You might say Paddy Scanlan was born to the task. His father’s people were amongst the principal sea-faring families of Scattery Island in County Clare. Paddy’s grandfather was one of the pilots who guided boats up and down the Shannon Estuary. Shortly after the First World War, the Commissioners of Irish Lights appointed Paddy’s father Patrick to the position of keeper of the Sligo Lights at Rosses Point on the north west coast of Ireland. His principal role was to keep an eye on the acetylene lights of the Oyster Island, Metal Man, Lower Rosses Point, Coney Island and Bomore Point Lighthouses. He also frequently spent six consecutive weeks on the Blackrock Lighthouse, again ensuring there was sufficient carbide in the lamps. Two brothers from Rosses Point rowed out to visit with provisions once a fortnight. ‘One of them later became a cab driver in New York’, says Paddy.
The Scanlan family were given lodgings on Oyster Island. Paddy was born on the island in 1927, the first son in a family of four girls and two boys. He has extremely fond memories of his subsequent childhood on the coast of County Sligo. They had goats for milk and chickens for eggs. Looking after such livestock was a task often bestowed upon the children. Every morning a man called Pat McGowan escorted young Patrick and his siblings across the water to school in Rosses Point, throwing a wink at the Metal Man in Sligo Harbour as they passed. Their father was a big man with a tremendous passion for all things maritime. On the few occasions that he was home, he taught them how to hunt and fish on the island. They chased rabbits across Dead Man's Point and hunted for cockles and razor fish on Coney Island, or lobsters and crab in the rocks around their home. With their rifle, they shot at thrushes and sometimes even ‘the blackbird tasted really good’. Paddy and his brother particularly enjoyed exploring the old smuggler’s caves of Coney Island. In the evenings, the two boys were often assigned the task of lighting the burner in the island’s lighthouse.
In 1934, the Blackrock lighthouse was automated when the light was converted from oil to acetylene gas. Shortly afterwards, Patrick Scanlan was transferred to the lighthouse on Tuskar Rock, a dangerous low-lying rock six nautical miles north-east of Carnsore Point on the south-east coast of Ireland. The position involved staying on the rock itself for six weeks of every two months. His wife and five children stayed on the Irish mainland in a house outside Rosslare. On 2nd December 1941, Patrick and William Cahill, his fellow assistant keeper, noticed that a British mine had washed up onto the rock. They kept a close eye on it all day but tragically, just as Patrick opened the door of the lighthouse to see if it had drifted onwards, the mine detonated. Young Paddy was among several thousand who heard the explosion from the mainland. A lifeboat was rapidly dispatched from Rosslare and returned with the two injured men. Patrick Scanlan died of his wounds early the next day. His fourteen-year-old eldest son remembers an older man approaching him soon afterwards. ‘You are the head of the family now’, the man said.
However, for the young Sligo boy, there was only one thing to do. He boarded a ferry to England and signed up with the Merchant Navy. ‘I was only fifteen when they took me on’, he laughs, ‘but they needed bodies and they weren’t checking for bodies’. He subsequently saw action at the invasion of Sicily and the Battle of Anzio. His brother-in-law, also a merchant seaman, went down with the HMS Edinburgh when the cruiser was torpedoed in 1942.
Paddy left the Merchant Navy in 1948 and secured a post as assistant lighthouse keeper at the Blackrock lighthouse, a famously desolate spot located some 12 miles off the Mullet Peninsula. One morning about six months later, Paddy looked out in great astonishment to see a “blue funnel” of an ocean-going merchant ship passing by. He watched the ship’s progress all day until it disappeared over the horizon. Paddy decided he’d had his fill of lighthouse keeping, resigned his post and rejoined the Merchant Navy. He remained with them until 1955 when he came back to Dublin and found employment as the skipper of one of the tug boats that guided the larger ships into Dublin Bay.
Paddy is married to Bernadette, his childhood sweetheart, and they have four children. The Scanlans live in Glasnevin on the north side of Dub,in City. The walls of the house are filled with pictures of tall ships, tea clippers and other sailing vessels collected by Paddy over the years. ‘They think I’m mad having so many of them’, he says, ‘but I don’t mind because I can just look at them and I feel like I’m crossing the Indian Ocean again’.
Their daughter is the author Patricia Scanlan.