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Iconic lighthouse a shining light of Irish coast for 140 years

February 18th, 2018 6:05 AM

By Siobhan Cronin

To mark the occasion of the 140th celebrations, there was a small gathering at the lighthouse which included Gerald Butler, left, the current attendant keeper, and Pat-Joe Harrington, who served as a relief keeper. Both men are third generation lighthouse keepers.

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ONE of West Cork’s most iconic landmarks is celebrating its 140th birthday this year.

Galley Head Lighthouse, so often used in commercials, tourism ads and now even selfies, has, quite literally, stood the test of time, proudly perched on the magnificent headland near Clonakilty.

The current attendant lightkeeper, Gerald Butler, is also one of the foremost experts on lighthouses in Ireland, having worked for Irish Lights since 1969.

He explained how the idea of lighthouses came from the original beacons – basically fires lit on headlands – erected to warn ships of impending rocks.

Initially, it was a series of private interests who ran these beacons and in 1810, a body called the Corporation for Preserving and Improving the Port of Dublin was tasked with running the lighthouses on the Irish coastline.

The first new lighthouse to be built after that was on Cape Clear, in 1818. In 1826, two more were erected on Skellig Michael, and in 1846 a sea captain, James Wolfe, recommended a number of headlands and rocks which he believed were sadly lacking in lighthouses. One of these was at Blackrock island in Mayo, the scene of the tragic Coast Guard crash last year.

Another was Galley Head.

But mariners passing Galley Head would have to wait for another 32 years before seeing a lighthouse there. Its eventual construction was prompted by the destruction of three ships at rocks near the headland – the Crescent City in 1871 and the Cecil on the very same foggy night. Luckily, neither had any casualties, as all crew scrambled to safety. But within days, the Joseph Sprott, coming from the South China Sea, came to grief on the nearby Long Strand, with all hands – believed to be 20-30 crew – lost.

There was, however, one incredibly happy ending for a three-year-old toddler on board, who had been strapped to a piece of furniture, which was the norm in those days of dangerous navigation.

The little girl had been tied to a clothes trunk for safety, and when the trunk fell into the sea, she climbed on top and was rescued some time later. She was taken in by a Galway family from Kilkerrin House and later sent to Ringaskiddy where she was raised (see panel, below).

After these tragedies the necessity for a lighthouse on Galley Head appeared all the more urgent, and land was purchased two years later.

The first light there, which was lit on January 1st 1878, was a gaslight, says Gerald, fuelled by canal coal from Scotland, which gave off a white light – ideal for lighthouses.

Designed by John Wigham from the Joshua Edmondson foundry in Capel Street in Dublin, the light itself had four tiers and 180 fishtail jets of gas, from 10 concentric rings.

They had to build a separate gas house and furnace and the gas itself was stored in gasometers in the gas yard and piped through the lighthouse keepers’ houses – which are still in fine condition today – and onwards to the light tower.

‘When those four tiers were lighting, Galley Head was the biggest and brightest light in the world at that time,’ says Gerald.

In 1907, they did away with the gas and put in a new paraffin lamp, which consisted of just two tiers, but was more economical. Using a Fresnel lens – still popular in cinematography today – the brightness was the equivalent of 362,000 candles burning.

This lens floated on a bath of mercury and revolved around a light in the centre. Apart from warning mariners of nearby rocks, lighthouses had by now become an essential navigational tool. Each had their own identity of flashes per second, and these were noted in an annual publication called the Admiralty List of Lights, which every ship carried.

Galley Head was identifiable by its five flashes per 20 seconds, whereas the Old Head, for example, flashed two times every 10 seconds. 

These unique flashing sequences allowed ships to figure out if they were heading east or west, and were invaluable in the days long before radar and GPS.

Two lightkeepers were appointed to Galley Head, to split the night shift in two, as the light was weight-driven and the meter had to be manually winched up every half hour.

‘It was very labour-intensive,’ agrees Gerald. ‘The first watch started from sunset until 2am and then the second lightkeeper took over. There was no fog signal at Galley Head, so there was no day watch.’

In 1969 Irish Lights did away with the oil and put in a 3,500 watt bulb which ran  off electricity. This meant the brightness went from the equivalent of 363,000 candles to 2.8m!

‘They were able to make the lower tier of the light redundant then. So there was just one tier of light, stretching 50 miles out to sea. As the horizon is about 30 miles, this was considered ‘maximum light’,’ he explains.

There are even plans to replace this bulb with an LED light, as part of an overall update of the lighthouses to more ‘eco friendly’ lights. 

What was unique about the operation of our lighthouses was that as a ship passed a lighthouse, they paid a levy for every light passed, collected by Customs when the ship docked in port, and then pooled in London. The board of commissioners then dipped into the ‘pool’ for the operation of Irish Lights.

It was a ‘user pay’ service, so never a burden on Irish taxation.

‘Irish Lights was the only organisation to survive partition in 1922,’ Gerald points out.

Since 2015, the Irish Board of Commissioners has had to finance its own activities, hence the changeover to more efficient LED bulbs.

While they are now practically all automatic, they still need ‘attendant’ lightkeepers in the event of a breakdown. And onboard navigation systems can fail on ships too, so the lighthouses are still are useful ‘back-up’.

Gerald remembers one such recent breakdown a few years ago when a summer lightning storm knocked out the electricity and the standby light kicked in. Bizarrely, a second strike of lightning knocked out the standby light, too. When the light attempted to switch back to the first source, the bulb was too hot, so it was kicked by to the standby light again. 

Eventually, Gerald had to go to the lighthouse and reset the lights to kick-start them, as when the bulbs are already hot, they won’t restart. But that was a pretty unique occurrence – to be hit twice by lightning on the same night.  ‘I’ve had a most enjoyable life here,’ he says of his days at Galley Head.

And he recalls the role of the lighthouse keeper as one of supervision, too. ‘We would often have a trawler sheltering below the lighthouse and they would know we would be keeping an eye on them during a storm, for example,’ he says, proudly. 

Life on the headland also gave him a great love of nature – watching migrating seabirds, seals, sharks and whales, and becoming an expert on the weather, and the sea too, of course.

He says Storm Ophelia was still the worst storm he can remember there – and it even tore paint off the lighthouse tower’s walls.

But in general, the raging Atlantic is much calmer by the time it reaches Galley Head.

‘When the sea gets up at the Mizen, it stays like that for about a fortnight. But when you have a storm here on a Wednesday, by Saturday it could be like a millpond.’

‘The motto of the Lighthouse service is “In Salutem Omnium” which means “For the safety of all”. This is what has made our profession noble, from which we take great pride,’ says Gerald.       

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