At dusk, the 224 gas lamps lining Chesterfield Avenue in Dublin’s Phoenix Park flicker on one by one. They are programmed by hand to turn on and off, and no two lights illuminate at the same time. Unlike the harsh glare of electric light, gas lighting creates a warm, soft glow, evoking a bygone era.
Brothers Jim (78) and Frank (91) Flanagan of Blackhorse Avenue are fourth-generation lamplighters who tend to the gas lamps in Phoenix Park. As the autumn days grow shorter, their role takes on added importance, lighting a way for evening walkers.
Their great-grandfather Nicholas Flanagan and his four brothers began working as lamplighters in the park in 1890. Using a long cane pole with a torch at the end, they lit each lamp at sunset and returned at daybreak to extinguish the light. By the time Jim and Frank’s father joined the profession in 1924, gas lamps were no longer lit manually, instead operating on a timer switch. Although Dublin had gone electric by 1957, gas lighting continued in the park. The low lighting level of gas minimises light pollution and protects the park’s nocturnal species, including the 600 fallow deer who graze at night.
“When our father retired in 1984, the people at the Office of Public Works [OPW] asked us as a family to continue servicing the lights, so we undertook it. We had learned from my father what to do and how the lights worked,” says Frank.
The brothers also maintain the electric lamps at Áras an Uachtaráin, the President’s residence.
For more than a century then, the Flanagan family has looked after the lamps that have illuminated so many events in the park. “We are part of that history,” says Frank. “We clean the same lamps as our father and our grandparents each day.”
Jim still climbs the ladder that he leans against each lamp-post with the agility of a man half his age. Wearing a yellow reflective vest emblazoned with “OPW”, he opens the glass lantern, replaces the mantle — the silk mesh that produces light — and cleans out the pilot light. Then he sets the clock for its new time, winding it 28 times by hand.
“We have a time change every 14 days, so we have to wind the clocks and set them to a different time depending on whether it’s summer or winter,” says Jim.
It takes five people three days to service all the park’s gas lamps, including setting the clocks. Luckily, Jim and Frank have help. Their grandsons Matthew Flanagan and Connor Clarke, along with Jim’s son-in-law Ronan Clarke and Frank’s son-in-law John Kelly, work part-time as lamplighters.
Only a few cities in Europe — London, Prague and Berlin — still have gas street lamps. With Russia halting gas exports to the West, Berlin is currently considering a switch to electric. Jim says the OPW has no plans to retrofit gas street lamps to electric, but in the future a light sensor will replace the clock, eliminating the need for manual winding.
“As soon as it turns dark, a light sensor will pick that up and a spark unit will cause the lamp to light. In the morning, the light unit will sense the new light and turn it out,” says Jim. “So that’s where the future will be.”
Until then, the gas lamps will still require maintenance and the brothers will continue to conduct nightly rounds in the park to ensure all lights are functioning while noting any in need of repair.
“During inspections, we see anything from five to 10 lights out because the wind has blown the pilot out or the clock has stopped and needs to be rewound, or particles of carbon have gotten into the jet and are blocking the hole so they’re not functioning 100 per cent,” says Frank.
While the design of the mantle has become smaller and more efficient over the years, a small piece needs to be removed to fit the park’s older lamps. Many parts are obsolete, requiring the brothers to improvise or import them from Germany.
Any romantic appeal of the job dissipates upon learning the brothers are on call 24/7. They work weekends, and late nights in the summer when the sun sets after 10pm. But being alone in the park at night has its perks. Jim recounts hearing and seeing bucks battle to compete for female deer during rutting season: “You can actually hear the crashing of the horns if you come out at night-time at a particular time of the year.”
The brothers have no plans to retire anytime soon and hope to hand the tradition on to their younger family members.
Whether new technology will eventually usurp their role is not something they wish to think about. Looking across the expanse of park, Jim says: “I’m here every day, and it couldn’t be a better place to be.”