From 500 metres above a hulking rock off the Kerry coast, travelling at 200kph, Scottish pilot Jim Moseley directs his helicopter in a northerly direction and takes aim at a circular landing platform not much bigger than a couple of tents.
The hulking double pyramid of the westernmost point of Ireland, the eponymous Inistearaght, lurks below in the seas. Hundreds of puffins idle on the ledges. Electrician with the Commissioner of Irish Lights Mick O’Reilly looks over, and casts a reassuring glance. “Don’t worry, if you can land here you can land anywhere,” he says of the pilot.
Inverness pilot Moseley has been here before — once — and has been hired to bring a maintenance crew from Irish Lights to the island for an annual inspection and routine works.The small helicopter now hovers briefly about 100m above in a crescendo of churning blades before descending and coming to rest on this spectacular island. Show most people a picture of Inistearaght and they would mistake it for Skellig Michael. It is a former mountain peak thrusting up into the Atlantic. It is one of the six Blasket islands off Dingle Peninsula while the Skelligs just to the south, lie off the Iveragh Peninsula. The similarity with Skellig Michael lies in the fact that both have lighthouses. Both are incredibly inhospitable places with towering seas and powerful winds frequently battering down.
However, the monks of the sixth century declined the opportunity to settle on Inistearaght such is the formidable challenge it presents to anyone attempting to survive there. But lighthousekeepers did survive there. A lighthouse was commissioned in the 1850s and was built in the 1870s. Since then it has been safely directing shipping away. Its beam can be seen from 50km.
The chopper lands safely and ducking under the blades I am escorted to the safety of some outbuildings by Valentia islander and my chaperone for the day, John Murphy.
The lighthouse on Inistearaght, along with most other lighthouses in Ireland, was decommissioned in 1988. Where once the lighthousekeepers had numerous duties to perform, including maintaining the lights, sending weather reports and cleaning the lenses, now a solar-powered LED light does the job. An entire way of life was rendered redundant by technology.
It is a nostalgic journey, as well as a day job for the lighthouse crew visiting it today. All of the men on this trip spent at least several weeks there in the last few decades. Dave Purdy is a welder with Irish Lights and his job for the day is to reinforce the safety rails (‘nets’) around the landing platform. The horizontal rails at neighbouring Bull Rock were twisted to a vertical position by the seas in the huge storm two years ago.
Murphy is a tradesman with Irish Lights and services the lighthouses as directed by Irish Lights headquarters in Dún Laoghaire. “We go all around the coast looking after the lighthouses. We check the solar panels and check the buildings to make sure they’re secure and that there were no intruders. And upkeep of the buildings is also important,” he says.
Inistearaght closed as a manned lighthouse in 1988. Nearby, Skellig Michael and the Bull Rock lighthouse closed at the same time. “Up to two years ago you’d be here three weeks at a time but now it’s gone to day trips, due to cutbacks and technology,” says O’Reilly.
The primary function of the lighthouses is to protect shipping. All commercial shipping that pass the lighthouses pay into a fund, depending on the tonnage, and could be impounded if they don’t pay the rates, says O’Reilly. In addition to the tankers crossing the Atlantic, the lighthouse signal is of benefit to trawlers and pleasure craft. It is a day marker and a night marker with its own distinctive flash.
“We have LED lights now which means we can get rid of generators [no moving parts], so now it’s just battery banks which last 10 years. If one fails there’s a back up and it can be controlled from the mainland,” says O’Reilly.
Inistearaght’s funicular rail track (similar to the railtracks used in the Alps) is the steepest in Europe and was once used to deliver heavy equipment which had been landed down below at the pier. Gazing down its near-vertical cliffs, the skills of the old lighthousekeepers have to be marvelled at.
After checking on Inistearaght, the maintenance crew move on to Skellig Rock to check on the lighthouse there. I rejoin them four days later for the trip to Bull Rock lighthouse at the end of the Beara Peninsula. Irish Lights maintains a station at Castletownbere from where the helicopters depart.
New day and a new pilot: Colm Martyn. The crew is smaller this time, with O’Reilly and fellow electrician from the Inistearaght run, Morgan Nolan. Also on board is the former lighthousekeeper, Bantry man Ronnie O’Driscoll.
Bull Rock lighthouse as the name suggests is a fortress-like near-mountain and is located about 4km off Dursey Island, Co Cork. The lighthouse was built in 1889 and replaced a cast-iron lighthouse built in 1866 on nearby Calf Rock but which was destroyed by a storm in 1881.
Another perfect landing on another amazingly beautiful island, which is home to a significant gannet colony. O’Driscoll says the main activity is to check all the equipment. There are routine inspections that have to be done every so often.
We disembark next to some storage buildings before visiting the old lighthouse tower, which was decommissioned when a newer structure at the top of the island was required. The iron steps to this tower are surrounded by hundreds of gannets. The views are phenomenal. The old machine rooms and foghorn buildings are still in great structural condition. The lighthousekeepers’ quarters are empty of human presence. All that remains is a plastic chessboard.
“I was stationed here in 1978 for five years and then Ballycotton for seven, then Kish, Mizen and then made redundant in 1992, aged 40. I’ve been coming out since then to carry out maintenance,” says O’Driscoll.
However, he misses the old days.
“I’m sad to see lighthouses go. I remember when they were manned with six people stationed here, three on and three off, 24-hours a day. The place was in good order. All the steelwork was painted, from the siren house roof to the landing it was all painted every year. Now its just maintenance once a year so nothing needs to be greased or oiled.
“There were three huge trumpets facing in different directions. You could hear it at Valentia and the Mizen. When the Calf Island was out of sight, three miles away, you started sounding the foghorn. If in doubt start it up. You ran it then until the fog cleared,” he says.
Time to go. When the pilot returns we take off, flying at 140kph over The Cow and The Calf islands, Dursey Island, before arriving to base at Castletownbere. The lighthouses still send out their beams at night to warn shipping, but without the presence of the lighthousekeepers they are lonelier places.
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