’s chisel will long remain redundant. I asked a couple just arrived if they were at yesterday’s ceremony: ‘No, we couldn’t come down, it would have been too sad.’

I look to the harbour and see boats moving about; our marriage with the sea will continue, it is a partnership long embedded in our psyche; as an island nation we go to sea. I walk towards the pier to board my own vessel; I look back once to the crossroads and see a new arrival bearing a wreath; they will come in silence to honour the lost.

John O’Connor – Published in The Southern Star, Aug., 2012.

%d bloggers like this: