The Metal Man

By Willie Murphy

At Rosses Point, at the entrance to Sligo Harbour, stands a man apart. A man apart, and yet held at the very heart of the community. To the people of Rosses Point the Metal Man links past with present, and no doubt will link present to the future.

The Metal Man was originally cast to stand on a tower where the Blackrock lighthouse now stands in the bay. The Blackrock has had a tower of some description to aid navigation since the early 1700s. The Metal Man by Jack B Yeats

In 1814 the original tower was swept away in a fierce gale. The merchants of Sligo, Ballina and Killala lobbied to have the tower replaced, which it was, two years later in 1816.

Fearful that the same fate might befall the replacement tower, the decision was taken to commission the construction of a more substantial tower.

The commission was given to a local Ballina builder by the name of Thomas Hamm, who in 1816 constructed a limestone tower of 51 feet on the Blackrock. It was to this tower that the Metal Man was originally intended to go.        

It is known that the prototype was exhibited in London in 1819 and that four identical models were cast by Thomas Kirke in the same year. One stands on a headland near Tramore beach in County Waterford. Despite assertions as to Dalkey and Sydney, Australia, as locations of the remaining Metal Men, no concrete evidence is available as to their whereabouts. Perhaps they did not survive their journey to a location overseas.

A number of ships entering the port have come to grief on the Perch Rock. This rock, which is clearly visible at lower points of the tide, lies between Rosses Point and Coney Island. Local Sligo shipowners lobbied for a change of plan to have the Metal Man placed upon this rock, and a proper lighthouse erected upon the Blackrock further out in the bay. Their lobbying was successful, and in 1821 the same Thomas Hamm of Ballina erected a 15 foot limestone base on top of which was placed the Metal Man.

He stands with right arm outstretched, pointing to the safe deep channel. Dressed in the uniform of a Royal Navy Petty Officer, he is an impressive monument to mariners. He stands 12 foot high and weighs seven tons. A navigational light is mounted on a pedestal in front of him, and in the darkness this light is kept to starboard when passing upriver.

This light also acts as a leading light for ships in the bay. Having lined up with the lights on Oyster Island, they now know that their approach is correct.

The Metal Man's light was added in 1908 and powered by acetylene. This was converted to propane gas in 1979. All navigational lights have their own distinct pattern to distinguish them. The frequency of the Metal Man's light is a white light flashing every four seconds.

There are many stories and anecdotes relating to the Metal Man. Some say he is the only Rosses Point man never to have told a lie. Others swear to have seen him come ashore to fetch a loaf of bread. One can assume, however, that a ship was near the rocks the day he took up duty, for in his haste to get to his position, he dressed hurriedly, buttoning his tunic incorrectly. Apparently he has not noticed, or perhaps been too busy to correct his mistake.

One story known to be true relates to the entry to port of a Greek steamship in the 1920s. This ship of 6,000 tons was coming to moor at the buoys under the now derelict Elsinore House. Special pilot Bosun Gillen was at the wheel to guide the ship safely to her berth. Suddenly the bay was engulfed in a dense fog. The ship's crew were deployed to their stations when, out of the fog, and right beside their starboard bow loomed a giant. The entire forward watch fled in terror and refused to return to the ship's bow. It was not until Bosun Gillen persuaded the Captain, the only one with English, as to the true nature of their apparition, that the crew agreed to proceed above river.

The Metal Man has been depicted in poem and painting by W.B. and Jack Yeats. He has watched the emigrant ship pass, seen Rosses Point men and women sail the seven seas in search of their livelihoods in peace and war.

He has watched too often a community in sadness at the loss of loved ones. He's seen happy times with young lads fishing Pollock from beneath his feet, and yachts and boats slipping past in search of pleasure.

And as your ship sails in, he's the first man to welcome you to the West Coast of Ireland.

The Metal Men Millennium Reunion