Wednesday 15 August 2018

Brendan's life in the spotlight

Brendan Conway was a lighthouse keeper for 33 years and then spent further 23 years keeping an eye on the lighthouse at Wicklow Head. He spoke to reporter David Medcalf about his career

The old Wicklow Lighthouse, now in great demand as a place to stay
The old Wicklow Lighthouse, now in great demand as a place to stay

'People are always buying me lighthouses,' laughs Brendan Conway. And it's true, the Conway home in Wicklow Town is well stocked with ornaments and night-light holders in the form of lighthouses.

Not only that, but there are photos and pictures of lighthouses too, and an illustrated map of Ireland showing where all the lighthouses are located. Brendan hardly needs assistance of the map to find his way around as he has served on most of them in his time. They have wonderful names - Raithlin O'Birne, Mew Island, Kish, Skellig Michael, Fastnet and so on.

Nowadays they send out their warning beams from towers that no longer require resident human presence but Brendan's career commenced amidst the smell of old-fashioned paraffin. The business of maritime safety has since been electrified and automated to the point that he was one of the last to leave the profession of light keeper - and he has already been retired for 24 years, though he remained in watchful position as attendant at Wicklow until last year.

He and wife Miriam reside happily together in a house with a pleasing view out over the sea and on towards the distinctive peaks of the two Sugar Loaves. It was in this same house not far from the Black Castle in which the young Brendan grew up, one of three boys, attending St Joseph's de la Salle school, playing Gaelic football and rugby as well as soccer with Wicklow Town.

His father William was a lightshipman, serving on vessels anchored off the coast where crews of nine men spent six weeks on board before being allowed home for a fortnight.

When it came to choosing a career, William had firm views on the course he felt his son should steer: 'I wanted to go to sea but he would not have it. He said that Irish Lights were there for me,' Brendan recalls. The older man had done his share of globe-trotting as a sailor with the Liverpool based Blue Funnel Line which took him to far off Australia and China. He had no illusions about sea-faring, aware that it was a tough existence, and he did not hesitate before sending Brendan for an interview with Irish Lights at their Dublin HQ in D'Olier Street.

After that, there was a medical and then a swimming test, which was no problem at all for someone who had grown up splashing around in the harbour of his home town. The company signed him up and, in March of 1961, at the age of 18, Brendan arrived in Howth ready to commence training - a move that was to prove fateful.

The teenager certainly fell on his feet as he secured not only a career but also a wife as it was in Howth that he met Miriam Cooke, whose family quarry the unique Howth stone. The pair encountered each other when the trainees ventured out to the local shop to purchase a few groceries and they tied the marital knot in 1964. From the start their relationship had its periods of enforced separation as the trainee was dispatched to provide cover whenever regular staff members fell ill.

His recollection all these years later is that his first such posting was to Loop Head which protrudes out into the Atlantic from County Clare.

After the sophistication of the capital, life at the furthest extremity of the River Shannon estuary was like stepping back in time for the young Wicklow lad.

His second residency was in another beautiful but wild spot, Raithlin O'Birne off County Donegal, an island so small that it is known for little else except its lighthouse.

The scent of the paraffin there lingers with him to this day, along with memories of the great fishing that he enjoyed off the shore.

The routine of tending the light was divided into three four-hour shifts - 6 to 10 p.m., 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. and then the graveyard shift from 2 to 6 a.m. The job was done by a team of three - one principal keeper and two assistants: 'It was a different era. I was with some great men.'

Near Castletownbere in West Cork he first gained experience of a site that is both remote and completely isolated, for the Bull Rock is exactly as advertised - a great lump of rock washed by the ocean. Brendan Conway had no objection to such assignments and speaks fondly of many of them, though he has no hesitation in nominating the worst of the lot.

Black Rock in Mayo was a hell hole as far as he is concerned and there is a collective shudder around the cosy kitchen table in Wicklow at the mere mention of the place. Brendan once found himself stranded there for three months when sustained bad weather meant no boat could reach the wretched place. Meanwhile he and his colleagues survived on iron rations of tinned meat and vegetables with powdered milk.

The rock has gained wider notoriety in recent times through the R116 helicopter disaster which claimed the lives of four rescue service personnel.

The crew did not realise the rock was there and, when they struck the unexpected obstacle, the fatal collision damaged the Irish Lights housing which sits 300 feet up on top of the rock.

'We were so upset at the news,' muses Miriam Conway. 'The helicopter hit the lighthouse accommodation - Brendan lived there for four or five years.'

Her husband had a narrow escape there one evening many years ago when he and colleague the late Jimmy Ward went fishing on an apparently calm sea. Then they heard a roar signalling an abrupt change and the pair took off, running up the face of the cliff, only for a giant wave to catch the other man and suck him back into the suddenly raging waters.

'I thought Jimmy was gone but then the sea boiled once more and he landed back at my feet. His shirt was in shreds because of the barnacles.'

The bloodied survivor vowed on the spot to give up the job and Brendan did not see him for another 25 years.

However, Brendan stuck with it and continued to ensure that sailors, whether aboard tiny yachts or hulking tankers, kept their bearings.

He had little contact passing mariners, though he and the late William Cleary who worked on a ship called 'Tuskar Rock' sometimes arranged to chat via radio telephone whenever his fellow Wicklow man was sailing by.

He had the privilege of living in the ancient tower at The Hook in County Wexford, built by the Normans and reckoned to be the oldest lighthouse in Europe.

Fastnet, the Bull Rock, Galley Head and the Old Head of Kinsale - he worked on all of them, though it was a dwindling occupation.

Skellig Michael off Kerry was probably his favourite despite the fact that it was there that he happened to be when Hurricane Charlie struck in 1986.

The wind was so severe that it blew in the window of his bedroom, frame and all, narrowly missing his head as it was hurled across the room before smashing into the door.

When he joined the service, Brendan was one among 168 staff who lived in or beside the 80 lighthouses but by the time he called it a day in 1994, he was one of the last.

His son Brendan junior - whose pastimes include making beautiful model light towers - worked for a while as a temporary keeper but there was no future in it for the younger generation.

Brendan senior served all around the coast, on either side of the Border, with stints in such out of the way places as The Maidens outside Larne and Mew Island in Belfast Lough.

Probably the most remote of all was Instrahull, seven miles off Ireland's most northerly point at Malin Head, a little known island with great walks and great fishing for off-duty hours.

Brendan frequently returned from tours of duty along the Atlantic seaboard with a crate-load of cod or pollock to feed the growing family - they have six offspring - but Instrahull was tops for lobster, no less.

Miriam and their children were able to join him full time when he was appointed to Wicklow lighthouse, where they resided before moving into the town.

Through Miriam, the Conways maintain their remarkably strong links with lighthouses as she is supervisor of the well-known tower at Wicklow Head.

The building, with its 109 steps from bottom to top, has not seen active service as a lighthouse in 200 years but it is in great demand as a place to stay.

On the books of the Irish Landmark Trust, it has two bedrooms and it ideal for a quiet getaway.

Among those who have spent nights there was President Kennedy's sister Jean, who arrived amidst great secrecy for a night with friends,

The Conways are a family steeped in the lighthouse tradition and strongly loyal to the lighthouse fraternity.

The dwindling band of brothers who served Irish Lights has occasional re-unions, along with their spouses, the most spectacular five years ago at Hook Head in Wexford.

More usually they assemble annually for a meal and reminiscence at a yacht club in Dun Laoghaire.

Wicklow People