Memoirs of a Lighthouse Keeper
'The time has come', the Walrus said,
'To talk of many things:
Of shoes - and ships - and sealing wax -
Of cabbages - and Kings - '
That is exactly what I am about to do. All the little things that occurred during the years of my service, which didn't seem of any great importance at the time, after 50 or 60 years assume a quite different complexion.
My introduction to the Service was very pleasant. After an initial few weeks training at the Baily, I was sent to the Maidens to cover for Christmas leave. The other two Keepers were John James Boyle and Eddy Meehan. John Boyle was a fiddler of note who had an extensive repertoire of Scottish and Irish music. Every evening the fiddle, which had been made by his father, would be brought out, and an enjoyable selection played. I would sing a few songs and Eddy Meehan proved to be a good listener.
There are two Maidens Rocks off the entrance to Larne Harbour. In the old days both rocks were lit and manned. In the 1830s a young Assistant Keeper on one of the rocks fell in love with the daughter of a Keeper on the other rock and, as the rocks were only 800 yards apart, he used to visit her frequently by boat.
Everything was going well for the lovers when for some unknown reason the families fell out and the girl's parents forbade their daughter to see her lover again. It was a sad and lonely time, so near and yet so far. They could see each other but could not meet. At last the young Assistant Keeper hit on a plan to send a message to her. He asked her to elope with him, which she did. She met him on the landing and they rowed away to the mainland, to Carrigfergus, where their love affair was blessed through the sacrament of marriage.
When my tour of duty on the Maidens was over, I was sent to Ferris Point. There were five houses and five families living there, and as it was still Christmas time they all gave parties.
After my start on the Maidens and Ferris Point I did duty at several stations around the coast and was eventually appointed as Assistant Keeper on Rathlin Island. This was very interesting to me because many years before a friend of our family, Denny Duff, was stationed there when, one fine summer's day, the Princess Maud was passing Rathlin with a crowd of excursionists from Belfast. She was to steam around Rathlin and return to Belfast.
The Keepers thought it would be a nice gesture to fire a salute to them. The charge misfired and as Denny Duff was reloading the explosive fog signal there were still some smouldering remains of the first charge in the gun. The second charge exploded prematurely and shattered Denny's arm. A White Star liner was passing at the time, bound for Liverpool.
The Keepers signalled her and she sent a boat ashore and took the injured man aboard. He was brought to Liverpool where the shattered part of his arm was amputated.
This, of course, was the end of his service. He returned to Wexford where I remember him well. He had a job with the Harbour Commissioners' weigh bridge. The family afterwards emigrated to Birming-ham where he got employment with the famous firm of Chance Bros who were makers of lighthouse optics.
There were six dwellings at Rathlin East. Five of them were occupied by families but I was the sole occupant of the sixth, so the ladies at the station thought this was a good opportunity to give a party and to hold it in my house. The walls were draped with flags of the International Code of Signals. Chairs were borrowed from the other houses and the floor was sprinkled with Lux soap powder, in lieu of ballroom powder. Cakes were baked and sandwiches cut, and an accordion player from the village was to supply the music.
Amby Armstrong - or to give him his full name, Ambrose Armstrong - was Principal Keeper. His mother lived with him. She was very old, well over eighty, and she had to be helped across the station to the ballroom of romance. But romance never visited our ballroom because word came from the village that the Isolda was in Church Bay with Captain Hill on board.
Panic stations! Flags were never rolled up and restored to their flag case so quickly, chairs had to be returned to their rightful houses, and the Lux swept off the floor. When Captain Hill visited the station in the morning everything was ship shape and Bristol fashion.
In my time Rathlin Island didn't attract many visitors but any that did venture the sea crossing were always interested in seeing Bruce's Castle and Cave which are of great historical interest. During the long bitter years of warfare between Scotland and England, there were none more bitter than the period in which Robert Bruce (or Brus) was King of Scotland and Edward I was King of England.
In 1305 the English forces were completely successful and Bruce had to flee and take refuge in his castle on Rathlin. At that time Rathlin was part of Scotlandterritory of the Lord of the Isles.
One day while sitting at the mouth of the cave which was at the foot of the cliff underneath his castle, Bruce noticed a spider trying to spin a web in the roof of the cave. The spider tried and tried again, and in the end was successful. This encouraged Bruce, and he decided to rally his forces and endeavour to regain his Scottish Crown. He met and defeated the new English King Edward II at the great battle of Bannockburn and became one of the greatest of Scottish kings.
After my stay on Rathlin I was transferred to Blackrock Mayo. A clergyman congratulated me on my transfer. He could think of only one Blackrock - Blackrock Co Dublin. Not so, I'm afraid, but the other one worked out far better for me.
There is a red letter day in the life of every man and that is the day of his wedding. The girl of my choice was a local girl. All preparations were made and there was nothing left to do but await the arrival of the great day. But to quote the words of Scotland's immortal bard, Robby Burns,
The best laid schemes o' Mice and Men
gang aft agley.
The weather started to blow. There was the prospective bridegroom marooned on Blackrock, while the bride-to-be fretted at home. The press got to know about it and Blacksod was overrun with reporters and camera men. The tale of the ill-fated lovers made front page headlines.
At last, after blowing for fifteen days, the weather moderated. The boatman carried out the relief without mishap and I came ashore, but little did I know that a reception party awaited me on Blacksod Pier.
The wedding was to take place the next day in the little church of Binghamstown. The bridal party arrived but the media were there already. They were also at the wedding breakfast, in Ballina on our departure for Dublin, and at the railway station on our arrival in the city. My bride was dubbed the Belle of Belmullet.
I hope this thumbnail autobiography is of some interest. I finished my service as Principal Keeper at Skelligs.
Greetings to all pensioned and redundant personnel, I hope you are having a happy retirement.
© J. Dillon, 1996.