Keeping it in the Family

Keeping it in the Family

Scanlan, O’Donnell, Redmond, Ryan, Butler, Nelson, James, McFaul, Fitzgerald…

These are the names of just some of Ireland’s wealth of lightkeeping families and the list goes on as long as their many generations. For some, the lightkeeping tradition even stretches as far back as 1803. For these families, lightkeeping is more than a job. It’s a vocation, a way of life and a true tradition.

For many individuals, the bond made with that flashing light 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 of her own, 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.

A Lighthouse Childhood

Taking your first steps surrounded by the sea and experiencing family life shaped by your father’s duties, meant that children grew up with superb seafaring sensibilities.

Living at a working lighthouse also meant that for safety’s sake, this array of skills and maritime knowledge was learned young. From learning semaphore and morse code, to understanding weather patterns and citing old sailors’ sayings – A sharp rise after a sudden fall, you’re bound to have another squall – a childhood at a lighthouse saw you in good stead for the lightkeeping profession itself. These skills, formal and informal, passed from generation to generation and helped ensure the service’s continued excellence.


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

Passing the Torch

When it was time for retirement, a keeper often had many sons or nephews ready and willing to take over lighthouse responsibilities. 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 understandably gotten too stiff to go up the lighthouse 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 his lightkeeping service in 1923. Pauline later met and married an assistant keeper, Larry Butler, raised 15 children at various lighthouses, and in 1969 became female assistant keeper at Galley Head. Two of her and Larry’s children also entered the lighthouse service. Pauline recalls those days:

“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 the lighthouse landscape continues. If you go and stay at Galley Head you may meet Gerald Butler, son of Pauline and Larry. Gerald is now caretaker of Galley Head and has written about the lightkeeping life too.

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 these Great Lighthouses and discover for yourself the captivating effect of life on the edge.

Title Image:
·         Back L to R: Vincent, Mary Corish née Walsh, Peter, Joe, Patrick, Margaret.
·         Front L to R: May, Aidan, Philomena, Patrick Corish (Principal Keeper, Ballinacourty 1911-1918) Anna.

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