Around the coast of Ireland, in prominent positions, there are the remains of concrete look-out posts. When were they built? Why were they built? Who worked there? This paper attempts to answer these questions.

International & National Context

In 1939 despite the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain’s famous remark, ‘peace in our time’ it was obvious that Europe was heading towards war. A revanchist Germany, a Mussolini led Italian state bent on expansion (he had invaded Abyssinia), and an ineffectual League of Nations meant that war was inevitable.

Ireland, despite Taoiseach Eamon de Valera’s presidency of the League of Nations was more concerned about its internal affairs. The ports (Bere Island, Haulbowline and Lough Swilly) had been handed over to the state, the after effects of the economic war with Britain and the annuities settlement, the resurgent IRA and Saor Eire, and chronic unemployment and emigration all combined to concentrate the mind of the Irish Government on internal affairs.

There was no Irish navy or air force and the old coastguard service had been disbanded in 1922. While the Army and Department of Defence raised questions about the country’s preparedness for hostilities threatening to break out all around Irish shores, the dead hand of the Department of Finance ignored such warnings and refused to countenance the spending of any funds on territorial defence.  Originally it was thought that Irish neutrality would save the country from any involvement with hostilities but eventually it was realised that neutrality would not make Ireland immune from invasion. The British raised concerns with the Irish Government that Germany might use Ireland as a base to attack it from the rear and thus were keen to supply ships for an Irish navy but as war loomed closer they felt the need to have as many ships as possible for themselves.

Irish Coastwatching Service

It was believed that a coastwatch or coastguard service would be the easiest and most economical early warning system to set up. Captain John Fitzgerald of the British Admiralty[1] came to Dublin ‘on leave’ but in reality to liaise with the Irish Army on setting up a coast watching service. It was agreed that static look-out posts would be more effective than the previous patrol based service of the old coastguard system. In summer of 1939 the sites of these new look-out posts existed on paper and some preparatory work such as recruitment was in train but when war broke out there was nothing on the ground. Recruitment and training of volunteers and the construction of the pillbox structures like sentry posts went up all over the country very quickly. The OPW designed these structures, all to the same design and the army delivered the precast sections to a point nearest the site of construction. Apart from a few which were adaptations of existing structures the lookout posts were all nine feet by thirteen feet with six precast steel framed windows, two facing directly forward and two to both right and left and a fireplace on the rear wall of the building. Because of the speed of erection, ‘they went up like mushrooms’, [2] there were many faults and flaws in the finished building and during their time of use the occupants complained about the leaks, the cracks in the walls and the fact that some of them provided minimal protection against the harsh elements on the exposed coasts of Ireland especially in winter time. There were eighty three lookout posts around the coast of Ireland, about ten to fifteen miles apart, all with full sight of the stretch of coast to the next post to the north and to the south.

Loophead Lookout Posts

coastwatch post loophead

Coastwatch post at lighthouse Loophead

The Loophead peninsula was in a strategic and prominent position on the west coast of Ireland jutting out into the Atlantic with the Shannon River estuary along the southern coast. There were three coastwatching lookout posts on the peninsula. One was in front of Loophead lighthouse (now in a derelict condition), one at Kilcredaun, Carrigaholt about fifty metres from the lighthouse (it is in very good condition and is a protected structure on the Clare County Council list) and the third is at Corbally about two miles north of Kilkee, erroneously called George’s Head in official files (in reasonably good condition with some damage to the roof). The reason for the incorrect name of the Kilkee lookout post is that the sites were selected, on paper, in Dublin but when the army engineers came to reconnoitre, sometimes they changed the location to a more advantageous one. This is probably what happened to the Kilkee location.

Recruiting

Recruiting started in this area in July 1939. An advertisement in the Clare Champion on 1st July 1939 called for volunteers for the coastwatching service, recruitment to take place at Kilkee Garda station and Carrigaholt Garda station on 6th July[3]. The people employed were locals with some knowledge of the coastline in their own area. This local knowledge was to prove very valuable because they were aware of local conditions, local boat owners, local tides and any unusual movement of people or shipping craft. The following is a list of the people who served in the Loophead Peninsula lookout posts with the official number of each post:

Kilcredaun (44) Loophead (45) Kilkee (46)
Cpl. Ml Blake Cpl. Patrick Crotty Cpl Tom Prendergast
Paddy Behan Timmy Crotty T. Corcoran
E. Bowler Peter Gorman Martin Foran
Connie Brennan John Gorman M. Hayes
C. Brennock Mickey Griffin Pierce Heaney
Martin Foran Marty Austin Christy Haugh
John Lynch John Joe Haugh J. Haugh
Ml. Lynch John Blake T. Kenneally
M. OBrien Wm. Nilan J.Moriarty
J.O Shea Paddy Keane Ned McGreene
T. OSullivan Tommy Dunne J. McMahon
P.Pierce & J Haugh Marty OBrien

 

Some names appear in two lists because they were moved from one post to another if a replacement was needed. Some names are not local and they came as replacement from HQ in Cork when two or more of the regular watchers (as they called themselves) went on training courses. The Coastwatching and Marine Service (C&MS) were set up in Haulbowline to oversee naval and coastwatching service. It was the precursor to the Irish navy. A district officer from the Irish Army was in charge of a number of posts and an army-type discipline was enforced.

Each post had a corporal in charge and the volunteers worked in two man, eight hour shifts around the clock. Normally one stayed inside the post while one stood outside with binoculars. They rotated this system every hour.

The men received a wage of  2 / = per day and if married  2/6 per day. In the Kilkee logbook Ned McGreene applied for the marriage allowance, in 1943, because he had got married.[4] The Corporal in Charge received  4/= per day and because the men were not in an army barracks they received 3/= in lieu of army rations, they got a fuel allowance, a medical care allowance if there was not an army doctor nearby, a boot allowance and a children’s allowance. So, by the standard of the day they were reasonably well paid but conditions were very poor. The LOPs (look out posts) were spartan with no running water and no toilets. Of course at that time very few rural houses had electricity, running water and toilets so conditions while not normal were not as bad as would seem looking at it from today’s perspective.

Training

Training of watchers began as soon as they were enrolled with two weeks in Haulboline or in Tralee and continued with one week training away every year over the period of the war. They were supplied with uniform and the log books record the dates that they collected their clothing. For instance, in the Kilkee log book 24th November.1940 it records “Volunteers C.Haugh, D. Heaney and M OBrien to report to Collins Barracks, Cork for issue of clothing”.[5]  On the 27th November 1940 the entry states “Volunteers C.Haugh, D.Heaney and M.OBrien reported back from Cork and on their arrival, Volunteers J.Haugh, T. Kenneally and E. McGreene proceeded to Cork for issue of clothing”[6]

The District Officer gave ongoing training and discipline enforcement. The subjects of their training was signalling, maritime practices, morse code, semaphore, how to track free floating mines and recognise the markings, the silhouette of ships and planes. They were instructed in telephone usage as most of them would never have seen a telephone never mind use one. The instruction manual with the telephone assured the user that it was unnecessary to shout because the listener at the other end would hear them quite well when they spoke normally. The watchers were not usually armed but did get some basic rifle training. The main use of a rifle was to shoot at drifting mines so that they exploded at sea and could not drift ashore and injure people. Drifting mines were a regular feature along the coast of Ireland during that period. A typical entry in the Kilkee log book read “LOP personnel instructed to keep guard on a mine in Farrihy Bay and keep public at least 500 yards away”. Another entry in the same log book but at an earlier date says” mine in Farrihy Bay rendered safe by military”. So floating mines, which were a hazard to shipping and the public, were watched for very carefully.

Log Books

Coastwatch post in Kilcredaun, Carrigaholt

Coastwatch post in Kilcredaun, Carrigaholt

A daily log book was kept by every lookout post (LOP). They are fascinating record of the daily chores of the watchers. Every watch had to sign in and sign out. One entry in Kilcredaun 20th April 1940 states “each man must sign his own name. It will not do for one man to sign both names.” [7]  The log books were regularly inspected and all inspection reports were recorded. The log book at Loophead was quite busy with the coming and going in the Shannon Estuary as well as the Atlantic coast. The territorial limit at the time was three miles so anything outside that was in international waters. This meant that foreign ships could be plainly seen going up and down the coast. Kilcredaun was also a busy post. The entries were slightly different, despite the fact that it is only 5 miles from Loophead. The entries recorded ships waiting in the estuary for a pilot to take them up to Limerick. It was also closer to Foynes, the busy flying boat base on the Shannon so the coming and going was recorded as was the increasing use of Rineanna (now Shannon Airport) for refuelling planes.

Coastwatch post in Kilkee

Coastwatch post in Kilkee

Kilkee was the quietest of the three posts and the log book’s lack of recorded activity suggests a most boring job. There were some entries which suggested activity to help break the boredom. In Kilkee there was a bit of a spat between District Officer, Lieutenant C. Irving and Corporal Tom Prendergast. It seems that the corporal, as officer in charge, should be present at the change of shift when the men signed out and the new batch signed in. The log book records at 00.01 shift “corporal not present at relief”[8]. The corporal got his own back later that day at 8am shift when he recorded “men on the 00.01 to 08.00 shift complained of the bad language used by the DO, Lieut. Irving”. It was a pyrrhic victory because the said Lieut Irving has after that the log book peppered with complaints about the officer in charge. For instance “inspected LOP and found men on duty but not posted by corporal in charge”.[9] The following month Lieut. Irving demanded a full assembly and read out Defence Regulations. The cpl i/c and seven men were present.[10]Another interesting entry that must have given the watchers in Kilkee hours of entertainment was an entry “ Volunteers T. Kenneally and M. Hayes to report to Ennis Courthouse on foot of a summons issued by the Garda Sergeant in Kilkee, as witness in a murder trial”[11]. Then three months later the log book entry is “Volunteers M. Hayes and T. Kenneally left for Criminal Court, Dublin as witnesses in a murder trial”.[12] This was a well known trial of a local woman who was accused of poisoning her husband. The watchers were on their way to work when they came across the dying man (he was poisoned with strychnine) and they carried him into a local house. The wife was found to be innocent. She thought she was using sugar but used strychnine by mistake!

All three log books have entries complaining about the condition of the huts. Corporal Crotty recorded in the Loophead log book on 9th March 1940 that ‘one of the hut windows were blown in by the wind. Maps torn down. There is an inch of water on the floor” [13] The ceilings in all three regularly leaked and even today remains of tar used to try and seal the leak can be noticed on the roof. Board of Works and senior army officers regularly inspected the structure. The Kilkee log book notes Mr ORourke, of the Office of Public Works, on the foot of complaints, visited the post on 9th September 1940.[14]  In Kilcredaun the log book entry is as follows, “Plastering on inside wall of LOP fell off owing to dampness on the wall and also owing to cracks in the plaster.”[15]

Sightings

The lists of sightings in the log books are intriguing and contain the following: oil tanker, civil aircraft, coal boat, seaplane, lighthouse service vessel, fishing trawler, motor launch, torpedo boat, military aircraft, barrage balloons, coastal steamer, biplane, large cargo boat, low wing monoplane and many more. Each individual sighting was recorded in the log book and at the same time the local garda station was notified as well as Southern Command in Cork. A typical early entry is “Strange type of vessel sighted four miles west of LOP moving east, visibility poor, nationality unknown. Volunteers J OShea and J. Lynch on duty. Reported to Southern Command in Cork”.[16]

The later entries, because of better silhouette charts, training and more experience of the men, vessels were described with much more accuracy.

One of the more macabre items on the list of sightings is the appearance of corpses either floating or on occasions seen in a ship’s lifeboat, just drifting. One well-known incident was when men from the Loophead LOP were let down by rope to recover the headless and limbless torso of a body washed up on the rocks at Clohansavaun. This was an extremely dangerous exercise as the cliffs were two hundred feet high with a sheer drop to the sea without any ledges or footholds. Patrick Crotty and Marty Austin agreed to be lowered one by one down the cliff face. They tied the human remains onto a stretcher and it was hauled up to the top and one by one the two coastwatchers were hauled back up to the top. The body was never identified. The Garda authorities on receipt of Carrigaholt Garda Sergeant Byrne’s report requested that it be forwarded to army Southern Command in Cork to acknowledge the bravery of the two men.[17]

Another incident of body recovery which was not quite so dramatic or gruesome, entered in the Kilkee log book in September 1941 “body of unidentified man washed ashore, in Farrihy Bay three miles north of post on 16th September 1941. was found by Frances Keane, a civilian, who notified Doonbeg Garda barracks. Buried in Farrihy graveyard.”[18]

Telephone

The telephone was one of the most important pieces of equipment at each LOP. Once the men got used to it (and stopped shouting down the line) it was used on a daily basis for reports. It was a major engineering task to get telephone lines to the remote headlands where the LOPs were built. Those beside lighthouses proved the least difficult because there telephone lines were already installed in them. The ones miles away from the main line did not receive phones until well into 1940. Without the telephone, watchers would have to cycle to the nearest Garda barracks which could be many miles away. Telephones were a rarity in rural Ireland at the time and even a town like Kilkee had very few phones. The Corbally LOP’s number was Kilkee 4 (manual exchanges had the name of the town in the telephone number). The lines were very unreliable so a routine was established to check the reliability of the line and the log books report the daily chore of contacting the local Garda barracks, the Southern Command and weekly basis Newmarket on Fergus for weather report via Ballygireen.

EIRE Signs

These signs were not really part of the core duties of the watchers. When the United States of America entered the war there were far more US aircraft flying to Europe. The fuel range of aircraft at the time meant that they could not fly non-stop. Flying from Gander in Newfoundland the aircraft could just about make it to Irish shores. This led to a large number of aircraft crash landing or emergency landing in Ireland and because of the neutrality position of the country these American military crews were arrested. Gray, the US ambassador in Dublin was very annoyed about this so the Irish Government decided to signpost the coast of Ireland so the inexperienced American pilots would know exactly where they were (this was before radar, GPS and other electronic navigational aids), so an internal army memo stated” in order to warn belligerent aircraft of their position, the word ‘EIRE’ has been prominently displayed close to the LOPs of the coastwatching service”[19]. This was a navigational aid system which was cheap and effective. The letters were built with local flat stone laid on the ground and the sign measured twelve metres long by six metres high and whitewashed to increase visibility. Later the number of the LOP was added to the sign as a further identification aid.

A good example of one of these signs has been uncovered and re-whitewashed at Loophead.

Winding Down

With the German surrender the Coastwatching Service was wound down.

One historian commented ‘the generally effective coastwatching service which had been organised with such difficulty in 1939 was dismantled once peace came, thereby drastically lessening the state’s knowledge of affairs in its own territorial waters’.[20]

Belatedly, recognition is being given to the men who were the eyes and ears of the nation during these dangerous times. There is discussion in Loophead of renovating the three structures not only as a monument to our local coastwatchers but as a potential tourist attraction.


 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Look Out Posts log books (Military Archives)
primary source of day to day activities in each LOP

Guarding Neutral Ireland (Four Courts Press) by Michael Kennedy
definitive work on the Coastwatching Service

Defending Ireland by Eunan O’Halpin Dublin
larger national picture but useful chapter on LOPs

www.lookoutposts.com
website with photographic images of all LOPs

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

Much of this paper is based on the book, Guarding Neutral Ireland (published by Four Courts Press) written by Dr Michael Kennedy. He is executive editor of the Royal Irish Academy’s Documents on Irish Foreign Policy Series, a member of the Irish Manuscripts Commission and is currently secretary of the RIA’s Committee for International Affairs. This book is the definitive work on the Coastwatching Service in Ireland and combined with Michael’s encouragement was essential to the writing of this project. Apologies in advance if I have inadvertently misrepresented or misquoted any extract from Guarding Neutral Ireland.

The staffs of both the Military Archives in Cathal Brugha Barracks and the Clare County Archives in Ennis were very helpful to a neophyte historian.

FOOTNOTES

[1] Kennedy, Michael, Guarding Neutral Ireland (Dublin) P.25

[2] KENNEDY Michael, Guarding Neutral Ireland (Dublin)P.49

[3] Clare Champion newspaper, 1st July 1939

[4] George’s Head log book (Military archives) 15th September 1943

[5]  George’s Head log book (National Military Archives) 24th November 1940

[6]  George’s Head log book (National Military Archives) 27th November 1940

[7] Kilcredaun log book (Military archives) 20th April 1940

[8] George’s Head log book (Military archives) 22nd August 1940

[9] George’s Head log book (Military archives) 30th August 1940.

[10] George’s head log book (Military archives) 28th September 1940.

[11] George’s Head log book (Military archives) 24th November 1941

[12] George’s Head log book (Military archives)  21st February 1942

[13] Loophead log book(Military Archives 9th March 1940

[14] George’s Head log book (Military archives)  9th September 1940

[15] Kilcredaun log book (Military archives) 30th October 1943

[16] Kilcredaun log book (Military archives) 27th February 1940

[17] KENNEDY, Michael, Paper presented in Kilbaha 26th June 2011

[18] George’s Head log book (Military archives) 17th September 1941

[19] Kennedy, Michael, Guarding Neutral Ireland  (Dublin) P.244

[20] O’Halpin, Eunan, Defending Ireland (Dublin) P267

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