Galley Head Lighthouse

Galley Head Lighthouse
Photo: Patrick Tubby

Galley Head Lighthouse is located at the southern headland of Dundeady Island in County Cork. It looks out over St Georges’ Channel and is actually joined to the mainland by an isthmus.

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Aerial of Galley Head

There had been calls for a lighthouse in 1849 and 1857, both unsuccessful, following numerous shipwrecks off the coast of Galley Head.  Lord Bandon campaigned for many years, and eventually, his application was successful.

Over the following two years, land and access were acquired, and a lease was drawn up in 1873.

Lighthouse Cottages
Photo: Patrick Tubby

J S Sloane designed the lighthouse and buildings.  The lighthouse tower is 69 feet high and painted white. A corridor connected the tower to a semi-detached two-storey cottage for the Principal and Assistant Keeper. 

At the time, there was a lot of interest in the production of cannel gas, which was produced from coal. Messrs Edmundson and Co of Dublin and their Chief Engineer, John Wigham, were pioneers of gas-powered lighting.  They supplied a gas-making plant on site.  A single-storey dwelling for the gas maker and special gas works was built behind the accommodation.

Galley Head at night

A first-order dioptric quadriform optic was installed, and the lighthouse was first lit on 1st January 1878.  At the time, it was the most powerful light in the world. It displayed a character of six or seven white flashes every 16 seconds, followed by a 44-second period of darkness. An eight-sided optic revolved once every minute, and the gas burners turned on and off approximately once every 2 seconds.  This meant that vessels could, in certain positions, miss a flash.

Only one tier of superimposed optics was normally used. However, if the weather worsened, further tiers were lit, and all four tiers were used during foggy conditions.  Each optic contained a burner with seven concentric rings.  If the gas burner failed, an oil lamp was used as a standby source on the lower tier. 

Galley Head Lighthouse
Photo: Patrick Tubby

The landward glazing is mainly covered except for six panes. Local tradition reports that the Sulton of Turkey, whilst a guest of Lord Carbery at Castle Freke, asked why the light did not shine to landward. It seems a few strings were pulled, and a few panes were fitted with clear glass so that the light became visible from this side.  The castle was abandoned in 1952, and the ruin is visible from Galley Head.

A paraffin vapour burner was installed in 1907, increasing its intensity and range.  The character was changed to five flashes every 20 seconds. This was further increased in August 1969 when the lighthouse was converted to electric operation.  A standby diesel generator was installed at the bottom of the tower.

View from the gallery

Following electrification in 1969, the landward panes were blocked out. However, local people asked for them to be reinstated, but with the light at a lower intensity. As a result, the top-tier landward panes were reinstated.

Also, following electrification, the Assistant Keeper was withdrawn. The station then became a Keeper and Wife station, with the Principal Keeper’s wife appointed Female Assistant Keeper.

View from the cottage to the lighthouse

Galley Head Lighthouse was automated in 1979.  The Principal Keeper retired on 28th February 1979, and an Attendant was appointed.  Later that year, in July, the Attendant was no longer required to live at the station.  The corridor connecting to the accommodation was sealed off.  The Irish Lights headquarters then monitored the lighthouse from Dun Laoghaire.

In 1998, the Irish Landmark Trust acquired two Keepers cottages, which were restored in 2002 and are now available for holiday accommodation.

View out to the lighthouse

Lighthouse Keeper Gerald Butler grew up at Galley Head Lighthouse and later served as a lighthouse keeper there himself. His memoirs are recorded in his book The Lightkeeper.

Galley Head is featured in the music video “To the Lighthouse” by Patrick Wolf.



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Established: 1878
Tower Height: 21 metres
Light Character: Fl (5) W 20 s
Light Range: 23 miles
Elevation: 53 metres
Automated: 1979