On a sparkling day last September we set out with the Skibbereen Historical Society to tour the Galley Head Lighthouse. We were fortunate to have as our Guide the man who wrote the book (literally) on this and other Cork lighthouses. Gerard Butler wore his full dress uniform for the tour: not only did he look dashing, but he wowed us all with his encyclopaedic knowledge of irish lighthouses, and amused us with many stories about the characters who looked after them.
Lighthouse keeping ran in families, and Gerard recounts in his book, The Lightkeeper, the roles his father, mother siblings and grandparents played in keeping lighthouses going along the Irish coast. He spent many years at Mizen Head, at Skellig Michael and on the famous Fastnet Rock, scene of a horrendous sailing disaster in 1979. In the 90’s the automation of lighthouses spelled the end of the traditional role of light keeper, but Gerard continues as the ‘attendant keeper’ at Galley Head.
The Galley Head lighthouse is not open to the public, so this was a rare privilege. It is a classic – an enormous white tower visible from miles around, gleaming on the headland. Each lighthouse has its distinct ‘character’ – the rate at which the flashes are visible – and Galley Head’s was seven flashes in sixteen seconds, followed by forty-four seconds of darkness. This was later converted to five flashes every twenty-five seconds. When the lights were directed solely out to sea in the late 60s the local people missed the familiar flashes so much that they petitioned to have them restored and this was done. (We understand this very well – we see the flash of the Fastnet Rock from our house and would miss it greatly if it were to stop.)
The deep sound of the foghorn, a feature of so many lighthouses, no longer booms through the fog from Galley Head – foghorns have been rendered obsolete by modern technology. Gerard recounted that the foghorn was actually powered by explosive charges, and that during the War of Independence and the Civil War lighthouses were regularly raided by Republican forces who carried off the explosives. During that period the foghorns were silent also, although not by choice.
The light itself has undergone a radical evolution in technology. Originally powered by gas, with a gasworks built to supply the fuel, it was later converted to paraffin, and finally to electricity. At one point in the early days the light was the brightest in the world, and with each improvement to the fuel and the optics, it became more efficient.
Scrambling up the curved staircase; listening to the stories of the hardship, bravery, adventure and occasional boredom of the keepers’ lives; surveying the countryside from the vantage point of the top deck; scanning the sea in hopes of a whale sighting; imagining ourselves in one of the hurricane-force storms that regularly swept over Galley Head; learning the history and culture of the Irish Lights Service: it was a unique insight into a way of life that has vanished forever, and a marvellous afternoon!