Updated: Apr 21, 2022
When Napoleon Chick married Mary Coyle in Belmullet church in June 1867, it wouldn’t have taken an experienced local genealogist to suspect that, maybe, outsiders had moved into the area.
Lots of exotic names like Chick appeared in north Mayo in the early nineteenth century, when the Irish coastguard was formed. Most of the newcomers were from the Royal Navy – including many men from Devon and Cornwall – and had names like Lampshire, Alorich, Glass, Bunsten, Workman, Sibbett and Sperago.
In 1822, the nascent coastguard had a lot more to do with preventing smuggling than saving lives, and it was run both by Customs and Excise and the Royal Navy, which patrolled the coast with gunships called Revenue Cruisers as well as with smaller, more agile boats called Revenue Cutters, Hookers or Brigs.
As with the police force, the new coastguards were posted far from home and often found themselves living in poor accommodation. In many places, they did not even speak the local language, and there were no schools for their children. They functioned as the Navy Reserve for a time and had customs and excise duties alongside the RIC – taking action against smuggling and illegal distilling. Unsurprisingly, they were viewed with suspicion by locals.
Between 1820 and 1866, 25 coastguard stations operated between Achill and Enniscrone. These ranged from a cottage, perhaps with a watch house nearby, and half a dozen men, to more extensive establishments like the row of cottages at Kilcummin pier which housed a Chief Officer, a Chief Boatman, two Commissioned Boatmen, and eight to 10 ordinary Boatmen.
In the 1860s, a smaller number of purpose-built coastguard houses replaced the old stations. They incorporated a watchtower at one end and provided a terrace of two-up, two-down homes for the boatmen and their families. Many of these stations survive today, like the one at Ross, Killala, and the Stella Maris hotel in Ballycastle.
During the War of Independence, a number of stations, including Enniscrone, were attacked and burned, but frequently the IRA would give advance notice of attack, so that the station personnel could be evacuated. In contrast to the RIC, only one member of the coastguard was killed in the War of Independence.
Perhaps the reason for this kinder attitude was the efforts of the coastguard in famine relief along the south and west coasts. Many communities near coastguard stations were inaccessible by road and the coastguard proved instrumental in providing famine relief.
Sir James Dombrain, Inspector General of the Coastguard in Ireland at the time of the Great Famine was directly answerable to the head of the Treasury, Charles Trevelyan. Nevertheless, he disobeyed Trevelyan’s orders and instructed the Irish coastguard to distribute Indian meal free to starving people, rather than insist on payment. Dombrain also organised his own relief effort with funds raised through English newspapers. A real life saver.
Ross Coastguard Station, Killala, County Mayo. Typical of the coastguard stations built around Ireland's coast in the 1860s with a terrace of small homes for the boatmen and their families and a taller watchtower with officer accommodation attached. A boathouse and slipway would be located nearby.