A RETIRED school principal and wife of the last lighthouse keeper at Loop Head Lighthouse has described her time living at the edge of the ocean as “heaven”.
Located at the mouth of the Shannon Estuary with its origins dating back to the 1670s, the lighthouse was first opened to visitors in 2011 and has since become one of West Clare’s most popular attractions.
The lighthouse also is one of the Great Lighthouses of Ireland and is one of two “Signature Discovery Points”, as identified by Failte Ireland, in County Clare along the route of the Wild Atlantic Way.
Kitty Garvey, who attended the recent reopening of Loop Head Lighthouse for the first time since 2019, is thrilled with the major investment that has provided running water, refurbished buildings and a proper access road to this popular visitor attraction.
Following her retirement from St Cuan’s National School, Kilbaha, she taught in various schools throughout the county on a part-time basis for around four hours a week as a substitute and relief teacher for about 20 years.
“My time in the lighthouse was like heaven because I hadn’t time to think only work, look after my husband, family and sleep. I was very happy in the lighthouse.
“I worked in a local school. I loved the children and the parents.
“I am overjoyed to be back in the lighthouse. The new facilities are beyond my wildest dreams. I never thought I would live to see how everything has changed – the running water and even the new road up to the lighthouse.
“I am so happy that people are going through the gates of the lighthouse again with a sense of anticipation to enjoy the great views,” she said.
Brendan Garvey was the Loop Head’s final light keeper before the lighthouse was automated by the Commissioner of Irish Lights (CIL) in 1991.
Following his first posting at Fastnet Rock, he worked as a lighthouse keeper in various lighthouses in Slyne Head and the Blasket Islands in Kerry.
A keen gardener, he retired from lighthouse duty at the age of 60. In May 2019, he died at the age of 88.
In an interview with the Clare Champion, Kitty (90) recalled she met Brendan at a party in the lighthouse in 1953.
In 1960, Kitty married Brendan and the couple moved into the lighthouse.
The Miltown Malbay native admitted living in the lighthouse was a major change, having grown up on a farm about a mile from the town.
The couple got a great boost to their married life when the Commissioner of Irish Lights (CIL) provided them with a fully furnished house.
In fact, electricity, fuel and their accommodation was all provided free of charge; food and clothing their only real expense.
“It was a great start in life, which was very much appreciated. We had three children while we were in the lighthouse – Brendan, Caitriona and Peadar.
Our water supply was rain water only but we had what we needed. We kept warm during the winter time as we were provided with seven tonnes of coal every year.
“Two other families lived in the other houses. Brendan was the assistant lighthouse keeper and the principal lighthouse keeper lived in a house across from us. Another assistant lived in the other house adjoining us.
“Brendan’s family were lighthouse people. His mother came from Louth and they were into sea and boats. Brendan built two boats, it was just in the family.”
Even though they were living near the edge of a cliff in a very remote area, a taxi service was provided to take them to Mass and shops in Kilrush on Saturdays until they purchased their own car.
Brendan used to be on watch for a total of eight hours a day on different shifts such as 6am to 10 am or 10 am to 2pm or 6 to 10pm, which was all scheduled on a rota basis with his two colleagues.
“When Brendan was on watch, he was very busy because he would spend a lot of time up on the tower looking out on the estuary for boats.”
Asked if she was ever worried about the impact of storms living in such an isolated area, Kitty said she didn’t as she always had great faith in God.
“No matter what way the wind blew, I knew we were safe because the Commissioner of Irish Lights always made sure the roof on our houses were always properly done and repaired.
“During Storm Debbie, I remember we drove to Kilkee, where a lot of mobile homes were tossed around. There was a lot of destruction at the time. We drove there to see the damage.”
The mother-of-six recalled they loved entertaining visitors to the lighthouse.
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“Brendan was very welcoming so I was very happy to be able to entertain visitors. Brendan used to drive to Keatings or Haiers, get some food and come in the back door as if he wasn’t out at all.
Officially, visitors were not allowed. People who visited were family or friends.”
Enjoying very good health, the 90-year-old is still driving her car to places from her home, which is about two miles from Carrigaholt.
“I want to stress you can’t go into old age without faith. Prayer brings you great peace. The more you pray, the more peace you get.
“I believe in living a very simple life and spent my life doing good on this earth, as we pass this way but once. I believe we should help everyone on life’s journey.
“Money was never my priority. Brendan used always say ‘while I am married to that woman, I will never be rich’. I believe in listening to people, be kind and be good to them.
“Above all, you have to forgive because you have to be able to forgive someone on life’s journey. I see a myriad of problems when religion isn’t important to people.
“You have to live by the rules and strive to live by the ten commandments. None of us are perfect but we have to strive to keep the rules. When we were young we were poor, but we knew there were things we should and shouldn’t do,” she added.
Her daughter, Caitríona has happy memories of her early years in the lighthouse.
“Before I was born in December 14, my mother was a teacher in Kilbaha National School at the time. She was driving to school when the car broke down so she had to cycle from the lighthouse to Kilbaha and used to sit on the ditch for a little rest.
“When I was born, I was brought back to this beautiful lighthouse, My brother, Peadar was born 13 months later. Brendan, Peadar and I lived here until we were about three or four.
“My parents rented a house from the ex-councillor Sean Keating. Then they bought a site in Carrigaholt and built a family home there,” she said.
She can still remember seeing the lighthouse light flashing through the window.
“When Brendan was stationed back in Loop Head, we showed visitors up to the tower and got ten or twenty pence. We knew the history of the lighthouse, which was a bit of fun for us.
“My father told us a story about when Brendan, Peadar and I went missing. He ran up to the Bird’s Nest and saw three little heads heading towards the cliffs. He ran out the gate, jumped over the wall and grabbed us.
“The workmen use to stay in a nearby cottage. When they were cooking dinner, my brother, Brendan who was three or four years of age would smell it and steal chops or other food while they workmen were out.
“Paint was spilt. There were lots of fun things that happened back in the day when we were young. I have a lot of happy memories here.
“During the summer we would come back to the lighthouse and fish with my father. We loved exploring the place around the lighthouse. Our cousins from Galway and Armagh used to stay in the lighthouse,” she said.
Describing the recent renovations as amazing, she said the lighthouse still looks the same.
“It is an amazing place with beautiful surroundings. A huge amount of credit is due to Cillian Murphy and other local people who have said we want visitors to come to our beautiful lighthouse. I am so happy the walks are being developed.
“It was emotional to come here to see all the people that were interested in our home house,” she added.
Her brother, Peadar recalled his parents first met at a dance in the lighthouse.
“My mother said she knew this was the man she would marry but didn’t tell him at the time. Brendan asked her out. She replied ‘how would I go out with you sure I don’t know you, maybe we could meet at a dance in Carrigaholt’. A few weeks later, they met at that dance in Carrigaholt.”
Peadar said his father used to drive on his motorbike to Galway to play hurling with Abbeyknockmoy GAA club.
When the club won their first senior hurling title, Brendan went on this motorbike to play in the final, which they won, but couldn’t stay for the team photograph because he had to return to the lighthouse for work.
Even when the family were living in Carrigaholt, Peadar used to come back to his father in the lighthouse for long periods of time.
“I remember sleeping on an iron frame bed. I remember cutting the grass, picking big mushrooms in the fields, cooking and going fishing with my father.
“The male lighthouse keepers were well able to cook and keep the house clean and tidy. That was their job. When the Commissioners of Irish Lights came to inspect the building, they found it was impeccably kept.
“It was all done in military style – the brass was polished, buildings were painted, the inside of the presses were spotless.
“Sometimes I would cycle from Carrigaholt to the lighthouse and would be there for weeks, which was fantastic.
“We used to contact Slyne Head and Valentia to get wind speed, air pressure, relative humidity, general sea conditions and visibility.
“Loop Head Lighthouse would send this information to Shannon. There were no satellites at the time so that is how the weather forecast was gathered. The lighthouse keepers used to report shipping movements, while the radio beacon would work by triangulation.
“A ship in the ocean could record the signal and use equipment to determine the strength of it and their actual position before the provision of GPS. Everything is automated now on one mast so the light is not required,” he said.
He met a Dublin taxi driver whose father was also a lighthouse keeper who remembered being in the lighthouse when the taxi driver was 12.
“He said we were all inside in the kitchen one night watching television and wouldn’t go to bed.
“My father came around and asked us all what the television programme was about.
“I was about four or five and when I couldn’t tell him what the programme was about, he sent me to bed.
“The taxi driver remembered all of us being in the kitchen that night.
“When I was two, Caitriona was three and Brendan was four my father was doing some work when he missed us. We walked out the gate and were 100 yards from the cliff. My father came running out and caught us.
“My parents were able to buy a new car after just one year in the lighthouse as most of their living expenses were paid. My mother was being paid 28 Irish pounds a month teaching, which she could save,” he recalled.
Brendan used to catch pollock and mackerel off the cliff, built a boat, went lobster fishing and started an oyster farm.
He still has a photograph taken by German visitors of him on the top of the lighthouse when he was about 13 years of age after he had shown them around the complex.
Councillor Gabriel Keating said it was great to see Kitty Garvey and some of her children at the recent reopening of the lighthouse to visitors for the first time since 2019.
“I remember when Ms Hanrahan (Kitty) and Clare Healy who were both teachers from Miltown Malbay came to Kilbaha first. Clare taught with my mother in Cross and Kitty taught in Kilbaha National School.
“When she met Brendan, it was romance from the start. He had a motorbike and I can remember them flying by on the motorbike when they were romancing. There were very few cars and motorbikes in the late fifties,” he said.