To get to the Clare Island Lighthouse in County Mayo, in the west of Ireland, you climb up to the island’s northern cliffs along a road of stones, past damp sheep chewing grass, around the bend through an alley of fuchsia hedges in bloom. Keep walking until you reach the lighthouse and slip your key in the lock, hang your parka by the door and take a seat beside the peat-burning fireplace. Someone may be nearby to take your drink order, and the reward for a long walk will be a cold gin and tonic and the soft heat of the fire.
Built in 1806, Clare Island Lighthouse sits at the northern edge of the island, 387 feet above the Atlantic Ocean. Until it was decommissioned in 1965 (its clifftop position turned out to be less than ideal during fog), the lighthouse played an important role in maritime safety. Ireland is, after all, an island – before the time of GPS, lighthouses were essential in preventing shipwrecks along the rocky coast. The golden age of lighthouse construction in the country was in the mid-19th century; between the 1830s and 1860s alone over 40 lighthouses were built. They thrived for more than a century, but technology changed and automation spread. In 1997, the Baily in Howth Head, in County Dublin, was the final lighthouse to be automated.
These historic landmarks are finding new life with the help of the Great Lighthouses of Ireland, a tourism trail introduced in 2015 that highlights 12 exceptional examples. At Wicklow Head, 45 minutes south of Dublin, for example, a two-bedroom unit with kitchen is in the lighthouse tower itself (it’s 109 steps up to the kitchen). The tower’s octagonal rooms have arched windows and sweeping views out to the sea. Or you can rent the former keepers’ quarters in Galley Head Lighthouse in County Cork, and you’ll not only have a scenic base for beach walks and dolphin watching, but you will also see the vantage point where lightkeepers would have witnessed the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915.
“What is normal to me is now history,” said Gerald Butler, 66, who worked as a lighthouse keeper in Ireland for 21 years. One of 15 children, Butler comes from a family of lightkeepers including his father and grandfather. Today, he is the attendant keeper (a maintenance role) at Galley Head, where he spent portions of his youth. “As time passes, people have questions,” Butler said. “They want to know about growing up in the lighthouse, what we ate, the storms. They want details.”
As a New Yorker married to an Irishman, I travel frequently to Ireland. We have a rule: With every trip to Dublin, we leave the city and visit someplace new. This summer, I dreamed of staying in a lighthouse on each of Ireland’s four coasts. I planned too late, and both Wicklow Head and Galley Head were booked (space in lighthouses is limited, so book early).
Connections to my Irish family normally provide a reason to visit obscure graveyards and quiet country towns not on most guidebook maps, but for this trip, two lighthouses in County Mayo and County Donegal would guide the way. I hoped to find not just beautiful vistas, but people like Butler, who could bring this facet of modern Irish history to life.
Ferry service connects Roonagh Pier on the coast of County Mayo’s Clew Bay to Clare Island in about 20 minutes. After parking at the dock, my husband, Peter, and I climbed to the ferry’s top deck for a slow chug to the island. The island had a prefamine population of 1,700, but now has approximately 150 year-round residents. The primary school has about a dozen students. There is not a single police officer on the island. It is also, famously, the home of Grace O’Malley, Ireland’s 16th-century pirate queen.
Today it is a quiet place for coastal walks, bird-watching and seafood feasts. We arrived with only a few other travelers, mostly athletic-looking types who brought bikes aboard the ferry. Perhaps unsurprisingly, no one was in a rush. While waiting for the island’s lone taxi to transfer us to the lighthouse, we had time for a peaceful pint of Guinness at the Community Center pub and fed handfuls of long grass to a friendly horse that trotted up next to the fence there.
Our introduction to the guesthouse included a tour of the lighthouse tower. We climbed a spiral staircase for 360-degree views of plunging sea cliffs, choppy open water and neighboring Achill Island. Our guide opened a hatch, and we crawled through to a narrow balcony. Before I even stood, I heard the whistling of intense wind; the lighthouse’s clifftop position is one of the most exposed on the island. With one hand on the railing and the other holding my hat to my head, I saw sea birds gliding overhead and moody clouds obscuring the island’s peaks.
With an hour before dinner, we settled in to the Jackie O’Grady room, named after a Clare Island native and the lighthouse’s final keeper from 1963 to 1965. The room has a peat-burning black box stove that warms fingers and toes after a soppy stroll along the coastal cliffs.
In his 2008 memoir “The Green Road to the Lighthouse,” O’Grady gives an evocative and somewhat chilling description of the power of nature felt by a lightkeeper. “In bad weather, from the safety of the lantern tower,” he wrote, “we would watch in fascination the mountainous seas roll in over the west part of the island, huge Atlantic breakers making their first explosive landfall, dissipating the enormous energy they had accumulated in their long, unimpeded surge across the ocean.”
Decades after O’Grady’s final shift, an evening at the lighthouse begins with a drink by the fire. We joined our fellow guests from the other five rooms, dining at a single table; places were assigned by napkin holders engraved with room names. Over six courses, conversations unfolded in multiple languages, and laughter increased as bottles of wine were opened and belts loosened. Coffee and petit fours by the fire followed. If you ask the staff, the fire will be lit in your room for your return.
That evening, I slept heavily and without interruption, but the next night while my husband slept, I caught a glimpse into the lightkeeper’s life with only wind as company. When sleep is disturbed by a storm, there is a lot of time to think about all the different words for wind, to consider how powerless humans are at the whims of the weather when you call the edge of the Atlantic home.
Back on the mainland, we headed north toward County Donegal. Along with Fastnet Rock in County Cork, Fanad Head is one of Ireland’s most scenic lighthouses (and is situated in Donegal’s Gaeltacht, or Irish-speaking, region). In April, the lighthouse opened three self-catering apartments in former keepers’ quarters. Unlike Clare Island, Fanad is operational, lighting up the coast each evening.
For this leg of the journey we had a native Irish speaker in tow, my father-in-law, Gerry. The clouds were so low as the three of us passed through County Sligo that they swallowed Ben Bulben, the storied mountain of Yeats poems, whole. The farther north we traveled, the more road signs were displayed only in Irish.
We descended toward an ever-narrowing outcrop of rock where the lighthouse sits at the cliff edge. Winding through mossy green farmland flecked with stones, the road seemed as if it could run on straight out to sea, but ended abruptly at the gate to the lighthouse. This is fishing country and also a destination for viewing wildlife – orcas have been spotted off the coast.
After settling in to our two-bedroom cottage with a fireplace and claw-foot tub, we walked to the nearby Lighthouse Tavern. Though it was daylight, the kitchen was closed – it stays bright long enough during Irish summers that many restaurant kitchens close before dark – and the nearest restaurant was miles away. It was beginning to look like Guinness for dinner. But as is common in Ireland, with luck and a bit of patience, the country’s famous hospitality prevailed; when the pub owner had a spare moment, she went back into the kitchen to make ham and cheese toasties to go with our pints.
While waiting for our sandwiches, I mentioned that I was curious to learn about the lives of lightkeepers. My father-in-law took out his phone and dialed. A quick conversation later and a hunch was confirmed: Gerry’s brother-in-law was not just the son of a lightkeeper, but in the small world that is Ireland, spent 12 years of his youth at Fanad Head.
Michael Boyle, born in 1944, and his five siblings lived at Fanad where his father, also named Michael Boyle, was the lighthouse keeper from 1951 to 1967. All members of the family contributed to the household, with tasks from milking the cow to tending the garden. Michael remembers his father practicing hobbies that kept his hands and mind busy, from making intricate ship replicas to playing chess.
“Did I go to work with him?” Michael said with a laugh, repeating my question back to me when we met over tea in Dublin. “I didn’t ask to go to work with him, I was told: Go take care of the tower!” The lighthouse gave light for night fishing and checking lobster pots. “The most frightening thing was when the heavy fog came in,” Michael said, noting the limitations of even powerful lighthouses. “All you see around you is a big gray wall, and a ship could appear out of it at any second and run you down.”
I experienced the coastal darkness Michael described when we left the pub to retreat to the lighthouse. As I walked, I couldn’t see my feet touching the road. The tower lit the coast for half a second before total darkness took over for two long seconds. I listened to my husband and his father discuss the difficult things in life – cancer, aging – with the lighthouse periodically illuminating our faces. It was almost as if the lighthouse wanted me to commit the freeze-frame to memory, providing a flash as if to say: This moment is one to remember.