Saturday, October 8, 2022

The Caseys and Blackhead Lighthouse, co. Clare

This post is entirely due to an extremely fortuitous visit to the Ionad Deirbhile Centre in Eachleim on the Mullet peninsula, a body doing fantastic work in raising awareness of the Erris area in terms of local history, genealogy, architecture, archaeology etc etc. So successful are they, that the centre is currently undergoing a huge expansion at the moment, to be opened next May.
The thing is that, many years ago, somebody kindly donated to them a number of old copies of Beam, the magazine of Irish Lights, no longer in production. A few copies are available on the net but many are extremely hard to get hold of and they contain a wealth of information mainly written by Messrs. Pelly and Costeloe which is not available anywhere else, as far as I know.
So the information in this post comes from Volume 14. No.2 and was written by M.P.L. Costeloe. It has been copied by both Bill Long in "Bright Lights, White Water" and by Irish Lights on their Black Head, county Clare webpage. And now by me (with a few additions and pictures courtesy of John Breslin)

Blackhead lighthouse is situated at the southern end of Galway Bay, a sparsely populated part of the county Clare coastline. It is architecturally not a world-beater but its location, set in an almost extra-terrestrial limestone landscape looking over to the Aran Islands and the south Galway coast, is spectacular. Mind you, it is difficult to think of a lighthouse not built in a picturesque setting, except maybe North Wall Quay in Dublin Port.

Before the Second World War, Galway was a major port of call for transatlantic liners, which would all lie up off that stretch of the coast and discharge their passengers by tender to the city. The sea captains put pressure on the Galway Harbour Commissioners to erect a light there. The Galway Harbour Commissioners, aghast at the thought of having to spend money, asked Irish Lights to erect and maintain the light. Irish Lights replied that erecting the light could be arranged but, as it was clearly a local, rather than a national, light, the Galway boys would have to maintain it. Reluctantly they agreed.

In October 1934, Irish Lights entered into a verbal agreement with Joseph Casey of Murrough, Ballyvaughan - the owner of the land - for the purchase. Joseph had taken over the running of his farm from his father, John, and his eldest son John, born in 1912, was in line to inherit in turn. The area of land required was 30 feet from the roadway towards the sea and was to be obtained for £5 to £7, provided no fences were erected and the boundary would be marked by concrete posts.

Towards the end of August 1935, Mr Tonkins, Engineer-in-chief with Irish Lights, interviewed John (Jack) Casey for the position of attendant. He then recommended him to the Galway Harbour Commissioners, suggesting a wage of £12 per year with another £2 if he painted the lighthouse. Salary to start when the light was first exhibited (which happened on 21st February 1936). Although the light was unwatched, John Casey still had to cycle three miles per day to turn the light on and another three to return home.

Spot the working man! Jack Casey, the first lightkeeper at Black Head, alongside the bigwigs of Irish Lights and the Galway Harbour Board at the handing over of the light from the former to the latter. The two ladies are Jack's sisters, Hannah (left) and Tess.

Sketch map of the basic cartography of Black Head

Cue World War Two and of course the transatlantic liners stopped coming to Galway, unwilling, for some strange reason, to run the gauntlet of U-Boats to make safe harbour. And, on resumption of peace, they never returned. With no light dues coming in, the Galway Harbour Commissioners couldn't withstand the financial burden of spending tens of pounds a year maintaining a lighthouse and basically told Irish Lights that they would discontinue the light if Irish Lights did not take it over. At length, they agreed.

As Irish Lights were now the owner/occupiers, they interviewed the incumbent, Jack Casey  for the position of attendant and were delighted to offer him the post of assistant keeper, at the rate in force for that class of lighthouse. This happened to be £30 more than the impecunious Galway Harbour Board had been paying and JC must have thought all his birthdays had come at once when they informed him that they would install a 15 day clock gas valve, to save him cycling three miles to and from the lighthouse twice a day every day as he had done for the previous 19 years.

Jack Casey. He announced in November 1980 that he was retiring from the position of lighthouse attendant at Black Head, recommending that his son Joe took his place. Irish Lights asked him to stay on for another month for administrative purposes. He officially retired on 31st December 1980 after attending the lighthouse for 45 years. He died in 2011 aged 99 years.

Jack's son, Joseph Casey took over the mantle of lighthouse attendant on 1st January 1981 and himself spent nearly thirty years attending the light. His son Raymond is the current attendant. That makes almost 90 years in the hands of one family.

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