Clare Island lighthouse shines on
An Irishwoman’s Diary: A beacon in Mayo
“Even though Clare Island lighthouse’s official light was decommissioned back in 1965, during the intervening decades its array of twinkling towers, houses and courtyards have often offered a comforting assurance, in the darkness of night on this ancient sea highway.”
It is almost midnight and there isn’t “a flam of wind or a stir of swell” as a lone sailor tacks back and forth on Clew Bay, Co Mayo. The ocean is so still the 21-footer could have been becalmed for the night. Turns out there is no need for the intrusive putt-putt of an engine though, as suddenly a little breeze tickles the main sail and, now illuminated by a medley of beams from the lighthouse, she glides forward across the ebbing tide towards her anchorage at Clare Island.
It is midsummer and there is more clanging and flapping in the harbour than in St Peter’s Square. It has been a long winter and across the beach there is no shortage of music and fun in the Community Centre and the Sailor’s Bar.
Irish whiskeys all round as we enjoy the irony of the fact that the extravaganza of light framing the last leg of our friend’s voyage from Westport had come from the decommissioned Clare Island lighthouse. At that stage of her odyssey, the unmanned Achill Beg lighthouse was already astern, to the north, and fading into mist-covered cliffs of the long-depopulated island.
Even though Clare Island lighthouse’s official light was decommissioned back in 1965, during the intervening decades its array of twinkling towers, houses and courtyards have often offered a comforting assurance, in the darkness of night on this ancient sea highway. The inadvertent service has been courtesy of its gallery of private owners, among whom was a Belgian business family, the Timmermans, who also owned one of Dublin’s first wine bars in the 1980s; Lady Georgina Forbes; and in recent years Goesta Fischer, a German pathologist, who runs a busy medical institute in the east German town of Wilhelmshaven.
On sun-soaked summer days Clare Island lighthouse, which sits squat atop the 400ft rugged cliffs in the village of Ballytoughy Mór, faces the vast Atlantic ocean with a Buddhist-like detachment that suggests perfect harmony with nature. It is as if its foundations have seamlessly blended with cross-millennial layers of rock below. To the west stands the phallic Budawanny. To the north, and beyond Achill Head, lie the columnar De Bille’s Rocks, named after the ill-fated Danish Capt Mathias De Bille whose frigate Bornholm was almost lost in treacherous seas under the cliffs of Clare Island in January 1782.
This was 18 years before the original tower of Clare Island lighthouse was built by the Marquis of Sligo, whose family is directly descended from pirate queen Granuaile, reputedly buried in the island’s 12th-century Cistercian abbey. After the first tower burnt down, a new tower was subsequently commissioned in 1818 and provided light over the next 159 years until it was officially quenched in 1965. It was replaced by the unmanned house on Achill Beg.
It was serendipitous that the last lightkeeper on Clare Island, Jackie O’Grady, was a native and from a seafaring family that from the late 1800s had provided ferry services to and from the island. As a boy he had always harboured dreams of becoming the keeper, a job he would ultimately get after stints at the Baily, Slyne Head, Fastnet, Rockabill, Haulbowline, the Old Head of Kinsale and Tory Island.
Some years ago the octogenarian wrote The Green Road to the Lighthouse, a poignant memoir of his life and times as an islander and lighthouse keeper. The book is beautifully enhanced by the paintings of the late acclaimed artist Tony O’Malley, whose forebears came from a cottage in the same village as the lighthouse.
Reflecting on the “funereal” atmosphere on the island on September 29th, 1965, O’Grady observes that “an island mourned” because this powerful light would no longer guide island boats to safe harbour nor sweep across the boreens and the boggy roads leading people from house to house, and village to village, during times, long before electricity, when visiting was the main social outlet.
“It cast its welcoming beam over the surrounding hills and seemed to linger for a moment or two on the more familiar ones, Cnoc Mór and Cnoc na bhFiann, as if to bid them a last farewell. The seagulls still hovered lazily, high above the lighthouse dome, but this morning in much greater numbers than ever before, it seemed as if they knew that today would be the last time they would be disturbed at this early hour of sunrise,” he writes.
In the newly refurbished Clare Island lighthouse, there is a room called after Jackie O’Grady and down below in the hostelries at the harbour there are people – sailors who have crossed many sea highways – who are still guided by a light that puts a lens on the past.