Saturday 17 August 2019

Light house attendant Eamon McAteer (70) on a solitary lifetime by the sea

Through storms and squalls, Eamon McAteer watches over the coast of Donegal to keep her fishermen safe. Here we meet the 70-year-old with lighthouses in his blood

Safe hands: Eamon McAteer (main) who lives and works at the Fanad lighthouse in Donegal.
Safe hands: Eamon McAteer (main) who lives and works at the Fanad lighthouse in Donegal.
Fanad lighthouse, Co Donegal
The staircase inside the light tower.
A compass for guiding ships.
A nautical welcome.

Orla Neligan

It's been 20 years since the Carrigatine tragedy, when a fishing trawler and her six-strong crew were lost off the coast of Malin Head, but Eamon McAteer (70) will never forget that night.

"It was stormy; there was a south easterly gale and the sea was wild. I was on standby for three days refuelling the search and rescue helicopters and liaising with the coast guards." Tragically the vessel and its crew were never found.

In his job as attendant at Fanad Head lighthouse in Donegal, Eamon has witnessed some tragedies and near disasters, but they are rare. His day-to-day work is, thankfully, less dramatic and weeks pass to the rhythm of daily tasks, among them maintaining the lenses, grounds and railings.

"I don't go home from work," laughs Eamon who has lived in a 150-year-old cottage next door to the lighthouse all his life. Built in 1811 after the naval ship HMS Saldhana sank off the coast with no survivors (bar the ship's parrot), the 100ft-high lighthouse sits on the western shore of Fanad Peninsula with views over Lough Swilly and Malin Head. It is both beautiful and isolated.

Lighthouse attending is a solitary existence - I recall reading a story of a lighthouse keeper that was so lonely he used to switch on the transmitter and eavesdrop ships radioing each other, and another who knit so many pairs of socks he made a carpet. But it doesn't seem to bother Eamon who has lived alone all his life.

As a child he remembers watching his predecessors tend the apparatus that kept the lights flashing, a job that required shift work since it had to be done every half an hour. The lights were also oil-operated so refuelling them was a challenge.

"I went to school with the children of the lighthouse keepers and living next door meant I knew its inner workings fairly well; it was in my blood," says Eamon, who has been an attendant at the lighthouse for the last 20 years.

As marine technology has become more sophisticated, man-operated lighthouses have become an endangered species, with many being decommissioned and converted into holiday accommodation. Fanad was the first lighthouse to be automated in the 1970s and remains one of 70 lighthouses around the country to be owned and automated by the Commissioner of Irish Lights. During the day, the stations are monitored by its Dun Laoghaire headquarters, and at night, by Trinity House in London.

Automated or not, a lighthouse still defines the landscape that surrounds it. They are often symbols of our most isolated stretches of coastline, their haunting fog signals a reminder to us that such places still exist.

"I actually love the remoteness of where I am," says Eamon whose favourite hobby is boning up on his seamanship skills with the Irish Skipper magazine and The Marine Times. "I'm not a city person and I don't like crowds. Anytime I go to Dublin I can't wait to get home to the peace."

Although the winters are long and bleak, he says that he doesn't get lonely. "But the nearest town is 26 miles away so, you wouldn't want to forget something on your shopping list!" His home's precarious position means Eamon has been privy to some harsh weather: violent storms, lightning that has taken out bulbs and cracked the tower and deadly swells. "You have to be prepared for all eventualities," notes Eamon, "there have been storms where I've had to check the lighthouse and I've worried whether I'll make it the few metres back home."

But most of the time, the septuagenarian's work involves routine maintenance and watching the seas. "Just yesterday, I was up in the lantern room cleaning the lens and saw a school of dolphins. I just feel privileged to live somewhere that I can experience those beautiful moments."

Pictures: Declan O'Doherty

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