No one left to watch over us at lighthouse on our coasts

 

IT was not quite a wake, no one was wearing black. Yet the atmosphere at Baily lighthouse on Howth Head was somewhat funereal.

Shortly before midday yesterday, under brilliant sunshine, the Commissioners" flag was lowered by the last permanent lightkeeper on the Irish coastline.

Principal Keeper Eugene O'Sullivan might have had a lump in his throat, but for a man who had just been told that he was now as extinct as a dinosaur he was showing little emotion.

For once the good weather was just too good as the Baily was switched over to automatic control. Storm force winds and lumpy seas crashing over the granite structure would have been far more appropriate. As it was, even the Howth and Dun Laoghaire lifeboats looked a little redundant on a glassy bay.

"Ah no, they're our hearses," whispered one former Irish Lights employee, watching from the Baily balcony.

The Minister for the Marine, Mr Barrett, who has just returned from Lebanon, was full of nostalgia. He had been to school with the son and grandson of a keeper, he said. He had heard then about a life spent on wild, windy rocks, with no helicopter relief.

"One must have had been possessed with an extraordinary ability to occupy oneself," he mused.

There are no immediate plans for the Baily, although the Commissioners favour a maritime museum.

Mr Michael O'Neill, chairman of the Commissioners, paid tribute to the courage and bravery of the many keepers.

Mr O'Sullivan, a fourth generation employee, would take the Commissioners flag. Some 20 members of his family, including his late father, the well known naturalist and poet, PJ O'Sullivan, had worked for the service. His grandfather was lost off the Bull Rock on the south west coast in 1917.

This was definitely not a political occasion, as Mr O'Sullivan's colleagues on the Baily - PK Anthony Burke and assistant keepers Aiden Polly, Gerry McCurdy, Dennis O'Leary and Sean O'Donnell - listened politely. No mention was made of the need for a coastguard, or some sort of human watch.

Down on a rock outcrop, Dubliner and Howth fisherman Barney McKenna played the banjo. Luminaries including Dalkey author Hugh Leonard and Howth sailor Mrs Jennifer McGuinness came to pay their respects.

As the lifeboats sailed past and the Baily signed off its logs, one of the lewd female keepers, Mrs Pauline Butler, talked of some of the advantages of coastal isolation.

A lightkeepers daughter, she became a lightkeeper's wife, a mother of 15 children, and latterly an assistant keeper at Galley Head in Co Cork herself. For her, "automation" meant a station washing machine and a TV.