A glimpse inside Ireland’s most isolated jobs

EVER TIRE of working elbow-to-elbow in a cramped work-space? Ever wince as you swipe your work-card at the start of another day, while pondering the reality of being just another cog in the wheel? 

Work doesn’t have to be like that. It can take you far from the madding crowd — if that’s where you want to be. For some that’s a lighthouse or a soul-soothing island. For others it’s a funeral parlour, or an online poker battle or twelve played from the silence of a home office built for one. For a glimpse of what working in isolated circumstances can mean, read on.

Tux Tweedy, Last principal lighthouse keeper and current attendant at Hook Head

A glimpse inside Ireland’s most isolated jobs

Tux Tweedy has been working in lighthouses for 55 years. In 1963 he was sent to work at the Bull Rock.

“That could be a pretty gruesome experience,” he says. “I remember going out there one St Stephen’s Day and not getting ashore until March. Bad weather kept us there for nine weeks and two days as nobody could come and get us off.”

How did it feel to be stranded? “As a young man in my 20s I had a good social life on shore, so for the first month of duty, I’d be keen to get back. But if weather kept me there for six weeks or longer, I’d become institutionalised and wouldn’t give a damn about getting back home.

Back then, the only way onto the station was by way of a man-derrick, a 30-foot rod that swung and winched the keepers up onto the Rock.” If the fellow on derrick duty wasn’t fast enough in a big rise and fall, we could be engulfed by the sea once we got onto the derrick and swung clear of the boat,” says Harris. “That was the system until 1968 when helicopters began to be used.”

There was no escaping the isolation. “You needed to be a strong character to weather the job. We worked in such close proximity to one another and we had no access to medical or other services when we were there. That affected fellows differently. Some resigned as soon as they came ashore.”

Keeping morale high was vital. “Most keepers were fairly well grounded, agreeable and first-class in every way, but it would only take one malcontent — a guy with problems ashore who brought them to work — to upset the whole station.

“The Hook was a graveyard of tragedies, a very dangerous place. I have great respect for it. Back in the old days, those in trouble would send flares when help was needed. My biggest fear was that they couldn’t be reached, that helping them was beyond our control. In 1991, five people drowned one weekend, including an 11-year-old boy, his father and brother. We were all out searching. The coast-guard brought up his body. The poor young fellow was the only one of the five who was wearing a life-jacket. That was a tragedy I will never forget. Fastnet was another.”

While working, Tweedy maintained generators, radio beacons and fog signal engines. The latter generated compressed air to make sound.

“The one on the Bull Rock could be heard in Killarney if the wind was going in that direction,” he recalls.

Does he feel nostalgic? “I miss the sounds, the noises. There was something comforting about them. I have a recording of The Hook fog signal, made before it was discontinued. Sometimes I listen to that.”

Bob Harris, Head guide at Skellig Michael.

A glimpse inside Ireland’s most isolated jobs

The weather made this summer ‘spectacularly busy’ for Bob Harris. But it isn’t always that way. “Often I am here when there are no visitors at all,” he says. “Recent storms and force nine southerly gales have made the seas very high, so it doesn’t look as though anyone will be coming over the next few days.”

Harris looks after access to Skellig Michael, arranges visits and talks with tourists when they arrive. He also ‘keeps an eye on the fabric of the steps and makes sure everything is safe.’

His interest in natural and mediaeval history makes his a dream job of sorts. “I am highly aware of birds and migrations, so when I spot a sea eagle arriving I contact ornithologist friends and share my delight with them.”

What else appeals? “Two hundred years ago a second lighthouse was built here. Apart from that, nothing much has changed except time. Because the island is in many ways a site, it’s almost possible to revisit mediaeval Ireland when you’re here.”

With his obvious passion for Skellig Michael, it seems as though the job was hand-made for him. “I have a family and dearly love being with them, but I enjoy the solitude here. I love the ocean and I so love this island. It’s a most unusual place.

“I have always had an interest in remote monasteries and in the way in which people set themselves apart to live spiritual lives. Some think that is a selfish idea. I don’t. The idea of spending time away, praying, jars with modern sentimentality. But when visitors come here and find the monastery intact, they encounter a vision that is quite different from what they imagined it would be, and that is a pleasure for me to experience.”

Is he ever completely alone on the island? “While the job is solitary, we try to have at least three people here at all times. That way if one goes crazy, there’s someone to take care of him and someone else to call for help,” he laughs, adding: “We each have our own little hut. They are small, basic and located close together, so sometimes it can feel like a hot house here.”

Not everyone is suited to solitary work, but Harris isn’t one of them: “If you told me when I got this job, that I would still be here 27 years later, I’d have been surprised.”

As for why he’s still here, Harris is philosophical: “It’s a place for reflection. Here, you come across things within yourself that may cause fear or regret, but this is a perfect place to deal with emotions like that. It’s the sort of place where people pick up on things, then find there’s no requirement to articulate, as words get in the way.

Dara O’Kearney, Online Professional Poker Player

A glimpse inside Ireland’s most isolated jobs

Dublin-based Clare-man, Dara O’Kearney (49) learned how to play poker seven years ago. Nine months later the former computer consultant turned professional. He began by playing four tables (screens) at a time, then built that up to 22 games. He currently plays between 12 and 16 games at the same time.

Is it a lonely job? “It’s intensely lonely and incredibly isolating,” he admits. “It involves looking at screens, clicking buttons all the time, and losing approximately 99% of the games you play.

“When you consider that I play 10,000 tournaments per year, and win approximately 100 of them, that’s a lot of negative experiences to deal with. It’s tough in other ways. I can put in nine or ten hours play, do absolutely nothing wrong, and still lose money at the end of all that. So it’s psychologically difficult.”

What pulls him through the stress? “Other players are the only ones who understand the strain of the lifestyle, so this is something we discuss when we meet at live tournaments”

But with that, there’s an upside? “I enjoy the game and the challenge of having to continually make decisions every half an hour,” he says. “I am mentally quick, find it easy to make decisions quickly and am not fazed by the high-risk element of the game. Also, I’m pretty good at this and I make a good living from it.”

As for whether it’s a lucrative occupation, O’Kearney keeps his poker face firmly intact and replies: “Ireland’s biggest online poker players earn half a million dollars per year. Tax free.”

Given that his typical working day begins at 5pm and may finish as late as 5am, you might assume that he’s a night-owl. “I’ve been forced into becoming one,” he laughs, adding: “I could play during the day but that wouldn’t be as profitable.”

Confessing to a love-hate relationship with the game he says. “I am passionate about it. But while it’s exciting when you’re learning how to play, after a while the decisions become automatic and that can be boring. I begin every morning in love with poker then promise myself every night that I will give it up. But the next morning, I get up, go for my run and by the time I come home those promises are wiped from my mind.”

What drives him on? “The desire to provide for my family. Concentrating on the long-term prevents me from feeling sorry for myself when I don’t win.

Could he give it up tomorrow if he wanted to? “I’ll keep playing until I stop making money,” he says, and somehow, you just know that he will.

David Ryan, Embalmer

A glimpse inside Ireland’s most isolated jobs

Six years ago, when David Ryan (32) was working as fork-lift driver, his mother’s sister died. After she was embalmed, the family was amazed that she looked as she did before succumbing to the illness that ended her life.

“That was an astounding feat on the part of the embalmer,” says Ryan. “So I researched the subject, took a course in it, and within a year began working in that field.”

While the length of the embalming process can involve working flat-out for 8 hours, Ryan insists he would never play music or listen to a radio while he embalms: “I provide a dignified service, concentrate hard on the work at hand and treat the deceased with the respect with which I would treat a family member.”

As for what carries him through the long hours of working alone, he says it’s ‘endeavouring to treat the deceased with the dignity, empathy and respect they deserve.’

That sounds intense, but Ryan insists the work is never stressful for him as his thoughts are with the families who have entrusted their loved ones into his care: “When they find that the embalmer is caring and respectful that lightens the burden for them.”

”Embalming is a big change from fork-lifting, but Ryan says it suits him: “I am a kind, gentle, caring person by nature. I would help anyone at any time.”

What sort of response does he get when he’s introduced as an embalmer at parties? “Normally, it’s ’Wow! You’re such a young guy. Why, did you choose that line of work? ’ I explain that when my job is done, grieving families get to see their loved ones presented in the way they remember them, that that brings closure to them, and that that is why I love my job.”

Do they ask about the nitty-gritty details of his work? “Never, and that’s just as well, as I never ever discuss the embalming process.”

As for whether families of the deceased ask about it, Ryan says they don’t: “Their only concern is the result, as in the loved one looking well. That may involve a gentleman being dressed in his favourite suit or a lady in her favourite dress, with her hair and make-up done.”

What’s the central appeal of the job? “The hope that when my work is done, the family will feel they have been given back the person they knew in life. The task for me is to give the deceased a kind of natural appearance; that of being in a deep and peaceful sleep. For grieving families, this is a reassuring result. For me, giving them peace of mind is rewarding and preparing the deceased for their final journey is an honour.”

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