Blacksod’s beautiful tribute to the past

An Cailín Rua

HISTORY SOAKED Blacksod Lighthouse.  Pic: Valerie O’Sullivan

An Cailín Rua
Anne-Marie Flynn

The Jamaican civil rights activist Marcus Garvey said: “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.” Though it is wisdom worth always bearing in mind, I was reminded of it very recently on a visit to beautiful Blacksod.
I happened to be there the day after the screening on RTÉ 1 of local Fergus Sweeney’s beautiful, moving documentary ‘Meitheal: The Story of a Search’ about the Rescue 116 disaster. (If you didn’t catch it at the time, it tells the story of how the small, fiercely compassionate community of Blacksod gathered day after day, week after week to assist with the search, feed the rescuers and comfort the bereaved. It is well worth seeking out on the RTÉ Player.)
Last week, everyone on the peninsula was talking about the documentary with a sense of quiet pride about the power of their community and each other in those darkest, saddest, uncertain times.
While there, I visited Blacksod Lighthouse, and took the guided visitor tour.
The lighthouse opened to the public in 2020 under the stewardship of Comharchumann Forbartha Ionad Deirbhile, supported by Údarás na Gaeltachta, Mayo County Council and the Commissioners of Irish Lights, and it now offers those who visit a rare opportunity to experience a working lighthouse.
The lighthouse is closely intertwined with the Rescue 116 tragedy. It is a designated refuelling station for search and rescue teams, and it was lighthouse attendant Vincent Sweeney who first knew that something was amiss, when the helicopter failed to land there to refuel as planned in the early hours of March 14, 2017.
The distinct square form of the lighthouse was beamed into houses all over Ireland for days in the aftermath of the tragedy, as the rescue teams and volunteers congregated daily at the pier, and we all wondered how a disaster like this could take place in an era of modern technology.
The coverage at the time hinted at what was explored in depth in the documentary: the interdependence of a peripheral community living on this harsh, rugged coastline governed by the power and volatility of the sea. The ‘meitheal’ is a way of life; people depend on each other and support each other to survive and thrive.
What makes the lighthouse tour special is the guides. While the information is presented beautifully within the building for anyone to read, it is the telling of the story of Blacksod, and the other three Erris lighthouses – Ballyglass (Broadhaven), Blackrock and Eagle Island – that brings the experience to life. Tour guide Kathleen is immersed in the community, and it shows in her recounting of the tales of the lighthouse keepers down the years, from the days of heavy manual labour to full automation.
It seems almost unthinkable now that a lighthouse keeper was once stranded in isolation on Blackrock Island for 117 days during the 1940s due to inclement weather conditions and ferocious storms. That families lived in the lighthouses, their small children tethered to rocks as they played outdoors, lest they fall into the angry sea below. That each lighthouse along the coast has its own unique sequence of lights, designed to help seafarers pinpoint their exact location.
The importance of the work and the sacrifices made to offer the reassurance of those beacons of light on stormy nights at sea cannot be underestimated.
Of course, the work done at Blacksod Lighthouse also famously changed the course of history, with a weather warning of an impending storm dispatched from the station by Maureen Sweeney in 1944 resulting in US general Dwight D Eisenhower postponing the D-Day landings by 24 hours, thus ensuring their safety and success.
In the spirit of Marcus Garvey, it is vital that these stories of human intervention, volunteerism, bravery and hard work are remembered and retold with the respect and reverence they deserve, so that we and future generations can appreciate and acknowledge them with gratitude. Blacksod does this beautifully.
Within our communities, these stories, no matter their form, are part of our very foundations, our roots, upon which we build in order to achieve our own potential in new and different ways. And we can all find a lesson worth remembering in the magnanimity of the meitheal.