Childhood at Oyster Island

A memoir of a Lightkeeper’s son in the 1930s

by Michael A. Hawkins

BEAM, The Journal of the Irish Lighthouse Service. Volume 29: 2000-2001.

IN 1930 MY FATHER Daniel Hawkins, a Lighthouse Keeper, was transferred from Dundalk Lighthouse to Sligo Lights, where accommodation for the four Keepers was provided in separate houses on Oyster Island. Two of the Keepers in turn manned Blackrock Sligo Lighthouse. The other two were responsible for administrative duties on shore, and for Oyster Island, the Metal Man, Lower Rosses Point, Coney Island, and Bomore Point Lighthouses. These were acetylene lights which required regular maintenance and recharging with carbide. Each Keeper served six consecutive weeks on Blackrock Lighthouse followed by two weeks on Oyster Island.

In those days a heavy boat was rowed by two Rosses Point men to Blackrock Lighthouse once a fortnight to supply provisions and relieve the Keeper due ashore.

Island Life
We settled rapidly into life on the island, being the only children there at that time. I had one older brother, Ted, and two sisters—Betty, the eldest in the family, and Mary, the youngest. Our ages were from five to eleven years, a two year gap between each of us.

The move had taken place during school holidays and by the end of August we each had specific weekly duties. Our parents purchased goats for a supply of fresh milk, and poultry for eggs and for a rooster for the table on very special occasions; so feeding hens, cleaning their shed, and milking the goats were jobs allocated. Our water supply was rainwater which ran off the roof into a large concrete storage tank from which we drew water through an outlet tap. We drank the water directly from the tank, unfiltered and untreated, with no ill effects. The tank was scoured clean of algae once a year.

Life on Oyster Island in the early 1930s would best be visualised by describing a typical weekday. In the absence of my father on duty at Blackrock Lighthouse, my mother would rise at approximately 7.30 am, call the children and clean out the grate on the coal-burning range. Then she would light the fire, fetch water, put the kettle on for tea, and make the porridge. In the meantime we in turn filled two enamel basins with cold water from the tank and washed our hands and faces, then got dressed for school. We scrubbed our teeth with salt and water, as we did not have toothpaste, then tucked into a good breakfast of hot porridge followed by soda bread with country butter from the Carty family on Coney Island, who churned every Saturday.

Our school books were carried in home-made canvas satchels and we set off to school. Pat McGowan from Rosses Point was employed by Irish Lights to row us to the mainland and back; in our five years there he did not miss many days, and then only in very rough weather. He rowed us over to the old landing near the Elsinore ballroom from where we set off on the long walk to Rosses Point School—in autumn through Father Mulligans orchard; it was embarrassing to have to confess the theft of apples to him subsequently.

After a lazy walk to school we were met by Mr Moffatt, the head teacher, a man severe he was and stern to view…! Both he and Mrs McMahon gave us a good sound start to our education. Their methods by today’s standards would be frowned upon but we recipients do not frown but praise. A great school: all the classes in one room split into groups, each working independently under the teachers’ control.

All subjects—poetry, grammar, addition, and multiplication tables—were drilled into us by our repeating in a loud chant after the teacher. I might add that this was very successful in providing a solid grounding for me and many others to advance academically in the world. We were taught Goldsmith’s poem The Deserted Village, and to this day I can recite most of that poem from memory, so the teaching methods were extreme but effective.

There were known tuberculosis sufferers at school. We were forbidden by our parents to sit alongside these children in the classroom. Indeed many children died of this disease, and ignorance of a cure terrified people.

At 3.00 pm we departed for home, a reverse of the morning route but this time more enthusiastically. On warm summer days my brother and I changed into swimming gear on the boat and swam the last 50 yards home to the island.

Fun and Games
We then reported home, changed into older clothes, and enjoyed a couple of hours leisure before dinner. We had our own boat, so occasionally went fishing around the Metal Man. My brother and I rigged a sail for the boat; without a keel, however, we had some scary moments. Other days at low water we went in search of crabs and lobsters under the rocks. Some days we played golf with old clubs given to us at Rosses Point by such idols as Cecil Ewing.

Then we had football—the usual boys’ games. Once we had a playmate over and in a southerly gale the ball blew into the sea. We manned the oars and caught up with it north of Dead Man’s Point. When we tried to get back to the island the gale was too strong. We could not make progress so we pulled ashore until adult help rescued us. A good hiding was had by all.

Sunday Fry-Up
Our main meal at approximately 6.30 pm was fish or calley, or fried eggs and potatoes, or just bread and jam. We had meat only on a Sunday, and sausage, black and white pudding about once a fortnight when my mother went to Sligo. Our food was basic, very plain. Money was scarce. We lived on bread, butter, potatoes, fish, and eggs, with meat and a bacon and sausage fry-up once a week on a Sunday. Shop bread was a very rare novelty. In August there were always mushrooms from the western end of the island.

At Coney Island we went cockling and on some of the mainland strands we gathered razor fish, all of which made nice meals. We had a vegetable garden at the south of the house which provided plentiful supplies. My brother and I had the job of keeping the weeds down. For all our chores our parents gave us a threepenny piece each Saturday.

After the main meal oil lamps were lit and we did some homework. In 1931 my father bought a crystal set radio, with earphones, and when this was being used no word was spoken by anybody.

Checking the Light
Before dark my brother and I had to walk up the island to the lighthouse and light the burner in the lantern. We then waited to check it was all right, locked the tower and, terrified of leprechauns and ghosts, dashed home in the dark. Imagine—the safety of ships into Sligo harbour in the hands of lads of nine and seven.

At night-time during the winter there were regular card games when neighbours came along from Coney Island—Tommy Carty and one or two from Rosses Point. The grown-ups had an enjoyable night playing twenty fives for half-pennies. Our only lighting was paraffin lamps. Each lamp had to be cleaned, fuelled up, and the wick trimmed daily.

We had a Larbert coal-fired range which was cleaned out each morning by our mother, the ashes being disposed of in the garden. Coal was brought into the house from an ample coal shed. Coal was supplied annually by Irish Lights, delivered by ship to lighthouse station all around the coast. The range provided all the energy needed for boiling water, cooking, and baking. Fire-places in the bedrooms were only used if someone was ill in wintertime. I did not live in a house with electricity and running water until 1937.

On the island and at school the lavatory was a bucket in a privy closet. The bucket was carried to the shore when full and emptied into the sea and cleaned out in the salt water. It is a miracle that disease was not rife.

Each Saturday night a large galvanised bath was brought into the kitchen, water boiled on the range, the bath filled with water at a suitable temperature, and each of us in turn scrubbed clean with carbolic soap. Our hair was washed, dried and combed with a fine comb to search for hair-nits. Sometimes, during outbreaks at school, this of necessity became a daily chore.

On Sunday mornings we dressed in our best clothes and rowed our own boat over to the Point to Mass, after which we went back to the island and had a good breakfast as no food was allowed after midnight before Holy Communion.

Wash Day
Can any young person imagine how long wash-day was for my mother and her contemporaries? Up at 7.30 am, get the children to school, light the fire in the range, bring in large buckets of water from the tank, boil the water, bring in the wash tub, large bars of soap to soap each garment, fill the tub with hot water, then the clothes. A wooden dolly was used to plunge the clothes up and down, then the clothes were rinsed in cold water, wound through a mangle, and hung out to dry. The ironing was done using three metal irons heated in the oven, two being heated whilst the third was in use. At the end of wash-day, a fifteen hour day, she was whacked.

In summertime, my brother Ted and I golfed, swam, fished, did our daily chores, only wore shoes on Sunday for Mass, and seldom left the island other than on Sunday. My brother and I smoked our first cigarettes in the old ruined cottage at the east end of the island. We made catapults using the rubber from bus-tyre inner tubes which we got from the garage, and broke two panes of glass on the window next door. Because we lied about this when confronted by my father, he gave us a double hiding — one trashing for lying and the other for the offence. Punishment for misdemeanours both at school and at home was severe and always physical, but also very effective. If you broke the rules of proper behaviour then you were punished and accepted it. We did not suffer trauma, nor did we need counselling. Right and wrong were clearly defined. One did not normally re-offend.

Great Days
There were occasional concerts at the Elsinore ballroom when the whole family rowed across and back home in the dark. My father had a carbide gas torch which was our guiding light on such occasions. There was also roller skating at the Elsinore which we enjoyed with the young people from the Point.

There were great days such as when Sir Alan Cobham’s air circus visited Strandhill. On those occasions a picnic was prepared. With my mother and the rest of the family we rowed over to Coney Island and walked along the strand to watch the air display. We returned home weary but fully intending to become pilots.

Then came Easter and the big big golf competition, the West of Ireland, which we attended each day to cheer on our hero Cecil Ewing. We despised that arch-rival John Burke from Lahinch.

t Eastertime we were given a chocolate egg each, and on Easter Sunday morning ate boiled hard hen’s eggs. I remember also the Christmas festivities, the preparations, all eager to help mother with the fruit for the pudding and cakes. We were all convinced that starting on 1 December if we said fifty Hail Marys daily until Christmas Eve our wish would be granted. We did this each year but I cannot vouch for the granting of our selfish wishes.

On Christmas Day at dinner we each had a bottle of lemonade to drink and that was the only time each year that we had such a luxury. We genuinely believed in Santa, and were delighted to get a small toy—a small net stocking with trivia, an orange and apple from the great man. It was said that his magic reindeer provided his transport as, in those days, it was not conceivable that he could travel around the world in an aeroplane.

St Patrick’s Day and other church holidays were happy occasions when families on the island got together and socialised.

I remember my First Communion in Rosses Point Church and the soul-searching before confession to Father Mulligan; also the enjoyable celebrations afterwards—party time for all.

We were awestruck when ships carrying maize and corn from South America tied up opposite the island to discharge enough of their cargo before they sailed up into Sligo to complete unloading. We were often taken on board the ships by my father. On one such occasion I saw my first black man ever. We were all too terrified to go back on board for a visit for many months.

On a bright sunny summer afternoon in 1931 my brother and I were sweeping the footpaths around the most southerly house on the island at the request of one of the Lightkeepers, Billy James, who occupied the house. He was a bachelor and had gone to Sligo to meet his parents who were coming for a holiday. We both heard loud piercing screams coming from the house, about ten feet away from us. It was terrifying. We dropped our brushes and ran. On a later occasion in winter when the house was unoccupied we clearly saw through the skylight a flickering light moving across the upstairs bedroom. This lasted for half an hour but we were too scared to approach and investigate. An unsolved mystery!

There was a tragedy around 1932 when a new Keeper was transferred to Oyster Island, accompanied by his wife and family. They arrived on a beautiful summer afternoon. Their son Sean, my age, played with my brother and I on the small concrete pier where the small 12 ft boat was tied up. We were called to our tea at about 5.00 pm, and Sean was brought inside the large metal gate by Biff Boyle, one of the Keepers. He told Sean to go up to his house, and securely fastened the gate.

After we finished our tea we went back to the pier to find the boat about fifty feet out drifting on the flood tide towards Sligo. We did not realise anything was amiss until Pat McGowan rowed across from Rosses Point and towed the boat back to Oyster Island. In the bow of the boat we found Sean’s shoes and stockings neatly stacked. He obviously pushed the boat out and thought he could walk ashore but the water was 12 feet deep. That tragedy has lived with us all since then, a constant reprimand of ‘if only’. His body was found a week later at Dead Man’s Point. I have never forgotten the day they carried it, wrapped in a sheet, to his distraught parents’ home at the high point of the island. The family were immediately transferred to another station.

Several different Lighthouse Keepers’ families came and went before we were moved back to Dundalk in 1934. Over the years we made many friends, school chums at Rosses Point—Gillens, Moffats, Cartys, Devaneys, Currans ....

It was sixty one years before I returned to Rosses Point. When I walked down the Point with my son and grandchildren I struck up a conversation with an elderly gentleman who was sitting there smoking his pipe, and so I met a classmate from Rosses Point School who, like myself, had travelled the world in the intervening years—retired ships’ captain Frank Devaney.

I graduated in civil engineering at University College Galway in 1944 and, like a lot of young men from Rosses Point, spent much of my working life overseas, finally settling in Nottinghamshire, England, where I now live with my wife. Our family have grown up and gone their different routes. I enjoy my annual holiday in Ireland.

During a visit in 1996 I was asked to record my memories of the happy days spent on Oyster Island, and so this narrative which, after a sixty year gap, might contain minor errors caused by memory fragmentation. I hope it is of interest to many.