My father was a lightkeeper and his father before him was a captain of the lightships. My mother then was the daughter of a lightkeeper.
In the Irish Lights (the lighthouse authority) we moved around. So I was born in Castletownbere. From there we moved to Galley Head and Ballycotton. That was where I started going to school at the age of four.
Then we headed up to Dundalk to a place called Mine Head near Dungarvan and then back to the Galley in 1965. I was 14 at that time.
You’ve two kinds of lighthouses, one is on a rock out in the water and the other is on a headland or peninsula. When we were up in Dundalk and in Ballycotton, my father was out on the rock.
From when I was a little child, being a lightkeeper was all I wanted to do. My father, God rest him, brought myself and my twin brother out to Ballycotton. After that, all we wanted to do was be lightkeepers.
That never changed with me. At the age of 19 I had done the entrance exam, medical exam and swimming exam, so I headed off up to Dublin and passed the interview.
We did four years of on-the-job training at the Baily Lighthouse in Dublin. From there we were sent all around the coast to different lighthouses to do relief work. By then you were building a huge amount of experience with the different apparatuses, the different fog signals, etc.
I remained in the Irish Lights for 21 years. After my training I was appointed as an assistant keeper to Bull Rock, which is off Dursey Island. From there I was transferred to the Fastnet, the Old Head of Kinsale and to Mizen. After that I was made redundant.
Once electricity came in, the lights were electrified and with further technology they were completely automated.
It was the end of an era and I can only say I was saddened by it. However, you cannot live in sadness and you cannot live in the past. I very quickly accepted life was moving on and I was also moving on. When I was made redundant, I bought a fishing trawler and I became a fisherman for 10 years. There was good and bad with that. It was physical and extremely strenuous work. But for some reason I absolutely loved it. It was the complete opposite to what I had been doing, which was quite sedentary. But again, there was that attachment to working on the sea.
At Galley Head, where my father had been last posted, my mother became the attendant lightkeeper. An attendant lightkeeper is in charge of the maintenance of the lighthouse. She retired in 1997 and I took over then. I still hold that position today.
Galley Head is a headland station. It’s between Rosscarbery and Clonakilty in Co Cork. It’s in the parish of Ardfield and Rathbarry. That parish lies along the coastline between Clon and Ross.
I was stationed out on the rock a few times. I was on Bull Rock and Fastnet doing it. Every time you went out to a rock, you were there for 28 days. In that time, you had to manage all your own cooking and wash your clothes, generally look after yourself.
It wound up that we were coming back for a month then. It was beautiful in that you spent a month on the rock and then you had a paid holiday for another month. If you liked the life, which I absolutely passionately loved, going out to a rock for a month was another holiday as well. I just saw life through those eyes.
The isolation appealed to me. I’m comfortable in my own company. That’s a strange thing because not everybody is comfortable on their own.
My twin brother and I were and are inseparable. But yet, when it came to being a lightkeeper, after five years he found he could not handle the isolation. Whereas I loved it.
I liked the time it afforded for me to be creative with my hands and to read profusely. It was a very meditative existence. Hermetic is the way I describe it as well. With that time you can just sit and look at nature. You can learn so much just by observing. For all those reasons I really loved it.
I released my memoir called The Lightkeeper about 10 years ago.
Awhile back Irene Kelleher contacted me. She’s a playwright and wanted to write a play about a lightkeeper. She arrived at the Galley with her husband Denis. There’s holiday accommodation at the Galley that I manage for the Irish Landmark Trust. They stayed there.
To be honest, I thought, this isn’t going to go anywhere. Anyway, I brought her up into the lighthouse. I explained all about the light to her. I talked to her for a long time in the kitchen in the house she was staying at in the Galley – our old home.
When she left, I didn’t hear any more until she sent me back the first draft of the play she had written. It’s called A Safe Passage. I was absolutely gobsmacked when I read it. It’s really just fantastic. What she produced was just absolutely awesome.
It’s showing as part of the Cork Midsummer Festival, from 17-21 June in Firkin Crane. Seamus O’Rourke is playing the lightkeeper.
Irene asked me would I come to the premiere and I said: ‘Try stopping me.’