From growing up in a Lightkeeper’s family, to marrying a lightkeeper and then becoming a lightkeeper herself, Pauline Butler’s life was lighthouses through and through. Pauline was born in Larne Co. Antrim. Like many lightkeepers’ daughters, she moved across Ireland’s coast every few years as a child as her father Edmund was assigned to new stations.
It was while her father was assigned to Eagle Island Lighthouse that Pauline met a young assistant keeper by the name of Larry Butler. Pauline learned semaphore and spent much of her time talking to Larry from the shore, before her parents eventually found out about the relationship. Her father immediately sent her to Dublin to stay with her uncle so that she would continue her plan of becoming a nurse. However, she managed to get a message to Larry and he followed her to Dublin. The couple wed in secret, and so, Pauline swapped the life of a lightkeeper’s daughter for the life of a lightkeeper’s wife.
From then on, Pauline and Larry moved from station to station and raised a large family of fifteen children. Two of the children, twins Gerald and Edmund, later became lightkeepers themselves. In 1969 when the Assistant Keeper at Galleyhead was transferred to a new station, Pauline was appointed as his replacement. She was the first female keeper in Ireland which was not only exceptional in the profession, but also very rare for a married woman in Ireland, at the time.
In 1979 when Larry retired as Galleyhead’s attendant, Pauline took over his role. When he died soon after, she stayed on as attendant, something her children felt was of great significance to her. “She fit into it perfect, and she loved it. It gave her a great sense of purpose, having been reared at lighthouses and having lived all her life there and raised her family there. When daddy died she took over and it was a great change for her and a sense of importance which meant a lot to her.” - Edmund Butler
When she later retired as attendant, she went on to college, studying geology at UCC in Cork at the age of eighty. During this time she even hiked across Iceland on a research trip with her fellow students and little more than a sleeping bag. She died in 2013 at the wonderful age of eighty-eight, a truly remarkable woman.
“She used to say ,‘The reason your two eyes are in the front of your head is for going forward. If you were meant to be looking back you’d have another one in the back of your head.’” - Gerald Butler
You cannot speak about the tough job of the lightkeepers without also considering the significant sacrifice made by the lightkeepers families. As difficult as it was for them to be away from the coast for weeks at a time, it was also a strain on the wives and families who had to fend for themselves on the shore.
In the past, lightkeeping families lived together at the lighthouses on and off the rock but this was eventually phased out as the considerable danger necessitated the construction of onshore dwellings. In places like Rathlin East, Galleyhead and Roches Point the lightkeeping families shared purpose-built onshore dwellings. There, they shared their domestic duties, grew up together and formed their own little communities. It is unsurprising then that these tight knit communities, formed around the enduring structure of the lighthouse, often produced many generations of lightkeepers.
Alan Boyers has been the attendant at the Old Head of Kinsale for the past twenty-two years. He lives there surrounded by four generations of his own family, including his mother, his children and grand-children. They are one of very few families left in Ireland to live at a lighthouse.