Beacon in the dark

From the IAR Spring 2017 edition

While working as an intern at the NPA Mike Bors gained access to a remarkable collection created by talented amatuer, Sir Robert Ball, astromoner and scientific adviser to the Commissioners of Irish Lights

Lighthouses  are  and  have  been  an  integral  part of   the  Irish  coastal  landscape  for  centuries  and the history of sea signals in Ireland dates back to the 5th century. The very first record of it was a beacon,  lit  by  the monks  of  Rinn  Dubháin  in  Co  Wexford  ignited  to  warn  ships  away  fromdangerous costal rocks. That first lighthouse (the actual lighthouse buildings were erected much later in the 13th century), in an updated and more technically advanced form is still in operation today  and  is  now  known  as  Hook  Head.  The  lighthouses  stand  defiant  in  the  most  hostile  of places:  on  remote  islands,  small  rocks  and  extremely  isolated  parts  of  the  Irish  coast. They  are fortresses,  built  to  withstand  violent  storms,  armed  with light  and  sound  signals,  not  to  defend from  the  invaders  but  to  warn  of  the  threat  of  the  invisible  dangers  of  the  treacherous  Irish seaboard.

In  the  19th  and  early  20th  century  the  responsibility  for  lighthouses,  lightships,  buoys  and beacons around the coast of Ireland was vested in the hands of the Commissioners of Irish Lights (CIL). CIL is the body that serves as a General Lighthouse Authority for the island of Ireland and its adjacent seas and islands. It oversees the costal lights and navigation marks and is funded by light  dues  paid  by  ships  calling  at  ports  in  Ireland.  For  the  most  comprehensive  photographic record of Irish lighthouses and life therein around the turn of the 20th century we are indebted to Sir  Robert  Ball  who  was  appointed  as  Scientific  Adviser to  the  Irish  Lights  Board  in  1882.  ‘It was his duty to advise the Commissioners of Irish Lights to the efficiency of the apparatus used in  the  Irish  lighthouses’  (Ball,  1915:  246).  Even  though  he  was  not  obliged  to  accompany Commissioners  of  Irish  Lights  on  the  annual  inspections  after  his  nomination,  he  was  said  to rarely  miss the annual trip, always accompanied by  his camera. ‘I got many ‘snaps’  he writes  in June 1903 in a letter to his wife, and on another occasion notes again: ‘I send you a few ‘snaps’I took last year. I got a good many pictures altogether, and I am trying this year to fill up some of the  many  lacunae.'(Ball,  1915:  261).  The  collection  is  ultimately  made  by  an  amateur,  even though  Ball  was  a  scientist  and  a  member  of  the  Dublin  Photographic  Society,  there  is  no evidence  to  suggest  he  received  any  kind  of  formal  training.  So  how  did  this  astronomer, mathematician  and  writer  of  popular  science  books  become the  creator  of  such  an  extensive photographic  archive?  His  photographic  collection  was  donated  to the  National  Library  of Ireland by the Commissioners of Irish Lights in the year 2000. It consists of 23 boxes of prints, glass  and  plastic  slides,  negatives  and  positives  totalling  around 1,000  items  and  was  created over a 15-year period in different locations all over the coast of Ireland.

Back  in  1865  Ball  had  moved  from  Dublin  to  take  up  a  tutoring  position  to  the  three  younger sons of Lord Rosse in Birr Castle—the home of the much celebrated ‘Great Telescope’. Laurence Parsons,  4th  Earl  of  Rosse  and  his  mother,  Mary  Rosse,  were  eminent  amateur   photographers. The photographic darkroom that the Countess of Rosse created, was one of the first in Ireland at the time and it is assumed that Ball’s interest in photography started here.  Curiously,  among  the  photograph  of  lighthouses,  lighthouse-keeps,  the  equipment  and  the commissioners we  find an  image of  Ball  himself. This photograph raises questions. Did  Robert Ball take all the photographs himself  if he’s pictured in one of the images? Was the technology advanced enough for this to be a self-portrait? Was the camera of the 1900s technically advanced to have a timer release or did someone else take the photograph? Was there more than one author of the archive? The viewer can easily envisage the patience and no doubt many failed attempts of the  photographer  in  his  attempts  to  create  this  fascinating documentation,  against  the  odds  of rough seas, rocky boats, flaws in the equipment and processes of recording images invented less than  30  years  prior.  It  is  remarkable  that  Ball  was  able  to produce  images  such  as  the  view  of Fastnet lighthouse taken from the deck of the boat.

Today, with the passage of time these  images  have a different value.  Ball’s photographs started their  lives  as  simply ‘snaps’,  captured  memories  from  his  travels  with  the  Commissioners  and with  time  have  become  not  only  documents,  rich  in  texture  and  tonal  range,  and  the  play  of highlights and shadows only black and white images yield, but also present a nostalgic momento to a time gone by.

Photographs  are  memories  that  are  made  into  material  objects,  a  sort  of  relic  of  the  past  and present at the same time, archival objects that are routinely collected, organized and maintained. A snapshot is a mechanism through which we return to the past and the CIL’s archive is exactly that, a time  machine that takes the viewer  back to 1900s. It stands as a historic document of  an Ireland that no longer exists; a record of the lighthouse-keepers, their everyday struggles to live in the most inhospitable and unwelcoming places, making homes and creating families where not many  would  dare  to  and  their  commitment  to  providing  protection  for  the  ships  to  reach  their destinations safely in the most treacherous weather conditions. When  listing  Robert  Ball’s  achievements  photography  is  only  a  minor  element.  His  research, writing  and  contributions  to  the  fields  of  astronomy,  mechanics  and  mathematics  brought  him recognition and prestige.  We can  not however undermine or diminish the  importance and  value of  the  vast  archive  he  has  created  for  the  CIL.  The  history  of  photography  is  enhanced  by amateurs  like  Sir  Robert  Ball,  keen  and  passionate  explorers  of  the  medium,  recorders  of  their present and archivists of the world that surrounded them.

Quotes taken from Ball, WVReminiscences and Letters of Sir Richard Ball, Little, Brown and Company (1915).

Mike  Bors  worked  on  researching  and  archiving  the  CIL  collection  in  2015  in  a collaborative partnership between NPA and DIT. He is currently studying photography at Ulster University’s MFA programme in Belfast.