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Wednesday 11 December 2019

Enda the latest member of his Lighthouse Family to navigate rocky waters

Four giant chalk letters are etched on to the wind-tattered grass at Loop Head lighthouse which clings to the last piece of Europe before America. EIRE.

Freshly painted as part of the renovations of this graceful whitewashed lighthouse at the westernmost tip of Co Clare, the letters are symbolic of the sometimes precarious currents that this island has to navigate during momentous and dangerous global turmoil.

During World War Two, from 1939 to 1945, these letters blazed out on the cliff-face, as they did alongside 83 other lighthouses around the Irish coastline, and each had an identifying number -- Loop Head was number 45.

They were there to warn stray German planes that they were flying over neutral soil that should not be bombed.

And they were there to guide the American planes after a dark flight over the Atlantic; the US air force had been issued with special maps showing the locations and unique numbers of these bright beacons.

Times are troubled again, and the way through the peril is uncertain. The Government is deep in the trenches of yet another referendum war -- and this week it was ambushed by friendly fire when one of their usually trusty lieutenants, Richard Bruton, went briefly AWOL from their agreed message.

Perhaps, as he made his way to the remote, isolated peninsula yesterday afternoon to officially open the lighthouse to the public for the summer season, the Taoiseach wondered if some of his more gaffe-prone troops wouldn't benefit from being sequestered in this windswept spot until all the shouting is over on June 1.

Mr Kenny was taking a respite from defending his misspeaking minister most of yesterday to travel to Loop Head. But this wasn't just work, it was a personal pilgrimage as well. For his own grandfather -- James McGinley from Donegal -- was the light-keeper at Loop Head, and his uncle Joe had been born in the lighthouse in 1933.

"It's my first visit, but I feel a very strong spiritual connection here... my late mother would've run around on this patch of grass," he said, looking around him.

And this event was a bit of a family affair -- his uncle Joe McGinley and his brother Ciaran Kenny and various members of the Taoiseach's clan were among the crowd for the ceremony.

And naturally the political family were assembled too, including all four Clare TDs, Fine Gael's Pat Breen and Joe Carey, Fianna Fail's Timmy Dooley and Labour's Michael McNamara, as well as local councillor Gabriel Keating who had put forward the proposal two years ago to open the lighthouse to tourists. In his speech, the Taoiseach took his own trip down memory lane.

"In 1933 construction had just started on the Golden Gate Bridge, Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany, here in Ireland we abolished allegiance to the Crown, and in that same year, James McGinley from Donegal came here to keep the light at the western edge of Europe," he said.

"And the sounds we hear today are the same sounds he heard -- wind, the power of the ocean against the cliffs, snatches of birdsong."

He alluded to the fact that a lighthouse has stood guard on this particular headland since the 1670s. Like all lighthouses it had been rendered near-obsolete by modern navigational technology, but now Loop Head has been revived as a tourist destination.

But Mr Kenny, who hailed his grandfather as "meticulous about his job", remembered light-keepers of former times.

"Men who kept the light around this coast shared a particular temperament and character with their fellow light-keepers around the world -- they endured gales, storms, long weeks and months of cold loneliness and isolation. They were men who were sanguine, resilient, adaptable, resourceful and who knew their job," he said, before adding, "Good qualities for the difficulties that Ireland and Europe endure at the moment."

After the speeches, he was taken on a tour of the lighthouse -- from the deck close to the top of the 23-metre-high tower, the vista stretches down the seaboard to the fuzzy outline of the Blasket islands slouching off the coast of Kerry.

He also toured the exhibition which includes interactive videos and displays of the strict rules set during his grandfather's time, by which the light-keepers had to abide.

Most interestingly, there were rules about expenses which were pointed out to him: "Cycling allowance of 1.5d per mile is paid when bicycles are used for official purposes."

The Taoiseach smiled sardonically: "Any chance of getting that under Freedom of Information?" he joked. Sort of. Every pound, shilling and pence counts these days.

He vowed to return with his own children. But not anytime soon, while there's a campaign to fight and while the ship of state is manoeuvering through very rocky waters.

Mr Kenny went full steam ahead. "There are always rocks ahead, and the ones that are most dangerous are the ones that are unseen, so that's why it's important to have a clear path and a clear objective in mind in terms of the port," he said.

"So I relate the 31st of May to the opportunity for people to send out a white light of confidence in themselves in terms of the treaty."

It won't be plain sailing, that's for sure.

Irish Independent

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