Alan’s father was tragically killed in a car accident as he returned home from duty on Eagle Island in 1972. Jimmy Welsh, a friend and fellow keeper of Alan’s father, brought Alan from his home in Raheny, Dublin to Ballycotton, a small fishing village on the Cork coast. There he would spend the summers by the sea gaining an insight into the lightkeeping life. Eight years later, Alan followed in Jimmy and his father’s footsteps and joined Irish Lights himself.
“If you look at a normal job, working with somebody else, would you take their son for three months of the year to give him a break? You wouldn’t, but we were all living next door to each other, we all went to school with each other. It was just amazing.” - Alan Boyers
This is just one of countless examples where men joined the profession to continue a family tradition of lightkeeping. Others, like Richard Foran and Noel McCurdy, were drawn to the life because they had grown up in seafaring communities where the sea and lighthouses dominated the landscape. Indeed, there were plenty for whom the opportunity to become a lightkeeper simply offered the chance of a reliable, rewarding vocation.
Continuously observing the sea and weather conditions was an integral part of the duties of a lightkeeper. Keepers could in fact be considered the first meteorologists in Ireland, meticulously recording daily weather changes and atmospheric pressure long before a national met office existed. It was this understanding of changing conditions and attention to detail that led to a weather report in Blacksod Mayo that changed the course of the Second World War.
Blacksod Lighthouse is today tended by Vincent Sweeney. It was his father, Ted Sweeney, who delivered a weather report that delayed the D-day Normandy landings by one day. Regarded as the most influential military operation in history, ‘Operation Overlord’ was scheduled to go ahead on the fifth of June 1944, but due to changes in cloud formation and a drop in atmospheric pressure recorded by Ted Sweeney at Blacksod, it was then delayed until the following day.
Ted Sweeney passed his forecast of a deep depression passing over Ireland from Iceland on to the London Met office, which itself directly reported weather to the allied headquarters who were waiting for a window to launch their assault and cross the channel to Normandy.
“Now the sixth wasn’t great either, but they had to go because the tides were right and it would have been another few weeks before they could try it. As it happened, two weeks after that landing the worst channel storm on the French side came for years and years, so it was real touch and go stuff. Thank God Hitler was in bed and he left instructions not to be disturbed, he played a big part in his own downfall.” - Vincent Sweeney
Ted Sweeney had no idea just how influential the report he delivered that day would be, and how many lives it would go on to effect. However, it can be said with certainty that it had a major impact on, not only the war, but also on the course of world history.
Like Richard Foran, trainee keepers, also known as supernumeraries, were often sent to offshore stations as part of their training. During this time they would be based at the Baily Lighthouse in Howth where they learned the basics of lightkeeping. There they would have to learn everything from semaphore and light maintenance, to how to boil an egg.
In the days before helicopter reliefs, this training included rigging a derrick as well as learning how to be winched on and off the rock stations during rough landings. Normally lightkeepers were brought on and off offshore lighthouses by local boatmen or CIL service ships such as the ‘Granuaile’. The keepers were initially stationed at lighthouses for six weeks with two weeks of leave. This was later changed to four weeks on and four weeks off. It was often the case, however, that bad weather could leave the lightkeepers stranded on the rocks for weeks or even months on end.
The introduction of helicopters in the sixties drastically altered the nature of the profession in terms of reliefs.
“Then the helicopter came along. It was a different world then. We weren’t counting the days anymore, we were counting the hours.” - Richard Foran
In the soundbites on the right, Dick O'Driscoll, a keeper with fifty years of service, describes the perilous landings on rock stations before the arrival of helicopters.