Monday, July 17, 2023

The Way, the Truth and the Light

Wedding photograph of Elizabeth Healy and Peter Lavelle in Bangor in 1903. The bride's father Matthew Healy is almost recumbent, bottom left. The groom's father, John Lavelle, could well be the gentleman standing on the right. The officiating minister was William Lavelle. (photograph courtesy Trish Lavelle)

Trish Lavelle, down in Cork, recently sent me an incredible document that I have been poring over and checking and re-checking and fitting into the narratives I have for old lighthouses and keepers. It is a transcript of an interview that some very insightful person did with one of her ancestors, 'Granny Lavelle.' It was carried out in the late 1960s or early 1970s and is a general chat about her life and reminiscences.
'Granny Lavelle' was born Elizabeth Healy on Eagle Island in 1882. She was the daughter of lightkeeper Matthew Healy, who himself was the son of keeper John Healy. Her sister, Catherine, married keeper Jeremiah Meehan. Her brother, also called Matthew, became a keeper, as did another son, Patrick. She, herself married Peter Lavelle, another famous name in Irish lightkeeping.
There is so much information contained in the transcripts that I'm nearly tempted to write a book about her! But it is not simply the facts and the memories that are fascinating. One point she picks up on very early in the transcript is the number of children of keepers who entered holy orders.
Of course, it is well-known that in old Ireland, the first son inherited the land and the second son became a priest. Surplus girls - I use the term facetiously - had to be married off or sent to the convent. But Elizabeth Lavelle seems to indicate that this was even more prevalent in lightkeeping families.
In her own family of ten, one of the girls was a reverend mother and another was a nun, teaching in Rathmines. The Phelan family, who used to live in the house she was interviewed in (possibly Tarbert?) contained four girls who became nuns and a boy Stuart, who was ordained in Belgium and was lost in the Battle of Jutland in WW1 while serving as a chaplain.
Her brother-in-law Charles Meehan, had two daughters, both with Oxford degrees who became nuns, and a son, Father Meehan, who spent twelve years in the African missions. One of the Donovans became a priest in Inchicore, Mr. Ahern also gave a son to the church and Mr Roche had four girls who became nuns in Australia ... the list goes on.
While researching keeper Michael Moore (whose daughter died on Little Samphire Island) I discovered that, of his other three children, one became a priest in Australia and the other became a nun in South Africa.

Holy Cross Sister Louis Carmel Moore, daughter of keeper Michael Moore, who died in South Africa in 2012 aged 100

Which kind of led me to thinking - was it something specific to lightkeeping that led to such an influx in the holy orders? Was it a case that, with the remoteness of rock stations, children were less influenced by their peers and more by the spiritual power and beauty of the natural world? I have heard it said that, whereas the Fastnet may not have been most keepers' favourite station, few were left unaffected by it in some strange way. (I know that that no children lived out there but if grizzled old keepers could be affected by it, could not more impressionable adolescents not be moved by their experiences on the Skelligs or Tory or Eagle Island?)
Or was it simply a case that the likelihood of ever meeting an eligible young keeper, or the son or daughter of another keeper were naturally diminished and the priesthood or convent simply seemed one possible path in life?
I don't know. What I do know is that I bless the person who got Granny Lavelle's thoughts down on tape and on paper.

Matthew Healy and his wife Elizabeth (nee Broderick) begetters of lightkeepers, priests and nuns (photograph courtesy Trish Lavelle)


  1. Maybe it's because they moved so much they never fitted in the only thing constant church going

  2. Sorry I missed this earlier Pete, what a treasure to receive from Trish, she obviously knew you would value it deeply. A