The siege of Blackrock Lighthouse

Old Mayo

Fifteen kilometres southwest of Mayo's Mullet Peninsula, beyond the pillars of the Inishkea and Duvillaun islands, lies the isolated island of Blackrock. Appearing on the horizon like an abandoned vessel, this small, rocky, outcrop has been without a permanent resident for many decades, but the sound of the crashing waves and the constant coating of spray is a reminder of the horror that almost claimed the lives of three men in the winter of 1942-43 when the rock became the scene of a prolonged and frightening wartime siege.

The 400 metre long island had housed a lighthouse since 1864 and, being 300 feet above high water, it was exposed to the tremendous force of the perennial winter storms produced by the Atlantic Ocean. When lightkeeper Walter Coupe stepped on to the rock in late October 1942 for a routine stretch to maintain the light, he could hardly have believed that his next step back onto the mainland, to be reunited with family and friends, would be four harrowing and demanding months away. Coupe was joined a number of weeks after his alightment by colleagues Jack Scott and Michael O'Connor, who also expected their work to be routine as before. Part of Scott and O'Connor’s role was to bring fresh supplies with them to Blackrock. The men's meagre rations — water, flour, condensed milk, and corned beef — indicate they were not expecting anything other than the usual stay on Blackrock. Wartime rations applied to lightkeepers too, so the three men had no meat and not even the comfort of tea, sugar, tobacco, or cigarettes.

The winter storm season arrived in early December as expected, but what was not expected was its ferocity. The lightkeepers attempted to sit out the storm until further supplies could arrive but the massive waves smashed derricks and landing facilities that made it impossible for even an experienced seafarer like John Padden to reach the men from the peninsula. Padden held the contract to ferry relief keepers and supplies to the lighthouse. Risking his own life on St Stephen's Day, he unsuccessfully charged at the seemingly endless legions of hazardous waves in an attempt to land two relief keepers on Blackrock. Padden set out on his second offensive three days later, but again the possessive sea defended her rock and pushed him back. Padden did manage to get close enough to sling a basket of food to the marooned men before beating a retreat. 

Weather forecasts at the beginning of the new year were so grim that March was given as the earliest probable date for the reconstruction of the landing equipment and the resupplying of the imprisoned men. In usual circumstances, fresh supplies would have been delivered to the lighthouse every 10 days. Coupe had by now been held at the lighthouse for over 65 days. Several direct hits from wave and gale had also removed the roof from the men's billet, forcing them to hastily fashion temporary defences or risk exposure to the ocean's blitz. The Atlantic's siege of the colonisers' encampment continued into mid-January, by which time the lives of the men were in real danger from dehydration. Urgent food stocks, their last fresh supplies, were delivered to the men with difficulty, but their ordeal was not over. Another full month of facing down the foe would pass before John Padden eventually found a chink in the ocean's armour and, taking full advantage of her lapse in concentration, the skipper dashed from the mainland across the lulled waters to the men's rescue.

The day of the rescue, February 17, marked keeper Walter Coupe's 117th day of captivity on Blackrock, a new record for any Irish coast. Coupe and Michael O'Connor were replaced by two temporary keepers, but remarkably, after almost 90 days at the toughest of posts, principal keeper Jack Scott remained on Blackrock to direct operations. Hostilities between the lighthouse keepers and the ocean broke out sporadically until boat relief was replaced by helicopter relief in 1969. The conversion to automatic operation occurred in 1974 and the keepers were withdrawn from Blackrock, one of Ireland's most remote and treacherous lighthouse locations.

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