Ireland’s Finest Prospect – The Story of Ballyfin Demense, Part 1

There are two reasons why Ballyfin, in County Laois, was high on our list of Important Places To See In Ireland. One was the story that the name – An Baile Fionn in Irish – could mean ‘The Place of Fionn’ – and there is a legend that the great warrior Fionn Mac Cumhaill was raised here, in the foothills of the Slieve Bloom Mountains. Fionn has left behind him so many traces all over Ireland that the place where he was – perhaps – born and grew up deserves pilgrimage status.

A place fit for a legendary Irish hero? Ballyfinn has associations with Fionn Mac Cumhaill. The lake which is central to the prospect from Ballyfin today was constructed by William Pole in the second half of the eighteenth century

An alternative translation of An Baile Fionn is ‘The White Town’, and the location has long had a reputation as a place of great beauty. Emily Fitzgerald, the Countess of Kildare – a remarkable lady who was illegitimately descended from King Charles II and who bore twenty-two children – wrote in 1759: 

. . . Yesterday, I saw a most delightful place indeed, much beyond any place I have seen in Ireland – Ballyfin . . .

The beauty of the Irish Midlands in the eighteenth century: Ballyfinn House can be seen in the centre distance of this pastoral view from 1784: beyond are the Slieve Bloom Mountains (painting by William Ashford)

In medieval times Ballyfin belonged to the O ‘Mordha clan but was lost during the Tudor conquest of Ireland. The process of Plantation (in which areas of the country were to be settled with people from England, who would bring in English language and culture while remaining loyal to the crown) was first implemented in Laois – then known as ‘Queen’s County’ after Queen Mary I – in the mid sixteenth century. It was a complicated and unstable period in British and Irish history, and Ballyfin saw many possessors ascend and fall until in May 1666 the estate of approximately 3,500 acres was conferred on Periam Pole, a recent arrival from Exeter in Devon. Pole and his son William expanded the estate, built a ‘modern’ house and reshaped the entire gardens and demense. William planted woodlands and constructed the 30 acre artificial lake which is there to this day. The improvements were ‘grand and expensive and their designs were elegant’.

A view of Ballyfin engraved by William Beauford and published in 1794 shows the woodland, landscaped grounds and lake. The house  – which the Poles extended and improved – was described as ‘a rambling Georgian house’ although with no particular architectural merit

In the time of the Poles, Ballyfin began to build its reputation as one of Ireland’s grandest estates. However, it was not until the Poles were succeeded by the Cootes, in 1813, that the significant architectural statement that is Ballyfin today came into being.

Progenitors of Ballyfin: left – William Pole who died in 1781 (artist unknown) and right – Sir Charles Henry Coote who died in 1864 (artist John Hoppner). The legacy of these two families is a house and demense which are acknowledged as outstanding examples of their period – probably the finest in Ireland

Sir Charles Henry Coote already owned substantial estates close to Ballyfin, and it was timely and appropriate that he was able to purchase the demense. He employed the father and son team of Richard Morrison and William Vitruvius Morrison as architects to rebuild the house, which is widely acknowledged as one of the most important examples of nineteenth-century neo-classical architecture in Ireland and is famed for its elaborate interior design.

A print showing the ‘new’ house designed by the Morrisons in the neo-classical style (1828 British Library). below – views of the house today

The picture above shows the west elevation of the house with the finely-wrought conservatory that was added in around 1855, designed and constructed by ironfounder Richard Turner, who was also responsible for the great Palm Houses at Kew and Belfast Botanic Gardens and the range of glasshouses at the Irish National Botanic Gardens at Glasnevin, Dublin. It’s my favourite part of the architecture – lightweight and elegant: seemingly timeless – it could be a contemporary structure.

Fine though the house is, it would fail without its context. The demense is so important as a setting for the rather uncompromising architecture of the elevations. Finola has looked at the grounds and the surroundings. But it’s also the interior that sets Ballyfin apart as an icon of its time.

The Library at Ballyfin: upper – in Victorian days (Coote Archive); lower – splendidly restored, today

The Saloon: upper – a sketch from c 1855 by the Marquis de Massigny de la Pierre (Coote Archive); lower (and header picture) – the restored Saloon forms the centrepiece of the house today. Note the magnificent parquet floor

The Entrance Hall incorporates a Roman mosaic pavement: one of the art treasures brought over by Sir Charles Coote from his Grand Tour of 1822. The hall also displays a far more ancient antiquity: the antlers of Megaloceros Giganteus – the Irish Elk, recovered from an Irish bog and some 10,000 years old!
Details from the superbly restored marquetry flooring in the saloon – the most exotic examples to be found anywhere in Ireland

The first part of our story ends with the Cootes: the family owned Ballyfin until the 1920s. But there’s much more to tell about its succeeding time as a school – periods of neglect and decline – and, most remarkably,  its revival and return to distinction through one of the most complete and elaborate architectural restoration projects undertaken in Ireland in the 21st century. Ballyfin is now a first-class 5 star hotel where attention to detail in the service it offers is absolute: it has justifiably won many accolades and awards.

Afternoon tea on the Dining Room terrace at Ballyfin, c 1903 (Magan Collection)

The story of Ballyfin has been expertly and completely documented by Kevin V Mulligan in the volume Ballyfin – The Restoration of an Irish House & Demense, Churchill House Press 2018. We are indebted to this author and his work. The architectural restoration and the incarnation of the house today will be described in next week’s post.

Mizen Magic 11: Rock Island

It was a pleasure and a privilege this week to tour Rock Island with Aidan Power, author of the book Rock Island, Crookhaven, A Coastal Townland’s History Since 1800. Published in 2006*,  this was a huge undertaking for Aidan, an amateur historian, accomplished with a high degree of professionalism and meticulously researched.

This photograph was taken from Brow Head and shows Rock Island’s location in relation to Crookhaven (foreground) and the rest of the Mizen. The furthest peak is Mount Gabriel

Aidan was living on Rock Island at the time and he knows every inch of it and every story that is embedded in the rocky soil. Today, there is only one permanent resident on Rock Island, but at its height it was home to over 100 people and a very busy place indeed. There were two populations – government employees working for the Lighthouses or the Coast Guard, and local people working in the fishing and provisioning industries.

While the lighthouse remains in the care of Irish Lights, the cottage is now in private hands and includes an ultra-modern addition with views to envy

Location was key – Rock Island is situated at the entrance to Crookhaven Harbour, a natural haven conveniently located at the extreme south west tip of Ireland – the last and first post of call for ships on the transatlantic route. As such, a Coast Guard presence was necessary, since smuggling was a way of life and foreign vessels apt to drop in or take refuge. Having sustained a French invasion by sea in 1796, the British government was on high alert for any further signs of foreign-assisted uprisings. Nearby Brow Head had a manned signal station which needed support and housing.

Lighthouse cottages

It was also the most convenient centre to build, maintain and provision two lighthouses: Crookhaven Lighthouse on Rock Island itself, and the famous Fastnet Lighthouse, 12 kms out. The east end of the Island was the centre of lighthouse-related activity. Aidan showed us the keeper cottages, one of which he had lived in but all now in use as holiday cottages. One set of houses was for the Crookhaven Lighthouse and the other for the Fastnet. He showed us where the Fastnet components had been assembled, tested and shipped out to the Fastnet Rock – a feat of engineering still breathtaking in its scope – see more about it in our post An Carraig Aonair: The Fastnet Rock.

Upper: The Fastnet assembly station. Lower: The road to the lighthouse is beautifully constructed – this lovely arch leads to the sea

The Western end was occupied by the Coast Guard end and was also the extent of the original road – see Robert’s companion piece today, The Rocky Road to Nowhere, for more about this road and the engineer who built it. The revenue officers, according to Aidan’s book, were very unpopular as smuggling was endemic on the West Cork Coast. One of the officers was called the Tidewaiter – yes, he waited for the incoming tide so he could board ships. It was a dangerous job – Aidan quotes Pococke’s account from 1752: . . .they have a term of hiding an officer, which is knocking in the head and putting him under a turf. There have been many instances of officers never heard of.

Rock Island as viewed from Crookhaven

The Admiralty started a serious crackdown on smuggling in 1816 and that’s when their lease on the West End of Rock Island began. The Coast Guard eventually became a reserve of the Royal Navy and later was controlled by the Admiralty. Its vicissitudes on Rock Island are chronicled by Aidan, including its less-than-stellar performance during the Famine. His account is exhaustive and provides a detailed picture of a British service that was deeply disliked and where the officers felt constantly under siege, culminating in a series of attacks by the IRA in 1920 and the eventual abandonment of the post that year.

Today the former Coast Guard Station has been beautifully renovated and the houses are used for holidays. They look magnificent in their flashy paint, reminders of both a colonial past and a Celtic Tiger economy.

The easterly tower

I have mentioned the two towers in a previous post, both of which have been incorrectly described in the National Monuments records and the Buildings of Ireland site. They are described as belvederes by National Monuments (see my post on Belvederes for an explanation) and as signal towers by Buildings of Ireland.

Brian Lalor’s sketch of the tower, also incorrectly identified as a Napoleonic-era Signal Tower, based on information from National Monuments

The most likely use for the westerly one, according to Aidan, was as a pilotage tower. Pilotage was a competitive business, and whoever could first see the ship at sea and get to it first with an offer of service, had a distinct advantage over others. The easterly tower was used by the Coast Guard as a look out.

At the north side of the island is a sheltered harbour which from the 1920s to the 1970s was the centre of a lucrative lobster and shellfish industry which created a certain level of prosperity in the area, until the inevitable over-fishing caused a decline in the lobster population. Today the remains of the lobster ponds can still be seen, along with a large building that was used in the 1980s and 90s as a food production facility making, improbably, garlic butter.

Upper: the remains of the quay by the lobster ponds. Lower: Aidan, Amanda, Peter and Robert on our Rock Island tour

I have only given you a flavour of Rock Island – it’s also a place where bird and plant life is abundant and where seals pop up to say hello as you wander around the coast.

Sea Campion

It’s a tranquil place from another time, staggeringly beautiful and seeping history from its pores.

This curious castellated boat shed is one of a pair on the north side

We are currently using this image as our Facebook Page header – you could mistake it for a Greek island on a sunny day

*The book is available on Amazon, or contact us for the author’s email address.

Gothic Revival – With Bells

A month ago I wrote of our first visit to Cobh, in County Cork, and told how impressed we were with the town and its architecture. I promised that Roaringwater Journal would revisit Cobh, and today I will concentrate on the splendour of the Cathedral, which dominates the skyline and looks across to the Lee Estuary. All shipping using the port, or passing up to Cork, will be aware of this spectacular building.

St Colmán’s Cathedral was conceived in the mid-Victorian era, when the Gothic revival style of architecture was in full swing. Popularity of the style was, perhaps, generated as a reaction to the society and machinery of the Industrial Revolution – all noise, smoke and progress – and harked back to a perception of medieval life when all seemed sylvan and pastoral and when everyone, from lords to artisans, knew their place: Medievalism meant a concentration on the trappings of chivalry, craftsmanship and decoration, particularly in religious buildings – although private houses for the very wealthy also explored the idiom: have a look at our post on Adare Manor.

Construction work on the Cathedral began in 1867. The designers were Edward Welby Pugin (son of Augustus Welby Pugin – probably the greatest of the British Victorian architects) and Irish-born George Coppinger Ashlin who was responsible for over 100 new churches in Ireland including those in Clonakilty and Skibbereen, here in West Cork. St Colmán’s was not completed, however, until 1915. The tower – 90 metres high – was the last element to be finished – old photographs above (emptyseas) and below left (National Archives of Ireland) show the Cathedral in use without it in the 1890s while the picture (below right – from the Michael O’Leary Private Collection) shows the tower under construction in 1914.

The Cathedral is dedicated to St Colmán of Cloyne, who founded the Diocese in the year 560. This saint is known as ‘The Poet Saint’ as he trained to be a bard for twelve years and entered the court of Aodh Caomh, High King of Munster, at Cashel. Influenced by St Brendan and St Ita, Colmán became a priest and then set up a monastery on the shores of the Lee, where Cobh now stands.  Our friend Amanda has told the story of this saint, and includes a piece from the Schools Folklore Collection, written by Padraigh Ua hAodha in the 1930s:

. . . When St Coleman was building the round tower in Cloyne a woman asked him what he was doing so high up. When he heard her speak he got such a shock he jumped from there to Kilva where the print of his feet are still to be seen on a stone. He jumped from there to Glen Iris Wood. When he landed he prayed to god to send him some water and immediately water sprang up at his feet. When he had drunk some he sprang from here to Cove  where there is a cathedral built called Saint Coleman’s. The spring that sprung up at his feet is now known as St Coleman’s Well . . .

The Cathedral contains an inscribed list of all the bishops of the Diocese, from St Colmán to the present day. This list includes Thaddeus McCarthy, bishop from 1490 to 1492 – Finola is telling his story today. The richness of the building is as evident inside as it is without. It’s an homage to fine detailing and craftsmanship and there is no corner free from it: unfortunately I could not find the names of the the artists, masons and carvers in any records. At least their skills are celebrated in their works.

Something you may not discover from a visit to St Colmán’s is the carillon which was built in to the new tower in 1916. A carillon is a giant musical instrument which, using a large mechanical keyboard and pedals, sounds a whole series of cast bells. In this cathedral there are 49 bells – making it the largest carillon in Ireland and Britain: the heaviest bell weighs 3.6 tons, and is named Colmán! Please watch this fascinating seven minute film about the carillon, and the man who plays it: his title is Carillonneur. Through the summer recitals are given and can, of course, be heard not only in the Cathedral, but over the whole town.

Visiting Cobh is itself a great experience, but allowing sufficient time to explore and appreciate the Neo-Gothic gem which is St Colmán’s Cathedral has to be the icing on the cake. Although only completed a hundred years ago, remember the long tradition of the saints who set up their foundations here in Ireland, keeping civilisation alive . . . while the Dark Ages settled on Europe . . .

Recording the Sheelas

The sheela-na-gig is one of Ireland’s most mysterious historical artefacts, and one that has fascinated professionals and amateurs alike since the antiquarian days. What is a sheela-na-gig? It’s a carving of a female figure (mostly – there are also male figures, or seán-na-gigs), often crudely executed, with the focus on the hands reaching down to display the vulva. The female is often described as aged, or a ‘hag’ and the carvings have certain features that are common to many, such as staring eyes, ribs, stylised hair and breasts.

This is a romanesque arch at the Nuns’ Chapel in Clonmacnoise. Can you make out the tiny exhibitionist figure carved into one of the lozenges?

The carving of Sheelas probably started in the 12th century, as part of the corpus of fanciful or grotesque carvings that were used to decorate romanesque churches. Some are still found in romanesque contexts, especially outside of Ireland. In Ireland, two possible romanesque examples I have seen are at Liathmore and at the Nuns’ Chapel at Clonmacnoise. However, most Irish sheelas appear to have been either separated from their original locations or carved later, possibly up to the late 1500s. They are found on medieval churches, 17th century castles, the sides of old barns, at holy wells, and indeed in museums. Sheelas have been stolen, lost or destroyed and many of the existing sheelas are damaged.

Does this help? This is just a screen capture of one of DH_Age’s 3D renderings – view it properly online here. This may be a very early sheela or simply one of the grotesque figures associated with romanesque carvings. The tiny figure is grinning and has its legs over its head, exposing the vulva and anus

There are multiple theories as to what a sheela represents and how they were ‘used’ on structures. Were they intended to attract and ward off the evil eye? To serve as a warning against lust? To invoke the sacred feminine through the powerful image of the vulva? The hag, or cailleach, is a vibrant motif in Irish mythology as a form taken on occasion by a goddess. Several sheelas are associate with saints, and believed to be representations of them.

At St Gobnait’s Church in Ballyvourney it is customary to rub the sheela as part of the rounds

We have visited many sheelas (and one seán) and noted that it is always difficult to photograph them well. They are invariably out in the open and very worn. The details are difficult to discern and often obscured by lichen. Even where they are indoors, they show the signs of of exposure to the elements, so it is impossible to view them in what would have been their freshly-carved state. And of course they are deteriorating with every passing decade.

From Jack Roberts’ resource map (see below) – a collection of southwestern sheelas

Fortunately, there’s this great project out there run by DH_Age, or Digital Heritage Age, to record all the sheela-na-gigs using the latest 3D imaging technology. Hats off to Gary Dempsey and Orla Power for undertaking this incredibly important initiative with the support of The Heritage Council. They are working away on visiting all the Sheelas in Ireland and already have a substantial body of images to view online.

The Aghadoe sheela is damaged (the feet are broken off) and covered in patches of lichen

Take a look at their collection of Cork sheelas to see how a good 3D image can reveal the true nature of a carving. The Aghadoe (Co Cork) example is particularly striking to me, because we visited it recently and I found it quite hard to photograph. The 3D image shows the breasts, the ribs, how one arm goes behind the legs to display the vulva while the other holds something aloft, and the curious bumps on the wrists that defy interpretation.

The DH_Age’s 3D rendering of the Aghadoe Sheela: the clarity of detail is impressive, but view it online for the full effect

The Aghadoe Sheela-na-Gig has a complicated history of being placed in different locations but it is currently on the side of a dovecote of indeterminate date and looking like at any moment it will be covered by the thick growth of ivy all around it. There was a tower house here at one point, and the sheela was reported as ‘probably from the castle’ and as ‘lying beside it.’ It’s a little tricky to track down now, so it’s a big thrill to find it and to see that, for the moment at least, it’s in the relatively protected position of being cemented into the dovecote wall.

Jack Roberts’ sketch of the Aghadoe Sheela

Our old friend Jack Roberts has written extensively about sheela-na-gigs and has published a marvellous resource – a one page fold-out map of the Sheela-na-Gigs of Ireland. You can order this from Jack’s site. His illustrations, as usual, are superb, and his artist’s eye managed to make out much of the detail that my camera couldn’t catch.

The Aghadoe Sheela is currently cemented on to a dovecote

I will come back to sheela-na-gigs in a future post but for now, you can check out these resources, for Ireland and for Britain, to learn more.

The Splendour of Cobh

My favourite sea voyage was on the (alas now defunct) Swansea to Cork Ferry. I travelled this route very many times while living in Devon and Cornwall, and most enjoyed the last leg of the journey to Ireland, when the ship entered the Lee estuary and made its way upriver to Ringaskiddy. In all weathers I was out on deck to watch the slowly changing scenery that welcomed my arrival in to Cork, knowing that it was surely the best place in all the world to be going!

The excitement mounted when we steamed past the port town of Cobh, as the ferry terminal was then just around the corner. From afar I admired the way this settlement embraced the water with its long, colourful terraces lined up the steep hillside on which it was built, crowned atop by the magnificent Victorian edifice which I now know to be probably the finest architectural work of Edward Welby Pugin in Ireland: St Colman’s Cathedral.

I am almost ashamed to confess, then, that I had never called in on Cobh until last week – and the visit was a relevation. First, let me clear up some possible confusions: the name is pronounced ‘Cove’ – and the word in fact comes from the English, but has been Gaelicised to Cobh, (Irish An Cóbh), the location having allegedly been known since around 1750 as ‘The Cove of Cork’. The name was changed to ‘Queenstown’ after a visit from Queen Victoria in 1849, and was then changed back to Cobh after the founding of the Irish Free State in 1922. Or – have I just contributed to the confusion? One thing is for sure: the strategic waterside location in the great natural harbour of Cork is the raison d’être of this grand town.

Yes, it’s all about the water, and the fact that it is located beside the “second largest natural harbour in the world by navigational area” (a claim also made, incidentally, by Halifax Harbour in Canada and Poole Harbour in the UK – the undisputed nomination for largest harbour is Port Jackson, Sydney, Australia). Cobh faces the wonderfully named Haulbowline Island and Spike Island, both of which have been established as defensive fortifications, and the former as an important naval dockyard since before Napoleonic times. Today, Cobh has the only dedicated cruise ship berth in Ireland.

Do you remember my telling of the story of Cessair and the first human footsteps on Irish soil in our own Bantry Bay? The story is recounted in the 11th century Lebor Gabála Érenn (The Book of the Invasions of Ireland). The same book tells us about Neimheadh and his followers the Muintir Neimhidh  – People of Nemed – who arrived soon after Cessair around 2000 BC, but in Cork Harbour and settled the islands there: Neimheadh, like Cessair, shared his genealogy with Noah and is said to be buried in a mound on Great Island, overlooking present-day Cobh.

So why am I so impressed by Cobh? Perhaps it’s because – as an architect – I find the streetscapes so elegant, and quirky. For me it’s a cross between the horizontal graceful manners of Georgian Bath and the higgledy-piggledy uphill habitation of the steep lanes of Newlyn in Cornwall, where I lived for many years.

Above – Cobh yesterday and today, showing the elegance of the development of the town in the nineteenth century. Below – another side of Cobh: the steeply descending streets with some remarkable and picturesque terraces, crowned always by the glory of the Cathedral, which took half a century to build. Construction began in 1867.

Cobh is such an attractive town to walk around: it should be the jewel on County Cork’s tourist trail. This post is a fairly minimalist photographic essay of what caught my eye on the day we visited. There is a lot more to explore: we never made it to the Heritage Centre, nor to the Titanic Experience, which has brought particular fame to the place in recent times: it was the final embarkation point on the ship’s fateful maiden voyage. All for another day. But we did get up to Cobh’s Old Church Cemetery, high on the hill, where the victims of the Lusitania sinking were buried in mass graves in 1915: a poignant place.

But it was the architecture that had me absorbed: well proportioned and detailed buildings – often simple – that may be overlooked except for the way in which they come together into such a dignified whole. And – such an exploration of colour!

There’s much more to tell of the story of Cobh, and – certainly – so much more to see. I will follow up this post in the coming weeks; the magnificent Cathedral can justify an article on its own. Hopefully you will visit yourself if you have not already done so: your eyes will be opened . . . Look out for the small details!

 

A Change to The Fastnet Lighthouse

Way back in 2014 I wrote about An Carraig Aonair: The Fastnet Rock and I have decided to repost that today, but with some updated information and photographs, because of an upcoming change announced by Irish Lights. Depending on the story, this is either a relatively benign but majorly cost-saving switch to LED lighting, or a change we must be vigilant about to make sure the Fastnet is left “intact and unharmed”.

Irish Lights tells us that structural repairs. . .are necessary to ensure the metal lantern room is properly secured to the granite tower and modernisation of the light source to an energy efficient rotating LED lantern. When these works are completed the outward appearance of Fastnet will be unchanged. The work will improve our environmental impact by significantly reducing the need for diesel and generators and by removing all mercury from the station. The range of the light will reduce from 27 to 18 Nautical miles.

This photo was taken from our house, 12 miles (or 10.4 nautical miles) away

While this seems like a sensible and inevitable modernisation, with (according to this letter to the Irish Times) a very significant saving of €100,000 per year, those of us who live around Roaringwater Bay want more information: we want to be sure that the change does not negatively impact on the safety of our sailors and fisherfolk, and does not rob us of the iconic flash that is so much part of our lived experience in West Cork. There will be a meeting on Monday (March 5, 2018) at the Schull Sailing Club to discuss it all.

What follows now is the text of my post from June of 2014, lightly edited and with some newer photographs inserted.

Robert has written about our field trip to Cape Clear Island and I can now reveal that the journey also included a thrilling sail around An Charraig Aonair (Karrig Ane-er, The Lone Rock) better known as the Fastnet Rock; or to thousands of emigrants for whom it was the last sight of their home country, Ireland’s Teardrop.

We had been looking forward with great anticipation to visiting the rock close up. We can see it from our home, a far away mystical crag abounding with lore and legend. We have been awestruck by the waves crashing over the lighthouse in winter storms and wondered at the lives of the lightkeepers who once manned that treacherous outpost. We watched through our telescope as enormous yachts rounded the rock in the biennial Fastnet Race last summer, following the progress of the race on a special iPhone app. I have written elsewhere about the awful tragedy of the 1979 race, in which Gerard Butler and his fellow lightkeepers on the Fastnet played a crucial role in monitoring the participating yachts in the mountainous sea conditions. 

The signal station and the first lighthouse, on Cape Clear Island

The Fastnet was built to avoid such tragedies. Its first iteration was in 1818 as a lighthouse tower on a high point on nearby Cape Clear Island, beside the Napoleonic-era signal tower. However, the light was frequently obscured by fog and after the wreck of the Stephen Whitney in 1847 with 92 souls lost, it became clear that the best place for a lighthouse was on the Fastnet Rock. 

The great era of lighthouse building in Ireland got underway in the mid-nineteenth century. The engineering, design and construction expertise necessary to build lighthouses are impressive enough. Add to this the logistics of building on a tiny and inhospitable rock in a heaving sea on the edge of the Atlantic, and the sheer accomplishment of the objective is  staggering. The first attempt, started in 1849, was of steel and needed constant repair.

The first lighthouse on the rock – it was made of steel and didn’t last

It was decided to replace it with a structure of Cornish granite and the current lighthouse first cast its beam over the waters in 1904. Eamon Lankford in his book Fastnet Rock: An Charraig Aonair describes the building process and provides old photographs illustrating how the granite blocks were ‘floated’ and hoisted on to the islet, having been first assembled and tested in Cornwall. The website Digital Irish Lighthouse Experience by Sandra Michler has an animated sequence showing how this was accomplished. it took eight years.

We were fortunate to have Eamon Lankford as one of our guides on our trip to the Fastnet

One of the best accounts of the building of the lighthouse was in a 2008 article in The Economist called Light on a Lonely Rock. The piece gives fascinating details into the dedications and hardships of the builders and calls the lighthouse “a monument of man’s gift to mankind.” I don’t know who wrote it, but it’s a terrific essay.

According to the Irish Lights website, Fastnet is the tallest and widest rock lighthouse tower in Ireland and Great Britain and was a monumental achievement when completed in 1904. Each of the granite stones of the tower is dovetailed into those around it, bonding the structure into a virtual monolith. This webpage also has several excellent photographs of the lighthouse from the air. What all photographs of the rock also reveal is that the lighthouse is a thing of beauty. Tall, slender and elegant and boasting two balconies, it personifies form and function in the most admirable fashion possible. (Take a look, for example, at Dennis Horgan’s website – he’s an acclaimed aerial photographer and his photograph of the lighthouse is probably the most iconic shot of them all.) Today the Fastnet is fully automated but in The Lightkeeper Gerard Butler describes what it was like to live on the rock in fair weather, when he fished and swam from the steps, and foul, when the seas crashed and roared over the lighthouse as it quivered and shook all night. 

The lighthouse showing the full extent of the Cornish granite and the stub of the old steel tower

One of the stories we heard from Eamon concerned  a daring midnight raid on the lighthouse carried out by an IRA ‘Flying Column’ (experts in guerilla warfare) in 1921 during the Irish War of Independence. They were after the explosives used on the Fastnet to power the foghorn. In researching this story further, I found an article in the 1999 Mizen Journal (no longer in print) by Frank Lannin, based on the eyewitness statement of Sean O’Driscoll.*

The Rock, showing the landing platform, steps and store

Here is part of Lannin’s account:

The breeze had freshened and caused the usual swell around the Rock and there was a rise and fall of several feet. The anchor was let out and the boat moved slowly to the landing place. Positioned on the bow was John O’Regan, a rope tied around his waist, a revolver in his pocket and balancing himself with the rise and fall of the boat. He would have to select the right moment to jump on the Rock and catch the iron ring which was fixed to the Rock. He knew where the ring was fixed, but to grasp it in total darkness was a feat that few would attempt. His vast experience as a seaman was now to be put to the test. As a wave was rising he jumped. It was a tense moment. As the wave covered him he grasped the ring with both hands. (It was an occasion for handclapping, but not tonight.) In seconds he had made the boat fast and the rest of the raiding party were landing on the platform. The huge steel door of the lighthouse was not locked. John was first up the spiral stairway leading to the room where the Lightkeeper was on duty. He put up no resistance and as a precaution the wireless was dismantled. Seventeen boxes of gun cotton and three boxes of detonators and primers were loaded on to the “Maire Cait” by means of the lighthouse derrick. in all, the spoils weighed but one ton. The daring mission was accomplished.

The Third West Cork Flying Column

The fog signal, together with the light, was an important aid to navigation for ocean going vessels. It was only in 2011 that the Fastnet foghorn was permanently discontinued, as modern navigation equipment rendered it unnecessary. All around the world people are missing the haunting sound of foghorns now, a sound so many of us grew up with. But at least we can see the light from Carraig Aonair every night and count its ‘character’ – one two three four FLASH…one two three four FLASH – and know that it’s doing its part to keep our mariners safe on the seas that roll outside Roaringwater Bay.

*See pages 18 to 20 of Sean O’Driscoll’s statement for his dramatic story of the raid.