Memory is a slippery thing. Mine works like a photo album that
randomly opens to a moment in time then snaps shut and reopens on
another page. Storms have left some of the most permanent imprints.
The twin hurricanes Connie and Diane that walloped the East Coast while my family vacationed on the Jersey shore back in 1955 were certainly something that I should be able to recall in a video stream, but even that awesome event only left the memory of a flooded back yard and cardboard-covered windows, plus the fact that, to a backdrop of howling wind and torrential rain, I learned to play pinochle.
The blizzard that buried Philadelphia on Christmas Eve 1963 is also easy to recall. We slogged through knee-deep drifts for a mile to my aunt’s home and the night’s traditional Italian Feast of Seven Fishes. Then there’s the thunderstorm that roared in from the Pacific while I lived in Sydney, Australia. It was so fierce I could track its passage across the city as car alarms were triggered by lightning strikes.
Weather is something we don’t get very much of here in Los Angeles. Ireland, on the other hand, has weather aplenty. What LA meteorologists would call a ‘storm’ the Irish would brush off as a ‘soft mist.’ I’ve experienced many versions of Ireland’s rain, but the most vividly etched memory occurred the day I drove out to Hook Head Lighthouse.
Perched at the end of a rocky spit of land at the southernmost tip of County Wexford, Hook Head marks the entrance to the safe harbor that lies between Hook and Crook Peninsulas, which flank the estuary formed by the three sister-rivers, the Nore, Suir, and Barrow. The channel entered proverb history when Oliver Cromwell invaded Ireland by sailing up the sheltered waters swearing to “take Ireland by Hook or by Crook.”
The drive itself is memorable. A narrow road hugs the craggy shore where signs warn: “Beware blowholes and rogue waves!” The language made me chuckle but the reality is grim. More than one foolhardy rock climber has been swept into the crashing surf stirred up by strong onshore winds.
The autumn day I chose to visit couldn’t have been more perfect. A dilly of a storm was blowing in from the Atlantic. The sky was the ominous shade of gray that promises fat raindrops at any moment. I gripped the wheel tight every time my little car was buffeted by gusts whooshing up from the sea. Salty spindrift splattered the windshield. By the time I reached the lighthouse, radio reports were gauging the blow at Gale Force 8. That’s 40-45 mph and only four measures short of a full-scale hurricane!
The Keeper of the Light answered his door with an incredulous look that someone would want to visit in such inclement weather, but I convinced him this snip of a gal (I was younger then) had the right stuff to reach the tower’s top and experience an Irish gale firsthand. As we climbed the more than one hundred steps, I learned the history of Ireland’s oldest lighthouse, which has guided mariners to safety for more than 1,600 years.
In the 5th century St. Dubhan maintained a fire beacon on the headland as a warning to all who might venture into the rocky inlet. After his death, intrepid monks kept the beacon going for another six centuries. Legend holds that a monk lies entombed behind one of the cells off the tower steps. Between 1170 and 1184, the Normans built the present lighthouse from local limestone cemented together with a mixture of burned lime and ox blood. The 9- to 13-foot thick walls rise 80 feet above ground. In 1972, the beacon was electrified and a booming foghorn replaced the black powder warning ‘gun’ which had been fired every five minutes whenever fog enveloped the coastline. In 1996, the lighthouse was made fully automatic.
As we paused in the lantern room to catch our breath, the 360-degree view out to sea and back across the landscape was stunning. Far below, the sea crashed against the rocks sending spray high into the air. During severe storms, waves actually splash against the lantern room windows! Assuring the Keeper that I would hold tight to the guardrail, we stepped outside to the catwalk. Truthfully, I only remember the climb vaguely, but I will never forget what it felt like to stand at the tower’s top in the Gale Force 8. The wind tore at my trenchcoat and it billowed like a sail. My hair flew in all directions and my eyes watered. For a few minutes, we stood there silently taking in the power of the brewing storm.
The next scene my slippery memory recalls is set in one of the snug Hook Head cottages with a glowing peat fire warming the hearth and a hot cup of tea warming my hands. The crockery bore the crest and motto of the Commissioners of Irish Lights: In Salutem Omnium (For the Safety of All). As I sipped the sweet milky brew, the Keeper told me about the lives of those who had manned Hook Head Lighthouse before his time.
Prior to the light’s automation, three Keepers and their families lived on the site, keeping watches of four hours on and eight hours off, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. In good weather the beacon was lit at dusk and powered with paraffin that had to be carried up the tower from the fuel storage room. After dawn the fire was extinguished, the burner was cleaned, and the Keeper on watch recorded the weather conditions and any unusual events in a logbook. In bad weather or fog, the beacon burned around the clock. During daylight hours brasswork was polished, the stairs were swept and washed, the lantern room windows were cleaned, and every nook and cranny of the cottages and grounds was kept shipshape. Come spring, the tower was whitewashed so it could be seen far out to sea. Even while occupied with these tasks, the Keepers kept a constant watch on the horizon.
The rain started falling in earnest as I pulled away from the lighthouse. By the time I reached the nearby village of Duncannon, it had become a downpour. Seeking refuge in the local pub, I waited for the storm to subside over a mug of creamy fish chowder and a platter of crispy fish and chips, fare that had fed many a lighthouse family for centuries.
In 2000, the Hook Head Lighthouse compound was converted into a visitor center. The medieval tower is open to visitors and the lightkeepers’ cottages hold a café and craft shops featuring the work of local artisans.
If you love lighthouses, the next time you’re in Ireland book a stay at one of the self-catering Lights operated by the Irish Landmark Trust (www.irishlandmark.com). Wicklow Head Lighthouse has safeguarded the Wicklow Coast since 1781, and the view out over the Irish Sea from its 95-foot height will take your breath away even on a cloudless day. If you get really lucky and a storm blows in, the memory will last a lifetime. Sláinte!
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