Lighthouse may be automated but life on the rock is a must


Blackrock in Co Mayo, one of the wildest and loneliest postings on the western seaboard, may appear to have joined the list of unmanned lighthouses on this 2,700-mile coastline . . . but appearances can be deceptive. The rock is so remote the lighthouse cannot be abandoned. Automated, yes.

But when technical staff servicing it can be stranded for days after finishing a job, there is continued provision for a human presence. Hence, the decision by the Commissioners of Irish Lights to build there again.

The project is a work of restoration, with a strong commitment to the heritage for which the Commissioners are still responsible. The plan has been to replace temporary dwellings with original ones built for light-keepers in 1860.

Semi-detached and sturdy, they were constructed to a higher standard than many houses ashore at the time, according to Mr Frank Pelly, site works manager-civil with Irish Lights.

There was good reason to invest in the best of materials back then, and engage the finest craftspeople for stonework and carpentry.

The Atlantic station is 11 miles out from Blacksod, 230 feet above sea level and the station is exposed to wind-speeds of up to 120 knots. Rainfall averages 72 inches a year, and sea mist regularly envelopes the rock.

As Mr Pelly recounts in Beam, the Irish Lights journal, it was not unusual for keepers to be on duty from late October until the following February or March, during the days of boat reliefs.

After the switch to helicopter reliefs, duty periods became more bearable. But a stiff east, north-east or south-east gust, or poor visibility, could still prevent the helicopter from landing.

The project's timing comes a good quarter century after Blackrock lost its keepers. It was one of the first lights to do so, when it was converted to a semiautomatic acetylene gas-powered beam in 1974.

Now it is to be converted again to solar power, and so the 25-year-old temporary dwellings flown out for maintenance crews after the keepers quit are not sufficient. The renovation began last year with an internal re-design of one house, incorporating kitchen and dining room/parlour, four bedrooms, a shower room/toilet, hot press, tank room, store, battery room and automation equipment room.

Mr Pelly says the rooms containing batteries and the automatic remote control and monitoring equipment are self-contained, and are fire-, vapour- and explosion-proofed, with independent external ground access.

"Where possible we tried to retain or replicate original hand-cut lintels, architraves, doors and other interior features," says Mr Michael Taylor, Irish Lights deputy engineer-in-chief and civil engineer in charge of this project.

All materials, plant and scaffolding were flown out. The crews worked in atrocious conditions: even for Blackrock, last summer was bad. To keep spirits up, a clothes dryer and extra facilities were flown out, and it was agreed that the Irish Lights tradesmen crews would work three-week rotations.

The Irish Helicopters charter was both delivery vehicle and site crane. Pilots airlifted tonnes of gravel and sand, concrete blocks, ready-mix concrete, timber and roofing materials.

Given that Blackrock is also used by search and rescue helicopters, sand and gravel could not be kept there in any quantity. Dr Terry Swinson, owner of a holiday home on the outpost of Surgeview near the rock, allowed his place to become the temporary builder's yard.

The hazardous operation was carried out skilfully and safely, says Mr Pelly. The Blacksod lighthouse attendant, Mr Vincent Sweeney, took control of the rock and Surgeview whenever the helicopter was doing delivery runs.

Irish Lights hopes to have the restoration finished by the end of March, when it will then begin the solar conversion. "We want to try and get it done before the winter if possible," Mr Taylor says.

Blackrock is the second major light to be converted to solar power on this coast; but all Irish Lights navigation buoys, several perches and the Muglins off Dalkey Island, Co Dublin, have also been fitted with solar panels.

The environmental dimension to the project - use of renewable energy and building restoration - is something the Commissioners are proud of, given the Loran-C mast controversy with which they have been associated down in Loop Head, Co Clare.

The automation programme posed its own problems regarding the future of the existing buildings. Should the Commissioners maintain them, or strip them altogether?

The compromise was to enter into a partnership, where possible, and lease the buildings out. In Wicklow, the Irish Landmark Trust has undertaken restoration work, and the dwellings are available for rent. Mizen Head is a heritage centre. The Sirius Arts Centre in Cork has leased a house at Roches Point.

Talks have been held with the National Trust in Northern Ireland; and now Irish Lights is discussing the lease of three more properties to the Irish Landmark Trust: at Galley Head, Co Cork, Cromwell Point on Valentia Island, Co Kerry, and Black Head, Co Antrim.