Childhood memories of a Donegal Coastguard Station.
Extract from the Autobiography of Bernard William Wheyman.
(Written in the early 1980's)
I was born on the 6th.December 1895 in the village of Orford on the coast of Sussex which was the native place of my Father and Mother. My Father who "had the sea in his blood", ran off to it in 1881, and, after numerous adventures in various sailing vessels, including shipwreck, joined the Royal Navy as a Stoker in 1885, at the age of 20 years. After 10 years afloat, mostly on foreign stations, and having married in 1889, he decided to apply for a post in H.M. Coastguard which, until 1919, was comprised of Royal Naval Officers and ratings, subject to Admiralty Discipline and control. Having been accepted he had to drop his sea rating of Chief Petty Officer and was appointed boatman and ordered to Coastguard Station, Knockalla on the Fanad Peninsula of County Donegal, Ireland (now Eire) and on the west bank of Lough Swilly, not far from its entrance into the Atlantic Ocean. Therefore when I was 3 months old (March 1896) Mother sold most of her home at Orford, and with my brother Clifford, aged 5, my parents made the journey into this remote part of Donegal.
Knockalla, which is the name of the adjacent mountain (Knockallagh)- part of the range called "The Devil's Backbone"- is not a village, but consisted of scattered peasantry in small crofts and even black-houses. The inhabitants though poverty stricken, were kindly and friendly; they were Roman Catholics and spoke Gaelic, but some knew a little English. These folk lived mainly on potatoes, buttermilk, eggs, herring and any fish they caught in Lough Swilly.
My first recollections of life were therefore inside the Station, which was situated on top of the cliff from which one looked down on the beach and the flowing water of the Swilly. The Coastguard Station was fenced in with metal railings and a heavy metal gate. Inside, the five families were English; one Officer and four naval ratings. The Station was in fact naval married quarters, each cottage consisting of two small bedrooms and two rooms below; these were open to periodical inspections by Divisional Officer (Lieutenant), District Captain and annually by the Admiral. The only school was a room in the watch-house, the Officer's wife happening to be a teacher and paid by the Admiralty; there were ten pupils. The nearest shop was seven miles away at Rathmullen, and the groceries came by cart once per week, which was the only time we saw a horse, donkeys with panniers being the only local transport, used mostly to deliver turf (peat) to the Station as required. The nearest Post Office, from which al mail had to be collected and posted, was in the village of Glenvar, four miles away on the road to Carrowkeel (Kerykeel). We drank rainwater, caught in tanks and purified through a charcoal filter.
The Coastguards kept watches of four hours, as aboard ship, and when the fleet was in Lough Swilly, which was the main Naval anchorage (off Buncrana) to the western approaches before the 'separation' of Donegal into the Irish Free State, they used a semaphore signalling station and telephone in an old fort about half a mile away. I remember standing in this old fort with my Father about 1900 and watching the entire Channel Fleet steam out with H.M.S Majestic and Magnificent in the van (front). On the opposite side of the Lough was the headland and fort of Dunree which was garrisoned by Royal Artillery, The soldiers in redcoats and pillbox hats used to row across to gather winkles. From the Coastguard Station access to the shore was by cliff path known as "The Nine Turns", at the foot of which was the Coastguard boathouse and boat. I remember an occasion when the Coastguard families were all invited aboard H.M.S. Camperdown anchored off the coastguard station (1900) Father also took us a few times by boat to Buncrana and Port Salon, both places being on Lough Swilly. The first five years of my life were at this remote spot: my sister (Ethel Olive) was born here in 1898. My Mother always maintained that "we never ailed a thing at Knockalla"
In April 1901 Father got promoted and we moved to Coastguard Station Moville on the north shore of Lough Foyle in the Innishowen peninsula. Owing to the difficulty of road transport the admiralty sent the naval sloop H.M.S. Amelia to move us to Moville by sea. Our furniture and effects were therefore carried down "The Nine Turns", to the beach below and put in the small boat and transferred to the anchored Amelia; our family likewise. I remember it was a fine day, sunny, with a calm sea (May 1901) and I sat aft under the White Ensign looking at Malin Head, the most northerly point of Ireland, before we rounded Innishowen Head into Lough Foyle, where we disembarked at the wooden pier, Moville. The Coastguard Station Moville contained 14 families in two blocks of seven cottages; Chief Officer and 13 ratings (including one carpenter)
I duly attended the Protestant school St. Columbs, which was about a mile's walk; but my spare time was spent mostly on the adjacent stone pier watching the tugs, coasters, and smacks, or on the Coastguards slipway or boathouse; they had 4 boats of various sizes and when "off duty" Father would do much fishing with the other men. Unlike Knockalla, I now contracted a succession of childhood illnesses, culminating in a serious one caused - as my Mother much later informed me ! - by rolling about with other boys in the wet grass; I contracted pneumonia and pleurisy with an abscess in my right lung. As no hospital existed here I was attended by the two local doctors and had four operations on our kitchen table (early 1903), being nearly choked by liquid chloroform accidentally spilling on one occasion. They eventually drained this lung by inserting a rubber tube which remained there for several months. I consider my life was saved by Dr. Newell - whose grave I visited in 1960 in the churchyard - who, on entering the house and hearing me singing upstairs, informed my mother that I was "unlikely to die, as I had too much spirit" !. I spent many weeks sitting at my bedroom window.
Thanks to Chris Hewett for sending this in.