The duty of a Lighthouse Keeper was to watch the light; to ‘keep a good light’ as the Rules and Regulations said.
In the days of paraffin-vapour lamps that meant keeping watch in the lantern of the lighthouse, tending the light to make sure it burnt as brightly and cleanly as possible, and winding the rotation mechanism to make the light flash correctly in accordance with its stated character.
Electric lamps were phased in gradually over a long period from the early 1930s until the mid 1970s. Even after the lights were electrified they were still watched by the Keepers to make sure they were operating correctly; however, the watch could be kept in the messroom or kitchen of the lighthouse accommodation where an electric indicator showed that the light was functioning correctly.
At offshore lighthouses, and headland lighthouses that had a fog signal in addition to the light, the three Keepers on duty kept four-hour watches in turn. The watches were from 0200 to 0600, 0600 to 1000, 1000 to 1400, 1400 to 1800, 1800 to 2200, and 2200 to 0200; so the same Keeper kept the 0200 to 0600 watch and the 1400 to 1800 watch (i.e. 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. and 2 p.m. to 6 p.m.) and it was similar for the other watches.
The watches were changed every Sunday to make sure one person was not on the same watch for ever! During the daylight watch the Keeper on watch watched out for fog. In the event of fog the watches were doubled.
One Keeper operated the fog signal while the other tended the light, and each Keeper in turn spent the first four hours operating the fog signal and the next four hours tending the light, so during periods of prolonged fog each Keeper worked a 16 hour day (and night!).
The fog signal could be either explosive, where the Keeper on watch had to detonate an explosive charge every so many minutes, or a diaphone (a type of siren activated by compressed air), where the Keeper had to attend to a large diesel engine which made the compressed air which was then stored in a tank. As the compressed air was continuously being used up by the diaphone the compressor engine had to continuously make more.
Because of their size it took two men to start those engines, and when running they had to be constantly lubricated and be generally attended to to ensure they ran correctly. In the case of lighthouses with explosive fog signals the explosives and detonators were stored separately and for obvious reasons only a few were brought into the lighthouse at a time.
Normally there were three engines so that in the event of one being out of service for maintenance there would still be one in service and another spare in case the engine in service failed.
In addition to keeping watch Keepers carried out routine cleaning, polishing, and maintenance work, and house-keeping duties each day except Sunday. This included everything from cleaning the lighting apparatus, polishing the optic and lantern glass, checking and servicing engines, painting, keeping the boat-landings and steps free of seaweed, and keeping the accommodation clean—the list is endless.
Major repairs and maintenance were carried out by specialist crafts people based at the Irish Lights workshops in Dun Laoghaire who were sent to the lighthouse to carry out specific jobs.
At most offshore lighthouses reliefs were carried out every two weeks, weather permitting. Each Keeper in turn was relieved (replaced) by another Keeper, so in theory each Keeper was on duty for six weeks after which he went ashore on liberty for two weeks, at the end of which he had to go back to the rock to relieve the Keeper next due for liberty.
That was the theory, except that when the sea was rough it might not be possible to carry out the relief for several days or even weeks, and if this happened for three reliefs in succession six weeks duty might turn into three or four months or even longer. When this happened, when he eventually got ashore he still had to go back when his two weeks’ liberty were up because the next Keeper would then be due for liberty. In fact, he did not even get two weeks off because he could be two days travelling home and another two days travelling back.
Even if the weather was bad he had to go back to the place of embarkation because the relief could not be carried out unless he was there, so he had to stay in a B&B waiting for the weather to improve so as to be ready immediately the minute the boat could go. At certain small offshore lighthouses where the accommodation was very cramped reliefs were more frequent. An Irish Lights vessel carried out the reliefs at south-west coast lighthouses but at other stations there was a local boat contractor who supplied the boat and its crew.
At many offshore rock lighthouses, especially on the west and south coasts, it was seldom possible to step or jump from the boat to the rock because the sea would be too rough, so the people were hoisted on and off the boat by a winch (see photo).
Each Keeper did his own catering and cooking, and washed up his own dishes. Fresh food was brought to the rock each relief day, but perishable food did not last long so they relied a great deal on tinned and dried foods. Each Keeper kept a large stock of food in case the next relief was delayed. They usually had a standing order with a shop ashore, so the shopkeeper parcelled up the same items and gave them to the boatman each relief day to bring out to the rock, and each Keeper paid the shopkeeper for his provisions when he eventually got ashore.
At onshore headland lighthouse the Keepers’ families usually lived with them at the station. In this case the Keepers worked all the year round, with one day off each week, and three weeks’ annual holidays. Public holidays were ignored—they were just like every other day. At headland lighthouses with no fog signal there were only two Keepers who divided the hours of darkness between them, but a third Keeper was engaged for the long nights in winter.
Each Keeper had his own house, and there was normally another smaller house for visiting tradesmen or technicians. So, the Keepers, their wives and children formed a small community at these, often remote, localities.
There was a cart contract at most headland lighthouses. The contractor provided a horse and cart to bring the Lightkeepers’ families (probably, normally, the wives) to the nearest town on market day, to church on Sundays, and, in certain cases, to bring the children to school. In practice the contractor might often have been sent to market on his own with just a shopping list of provisions and other items required by the Lightkeepers to be brought back to the station.
The list would probably have been much the same every week. Sometimes there was a monthly trip to a bigger, town further away. The cart contractor might possibly be a local farmer who also supplied milk to the lighthouse every day, maybe eggs also; or the undertaker in the nearest town or village. During the 1950s the horse and cart gradually gave way to the motor.
Applicants for Lightkeeping had to be aged between 18 and 25, be at least 5 feet 4 inches tall and meet other physical standards, have full normal vision without glasses, and be able to swim; they had to have qualified in a trade or as an able-bodied seaman, or served for at least two years on the Irish Lights tenders or in the Irish Light workshops in Dun Laoghaire, or have other educational qualifications considered satisfactory by the Commissioners.
There was a written examination, an interview by the Commissioners, and finally a medical examination by the Board’s Principal Medical Officer. Those who successfully jumped these hurdles were placed on a panel, known as the Passed Candidates List, and were called up for appointment as vacancies arose.
Initial appointment was as a Probationary Keeper. Probationary Keepers were based at the Baily Lighthouse, Co. Dublin, where they received training and instruction from the Principal Keeper. From there they were sent to various lighthouses as necessary to substitute for Keepers on short-term absences due to leave or illness.
This gave the Probationary Keeper experience of various types of apparatus and machinery at different stations as well as experience of the stations themselves. The Principal Keeper reported on their progress monthly. After six months there were practical tests in operating lighting and fog signal apparatus of various types, engines, radio, the international code of signals, morse and other systems of communication, and aspects of boatwork, ropework and the operation of derricks and other lifting equipment. Probationary Keepers who passed their tests were appointed Supernumerary Keepers, continuing to be based at Baily with periods spent at other stations as required.
At the beginning of the 1960s the rank of Probationary Keeper was discontinued and Supernumerary Keepers became Supernumerary Assistant Keepers but they had to serve a probationary period of a year before being confirmed in their appointment on passing their tests.
Supernumerary [Assistant] Keepers were appointed Assistant Keepers and assigned to a specific lighthouse as vacancies arose and, in due course, if considered suitable to take charge of a lighthouse, were eligible for promotion to Principal Keeper. Permanent Lightkeepers in Irish Lights never spent their full working life at the same lighthouse.
They were transferred regularly every three or four years as promotions, retirements, the experience and age profile of the staff at each lighthouse, and the individual’s own personal circumstances (health, family needs etc.) required. In general, junior Keepers were sent to more isolated stations at first; later, when circumstances permitted, they were considered for transfer to an easier station. Retirement was compulsory at the age of 60.