John McGuinness, known as 'The Singing Lighthouse Keeper' worked on Dundalk's Pile Light during the 1960s.
Growing up fishing on the river with his father, and with the sea in his blood, John McGuinness always loved the lighthouses, and knew all the local keepers. He enjoyed working on the Dundalk Pile Light, and always looked forward to going to work,
Whenever the time come to go on the lighthouse, I hadn’t to be asked twice. People often would say to me, ‘Ah, is it not too lonely out there?’ which it could be to some people...but the fact that I was out on the sea, I liked it.
Living conditions were good for lighthouse keepers, who worked six hour shifts. They also received gifts of eggs and cigarettes from people on shore.
Each lighthouse had a radio to send and receive messages over, and it was on this radio that John’s vocal talents were discovered. The radio acted as a sort of social network for lighthouse keepers, as it could be a lonely job. One evening, when the Principal Lighthouse Keeper Mr Hamilton was talking on the radio telephone to the Kish light vessel, John McGuinness could be heard singing in the background. The skipper of the vessel, John Scanlon, asked if John would sing a song,
I sang ‘The Boys From The County Armagh’. And then Gerry O’Brien was listening in Rockabill, and he came in, and he sang then ‘Jeanie With The Light Brown Hair’. It gained momentum from there.
John McGuinnness introduces Paddy Mackin the attendant to the Pile Light, and also the Dundalk Harbour Pilot.
Paddy Mackin says the Pile Light attendant’s duties have changed completely in the last few years, as the light is now unattended, and he carries out most of his work from a shore base.
We would visit the light once a month for routine-based maintenance, or if necessary, if there’s a problem. The lighthouse is totally self-sufficient and self-contained, it’s fed with a mains cable from the north shore, and then backed up with a battery system within itself that gives 2-3 days of backup if we’ve a mains failure.
All lighthouses in Ireland are now set up with a system which reports any light or fog systems failures, and they are received by the Commissioners for Irish Lights at their headquarters in Dún Laoghaire, a service which is monitored 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Paddy does not share the nostalgia for the old days of lighthouse keeping,
In winter time, in severe storms, I mean it wasn’t unusual for light keepers to be on lighthouses and not be able to get off, for weeks at a time...beautiful in the summer, on a day like today, people would pay for the job, but it has two sides, you know.
This report from ‘Nationwide’ was first broadcast on 18 May 2007. It was made by Big Mountain Productions for RTÉ.
'Nationwide' is an early evening magazine programme that brings Irish viewers an eclectic round-up of news, views and events from around the country.