At first sight this gaunt ruin on the West Cork coastline could be taken for a medieval fortified house or castle, but we can date its construction very precisely – to 1805, and we also know its purpose: long-distance communication. It was only put to use for a few years, and has been derelict at least twenty times as long as it was ever in service. It’s a signal station, one of over eighty similar structures around the whole coastline of Ireland, an initiative which represented a major engineering feat of its time.
This watercolour sketch by surveyor Sir William Smith is invaluable: it dates from 1808 and shows a signal station in use in its heyday. This one is at Malin Head on the Donegal coast, Ulster, and shows the elements which would have been common to all of the stations: a signal mast, a defended tower and a ‘guard house and barrack’ – probably also an equipment store. The signal tower bears a striking resemblance to the Irish ‘tower house’ or castle dating from several hundred years earlier, with its bartizans, machicolation, base wall batter and raised entrance, All these features were practical as the towers were military installations built in the times of the Napoleonic Wars. The cartoon (below) dates from 1805 and encapsulates the fear of invasion that swept over Britain in the early 19th century. Balloons, kites, flotillas of troopships and a channel tunnel were all envisaged as ways in which the French might conquer these islands! Humorous though this may seem, France had already used military balloons in the 1790s, and Bonaparte appointed Madam Blanchard as his ‘air service chief’, though she told him an aerial invasion would probably fail because of adverse winds.
Since Theobald Wolfe Tone and the Society of United Irishmen attempted to rally France behind the Irish cause in the 1790s, Ireland was seen as a possible focus for the feared invasion, and led to the British Admiralty constructing the system of signal stations as observation posts, together with 50 Martello towers, each maintaining a garrison of troops, officers and heavy artillery. The principal purpose of the signal towers was to keep watch on the coasts and to rapidly send signals around the country if unrecognised shipping was seen. Each tower, therefore, had to be within sight of one or more of its neighbours in both directions. The average distance between towers was 13.5km, although here in West Cork the towers at Brow Head and Mizen Head are only 3.8km apart. Ireland’s coastline is about 1,400km long, depending how you measure it.
Various combinations of flags and canvas ‘balls’ could be quickly assembled on the signal masts and, with the use of a code book (above) fairly complex messages might be circulated. Another vital piece of equipment, of course, was a high quality telescope. As the Navy had such essential apparatus – and the experienced personnel to use it – the Irish signal towers were largely manned by active or retired sailors.
We set out to explore some of the signal stations close to us in West Cork. Once we feel free to travel further afield through Ireland I can see the signal towers becoming a long-term project! If those we have visited so far are good examples, they take us to some of the wildest high places with panoramic coastal views: many are utterly remote. And they are all imbued with a sense of history – of duties that demanded long hours of lonely vigilance in harsh conditions. Most are long abandoned and forlorn. But the marks of those who have been there remain inscribed on the decaying walls.
The header illustration and all the photographs above were taken on our recent visit to the signal station at Spain, to the east of Baltimore. There is rugged moorland there and dramatic cliffs overlooking Kedge Island. The site is known as Ballylinchy or Kedge Point. It’s a fair climb off-road but not difficult to reach. It’s always essential to seek permission locally before crossing farmland.
There are uninterrupted views from Ballylinchy towards Kedge Island (upper photo) and across the islands towards the Mizen (lower). Visibility was restricted on the day we visited – and this made us realise how important the weather would be for accurate observations. However, we could clearly see the signal tower on Cape Clear from this vantage point, shown below, with the Fastnet Rock and lighthouse beyond. You can understand from this view – with the camera zoomed in – how powerful the telescopes needed to be to clearly read the flag signals. Finola’s post here includes a section on the Cape Clear installations.
The Google Earth images above and below reveal the setting of this signal station on the highest point of land for miles around. History abounds on this site, with the remains of a World War 2 observation post in close proximity to the 1805 structure, and one of the many EIRE signs set into the cliff, also dating from World War 2 and set up around the coast, reportedly at the behest of the American authorities to help orientate pilots and alert them to Ireland’s neutrality.
The south facing elevation of the Kedge Point signal tower clearly shows its defensive machicolation. On the left is the stump of the LOP (World War 2 lookout post). Below – the rubble of the destroyed LOP and some of the recognisable architectural features of this tower.
Next week I will report on a very different location, which we visited on a much better day – lots of sunlight, blue skies and West Cork magic to look forward to! This time our site will be at the westernmost tip of the Sheep’s Head Peninsula, and you will get a different sense of the relative orientation and intervisibility of these intriguing historic monuments.
Below – the signal tower at Toe Head, about ten kilometres to the east, seen from Kedge Point