6 weeks in isolation on Cork lighthouse... I loved it!

Gerald Butler was a lighthouse keeper in Cork for 21 years and often spent periods of six weeks at a time in complete isolation on Fastnet. He tells CHRIS DUNNE about his life and career — and has advice for those struggling to cope with the Covid-19 lockdown
6 weeks in isolation on Cork lighthouse... I loved it!
Lighthouse Keeper Gerald Butler. Picture: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland.

NO doubt many single people who are self-isolating due to the coronavirus are struggling spending all their time alone. But for others, it is all in a day’s work.

“I often refer to being a lightkeeper as being a prisoner for a month at a time,” says retired lighthouse keeper Gerald Butler, who lives in Rathbarry, near Clonakilty.

His fulfilling career spanned 21 years, until Irish lighthouses became fully automated in the 1990s.

Gerald, 70 this year, was born in Roancarrig Castletownbere, and followed his paternal and maternal grandparents and his parents into the service, joining the Commissioners of Irish Lights in 1969.

“My mother, Pauline, who was assistant lightkeeper in Galley Head, used to say it was easier to raise 15 children on the side of a cliff than in a town or village,” says Gerald. 

“There were no distractions!”

Why did Gerald, part of such a large clan, who had a twin brother, Edmund, decide to depart from civilisation at the tender age of 19?

“Growing up, that is all I knew, living in the lightkeeper’s dwellings in various parts of the country, usually in remote locations. My family moved around every five or six years, we got very used to it.”

He got used to not seeing his father, Laurence, for months at a time. “I never thought I was different to anybody else. It was all I’d ever known.”

Gerald decided to take the exam, the medical, and the swimming test required to become a lighthouse keeper at 19.

Was he going to miss his social life and his friends, taking up his post at Galley Head and then in the most remote western island in Europe, Inistearaght, west of the Dingle peninsula?

“I remember landing at my first rock station, seeing the helicopter taking off and saying to myself; this is it. Get used to it. The isolation was instant,” says Gerald.

“Everything was gone. But you know, we lived very rurally at home. We had no car, no phone. Fishing was a big pastime. There were so many of us, we had all jobs to do and we all mucked in.”

There was no escape from the watery prison on the side of a cliff.

“There were just three of us on this rock,” says Gerald. “I was quite happy. Accepting the way things were helped me hugely. Any resistance was gone. I shut myself off from the outside world to explore my new domain.”

Everything was a new experience.

“Bringing the food into the house, setting up the bed, taking up watch, was all new,” says Gerald.

He was adept at signalling, semaphore and Morse code — but not cooking.

“That was never my strong point, although I did bake bread. To this day I still eat a lot of brown bread!”

He kept himself busy, and he was curious too.

“Investigating the lighthouse and the equipment was an exploration in itself. I used to climb the rock for hours. Occupying my mind kept me from becoming inward in any way.

“Books were a great escape. I could get stuck in one and only realise hours later how much time had passed.”

On top of the rock, Gerald was on top of the world.

“I had so much free time to think and to read.”

He loved the tranquillity of his surroundings. 

“I loved how close to nature you could be,” says Gerald, who during his career was assistant keeper at Bull Rock, Fastnet Rock, the Old Head of Kinsale and Mizen Head. He says wistfully: “I had all the time in the world.”

What about outward influences?

Did he and his two house-mates ever have words?

“I always diffused potential conflict by talking about things first, and getting away from it quick,” says Gerald. “A bit of time always sorted things out.”

Living in close proximity isn’t all fun and games.

“Three men maintained the lighthouse,” says Gerald. “We had a black and white TV and a UHF phone. The on/off button for the TV was twine with a piece of cork attached.”

Did he cut loose when he got off the Rock?

Gerald laughs.

“I was a bit wild. Edmund and I are identical twins and we had a lot of fun confusing girlfriends!”

Did he get attached to Fastnet Rock, isolated for six weeks at a time when savage storms hit?

“Six weeks was the longest stint I did in isolation,” say Gerald. “Being single I loved it and I got used to the isolation.”

When storms walloped the walls of the lighthouse, he couldn’t go out.

“If you opened the door at the bottom you’d never again be seen. During bad storms you were confined in a cylinder tower. There were some days you couldn’t put a foot outside. I sat on at a work bench making model ships while the waves rose high over the lighthouse 130ft above sea-level. I was often literally under water. It was extremely dramatic.”

The storms were frequent in the most southerly tip of Ireland, regularly targeting the forbidding Fastnet Rock. Gerald played a vital role as lighthouse keeper in the Fastnet race disaster in 1979 as a vicious storm struck vessels struggling to survive.

Gerald Butler at Mizen Head lighthouse Co Cork in the 1980s.
Gerald Butler at Mizen Head lighthouse Co Cork in the 1980s.

“The storms, at least one every fortnight, were severe in ferocity,” says Gerald. “They were unbelievably violent. Inside the lighthouse building, there was no escape. You were really caught. The lighthouse is 163ft over sea-level, the waves rose over it. I often felt the lighthouse vibrate beneath my feet. The lights inside would dim and flicker.”

The granite tower Fastnet lighthouse was known as ‘Ireland’s Teardrop’, being the last part of Ireland 19th century emigrants saw as they sailed to North America.

“They say it is 3ft off centre,” says Gerald. “It is a huge thing, with eight flights of 14 steps, 51 feet 10 inches in diameter, the tower is 177 feet high.”

Did he ever get claustrophobic or suffer from the current malaise of cabin- fever?

“That is an interesting concept,” say Gerald. “I never did suffer from claustrophobia, or feel confined to barracks. Nor did the two men I worked with very closely. We had to get on. Being confined in our lives is a new experience for a lot of people. In isolation, the smallest thing thrown at you is not a bit important.”

What tips would he have for people who are currently confined due to Covid-19?

“There are a few tricks I learned over the years,” says Gerald. “Create a routine for yourself. Not a rigid one, but some kind of a routine once you get up in the morning.

“Get absorbed in a book that will broaden your vocabulary and expand your knowledge. You’ll soon find a couple of hours have gone. Accept that things will change and this won’t be forever.”

Isolation is difficult for human social beings.

“It is difficult,” admits Gerald. “Taking control of your own mind, you can master everything in life.”

Gerald was fortunate being happy in his own company.

“Being at peace with yourself really is the secret of life. On the lighthouse I was a prisoner of choice. I embraced it.”

Gerald misses his solitary life.

“After I was made redundant, after a microchip took my job; I took up fishing for living. Working 18 hours a day was much more confining.”

These days, Gerald, a published author and with an MA in local history under his belt, feels anything but confined.

“I don’t sit on my laurels,” he says. “I spend time cutting the grass, cutting down trees in the eight acres where my partner Maria and I live. We hardly ever look at TV.

“I’m involved in a business supplying tarpaulin for lorries and engines. I built a workshop in my house. And I’m lighthouse attendant at Galley Head, where my late mother was stationed, that is now open to the public.”

So he’s not cocooning?

Gerald laughs. “I have not enough time in the day now. I’m 70 in July, I’m very fit.”

Isolation never bothered Gerald, sound in mind and body. “And I have no problem in that situation now.”

The Lord of the seas still likes surveying the ocean.

“Yes, I love going to the sea,” says Gerald. “We’re five miles from Galley Head. I love every moment going there.”

He has the formula for every situation. “Whatever it is; you can do it. I have the number now.”

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