It’s a bit off the beaten track, but we had to make the journey to visit the oldest working lighthouse in the world! It’s right at the southern tip of the Hook Peninsula, in County Wexford. Maybe it’s an extravagant claim that it is the ‘oldest in the world’: there is another ‘oldest’ lighthouse – The Tower of Hercules – in Galicia, northern Spain, which is said to have been built in the 2nd century. However, the Tower of Hercules was given a major restoration at the end of the 18th century, including a new neoclassical facade, with the original Roman structure retained behind this. Wexford’s assertion that the main visible structure of the Hook Lighthouse – both inside and out – is exactly what was built in the 13th century, perhaps gives it the edge. I was delighted to find, incidentally, that the Tower of Hercules has an Irish connection: it is mentioned in the 11th century Lebor Gabála Érenn (The Book of the Invasions of Ireland). If you recall my account of the story of Cesaire – the first person ever to set foot on Irish soil – you will remember that on her travels away from Egypt in the years before the Great Flood Cesaire stopped off in Spain and climbed to the top of a very tall tower from which she could see, in the distance, Ireland’s wonderful green land, and from there she travelled on to arrive on Ireland’s shores in Bantry Bay. Well, according to tradition, it was the Tower of Hercules which she climbed!
Header – the bulky main structure of the tower dates from the 13th century – its walls are four metres thick. The chambers within the tower are stone vaulted (above)
The lowest tier of the tower consists of three storeys, and has a base diameter of 13 metres. Each storey has a vaulted stone ceiling. Above this is the narrower section – 6 metres in diameter – which would have supported the original brazier, kept burning at all times to warn ships of the rocky ‘Hook’ of land at the entrance to the channel leading up to the port of New Ross – the most important in Ireland in the 13th century.
Upper – an exploded view of the structure of the lighthouse, one of the exhibits on the guided tour; centre – the whole tower: the topmost section, housing the electric lighting system, is relatively modern; lower – the treacherous rocks around the shore of the Hook
But there was, in fact, a light burning on this headland for hundreds of years before the construction we see today: this was a beacon fire established by Saint Dubhán, a monk from Wales, in the 5th century. Dubhán came to Ireland as a missionary, and built his monastic settlement a little way inland: this is marked today by the medieval ruins of a church and burial ground.
Dubhán’s monastic site not far from Hook Head. It was the saint who set up the first beacon light on this peninsula
The lighthouse we see today was built by Strongbow’s son-in-law William Marshall, Earl of Pembroke (1147 – 1219). He constructed it and made sure that the light was maintained in perpetuity to fulfil a promise he made when he was threatened with shipwreck off the Hook while trying to get into the port of New Ross. Marshall is one of the medieval hero-warriors: known as ‘The Greatest Knight’ he is at the centre of many legends. Turtle Bunbury gives a good account of him here.
William Marshall, Earl of Pembroke is very much in evidence at Hook Head: you can even hear him telling his own story when you are in the lighthouse (above)!
If you find your way to Hook Head Lighthouse today you are in for many treats. Firstly, it’s good to know that it is open to visitors all the year round, and guided tours are always available (you can only go inside the tower with a guide). Also there is a welcome heritage centre on site with a shop and cafe – and a fine pirate-themed children’s playground.
Saint Dubhán and his followers are remembered through the displays in Hook Head Lighthouse: the mural above shows the first beacon established by the 5th century saint
It’s a grand day out, if you happen to be within reach of the Wexford coast. There are so many strands of Ireland’s multi-facetted history to be traced here: the earliest missionary monks, Norman Knights, sea-travel through the ages, connections with the medieval world – and a wonderful piece of early Irish architecture still serving its original function.