Keeper of the light
Stories trip effortlessly from the lips of Richard Foran, keeper of the lighthouse on Skellig Michael, as he describes the singularity of the keeper’s life and remembers various adventures, including the night he came to the rescue of Charles Haughey. MIRIAM MULCAHY, with photographer VALERIE O’SULLIVAN, were fogbound on the rocks for three days – but had a whale of a time
In theory, it sounded like a fine idea. We’d do an article about the lighthouse keeper of Skellig Michael, Richard Foran. And we’d go out with him on the helicopter! It would involve just a short trip on a summer’s day, suggested the photographer, Valerie O’Sullivan. We’d have a wander around, I’d get my story, she’d get her pictures, we’d have an absolute blast, job done. In practice it was something else entirely. August became September, and was deferred again, until we ended up going out at the end of October. Our day trip became an overnight stay, with instructions to bring food and sleeping bags.
Instead of meeting Richard Foran on Valentia Island, we had to meet him first in Castletownbere to learn the safety routine and don the orange suits, “which will,” my brother cheerfully informed me, “keep you alive for about an hour in the water when the chopper goes down.” I seriously considered drawing up a brief will and testament when I heard this, having never been in a helicopter before, but resisted the urge to divide up my fortune, and instead, kissed the children goodbye, left our baby girl for the first time, and reasoned I’d be back in two days, no problem.
The morning we left dawned bright and clear, the forecast was good. Orange survival suits on, strapped in the chopper, we were off, over Beara, over the Kenmare river, over the grey rippling sea and the brown mountains. There was Derrynane, Ballinskelligs bay, and before we knew it, we were on Valentia, collecting Richard Foran.
On then, out over the ocean, the Skelligs rearing out of the sea, the bright day throwing the crags and cliffs into sharp relief. Landing was incredible, and I could not get over the contrast of getting to this historic island on the most modern of transport. And could not forget, as we walked past the first set of monastery steps on the way to the lighthouse, that two visitors had fallen to their deaths from those very same steps in the past six months, and how inhospitable and dangerous a place this can be.
Everything was great until the following day. The lighthouse was warm and cosy. Richard was a great host. We walked all over the island, and spent the night telling stories. Didn’t sleep too well, but what matter, it was only one night roughing it, and we’d be going home in a matter of hours. Alas, no. A sea mist descended, and as I know so well, this mist can be brutally local.
Richard informed us it wasn’t looking good for getting off the island. Then came further bad news: Castletownbere was fogbound, and no helicopter was departing that day. “You’d better start rationing your supplies,” he said, and aghast, I remembered all the shelves crammed full of food which we had blithely ignored in our giddy skite around the supermarket on the morning of our departure. There was no sugar, half a loaf of bread and six eggs to sustain us.
The mist came down with a vengeance, closing everything in. I retired to my room, and balefully looked at the disappearing cliffs outside my window, and physically craved the feel of my baby’s head in my arms. Now, I berated myself fiercely, you’ve got what you wanted, “a break” from the kids. Only it wasn’t meant to be like this, in a lighthouse, on a rock, in a storm. I texted friends – thank the Lord for mobile reception – and cancelled my daughter’s birthday party. I texted family to give them a laugh. “Catch a seagull,” said the sister travelling in India. “Ha!” said the (army officer) brother. “If you’d joined the army, you’d know what to do.”
As the day wore on and the hunger pangs increased (dinner: one scrambled egg on a single slice of toast), Richard never lost his cool, even when he suggested it might be Monday before we got off.
Valerie and I moaned about leaving our laptops behind, but in truth, the craic never flagged. Richard told us dozens of unprintable tales, Valerie and I laid plans for at least half a dozen books, and, more than anything, being so far away from the mainland and from home, cast a lustrous glow on everything. But I wanted to play with my kids, to sleep under a duvet. We discussed our homecoming meals at great length, and the bottles of wine and the fires that would go with them. Nothing will make you appreciate the simplest and most important things in life more than enforced separation from them; everyone should try it.
But Richard was a most genial host and a brilliant guide. Stories trip from his lips as effortlessly as from a seanchaí’s as he recounts the lives of generations of keepers long gone. From Valentia, he joined Irish Lights in 1965, as many old practices were coming to an end. His father was in the coastguard, and he attended school with lightkeepers’ sons. He spent five years training, based in the Bailey lighthouse in Howth, Co Dublin, and visiting others to gain experience.
Duties included maintaining the light, and keeping a constant watch for fog. “You’d know if it was foggy at night from experience – you’d see it in the ray of light, you’d know if it was thick. Engines giving trouble, a broken pane of glass, there was always something to be done.” Three keepers were on duty at any one time, with six attached to every station. “We did stints of four hours, you called the next fella and he got up. There were some guys, they’d call you at two in the morning, but it could be six before they’d go to bed, telling you yarns.”
On duty for weeks at a time, the men needed to be good cooks. “You brought enough flour so you could bake bread, and to be short of tea or sugar was a crime. The first time I tried to bake bread, there was an old fella there, and he says to me ‘open a window’. He threw the loaf of bread out the window. ‘Here now,’ he says, ‘we’ll start again the two of us.’ And he was an expert baker.” Emergency rations were provided by Irish Lights. Foran recalls with a shudder eating corned beef three times a day. And then there was Christmas day when they had to resort to rabbit for dinner.
The keepers acted as unofficial coastguards, and were involved in many rescues. “I saw a good few people in trouble at sea. We’d hear it on the radio, you’d see things outside. And of course, I was on the Mizen the night Charlie Haughey decided to give us a call, in 1985. There was thick fog and his yacht ran aground on the lighthouse. We fired the first flare. I could see the boat, the next flare we fired. All I could see was the two masts sticking up. We kept them up on the shore below and they were waiting about two hours for the lifeboat. About four o’clock in the morning I was filling out the log and I called the lifeboat to see could he tell me who was the skipper of the boat. ‘Oh we can,’ he says. ‘Charlie Haughey’.”
The best part of being a keeper was the freedom attached to the job. “People might think it was very confined, but it was the very opposite – it was a very free life.” The disadvantage was the close living.
“I made the best of friends, and then sometimes you were living with fellas you just couldn’t get on with. There were some fellas that were born for it, gentlemen to the last. There were more should never have been in an isolated place.”
Lighthouse men were great readers but, surprisingly, cards were frowned upon. Richard points out that it could have caused friction. “When I joined, there was a fella on the Bull Rock used to play chess with another fella on the Aran islands, on the radio. Many keepers had particular hobbies they devoted time to, such as ships in bottles. Before the television came in, they were always making something.”
Before the helicopter relief began in 1969, getting off duty was no sure thing, and it all depended on who was operating the derrick, a mast lashed to the cliff above the landing. “Once you were on the derrick coming ashore, you were all right, you knew you were going up, but coming down was a different story altogether. The boat was underneath you, the swell could turn the boat in any direction, and you were depending on the guy above to get you in. The derrick was swung out over the sea, we sat on the stick, and were left dangling there until we could drop into the boat. That’s the way it was done before the helicopter, and it was no problem.”
When night falls, Foran takes us up into the tower. At its base is a hub full of engines and generators, and a great bath of mercury in which the mechanism for the light spins. And here is the magic of the lighthouse. There is no great flashing light, it’s an ingenious optical illusion. A tiny, energy-efficient light bulb hangs suspended in the lens, a huge octagonal structure of glass louvred shutters. While this rotates, the beam is interrupted by an enclosed section of the tower; this causes the flash. The rotations create three flashes every 15 seconds; each lighthouse has its own character, and that is the Skellig’s.
Electricity and remote monitoring signalled the end of the lightkeepers’ permanent presence on the island. Maybe advancements in GPS will see these lights dimmed and forever closed down. What will be the fate of the lighthouses then? If the ruins on the Skellig are repaired, the sense of history attached to them will be undone. The tumbling mortar and falling stone, the rusting porch and empty windows evoke lives lived, struggles overcome.
Hard, solid work created a miracle here in the seventh century, when the monks built their huts, grafted hundreds upon hundreds of steps onto towering cliffs, and then clung to this harsh and pitiless rock, far from land, for more than 1,000 years, sustained by faith. The keepers who followed kept mariners safe, kept the lights shining onto a wild sea, kept the promise of kinship alive on the darkest of nights. Duty, a forgotten watchword, sustained them. In 50 years, thinks Foran, their story of endurance will ignite imaginations as much as the monks’ fortitude does now.
There was a break in the mist and the fog on our third day on Skellig Michael. Our gear was packed and ready to go. At short warning we got word that the helicopter was coming to get us, and we ran to the helipad, more excited than children at Christmas.
Our brief taste of what Richard and other lighthouse keepers had to regularly endure gave an extra insight into their lives, and as the helicopter took off, and we left Skellig Michael to the gulls and seals, I realised there was more to their job than splicing ropes and swinging on derricks and polishing lamps. Being a lightkeeper needs a mental toughness and a quiet calm that not everyone possesses, but like the beam of the lighthouse on the dark nights, shines through and sustains those around them when most necessary.
IT'S A WONDER
IN THE EARLY 19th century, a lighthouse between Loop Head and Cape Clear Island was sorely needed. The Inspector of Lighthouses, George Halpin, recommended building two lighthouses on Skellig Michael. Mr J Butler of Waterville claimed ownership and looked for a rent of £30 per annum; previously he had received the rent in puffin feathers for rearing his sheep. An inquisition to value Skellig was held in Tralee, and the British Commissioners of Lights paid Butler £780 for the island.
Work began in 1821. They constructed two lighthouses, four houses, two landings and a road – an achievement no less incredible than that of St Fionán and his monks, who built the beehive huts. It is almost impossible to appreciate the extent of vision, of imagination, of insurmountable difficulties overcome until you see the lighthouses, which are not open to the public.
The road alone is a wonder. Blasted from slate, it snakes around almost three sides of the island, from the east landing to the upper ruined lighthouse on the high western cliffs. A high, perfect drystone wall follows all the way, every inch of it capped with slabs of Yorkshire slate. Only when climbing to the second lighthouse, the road so steep it switchbacks up the sheer escarpment and punishes the lungs, you stop and wonder, pausing to catch breath, how did they get everything up here? There were no cranes, just brute labour. Every stone unloaded, far below at the east landing, was hauled up the unfurling road to this remote and rocky outcrop where the only inhabitants were lightkeepers, their families, and seabirds.
It is a miracle of engineering and ingenuity, because of the terrain: the island is a recurrent series of vertigo-inducing sheer drops. No matter where you are, the ground falls away beneath your feet. When you stand looking down, whether it’s from the safety of the road, the protection of the lighthouse windows, or the weather-worn monastery steps, the eye is continually drawn to the sea chewing the rocks far below; the head whirls and spins.
Each lighthouse, designed by Halpin, had two houses attached to it, one for the principal and one for the assistant keeper. The first lights were fixed, with Argand oil lamps and parabolic reflectors. The upper light had a range of 25 miles; the lower a range of 18 miles. The upper light was discontinued in 1870.
The keepers’ families were well looked after, and compared with the privations of the mainland, lived like kings. They were supplied with fuel and food. They kept chickens, goats, pigs. The Commissioners also employed schoolteachers, who lived with the families. Life on the Skellig was not without tragedy; snug within the oratory walls is a tiny grave holding the bodies of two Callaghans, brothers aged two and four, who died in the winter of 1868-69. One keeper lost his life at the upper lighthouse while cutting grass for his cow. Another disappeared while walking down to the east landing. His penknife was found on the wall, his body never recovered.
By the turn of the 20th century, houses were built for families on the mainland. Paraffin lamps were used until 1967, when they were replaced with an electric light. In April 1987, it became an unmanned lighthouse.
The upper lighthouse is a lonely place, with devastating beauty in its ruined desolation. Perfectly constructed, overlapping slates cling to the curves of the ruin a century and a half after it was abandoned. Hemmed in between a towering cliff face and tightly packed together, with the sheer drop to the sea below, are the lighthouse, the keepers’ houses, and a series of outbuildings.
The rooms now lie in ruins, staircases long fallen in and roofs collapsed. Windows frame the sea, and only the sea; there is no land in sight, just the vast Atlantic, beating on this isolated slate mountain. Even here the wall continues, built high to prevent children falling over the edge. All the necessary requirements for life were provided for, but what a life it must have been.