Last summer, we packed our bags for an incredible journey around Ireland, a trip that also marked the end of our journey through college.
For three month we travelled along the Irish coast, four of us packed in a small car, to meet and record the stories of the last lighthouse-keepers of Ireland.
While the lighthouses still cast their beam across the ocean, the lighthouse-keepers themselves have moved on. What remains, however, is the rich legacy of their service as well as the abundant folklore from life on the rock.
I had the opportunity to spend one night in one of Ireland’s most iconic lighthouse. The Fastnet Rock is notorious for its colossal waves which can easily wash right over the entire rock and tower.
While I was there, however, the sea remained calm. Situated 13km from the coast and accessible only by helicopter meant that only one of us could go. A toss of a coin decided that I would go, accompanied by Barry, a Commissioners of Irish Lights engineer.
Proximity to the wild elements and treacherous seas tended to instil a sense of adventure in the young keepers. Climbing the steep peaks of rock stations like the Tearaght and the Skelligs, in Co. Kerry was a regular activity for many of them. As for myself, climbing the eight flights of stairs up and down the Fasnet was enough to keep me from attempting a more daring exercise.
The lighthouse revealed itself to us, like a toothpick coming out of the sea, as the helicopter circled the small clay-slate rock before landing.
Two men were waiting for us at the narrow landing. We just had enough time to unload some equipment before the helicopter took off again.
Left in the middle of the ocean, I turned around to finally contemplate the Fastnet, towering above us, majestic.
Earlier, when speaking to Dick O’Driscoll, who worked on Fastnet for more than 30 years, he had said: ‘To be on a rock, I’d find out your most secret thoughts within a fortnight, and the same you would with me, thought you’d never express to anyone else when you’re ashore.’
I spent the day and night listening to every sound, the eerie groans and howls of the wind rushing around the tower.
I like to imagine that I got closer to understanding the keeper’s experience. But looking at the sun rise over the calm sea lapping and bubbling around the tower, the story Gerald Butler had told us a few days before when we met him at Galley Head lighthouse in Co. Cork came to mind.
On a stormy night himself and principal keeper Reggie had gone out to remove the helipad safety railings before crashing waves could rip it off. He said: ‘We went out and on the way back the weather began to take a turn very rapidly.
‘I was taking three paces forward and getting blown straight back but as I was only in my twenties, this was the best bit of fun I could have had. I decided I’d walk up past the tower door and when the force of the wind blew me back, I’d grab onto the door and pull myself in.
‘At this stage Reggie was in the tower and must have realised that I wasn’t behind him so he came back to check on me. He peered out to see me being blown along by the wind like a leaf, the tips of my toes barely touching the ground.
‘He reached out, grabbed a hold of me and pulled me in through the door under his arm. It was only a few minutes later when the first big wave hit the lighthouse. It was then I realised that, if we had been outside just a few moments longer, there was no hope we would have made it back in. We would have just been washed away into the sea.’
Watching over the safety of shipping traffic gave keepers an acute awareness of the sea and its power, but also afforded them time to appreciate the thriving natural beauty of their surroundings.
‘On the Bull Rock [Co. Cork] the kittiwakes all lived in a cave under the derrick and the noise they used to make was unbelievable, but it was great company. They would leave on the 23rd of August: they would disappear. You would go out one morning and there wasn’t a sound. The rock was empty. By God you’d feel the loneliness of that,’ Gerald said.
The sights, smells and sounds of these islands, and countless others around the Irish coast, evoke feelings and emotions like only the beauty of the natural world can.
As I left the Fastnet the next day and headed back, I couldn’t help but think that unlike me, keepers didn’t go home after one day but had to stay on the island away from their families for weeks at a time.
As difficult as it was for them to be away on rock stations, it was also a strain on the wives and families who had to fend for themselves onshore.
For some, however, the lighthouse was synonymous with home and entire families would live and grow up in dwellings around coastal lighthouses.
Alan Boyers, who has been the attendant at the Old Head of Kinsale, Co. Cork, for the past 22 years, lives on the lighthouse surrounded by four generations of his family. They are one of a very few families left in Ireland to live at a lighthouse.
On March 24, 1997, Eugene O’Sullivan carried out the final manned watch in the Baily Lighthouse at Howth head. The first station for so many training keepers throughout the years, it was a fitting location for the story of the keepers to end. The closure was the culmination of an automation programme that had been in train since the Eighties.
To locals and seafarers alike, lighthouses remain icons of reassurance, both day and night, that land is nearby. The folklore of lighthouses comes from the people who lived and worked there – the keepers, the families and the ships they protected. As the years go by, and the keepers grow less and less in numbers, it is their stories which will continue to preserve a way of life that no longer exists.
This article was published in the It’s Friday pullout of the Irish Daily Mail on 12.02.16