Keeping it in the Family

Keeping it in the Family

Title Image:

·         Back L to R: Vincent, Mary Corish nee Walsh, Peter, Joe, Patrick, Margaret

·         Front L to R: May, Aidan, Philomena, Patrick Corish (Principal Keeper, Ballinacourty 1911-1918) Anna

Scanlan, O’Donnell, Redmond, Ryan, Butler, Nelson, James, McFaul, Fitzgerald. These are the names of just some of Ireland’s lightkeeping families. For them lightkeeping is more than a job. It is a vocation, a way of life and a tradition that has run for generations.

For many individuals, the bond made with the lighthouse service was forged at birth. Elsie J. Nelson was born at Minehead Lighthouse, County Waterford, where her father was stationed at the time. In a visit home from London where she was working, she met and later married a lighthouse keeper, settling down to enjoy a lifestyle she knew and loved.

Bill Scanlan, the son and grandson of a lightkeeper, was born at Galley Head Lighthouse, County Cork. He too went on to become a lightkeeper: the third generation of his family to do so.

Living at a working lighthouse meant that some very particular skills were learned young such as semaphore and morse code, understanding weather patterns and knowing the truth of old sailor’s sayings – A sharp rise after a sudden fall, you’re bound to have another squall. These skills, formal and informal, passed from generation to generation and helped ensure the continued excellence of the service.


A Carnegie Library box, Comissioners of Irish Lights. Great Lighthouses of Ireland.


When it came time for retirement, a keeper often had many sons or nephews ready and willing to take over responsibility for the lighthouse. Willie O’Donnell, Temporary Keeper at Inishowen Lighthouse took over from his uncle James O’Donnell who had been doing the job for an astonishing 60 years. At the ripe old age of 85, James O’Donnell had finally got too stiff to go up the tlighthouse tower and tend to the light. Willie was just 17 when he took over from his elderly uncle and devoted his life to the light until he too retired at the age of 75.

Of course, daughters of lightkeepers could carry on the tradition too. Pauline Butler’s father Edmund Fitzgerald began in the lightkeeping service in 1923. Pauline met and married an Assistant Keeper, Larry Butler, raised 15 children at various lighthouses, and in 1969 became Female Assistant Keeper at Galley Head. She recalls this time:

“Galley Head was electrified in 1969 and when the assistant keeper was transferred I was appointed female assistant keeper. We were never lonely there. I never found any lighthouse lonely, there’s a romanticism about lighthouses and I think all the children loved growing up there. It was an exciting place but with a car, we never felt remote”.

Although the lighthouses are now automated and there are no longer keepers at each station, the family connection with lighthouses continues. If you go and stay at Galley Head you may meet Gerald Butler, son of Pauline. If you stay at Wicklow Lighthouse, you’ll probably meet Miriam Conway, wife of a lighthouse keeper. And if you venture up north to beautiful Rathlin Island, you’re bound to bump into a member of the McFaul family who have looked after the lights there for generations. Liam McFaul is a warden at the world renowned seabird centre at Rathlin West Light.

Take a trip to one of our great lighthouses and discover for yourself the captivating effect of life on the edge.

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