Sea change at the helm of Irish Lights


The appointment of Yvonne Shields as chief executive of the agency charged with maintaining a network of lights, buoys and other shipping aids on our 7,500km coastline was a seismic change for the organisation, writes LORNA SIGGINS

WHEN YVONNE SHIELDS was appointed chief executive of the Commissioners of Irish Lights last year, there are those who say it might have caused less surprise if she had been declared head of the Navy.

As it happens, women are well established at senior level within the Naval Service, whereas the Irish lighthouse authority has tended by its very nature to be a male-dominated organisation with little profile and no military dimension.

Still, maintaining a network of lights, buoys and other shipping aids on a heavily-indented and sometimes treacherous 7,500km coastline does require some considerable precision. The Commissioners of Irish Lights has done that, quietly, for more than two centuries – one of three organisations responsible for safe navigation around Britain, Ireland and the Isle of Man.

Historically, the organisation’s top job has been filled by engineers, ship’s captains or other staff moving up through management ranks. Until now, that is. When the organisation’s 80m ship Granuaile placed a “Twitter buoy” in Galway Bay for the Volvo Ocean Race finish, the slight figure standing in waterproofs on its deck signalled a fairly seismic change.

“But an organisation like this wouldn’t have survived for 200 years if it wasn’t able to move and adapt,” says Shields, paying tribute to her predecessor, Dr Stuart Ruttle, and pointing out that the body’s chairwoman is Sheila Tyrrell of Arklow Shipping.

In fact, ability to change was something the organisation inherited on its formation; it’s been an integral part of marine safety since a monk named Dubhán suspended an iron basket made by a local blacksmith from Wexford’s Hook Head, and stoked a fire through the night.

The Fastnet off west Cork and the Tuskar off the southeast are some of the network’s most iconic structures, and lightkeeping was a profession for generations of families – with even women being employed in the 17th century when pay was so poor.

Technological developments and satellite navigation have had a radical impact over the past three to four decades; the last light, at Baily in Howth, Co Dublin, was automated 15 years ago last March.

For Shields, her new challenge represents a seamless transfer from her previous post as director of strategic planning with the State’s Marine Institute. It also matches her own keen interest in the economic potential of the marine sector.

“We have 10 times our land mass out there, but it only fuels 1 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP),” she says. “There’s no reason this couldn’t increase to 5 per cent and further,” she adds, noting that Denmark’s marine sector represents 11 per cent of GDP.

Shields firmly believes the “take” has to be sustainable, as her starting point was the environment. “I had a geography teacher at school, Mrs Thorne, who had a big map of the world on the wall, and she was very interested in the importance of natural resources to developing economies. I think she sparked my interest.”

Shields studied environmental management, but wasn’t interested in pursuing a career as an environmental health officer in a local authority. It was the middle of the last recession, though, and jobs were at a premium. Under a Fás scheme, she worked as a youth officer with An Taisce, with a remit to nurture young people’s interest in their natural surroundings.

“I started a tree nursery in Co Wicklow on land owned by the Glencree Peace and Reconciliation Centre,” she recalls. While studying in Northern Ireland, she became interested in the concept of Conservation Volunteers and started a branch here.

“I was up trees, literally, with kids for a year,” she says. And she loved it for it was in her genes; her grandfather on her father’s side had been head gardener in Dublin’s Merrion Square.

Another Fás course in practical woodland management in Co Leitrim followed, which led to formation of a woodland management company with four colleagues.

“And then I went back to Fás, again!” she recalls. This time it was for the Start your own Business course, which equipped her with the skills to manage Aisling Woodland Developments for five years. Based in Co Leitrim, its work extended across the northwest and midlands.

She returned to third-level study, and took a masters in environmental science at Trinity College, Dublin. This took her to Aqua TT, a European network for promoting aquaculture training and technology. From the early 1990s, she found herself travelling across Europe visiting fish farms.

“I saw at first hand the potential for sustainable harvesting of the sea,”she says. “I also got very interested in the commercial side of the marine sector, and decided to take a masters in business administration (MBA).”

A colleague mentioned that a new State agency, the Marine Institute, was being established. “I went for an interview, and I remember I was on a fish farm in Greece when I got the call from its chief executive, Dr Peter Heffernan, offering me the post.”

She was part of a start-up team under Heffernan, including Dr Mark White, Dr Geoffrey O’Sullivan and Dr John Joyce.

Her brief was marine tourism and leisure, and she wrote the first national marina development plan. She was then appointed director of science and technology, and established the first phase of the national seabed survey with the Geological Survey of Ireland. Oceanographic services and the weather buoy network established with Met Éireann and the British Met Office were also within her remit, along with the construction and delivery of the State’s largest research ship, Celtic Explorer.

“The brief grew quite substantially, and so it was split in 2004. I took over the role of director of strategic planning,”she says. This involved preparing and putting in place the national strategy, Sea Change 2007-13, which we began work on in mid-2005 and was planned to run in parallel with the National Development Plan.”

With that combination of experience, it is not surprising that the Commissioners of Irish Lights offered her the new post. The organisation is going through a further radical transformation.

Historically, all shipping dues paid by marine transport companies using lighthouses and navigation aids were assigned to a general lighthouse fund administered by Department of Transport in London, which funds the organisation and its sister bodies – Trinity House in London (covering England and Wales) and the Northern Lighthouse Authority, covering Scotland and the Isle of Man.

However, from 2015, Irish Lights’ costs in the Republic will have to be funded from its own operations. With a budget of €20 million annually, it has already cut costs by 28 per cent over the past four years. Staff numbers have also been reduced under a voluntary redundancy programme last year

The group had some foresight over a decade ago in commissioning the Granuaile as a multi-purpose vessel which could undertake everything from salvage to hydrographic services to pollution control.

It has also made early advances in using renewable energy. Lights use low energy/renewable source where possible, and all buoys are solar powered. It is employing automated information system (AIS) technology as part of its focus on “e-navigation”.

“So we are in a position to offer expertise and value-added services,” Shields says. These range from data and information services to fish farms and offshore wind farms, to carrying out survey work and safety inspections on rigs.

The Twitter buoy on temporary station in Galway Bay this week was an example of “dipping another toe in the water”, she says.

The physical lighthouse buildings also represent an asset. Some dwellings have already been developed for visitor accommodation by the Irish Landmark Trust. The body has submitted a proposal to the special EU programmes body to fund a network for tourists interested in staying in lighthouse properties.

The first phase of this will extend from St John’s Point in Donegal to St John’s Point in Co Down, Shields says. This includes her favourite lighthouse at Fanad Head in Donegal, along with Rathlin island, where a puffin sanctuary is maintained by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and Black Head on Belfast Lough.

“Our aim is to work with local stakeholders, such as the RSPB on Rathlin, as we have already done successfully at Hook Head, Co Wexford, and Mizen Head, west Cork,” she says. Loop Head, where Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s grandfather once maintained the light, is also being developed on a trial basis.

“It’s the same concept as accommodation in paradores in Spain,” Shields says. “The Commissioners of Irish Lights had this well underway before I came in, and it has a good track record with communities and organisations.”

Still, its main focus will remain safety at sea and protection of the marine environment, she emphasises. “There’s still considerable traffic out there,” she says.

“Ships still account for 16,000 port calls, and some 99 per cent of our imports and exports travel by sea. There are also over 2,000 registered fishing vessels, and 27,000 leisure craft, along with fish farms, oil and gas platforms and developing ocean energy platforms.

“We are providing an essential service on behalf of the Government, meeting Ireland’s international obligations including the Solas [Safety of Life at Sea] convention [covering safety in ship construction, equipment and operation] which was first adopted in 1914 after the sinking of the Titanic,” she notes.

“Under the new e-navigation plans, Commissioners of Irish Lights will be able to combine charting, communications and other information data to improve ‘berth-to-berth’ navigation.”

Her “core driving force” is her belief that sustainable economic activity and sensitive environmental management cannot be separated. Not surprisingly, this was why she put so much energy into co-ordinating an ocean wealth showcase at the Volvo Ocean Race global village this week. That continues today with a seminar on the marine environment, deep sea ecosystems and climate change, along with a career and recruitment fair and exhibitions over the weekend.

“The sea around us is a tremendous platform for economic activity, but it is also a really precious natural resource,” she says. “We’ve spent the last 100 years developing our agricultural sector and a really strong food sector, and perhaps now it is time to turn to what we have out there.”


Name: Yvonne Shields

Age: 46

Family: Partner Tim and parents, Phyllis and Patrick

Born: Greenhills, Dublin

Education: St Paul’s, Greenhills; Dublin Institute of Technology; Trinity College, Dublin and Dublin City University.

Something that you might expect: Her grandfather on her mother’s side was a merchant seaman, and her great grandfather was a ship’s carpenter.

Something that might surprise you: When she took some time out to do a painting course in 2007, she framed her main piece of work – without any inkling of her future role. It was of a lighthouse, which she has since presented as a farewell gift to Marine Institute colleagues.

The sea around us is a tremendous platform for economic activity, but it is also a really precious natural resource

Ships still account for 16,000 port calls, and some 99 per

cent of our imports and

exports travel by sea

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