Thursday, October 29, 2020

Lightkeepers' Cottages, Clifden

The four lightkeepers' cottages at Clifden c.1928 (Copyright estate of Eileen Kates, used by permission.)

Away in the wescht of county Galway, the twin lighthouses of Slyne Head sit on a tiny island called Illanaumid. One is black and in use; the other unpainted and abandoned. It is difficult to get close to them, though long-distance views are possible from the vicinity. (I was surprised to see them pop up on the horizon while walking on Omey Island recently)
Until the end of the nineteenth century, lightkeepers' families lived on the island but by 1896, change was afoot. As the CIL website puts it - 
During November 1898 the Inspector, Captain Galwey and Engineer, Mr Douglass had been instructed to find a suitable site for shore dwellings at Clifden and by March 1902 the Engineer, Mr C.W. Scott, reported that, of the two sites visited, the one nearest the quay on the Bodkin estate was particularly suitable and could be purchased for £225. Documentation was completed by 1904, the block of four standard flat roofed Scott designed houses were built by Mr R. Calwell of Belfast in 1905 and were completed and occupied by the keepers in 1906. Slyne had been a relieving station from April 1898, six weeks on and two off, the keepers and their families were accommodated in lodgings in Bunowen until the dwellings were built at Clifden.

Two views of the newly-built houses in 1908 taken by an Irish Lights inspection team

It is believed that the two end houses for the block of four were for the principal keepers and the two terraced houses in the middle were for the assistants. The house was located on Beach Road near the old quay, set back a little bit from the road, so much so that a house has since been built between the block of four and the road.
CORRECTION! (6/5/21) I am indebted to Declan Commons who is currently engaged on restoration work at the four cottages. He points out that the roadside house in front of the cottages actually pre-dates the cottages which, as he says, brings up the question of access. As Dougal would say, I stand corrected, Ted.
I was recently contacted by Christopher Kates, who owns a treasure trove of old photographs inherited from his mother, Eileen. Eileen was the daughter of Eugene Fortune a long-time lighthouse keeper, who was at Slyne Head in the late twenties when Eileen was born. They lived in one of the two inner houses, indicating he was probably assistant keeper at this time. 
Eugene, incidentally, was a son of one Thomas Fortune, the Principal Keeper at Calf Rock in 1881 when the whole shebang came tumbling down. Christopher has generously agreed to let me use some of his photographs, such as the one at the top of the page in this blog.
The relief of the lightkeepers was a long, convoluted affair, as described by A.D.H. Martin in the Beam magazine of December 1977:-
The decision of the relief was in the hands of the boatman for obvious reasons and, when conditions were favourable, he hoisted a 'bat' against a wall near his cottage which informed the keepers on the rock that the relief was 'on'. He then journeyed 2½ miles (4km) to Bunowen to inform the cart contractor (or more recently van contractor,) a journey made by horse, bicycle or if early enough a child going to school. The cart (van) contractor proceeded to the shore dwellings at Clifden, 8 miles (12.8km) away, picked up the relief keeper, mail and perishable foodstuffs, the other items having gone ahead to Slackport a day or days before. 
The cart went as far as the boat contractor's cottage where the relief was transferred to donkeys with creels or panniers across their backs. Since the war, a motor van was used from Clifden as far as the Connemara Golf Links or "the airfield" where before the war, that enterprising aviation entrepreneur Sir Alan Cobham held his flying circus. There the road petered out and a horse and cart took over as far as the donkeys. The donkeys set off across rocks and heather for about three quarters of a mile to the boat slip at Slackport where the relief was finally transferred into a currach and rowed out 3 miles (4.8km) through the islands and rocks which form Slyne Head to the lighthouse. Soon after 1962, the road from the boat man's cottage to the boat slip was surfaced by one of our coast tradesmen, Michael Keane, It became known locally as "the M1" and allowed the van to travel from Clifden to the boat slip. 
From October 1969 until the station became unwatched the relief between Clifden and the lighthouse was carried out by helicopter in about six or seven minutes!

Relief day at Slackport. Eugene Fortune is standing far right. (Copyright estate of Eileen Kates, used by permission.)

By 1971, keepers' families preferred not to live at the shore stations and the cottages were sold off, though access to the nearby helicopter pad was maintained. One of the houses, described as a Master Lightkeeper's House "built around 1880" is now operating as an Airbnb

The cottages in 2016 (Copyright estate of Eileen Kates, used by permission.)

These last three photographs are from the Airbnb website referenced above. I'm sure they won't mind me giving them some free advertising!


  1. My great grandfather Edward Eugene Mehigan was said to be born in the lighthouse on 27 November 1875. His father was Jeremiah Mehigan. Any chance a record exists of who the light keepers were in 1875?

    1. Eduard Eugene Mehigan is my great great grandfather! I'm interested in finding out anything I can.

    2. Please see my reply below!

  2. Hi, it seems that Jeremiah was not a lightkeeper but a coastguard, about whom I have little knowledge. The CGs were based at Bayleek or Belleek which is a townland just up the Sky Road from Clifden. A query on the website forum of "Coastguards of Yesteryear" might be very useful as they seem to be very helpful. The 1901 Census shows 2 Jeremiahs, one retired, one active both in Cork. It seems that one of them was Chief Officer in Wicklow in the period 1898-99. Jeremiah, the older, the father of your Edward, died in Ringaskiddy in 1903 aged 65, giving a rough dob of 1837, Sorry, can't be of more help.