‘A single cormorant kept a solitary vigil.’
FOR 1,500 years this was the sight that greeted the lighthouse keeper at Hook Head in Co Wexford.
Looking east from the headland he would see serrated cliffs slip into the Celtic Sea, with the Saltee Islands in the distance.
The view greeted 5th century Irish monks, the Elizabethan lighthouse keepers of the 1600s and the men of the Commissioners of Irish Lights, who took up duties at Hook Lighthouse in the mid-19th century.
It’s also a view that I’ve known since I was old enough to walk the precarious cliffs that stretch from lighthouse itself around to the nearby village of Slade.
Walking it this week, for the first time in a number of years, it was easy to see why those early monks lit warning fires on the peninsula to protect passing ships.
The knife-edged quartzite bluffs appear menacing, even on a benign July morning. The danger they pose, particularly in the all-too-prevalent fogs off the south coast, has ensured that a light has been kept at Hook Head ever since those first cliff-top fires.
This constant presence has also secured Hook the position of the world’s oldest working lighthouse – and it now attracts thousands of visitors each year. (This is not its only claim to fame. In 2011 Lonely Planet labelled the structure the world’s ‘flashiest lighthouse’.)
But unlike these visitors the lure of the area for me lies beyond the lighthouse. My family has history at Hook Head and it’s sited in this eastward view over the waters of the Celtic Sea.
‘My family has history at Hook Head.’
This area of water is where my great-grandfather, Charles Cullen, was lost in July 1924, a crewman on the stricken steamer SS Lismore.
It went down 16 miles out, capsizing when its cargo shifted. Of the 16 men aboard, just one survived.
My great-grandfather went down with the ship, leaving a wife and family behind (my grandmother was 16 at the time). No trace of him, or any of the other 14 men who were lost on July 10, 1924, was ever found. (The wreck of the Lismore, or what remains of it, was later located – lying on the seabed 35 metres down.)
The wheel of the SS Lismore, displayed at James Kehoe’s pub, Kilmore Quay, Co Wexford.
Pic: Pat Looney
Charles Cullen’s name wasn’t mentioned much when I was young; time had moved on and the tragedy has passed into the family history.
But he came to mind this week when, on a visit to Wexford, my father and I decided to take the old family trip again, joining the rental cars and day tripping families at ‘the Hook’.
Walking away from the lighthouse and along the cliffs – almost 90 years to the day that my great-grandfather was lost – I wondered if this tragedy had somehow subconsciously drawn my family and I back to the area over the years.
After all, fishermen’s lore would suggest that his spirit could still linger out over the waters at Hook Head in the presence of the sea-birds – and on the morning of our hike a single cormorant (just visible in the main picture) kept a solitary vigil on a rock.
But truth be told I doubt many of my family believe or believed such superstitions. And yet, like the monks, the lighthouse keepers and now the tourists, we still return to Hook Head.
The SS Lismore. Pic courtesy of Eimear Hogan