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Dublin: 22 °C Tuesday 16 July, 2019
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"It wasn't a job - it was a way of life": The 'lost tradition' of Irish lighthouse keepers

We speak to two men who worked as lighthouse keepers.

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‘I wanted to do this all my life. From when I was, oh, three or four or five, from those years on I wanted nothing else other than to be a lighthouse keeper. At that young age you really don’t know why but you just, I don’t know, this is where being in the blood comes into it.’ – Gerald Butler

GERALD BUTLER WILL never forget the night of the Fastnet yacht race disaster of 1979.

As one of the three lighthouse keepers working at the Fastnet lighthouse, he saw first-hand the deadly swells and mountainous waves that led to the deaths of 15 people.

“That will leave a mark on your mind,” he said, remembering the night. “It was such a horrific event.”

The “storm just popped up out of the blue”.

It blew with such rage and such strength that the sea was mountainous. During the course of the entire night, it was yacht after yacht after yacht getting into trouble and calling for help.

The horrific sporting disaster “sharpened up” Butler’s relationship with the sea.

The Fastnet was such a treacherous rock to be on. When you were on the Fastnet, even on the finest day going, when you’d be out walking on the helicopter platform you always kept looking over your shoulder.

Today, there is one remaining lighthouse keeper in Ireland. But Butler grew up in a family steeped in the lighthouse tradition.

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Born in Castletownbere – “I happened to be born there”- his mother was the daughter of a lighthouse keeper, and his Wexford-born father was the son of the captain of a light ship.

Irish Lights, which ran the lighthouses, “loved getting lightkeepers’ sons into the job”, said Butler.

It wasn’t really a job, it was a way of life. It didn’t involve ever going home from work. It involved in those days spending your entire life as a lightkeeper. Because you lived in a lot of the stations you went home or your work was around you all the time.

Butler joined the Irish Lights in October 1969, aged 19. It took a year of preparation before he sat the entrance exam, which was followed by a year on probation.

He had to learn signalling, Morse code, semaphore, and seamanship skills like how to rig boats and tie rope. There were also radio skills.

“You have to be very prepared and prepared for all eventualities. That has stood me very well,” said Butler. “I am able to practically do anything in the house at home – except make the dinner.”

The routine in the lighthouse

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Trainee lighthouse keepers were called supernumerary keepers. Each lighthouse had three men working in it, who each took a different shift. The early morning watch started at 6am.

The keepers did a lot of domestic chores, but also routine work, like painting the station at springtime, or doing maintenance work.

Eddie Fitzgerald (70) is a cousin of Butler’s, and works as a guide at Ballycotton lighthouse, after spending time in the 1960s as a lighthouse keeper. He left the job to join a successful band – “even though my mother went berserk”.

Fitzgerald – who still remembers his service number: 578 – said being a supernumerary was about learning to look after yourself, “and to be your own housekeeper, not depending on your mother or your wife or sister. It was very much a service. Very Navy-like.”

Personal cleanliness was very much a thing, very important a thing. It was a good training. I think every young fella could do with a spell in a service like that.

Life on a lighthouse

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Being away from the mainland, or in a difficult-to-access location, meant there was a ‘waste not, want not’ attitude to life on a lighthouse.

Water was at a premium, and rainwater was collected off the roof. Fitzgerald recalled how a bath meant “standing into one of the old-fashioned galvanised bathtubs and… you’d give yourself a good scrub. You wouldn’t waste that water – you’d wash your underwear and socks in that water”.

Getting your groceries meant ordering them from the nearest town or village every fortnight or so. The food was kept in deep freezes powered by paraffin oil.

Ballycotton Lighthouse was just under a mile from the mainland, which made things a bit easier – the local boatman would sometimes just pop by with supplies.

But on the Fastnet “you’d never see anybody”, said Fitzgerald.

“The moment you landed you felt this sense of isolation”

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During his time, Butler worked in almost every lighthouse around the Irish coast.

One of those was the infamous Fastnet Rock. “The moment you landed on the rock you felt this sense of isolation. As soon as you landed on the rock the world was just cut off from you,” he said.

“Here you were out on the rock in the Atlantic Ocean and you were going to spend the next 28 days there.”

“For different people, loneliness was a difficult experience,” he said. “When I went onto the rock I was easily able to detach myself and be where I was.”

He kept himself busy with his hobbies – like making model sailing ships and brass replicas of weaponry – and doing a “huge amount” of reading.

Reading was also a big thing for Eddie Fitzgerald, as was amateur radio.

“Consequently for me the month was never long enough,” said Butler. “Which is a strange thing to have to say.”

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One of the most dangerous parts of life on the rock was arriving, where you had to be lifted up by a crane and swung over the sea.

The use of helicopters in later years also brought danger, and new safety precautions.

One of Fitzgerald’s scariest moments was when he fell into the sea while fishing near Ballycotton lighthouse.

He was wearing a pair of wellingtons and an Aran sweater, but was able to kick the boots off and swim to safety.

I went down the next evening in the low water and ended up getting the wellingtons back. If anything happened, if I hit my head, I would have drowned.

Lighthouse keepers were trained in first aid, and kept in contact with the emergency services.

The one month on, one month off schedule could be difficult – “it was so painful leaving”, said Butler – but being reunited at the end of the month was worth it.

“When you had children at home as well it was hard leaving all that. You tried to keep in touch but nonetheless you were away, not able to help out,” said Butler.

“The tradition is lost”

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The last keeper in Ireland is at the lighthouse on Hook Head in Wexford.

“Once the era changed and the light keepers were gone the tradition went with them,” said Butler.

There is a “sadness” at seeing a long tradition die. “But life is all full of change – you must embrace it,” said Butler. “What I think is most important now is to preserve the history and preserve the heritage.”

“That this can be passed on to generations to come is good. Eventually even I’ll be gone and the lightkeepers that were there will all be gone. We’re leaving it behind us for the people coming after us to know what happened.”

Butler keeps the tradition going by giving lectures to historical societies and schools, and is also doing a Masters on the topic.

He’s the attendant lightkeeper at Galley Head lighthouse, which is an Irish Landmark Trust building.

“It was home for me for many a long year. It’s terrific for me to meet the people and give them a history of what happens. I’d spend hours if I was allowed chatting to them about what the life is like.”

“It’s very sad,” said Fitzgerald of Ballycotton lighthouse. ”The human touch is gone. When you go back out there and see the how it has dilapidated since 1994 when the last men served on it, and how well kept it was while the men were there it was absolutely pristine.”

But all is not lost – Great Lighthouses of Ireland was launched this week, and will see lighthouses being turned into tourist attractions. ”People are getting to experience the physicality of it, which is a million times better than trying to explain it,” said Butler.

Featuring 12 lighthouses across the coast, it will include accommodation, visitor centres, and guided tours, visitors will be able to take advantage of the new scheme from July. For more information, visit www.greatlighthouses.com

Read: 8 fascinating ancient places to visit on Ireland’s east coast>

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