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Tributes Paid to Late Lightkeeper Bill Scanlan of Galway

18th August 2021
The late Bill Scanlan at Mutton Island lighthouse in May 2004
The late Bill Scanlan at Mutton Island lighthouse in May 2004 Credit: Joe O'Shaughnessy

Tributes have been paid to former lightkeeper and maritime historian Bill Scanlan, who died this summer after a long illness.

“A treasure to Galway, the city he loved and was so proud to promote to everyone he met,” is how historian William Henry has described him.

Scanlan was a “modest, caring, good-humoured and knowledgeable gentleman,” Henry has said.

Scanlan spent 40 years at a lightkeeper, and came from a distinguished line of Commissioners of Irish Lights staff.

His father, Thomas, was a second generation keeper and the last to serve at Galway’s Mutton Island. His mother, Isabella Higginbotham, was also related to lightkeepers.

Mutton Island lighthouse Galway in June 2012Mutton Island lighthouse, Galway in June 2012 Photo: Joe O'Shaughnessy

It was only natural, then, that Bill and his brothers John and Siney would join the service, after a childhood spent with Galway’s inner bay island shoreline as their playground and with goats, sheep, hens and a dog for company.

His first posting was to Ballycotton, Co Cork, in 1951. Five years later, he moved with his young wife, Alice – who he had met in Galway- to a posting in Carlingford lough. Alice lived in shore dwellings in Co Down.

Rotations were six weeks offshore and two at home. As Bernie Ní Fhlatharta has recorded in the Galway City Tribune, Alice learned semaphore and Morse code to communicate with her husband. There were no radio or telephone links at that time.

Scanlan also served for 18 months on the former Irish Lights tender, Granuaile, and became well familiar with all the coastline’s lights, lightships and navigation marks and buoys.

His last ten years of lightkeeping were spent on Loop Head, Co Clare, and he retired from the service in 1990. He predicted that keepers would be replaced by technological development, though he had his misgivings. He knew well how invaluable lightkeeping staff were to the State as a coastwatch, in the absence of a Coast Guard service for many years.

He threw his energies into the old Galway city museum collection at the Spanish Arch, and was involved in the restoration of Mutton Island lighthouse. When the new city museum opened in 2006, he gave much practical support. He was acknowledged then as a keeper of precious knowledge – knowledge which he was always happy to share.

Scanlan was a committee member and a president for five years of the Galway Archaeological and Historical Society. He was a committed family man who adored his grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and loved to travel – as did his brother-in-law, the late mariner Brendan O’Donnell.

Bill Scanlan of Gurrane South, Oranmore, is survived by his wife, Alice, his children Olan, Bróna and Clíona, and extended family and friends.

The late Bill Scanlan The late Bill Scanlan Photo: Joe O'Shaughnessy

Lorna Siggins

About The Author

Lorna Siggins

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Lorna Siggins is a print and radio reporter, and a former Irish Times western correspondent. She is the author of Everest Callling (1994) on the first Irish Everest expedition; Mayday! Mayday! (2004) on Irish helicopter search and rescue; and Once Upon a Time in the West: the Corrib gas controversy (2010).

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