To the lighthouse

The lighthouse keeper had such brilliant blue eyes that my friend couldn’t stop staring at him, imagining he had stepped out of some magical underwater world. Meanwhile, I couldn’t stop listening to him, as he shared his stories of life at Galley Head, one of Ireland’s most remote peninsulas, stretching out from the Clonakilty cliffs in County Cork.

But Gerald Butler wasn’t just showing us round the 19th-century lighthouse, he was about to hand us the keys. The two whitewashed keeper’s cottages now belong to the Irish Landmark Trust, a charity which, like its UK equivalent, is devoted to restoring historic buildings and letting them to holidaymakers. This year the charity celebrates its 21st anniversary, during which time it has restored 25 architecturally-important buildings across Ireland. They range from a 15th-century castle that sleeps 10, to a castellated gatehouse just for two, and from remote lighthouses to an 18th-century wool merchant’s house in the heart of Temple Bar, Dublin.

All the Trust’s properties seep stories from their finely restored walls, and Galley Head is no exception. As the rain lashed down around the cottage, and the turf fire began to respond to the draft being created by the Atlantic winds, we invited Butler to share more of his story. The sun set, and the lighthouse started to send a warm haze of light across the living room, every 20 seconds, as he told us how his parents moved here in 1950, then, after various other postings, returned in 1965 with 15 children in tow.

“In the summer holidays we would go fishing, swimming and diving off the rocks,” said Butler, 62. “But it wasn’t all fun and games – in spring we had to whitewash the entire station.”

The lighthouse was built between 1874 and 1878, following the sinking of The Crescent City, just offshore. We could see Dhuilig Rock, the outcrop that did for her, from the kitchen window. The light was automated in 1979 but the Butler family stayed on; when Gerald’s father, Larry, died in 1992, his mother took over as keeper, and when she retired, the job passed to him. The Irish Landmark Trust acquired the cottages in 2001 and now Butler lives a few miles away, looking after both the lighthouse and the cottages.

Today the rooms have an elegant, understated feel, with comfy armchairs around the fire, an ottoman overlooking the lawns, shuttered windows and dark wooden floorboards. There are old wardrobes, high mahogany beds, paintings of ships and captains’ portraits and a fine book collection too, from maritime history to Irish poetry. I never thought a place so close to the elements could feel as warm and welcoming.

It is undoubtedly remote but there is plenty to occupy a holiday here. There are fine beaches nearby, and walking trails through the woods at Castlefreke that lead to lakes and ruined castles. Time it right and the paths will be laced with bluebells.

At Inchydoney Strand we braved a dip, then rushed into the spa at the Inchydoney Island Lodge for a warm seaweed wrap, followed by a platter of West Cork seafood in their restaurant. The next day, we took a trip with Atlantic Sea Kayaking, paddling along the coast to tranquil bays and hidden caves. On the way back, after stopping at Nolan’s Bar in the small town of Rosscarbery, we felt a sense of excitement as we followed “our” light back to Galley Head. Exhausted after a day on the water, I fell asleep reading notes in the visitors’ book written by Butler’s mother, Pauline, who answered my one overriding question. “I never felt lonely here,” she wrote. “The lighthouse is alive, resembling a gracious old lady winking and blinking over us. When Larry died, it meant so much to me to be appointed [keeper]. Stepping into Larry’s shoes, I felt he was still there, keeping a check on everything, polishing brasswork and cleaning the lens. And all the time, my gracious old lady keeping a watchful eye on me. Five blinks, every 20 seconds.”

Catherine Mack was a guest of the Irish Landmark Trust ( Three nights at the lighthouse keeper’s cottage cost from €502

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