Wednesday, September 21, 2022

So you'd like to have been a lightkeeper? Black Head, Antrim


Black Head lighthouse, county Antrim

I was searching recently for a man called John F. Connell who had posted two fascinating photos of Eagle Island in an old Beam magazine (I was trying to trace him to see if he had any more!) I enlisted the services of Gary Google, who came up with a listing for Black Head lighthouse in a Northern Island Government Historical Buildings document. Among all the technical information was an appendage entitled "Notes c1999 from John Connell, Lighthouse keeper. In his 63rd year in Irish Lights (retired at 60, now aged about 82)"
I will quote the passage in full, with but two comments. Firstly, I have no idea what the timeline for the passage is but Mr. Connell was 20 in 1935, so it had to have been after that. And secondly, lightkeepers needed to be reasonably literate, so I am assuming the dreadful spelling - which is mostly decipherable - must be down to the transcripting by the Historic Building people.

'Opn lighthouses ye'd always get lots of bitrds to eat, blackbirds and thrushes wad always be killed against the light, not starlings, they're too intelligent, members of the crow family, they'd stick their undercarriages out and skid past the light, but every morning the first thing the keeper on watch wud do was to go round and pick up all the dead bitrds, and throw them in a pot with a piece of old onion. But ye hasd to watch them for they'd fall to pieces, they're so small, amnd not muich eating on them, but betterb flavour that a moy Park. Thye'd make lovely soup , and you'd have cold birds for yir tea at night.' The watyer in lighthouses was unfiltered rainwater. All lighthouses hacve a notivce up.Tank open/tank closed. The tank was up on the roof and before ye'd run water into it ye had to get all the gash waskhed ogff it, salt,gull dung etc, and check the taste till it was running cleqar. Non smoker's were good for testing it. Two kepers were necessary to run a light in watches, and a third keeper was needed if theree wasa forlight (someone to fire the maroons every five monutes). There#s a spring down beloww, 'comes bubbling up above a limestone crack and itrs like lemonade, heavily dosed with lime, like liquid gold it is'. First radar station was at Bloackhead, next at Cpelands but rrmoved because of effect on birds. Usd to kep meat and pigs feet on the shelf above the earth closet. Undeerground tank in front of houses stored rainwater for washing. Irrigation channels on gd floor front room cill forrain blowing in. Built in presses as on plans, also dressers all in yellow pine. Cvats iron foreplaces in bedrooms generally, but mopdern in gropund floor fires. Wistle pipes partly present (if you wwere't on watch you put in a a stopper).

I have to admit that throwing all the road-kill (light-kill?) into a pot with an old onion sounds particularly appetising and in the unlikely event that I'm ever invited onto Masterchef, this would be my signature dish. I also like the idea of getting the non-smokers to taste the rainwater for seagull shit. To paraphrase Dougal, it's great being a lightkeeper, isn't it, Ted?

It appears that John Frederick Cullen died in the Carrickfergus area on 2nd March 2005. Can't find much about him except that he was one of the few lightkeepers I have come across who was sentenced to imprisonment while a keeper. In both 1948 and 1949, while serving on the Maidens, he was found guilty of failing to pay income tax, "although he was in a position to do so." I have no idea if the incarceration ever took place and what Irish Lights' reaction would have been!
In 1950, he was to be found at Mew Island, an AK at the time young Richie Power was tragically drowned.

He had been born on Scattery Island in 1915 to parents John F. Connell and Florence Pavlovsky. These two had met at the Old Head of Kinsale when John senior and Florence's dad were keepers there. John senior was a Rosscarbery man and son of a Coastguard. The couple had the distinction of fathering and, indeed, mothering the last child - Florence in 1910 - to be born on Rotten Island off the coast of Donegal.

National Library photograph from a CIL inspection tour c 1905. The light would have been only three years established at that time and the tower was painted red, presumably to mark the starboard boundary of Belfast Lough for a ship entering the harbour. It was changed to white in 1929. The station was made unwatched automatic in 1975 and the houses are now available to rent from the Irish Landmark Trust.


  1. Hi Peter, great to read some of these old tales. I think I've seen your name on the ALK list for next week, so will catch up with you then. We will actually be staying in one of the cottages at Black Head. Perhaps we'll try the 'light kill' recipe for Mrs T's birthday meal next week....