Tuesday 12 December 2017

A haven from stormy seas

A lighthouse stay leaves Graham Clifford and his family mesmerised

Graham Clifford

As night draws in, we take a collective intake of breath. Standing at the front door of the Lighthouse Keeper's House at Galley Head in West Cork, the powerful light above us comes to life, sending five beams of light out to sea in 20-second rotations.

The rays travel inland, momentarily illuminating the faces of our three young children whose mouths are wide open in sheer amazement.

Built in 1875, the Galley Head Lighthouse stands proudly on a cliff edge west of Clonakilty and for nearly 140 years it's guided mariners safely through these testing waters.

The Irish Landmark Trust, which restores and converts historic buildings into stunning self-catering accommodation, maintains the two lighthouse keeper's dwellings at Galley Head.

An open fire greets us as we escape the swirling Atlantic winds and decamp to our cosy abode. Inside the old lighthouse keeper's home, all the original fittings remain under the high ceilings.

With wooden floors throughout and heavy wooden shutters on each window, the home was built to withstand the force of the winds rolling in off the stormy seas outside.

This was once the home of the Butler family who've worked here for decades, and we meet Gerald Butler, the lighthouse attendant and one of the last keepers in the country.

He and his 14 siblings grew up at Galley Head as his father Larry was the lighthouse keeper and his mother Pauline an attendant here.

Mugs of hot chocolate in hand, we take a stroll outside as darkness falls and spot the lights of the Old Head of Kinsale Lighthouse to the east.

When visibility improves, we make out vessels passing in the distance as seagulls hover overhead and the sound of the waves crashing against the cliff below rings in our ears.

Galley Head is just one of the lighthouses included on a new All-Island Lighthouse Tourism Trail launched in September. While it has offered accommodation for many years, the EU-funded tourism and job-creation project will see former staff dwellings attached to other lighthouses converted to host visitors.

A fund of €2.5m has been set aside for the national renovation projects.

Where once these homes were occupied by lighthouse keepers and their families, improvements in GPS technology means that many now lie idle. But it's hoped by the time the tourism trail finishes, up to 20 lighthouses across the island will provide accommodation facilities.

Eventually the children begin to tire; we move the two single beds in which our daughters Molly (7) and Aoife (5) will sleep by the window so the last sight they see before they drift off is the lighthouse at work.

Downstairs by the peat fire, there's no television to distract. My wife and I browse through the impressive library of books.

Before daylight arrives the next morning, Gerald brings me up to the summit of the lighthouse (130 feet above sea level) and explains the history of this intriguing building and of the Commissioner of Irish Lights, which operates more than 70 lighthouses around the Irish coast.

He tells me the light from here can be seen up to 50 miles out at sea and that each lighthouse has a unique signalling code so that mariners know exactly which one they're passing. Five blinks here every 20 seconds before a pause, two at Kinsale every 10 seconds.

In the far distance, I can make out the lights of Fastnet Rock Lighthouse. I hear of how the role of keepers and attendants has changed dramatically over the last century, how ships crashed on nearby rocks in the years before Galley Head was built, and Gerald tells me of his youth, growing up inches from the raging sea.

From here, the lighthouse keepers would have witnessed the tragic loss of the Lusitania in 1915.

Busy making their own miniature lighthouses out of toilet rolls and bottle caps, my children ask if I'd change professions and become a lighthouse keeper myself.

Irish Independent

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