Men of the Lights
Lighthousekeeping was a way of life for men and their families for well over 100 years. However, in the 1980s, advances in technology meant that lighthouses could be automated and there was no longer a need for permanent lightkeepers to be stationed on site. The last lighthouse was automated in 2012.
In an age of busyness and hurry it is easy to be romantic about lives lived in isolated but beautiful surroundings. There were no doubt many good days but there was danger in the beauty and an unending routine to the work. Can you imagine how you would cope with the loneliness? Or with the close and inescapable company of maybe only one or two other men for weeks on end? It is easy to understand why ex-lighthouse keepers say that it took a ‘special sort’ of character to do the work!
Daily and nightly duties
Lighthouses ran like clockwork with meticulous timing and attention to detail. There were usually three keepers and the clock was divided into six four-hour watches. The duty lighthouse keeper’s main job was obviously to ‘keep a good light’ as the rules and regulations put it. In the days of paraffin-vapour lamps that meant tending the light in the lantern of the lighthouse, and regularly winding the rotation mechanism that controlled the light flash. Electrification of the lights and the rotation mechanism made life much easier. The keepers could then spend the night in the messroom or kitchen watching an indicator to check the light was working.
The keepers would always be watchful for fog, a major hazard for shipping. If fog rolled in watches were doubled with one keeper operating the fog signal and the other tending the light. When the fog was bad enough, the keeper sounded the fog signal, by detonating an explosive or sounding a siren.
Keeping it all shipshape
The lighthouses were always kept impeccably spick and span. In true maritime tradition, everything had to be ‘shipshape’. So, as well as their watch duties, lighthouse keepers also spent a lot of time on ‘housework’ doing tasks like cleaning the lighting apparatus, polishing the optic and lantern glass, checking and servicing the engines, painting, keeping boat-landings and steps free of seaweed, not to mention keeping the accommodation clean.
While the keepers’ priority was the light and other Aids to Navigation, they also kept an eye on the water and on vessels that passed their way. Keepers would even get calls from fishermen’s wives asking for updates on their husbands’ whereabouts at sea!
Usually each man was at the lighthouse for six weeks and then on leave for two. On island and remote headland lighthouses they might see no one apart from the other keepers and the crew of the relief boat during that time. Separation from their families was difficult at times. At Ballycotton in East Cork, the keepers’ families stood on the quay on the mainland at a certain time each day to wave to their fathers.
Where conditions permitted the keepers would have a garden and maybe a few chickens. Fresh vegetables and eggs were a welcome supplement for a diet that often relied on dried and tinned food.
Offshore lighthouses would receive a package of fresh food on a ‘relief day’ (when a keeper changed shifts). This, of course, was weather dependant. Sometimes the relief boat could be delayed for days or even weeks so the men kept a large stock of food at the station just in case.
There are seventy lighthouses round the coast of Ireland still at work today. They stand as testament to these men and their proud and steadfast tradition of service and dedication to safety at sea.
You can experience something of life as it was at one of the Great Lighthouses of Ireland. Many of the lighthouses offer comfortable and characterful visitor accommodation in what were the lightkeepers’ houses.