The Lonely Old Lighthouse
Eileen Wickham revisits Hook Head and reflects on a way of life now passed into history.
The Hook Head Lighthouse, majestic and proud on the tip of the Hook Peninsula, Co Wexford, now stands alone as if in mourning for the Lighthouse Keepers and their families no longer there. I had to visit Campile recently with a colleague who had never been to that part of Wexford, so I gave her a guided tour and took her to one of my favourite places, Hook Lighthouse, where I lived for three years with my husband who was a Lighthouse Keeper there; where my third child was born.
As I drove down the familiar roadway, past the haunted Loftus Hall, I could see the tip of the lighthouse in the distance and, somehow, felt a warm feeling of security as I approached it. I felt I was on a sentimental journey. MY thoughts slipped back to 1968 when, as a young married woman with a son aged three and a one year old daughter, I first arrived at Hook Head Lighthouse to join my husband who had been transferred there from Tuskar Rock Lighthouse. This was the first time we were together at a shore lighthouse as a familya rare situation indeed, as one might have to wait years to get such a transfer. The following three years were the happiest of my life. My husband was one of two Assistant Keepers, with a Principal Keeper in command.
Most of the Keepers were married men with families, but this was not always the case. I was allocated the bungalow which was situated at the base of the tower. The other two dwellings were large, spacious two story buildings. All the houses were furnished by Irish Lights, not luxurious by today’s standards but including good quality pine tables and dressers, and the best linoleum floor coverings polished to perfection. All kitchen utensils, even down to the knives, forks, and spoons, were supplied. The crockery was beautifully decorated with the crest and motto of the Commissioners of Irish LightsIn Salutem Omnium (For the Safety of All). There was always a blazing coal fire in the hearth, as our coal bunkers were filled annually. Living at a lighthouse gave one a sense of importance, as Lighthouse Keepers were looked up to in small rural communities.
It was a great place to rear children, though danger lay outside the lighthouse walls with the Atlantic Ocean raging against the rocks in bad weather. There was an innocence about the lighthouse children. They played happily about the large grass area with toys made by the Keepers, and each night went to sleep with the beam from the light passing their bedroom window. THE Keepers each kept watches of four hours on and eight hours off, around the clock, seven days a week. The light in those days was a mantle lit by simply striking a match, having first fuelled the burner with paraffin brought up from the fuel store halfway down the tower. The light would be extinguished after dawn by the Keeper of the watch. The Keeper would then scan the horizon for anything unusual, check weather conditions and record them in the log book, and note the time the light was extinguished. Once extinguished, the burner was carefully brought down the tower to be cleaned and left ready for re-lighting at dusk. Woe betide any Keeper who left the burner dirty. A mug of tea, and off to bed for a few hours only to be woken a short time later by a hooting car horn, the signal for me that the school car had arrived to take the children to school some miles away in Templetown. It was a long day for children so young. Mr Moran was the car contractor employed by Irish Lights; the only mode of transport if you did not own a car. Each Friday Mr Moran took me to Campile to do my shopping – sometimes the highlight of my week, but that is another story! The routine work of caring for the Lighthouse was done by the Keepers each morning. Brass-work, which is plentiful in a lighthouse, was polished; no housewife could do a better job. The stairs were swept down and washed, well over one hundred of them. Windows were cleaned; and grass margins were mowed by hand. The Keepers were under orders not to disturb my little flower bed, as those flowers were nurtured like newborn babies, protected from the winds that blew from north, south, east, and west. The log book was filled in again and again. The horizon was constantly scanned.
Lighthouse Keepers were the mariners’ friends. Many a fishing boat and its occupants were glad of the watchful eyes and ears of the Lighthouse Keepers. MY DAYS were always full and happy as I went about my daily chores. My washing would be blown dry in minutes by the fresh westerlies. I chatted to the many visitors who passed our gates. School tours came frequently. My husband would take them in groups up the tower on a guided tour, and answer their questions about the monks who had lived there all those years ago. Legend goes that a monk is entombed behind one of the cells off the vast stone stairway to the lantern. Foggy days were the worst. The cold mantle of fog would linger, sometimes for days, and the fog charges would explode day and night. The Hook did not have a fog horn then. The fog-signal was an explosive charge set off every five minutes from the fog room high up in the lighthouse. A small window would be opened and an explosive placed on the end of a firing jib. The window was then closed and an electrically charged button pressed to set off the explosion, which was deafening if one lived directly under the lighthouse as I did. The cups on my pine dresser would shake for seconds, hence my reluctance to display my best china and the tea service my father had brought me from Japan.
EACH season brought a new sense of excitement to the Peninsula. I remember, on warm sultry evenings during the months of May through to August, climbing down the rocks and catching mackerel in my hands as they jumped around the pools left in the rocks by the sea. I brought them straight up and cooked them in the frying pan with loads of butter, ready for the children when they finished their swim in one of the larger pools hidden between the rocks. SPRING was always a busy time at the Hook. Buckets of whitewash were visible everywhere as the Keepers whitewashed the walls surrounding the compound. The outside of the lighthouse was painted by full-time Painters employed by the Commissioners, but the lantern and dome was left to the Keepers. Can you imagine being perched almost one hundred and twenty feet up, held on by a rope, with a bucket of paint in one hand, a brush in the other, and your fate in the lap of the gods? Meanwhile, I would be busy in the kitchen making brown bread and apple tarts, taking it all in my stride as if it were an everyday occurrence. But what a lovely sight the tower was then with its new spring coat of black and white.
The month of June meant only one thing to the Lighthouse Keepers’ wives, the Commissioners’ inspection visit to the station. My goodness, what a to-do that was. Word would echo from lighthouse to lighthouse: ‘They have left the Baily heading south’. It was spring cleaning all over again but this time a touch of madness set in. More buckets of whitewash prepared and slapped onto the walls in frantic haste. Principal Keepers would issue orders right, left, and centre. The wives got stuck in, cleaning the dwellings. The already highly polished floors now shone like mirrors. High dusting – low dusting – bed linen washed – mats and rugs taken out and flogged to death. The Irish Lights flag was unrolled and placed on top of the mast, ready to be dipped when the Granuaile came into view. As they awaited the arrival of the ICOT (Inspecting Committee on Tour) the children, dressed in their Sunday best, were warned to keep out of the way. Dinner was put on hold that day. It would be dreadful to spoil the shining pots and pans on show in the kitchen. Some of the older generation of Keepers’ wives will tell you of Inspectors running their fingers over dados looking for missed patches of dust. My own recollection of the inspections is a happy one. I think I broke the mould when I asked the Engineer-in-Chief for pastel shades of paint for the inside walls of my bungalow. The answer was a cheerful ‘Yes’ and, true to his word, the large tins of coloured paint arrived within a few weeks, much to the astonishment of the other women. I remember the late Captain Ball with affection, and his wife who sported a new hat on many a visit. Mr Adams, Mr Martin, Captain Greenlee, Mr Jameson – gentlemen
all of them. Once the inspection visit was over and the many requests noted in their pocket books they would depart, and normality would return to the station. The message would be sent ahead to the next station ‘They have left the Hook’. The flag would be taken
down and returned to its storage place. Uniforms would be taken off, and the children would reappear and ask ‘Can we have our dinner now?’
HAPPY days indeed, although some sad ones too, especially when loss of life took place through the tragedy of a boat smashing onto the rocks pounded by the treacherous seas surrounding the Hook. Gloom would reign for days. However many another tragedy was avoided, thanks to the watchful eye of the Lighthouse Keepers, until the last Keepers left the station in March 1995. The end of an era. I was brought back to reality by my friend reminding me that it was getting late and we had still to visit Tintern Abbey. As we left, I glanced back to say farewell to the Hook, and at that second the beam from the light caught my eyes. It was as if the lonely old lighthouse was winking at me and saying ‘Yes, I remember too’.
© Eileen Wickham, 1996.
Commissioners of Irish Lights, Harbour Road, Dun Laoghaire.