Skip to main content

Ireland in Schools

Making learning fun & challenging
About us*
New url, 28/03/2012
Why Ireland?*
Free resources
Latest resource*
Irish teachers*
Irish pathways*
'A good read': English*
Eng & Literacy: Primary*
English: Secondary*
KS3 Strategy*
4321 lesson 1*
4321 lesson 10*
Topic work*
Irish Leaving Cert*
Blackwater Lighthouse*
Juno & the Paycock*
My Left Foot*
Res: English/literacy*
Favourite poems*
History: Flashpoints*
History: Primary*
History: Secondary*
New KS3 History PoS*
Supporting SHP/NI*
Irish historical fiction*
More subjects*
D&T/Food technology*
Religious education*
Controversial issues*
St Brendan at Sudley*
You are a Pirate!*
Pirate Grace O'Malley?*
Truth re Coffin ships?*
Responding to Famine*
Irish immigrants*
Simple quizzes*
O'Brien Press
2006: Mainstream?*
Thank you*
Contact us*
Site Map*
The Blackwater Lighthouse by Colm Toibin
Plot Summary
The story is set in a rambling guesthouse on the coast of Co. Wexford and traces the reconciliation between a mother and daughter, Helen and Lily. Helen is fairly happily married to Hugh but suspects that there is something in her, a sort of “holding back”, a lack of trust which is damaging their relationship.

As Hugh exits the novel for a holiday with their children in Donegal, Helen is told that her younger brother, Declan, is dying of AIDS.

This complication allows the protagonists, Lily and Helen, to be gathered together in order to seek a resolution to their fractured relationship and a healing of the hurt.

The story is carried by the progressive deterioration in Declan's health as he succumbs to the various infections that go with AIDS. His care is mainly in the hands of his two friends, Paul and Larry. They provide much of the humour and deep compassion in the text.

When Helen and Lily meet at the start of the action they are suspicious of one another and treat each other almost like strangers. The heart of their mutual anger goes back to another illness in the family that of Lily's husband (Helen's father) who died when Helen was thirteen.

Lily took her dying husband to hospital in Dublin and left the young Helen and Declan behind. Further she never kept in touch with them about the progress of her husband's illness. Helen was very damaged by this and further by the fact that she was not brought to her dead fasther's funeral.

Lily was also very damaged by her husband's loss and we get a glimpse of this when Helen visits her home in Wexford. It is cold cheerless place and reveals her psychological damage.

Helen's grandmother, Dora, who owns the guesthouse provides neutral ground for mother and daughter and also helps in their reconciliation through her humour. Towards the end of the novel as Declan becomes gravely ill and close to death there is a reconciliation between Helen and Lily. They forgive one another. This seems to empower Helen and we feel that she will go back to Hugh with a renewed trust and love.
This is a realist text told by an omniscient author. The main plot is told in sequence but the narrative is greatly enhanced by use of flashback. Dialogue is used very effectively to provide pathos or humour and to reveal character. You should also note the patterns of family breakdown and dying which are used to structure the text.
General Vision or Viewpoint
The situation experienced by the main character, Declan, appears anything but positive. He is dying a hideous death which is reported in graphic detail. No one can save him and there is little anyone can do to comfort him. Daily life as portrayed in the novel is a round of caring for the dying, meals, walks etc. Yet strangely the lives lived by the characters seems fulfilled and worthwhile. Helen comes to terms with her past through conversations with her mother, Lily. Larry and Paul offer us a very positive view of friendship. Very Positive in spite of circumstances.
Cultural Context
The characters are mainly urban professional middle class. They are liberal in attitude having little difficulty in accepting Declan's condition. Paul and Larry's sexual orientation is a cause of interest to Helen and not one of censure. The women are liberated and independent and live complex lives full of responsibility and choice. Helen is a school principal and Hugh, her husband, is a teacher. He displays no rivalry towards her nor resents her superior position. She sends him to Donegal with the children while she takes time for herself. She appears comfortable with her status.
Themes and issues

Illness and Suffering
This theme is an essential one to consider. It animates the action of the text as we observe the terrible deterioration of Declan. His illness and suffering however allow others to learn and heal. Helen learns form Paul the lessons of love and devotion to a friend. She learns how devastating her father's illness and death was for her mother and this realisation brings them together. Helen suffered loss herself as a child and it is through the working of the novel that she learns to grow through pain and resentment to happiness.


Love and relationships in various forms is explored in the novel. The relationship between daughters and their mothers are of great significance in the lives of families. These relationships can sometimes be rather difficult and healing can be a slow and painful process if it ever to be achieved. The love of Helen for Dora is awakened slowly as the novel progresses and while they will never be best friends they have achieved a loving bond that can allow them both to grow anew. Gay love is also explored in the novel. It is shown to be no different from straight love. The married relationship between Paul and Francoise is every bit as challenging and rewarding as a straight marriage. Forbearance, love and sacrifice are needed by all.