An Irishwoman’s Diary on laughter and Irish lighthouses

On a night passage from the Aran Islands east, it took all our energies to maintain a compass bearing

Come spring, exams done, we got the call. Guillemots and gannets and Manx shearwaters dove and dodged through the light swell, as we headed west on his rigid inflatable.

Come spring, exams done, we got the call. Guillemots and gannets and Manx shearwaters dove and dodged through the light swell, as we headed west on his rigid inflatable.

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‘I have sailed across a Sea of Words,” the small girl with plaits exclaimed to a boy gazing up at her dinghy gliding across the sky. If one didn’t know what to expect from Galway’s recent Cúirt literary festival, Sam Winston’s programme cover image with two children amid a cascade of letters captured the atmosphere perfectly.

And words there were aplenty, and thoughts and ideas, with Notre Dame university Anglo-Irish studies professor Declan Kiberd delivering an exhilarating elegy. In just 55 minutes or so, he moved from the works of John McGahern, Yeats, Beckett and Máirtín Ó Cadhain to new voices like Caitriona Lally as he charted the course of this island’s loss of sovereignty in 2010.

Afterwards, film producer Tomas Hardiman threw out a 64 billion euro (bailout bill) question. Knowing what he knew, he asked Prof Kiberd,where would he choose to spend the rest of his days?

“Writing about cricket for the Guardian,”Prof Kiberd responded, quick as a flash. Even better, he added – to more laughter – he would love to become a live commentator on cricket for Irish language television station TG4.

Dreams of other lives reminded me of a close relative who longed to become... a lightkeeper. My accounts of sea trips in and around Fastnet and Tuskar in bumpy weather, and the precipitous nature of the Skelligs off the Kerry coast, did not deter her one whit.

Records of rogue waves sweeping over high lanterns, and the daily drudge of polishing floors in isolated turrets till the tiles gleamed like mirrors, only whetted her appetite. She devoured the verse of late poet and keeper D J O’Sullivan, who wrote of “dense fog clearing/at the turn of the high tide;/and the stars coming out/like primroses in the sky.”

Nine died

Automation has put paid to offshore lighthouse staff, apart from attendant keepers, but a recent visit I undertook to Connemara’s Slyne Head might have softened same relative’s cough. Ceann Léime, as it is known in Irish, was one of the riskiest postings before sea journeys were replaced by helicopter “relief”. Slyne is less a “head”, and more a hazardous archipelago of rocks that once claimed many lives.

Nine men died during the construction of the two lighthouse towers in the early 1830s. A resident keeper and six boat crew drowned in 1852. Slyne was also the scene of a crime, when a keeper was allegedly poisoned. Even the relief trip by horse, cart and donkey for staff to and from Clifden was an endurance test – nicknamed “the long journey into Egypt”.

The King family, who held the sea transport contract for many decades, developed an intuition for the elements that is shared by Connemara-based mariner John Roberts. Living a pebble’s throw from Bunowen pier beyond Ballyconneely, Roberts has the oceans of experience – he may have been born tying a bowline, eyes shut. During a series of winter nights spent teaching coastal navigation, he had motivated his class with the promise of a trip to Slyne.

Guillemots

Come spring, exams done, we got the call. Guillemots and gannets and Manx shearwaters dove and dodged through the light swell, as we headed west on his rigid inflatable. It seemed tranquil, deceptively so, as he cut the engine halfway there to check levels of fuel.

“You definitely don’t want to run short out here,”he said. As the first of two lighthouse towers came into view, we could appreciate why. Galway hooker skippers may be well familiar with the run of the tides through seven channels, but there is no room for chance. Even on a “calm” day, there is little rhythm, less rhyme, to the Atlantic cauldron, with seas seething around the metamorphic rocks.

Rounding the outer islet, known as Oilean Aidhmid, we glimpsed abandoned buildings close to Chapel Island and Church Bay. As Roberts navigated Joyce’s Pass, the one “safe” channel through the rocky chain, a peregrine falcon flashed by in pursuit of an oystercatcher -lunch. With seas “bordering on the terrific” in winter, as one Admiralty pilot put it, Slyne is a predator’s paradise.

We lit candles to those many navigational marks and lights – sometimes taken for granted in less terrifying locations – several days later. On a night passage from the Aran islands east as part of the practical “coastal skipper” course, it took all our energies to maintain a compass bearing and calculate where we were. Had we wanted to take a sneak glance at GPS, we couldn’t – there was no signal anyway.

All we had to draw on was the constant flash of the wide beam from Aran’s Straw island, and the comforting characteristics of sector lights as we approached Casla Bay – with phosphorescence on the sea surface, and DJ O’Sullivan’s “primroses in the sky”.

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