Narrated by Peadar Ó Cúláin
Of the hundreds who braved isolation and rough conditions as lightkeepers around the coast, it is perhaps the lightship men who endured the most hardship during their tenure at Irish Lights.
Light vessels were used in perilous regions unsuitable for lighthouse construction. Lightship men tended to these vessels full-time, braving the elements with grit and resolve in order to keep the light shining.
To illustrate the conditions they faced, this audio piece is a dramatised extract from Nick Lambert’s report on the rescue of the Daunt Lightship by the RNLI Mary Stanford lifeboat.
The rescue of the Daunt lightship is just one example of the many tales of heroism which animate the legacy of lightship men and lightkeepers. The lightship men could be on duty for months on end and depended on other vessels to bring them to shore for reliefs.
“One time, to earn a bit of money, I stayed out there for three months without coming ashore but it was rare to do that (…) There was always eight men on it, two men on watch and four hour watches (…) It could be very rough as you’d get good seas there. You could even drag anchor and a ship would have to come and shift us back. Sometimes the cargo ships would come very close to you, and it has been known for them to glance off the lightships as well, so it was kind of dangerous. But it was a nice life.” – Oliver Hickey
Like lightships, offshore lighthouses involved similar risk and rough conditions for lightkeepers. The keepers lived in everyday exposure to the full ferocity of the Irish coastline with the west and southwest shores, in particular, experiencing the most punishing of conditions. The most iconic lighthouse in Ireland, the Fastnet Rock, was notorious for its colossal waves which could easily wash right over the entire rock and tower. Situated thirteen kilometers from the Irish coast and built on a small base of clay-slate in the Atlantic ocean, service here meant keepers faced the most remote and extreme working conditions conceivable.
It was shortly before Christmas and we knew the weather was quickly deteriorating. I used to put a safety rail around the helipad platform on the Fastnet because I was only nine and a half stone and felt totally unsafe in the strong winds. The Principal Keeper at the time, Reggie, decided we’d better go out and take it in because otherwise the sea would rip it all to bits. We went out and on the way back the weather began to take a turn very rapidly.
Reggie was a solid heavy lump of a man, so he plodded his way through the wind back to the door of the lighthouse. There was a steel hand grip running alongside the rock and I was pulling my way along to get to the tower. Once you got passed the steel wire you had to walk six or eight paces on your own to get to the door which was beside a seventy or eighty foot sheer drop. If you went over the edge, there wouldn’t be much left of you.
I was taking three paces forward and getting blown straight back but as I was only in my twenties at the time, 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. Not broken water, but solid heavy waves that were hitting the tower. 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.
Despite the storms and hardship that went hand in hand with the job, keepers had to find a way to entertain themselves. The familiarity with wild elements and treacherous seas tended to instill a sense of adventure in the young keepers. Climbing the steep peaks of rock stations like the Tearaght and the Skelligs was a regular activity for many of them.
This appetite for adventure also manifested in pranks and practical jokes. Oliver Hickey fondly recalled his time on the Kish lighthouse where he and close friend, Brendan Conway, regularly found themselves with a new Principal Keeper. “We used to say ‘how many PK’s have we gone through now?’ We must have gone through about seven I’d say”.
Stepping off the boat as a young keeper onto Tory Island, Richard Foran recalls meeting one of the other keepers who immediately welcomed him to the jokes and messing that went on. “I arrived down and he handed me two bits of rope and said, ‘Put them around the legs of your trousers, the place is walking with rats’.. and I looked down and of course he had them on, so I foolishly put them on as well. It took me a few days before I realised it was a set-up.”
The many tales of haunted lighthouses lent itself particularly well to the lightkeepers’ mischief. Edmund Butler recounts just such a time on the Skelligs with two fellow keepers, “There was an old pishogue about the skelligs, about the time the monks lived on it. They were supposed to have gone off their rockers and slaughtered each other, and the anniversary of this was sometime in June and the monks would walk the island. So I said, ‘I’m going out for a walk’, at maybe 11 or 12 o'clock. I was walking down the steps and I heard this fluttering and it was a small stormy petrel bird. So I got the bird and brought it up and put it up against the window and it started flapping against the glass. Well, I couldn't get back in, they had the doors locked, and try as I might I had to spend all night outside. I didn't get back in that night. They were terrified.”