Legends of Mount Gabriel: Fionn, Furrows and Fastnet

The second set of stories about Mount Gabriel (the first set was Legends of Mount Gabriel: The Bottomless Lake) also relate to physical features on the landscape and how they came to be there. Most involve the prowess and deeds of giants, including Fionn MacCumhaill/Finn McCool. Fionn MacCumhaill was the mythical hero/warrior of the Fenian Cycle, a set of stories dating back to the seventh century and added to during the whole of the Early and Later Medieval periods. The stories tell of his boyhood, how he acquired the gift of knowledge, his pursuit of the beautiful Gráinne and her lover Diarmuid, his son Oscar and Oscar’s son, Oisin. Fionn, you must know, is not dead – he merely sleeps and will awake again when somebody sounds his hunting horn, to defend Ireland during her hour of greatest need. 

This image depicts a man stumbling upon the sleeping Fianna in a Donegal cave. It is by Beatrice Elvery and is one of her illustrations for Heroes of the Dawn by Violet Russell, 1914, available at archive.org

But somehow, in popular folklore Fionn, the mighty hero of the ancient sagas, transformed into the giant, Finn McCool, a genial leviathan capable of feats of prodigious strength. All over Ireland places are named for this enormous figure (e.g. Seefin – Finn’s Seat, is the name of several mountains) and tales are handed down about his effect on the landscape. Perhaps the most well-know story is about the Giant’s Causeway in Antrim, but there is hardly a spot in Ireland that doesn’t have similar stories. Mount Gabriel is no exception.

A distant view of the Fastnet Rock and Lighthouse

We’ve already seen one of those stories in The Bottomless Lake in which Fionn took a handful of rock and threw it out into the Atlantic Ocean where it is now as the Fastnet Rock or Carraig Aonair – leaving the hole of Poll an Oighin. That story was from the pen of an unidentified student in the long-abandoned school of Gloun. The student spells it Glaun, it’s identified as Gleann in the School’s Collection and as Glan on OS maps and it’s usually given locally as Gloun. The school is pictured below as it looks now.

The student had more stories about Fionn, arising from the geological formation of Mount Gabriel.

The name of the townland in which I live, and in the which this school is situated, is Glaun. It is in the parish of Schull about three miles from the village in the county of Cork, in the Barony of West Carbery. It is bounded on the north by the Glaun river, on the east by Mount Gabriel, on the south by “Fionn’s Ridge” and on the west by the Lios a Catha river. . .

Fionn’s Ridge separates Glaun from Gubbeen. It is a ridge of rock with seams resembling the furrows made by a plough and it is said that Fionn Mac Cumhail ploughed it with two rams and a wooden plough. Of course it is only a story as the surface was torn off by masses of ice moving south to the hollow below leaving the rock bare like a ridge.

A variation on this story is given by another student, also unnamed, in Schull.

Fionn Mac Cumhaill’s Ridge

There is a curious formation of rock at the western side of Mount Gabriel. It resembles a furrow ploughed into the rock. It is called Fionn’s Ridge. The people of the locality say that it was Fionn Mac Cumhaill ploughed this furrow with two goats.

When we moved here first we met local electrician and theatre scholar, Ger Minihane. At the time we were trying to track down a cup-marked stone in the townland of Derreennatra and having no luck. But Ger told us where to find it – in his own garden! And he told us the legend of how it got there, thrown from the top of Mount Gabriel by Fionn MacCumhaill, a story passed down through the generations in his family.

Was this the coat hook of the anonymous student at Gloun School?

While many of the stories of rocks hurled from Mount Gabriel (more on those another time) refer generically to the actions of ‘giants’, local people understand that it was Fionn MacCumhaill himself that was doing the hurling and his name has become strongly associated with the mountain. During the Millennium celebrations a group in Schull took on the task of creating colourful street theatre to honour those legends and we are fortunate that a record remains of what must have been the most fun, engaging and dramatic events ever to happen in Schull – including the image used as my lead photograph of Fionn striding through Schull*. This movie documents the planning and effort that went into The Battle of Murrahin, which pitted the O’Mahony clan against their ancient rivals, the O’Driscolls. Towards the end of the video we meet up with Fionn.

The story that is told in this re-enactment is the local one that the Fastnet rock originated when Fionn threw a rock from Mount Gabriel into the sea, where it settled and became An Carraig Aonair, The Lone Rock. However, the group’s research also showed up an old Irish name for it which translates as ‘The Swan of the Jet-black cairn bereft of light in the dark’ and this explains the appearance of the black swan.

Related to the idea of the Fastnet as a swan is this local legend from a Schull student.

There is an old story told among the people about it. It is said that when St Patrick was banishing Paganism out of Ireland the devil was in such a rage that he pulled a piece of rock out of Mount Gabriel and flung it into the Atlantic ocean some miles west of Cape Clear. This lone rock had been many years there and several ships were wrecked on it until close on one hundred years ago a big lighthouse was built on it. This rock was called the Fastnet rock and the lighthouse got the same name. In Irish it is called Carraig Aonair. This lighthouse is situated on one of the greatest trade routes in the world..

It is said that on every May morning the Fastnet Rock leaves its place and sails around Cape Clear and northwards to three rocks called the Bull, Cow and Calf, and returns to the place again before sun-rise.

*Thanks so much to Karen Minihan for providing images and links from SULT Schull, the Millennium projects. Wish I’d been there!

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. [EDIT: I have some errors here – please see Finbarr O’Driscoll’s correct information about the raiding party in the comments section.] 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.

A Flying Column (this one from Tipperary)

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.

 

West Cork in Photographs – Your Favourites, Part 1

Navigating Mizen Head

A fishing boat navigates the rocks of Mizen Head

Our Roaringwater Journal Facebook Page features lots of our photographs of West Cork – two or three every week – and we know by the views and the ‘likes’ the ones that capture your imagination. It’s become a tradition here with us at the end of the year to go through them all and show you the top choices. Think of it as our Christmas present to you, our wonderful readers – nothing to read, just images of our gorgeous part of the world to drool over. Of course, we have our own favourites too, even if they didn’t get as many likes as others did, so we sneaked a few of those in here two. This is the first of two posts – the next one in a few days.

Sheeps Head November Day

Sheep’s Head

Chough by the Gate

Chough in the rain

Fastnet in the sunset

Fastnet Lighthouse at sunset

2 0f the 12

Two of the arches of Ballydehob’s famous Twelve Arch Bridge

Roaringwater Bay from Sailors' Hill

Roaringwater Bay from Sailor’s Hill above Schull

Gougane Oratory 2

Gougane Barra in the autumn

To the Mass Rock, Sheeps Head

Walking to the Mass Rock, Sheep’s Head

Kealkill 2

The archaeological complex at Kealkill – a five stone circle, a standing stone pair and a radial cairn

Rossbrin Dawn

Rossbrin Cove dawn

The next batch (Part 2) is now up. Enjoy!

Images

looking out

Images: we take them so much for granted, because it’s easy for us to go out with a camera or phone and capture a place, an event or our friends and family. I’m sure we have now all got hard disks, memory sticks or ‘clouds’ full of hundreds of pictures – perhaps far too many for us to appreciate individually.

sheep may safely graze

Here are some images of Ireland, both old and new. The old ones are taken from the collection of Tomás Ó Muircheartaigh, who documented life in rural Ireland between the 1930s and the 1950s – that’s between sixty and eighty-something years ago. I was fortunate enough to pick up a copy of his book of photographs when it first came out: now it’s ‘rare as hen’s teeth’*… The new ones are taken locally by my favourite contemporary photographer – Finola.

nuns walking

The thing about a photograph is that you know it is an actual moment, a fraction of time, which has been captured and held forever. A painting is not the same – it can be very beautiful and emotional, but it is always a fantasy: it’s the artist that has made it live in the way that she or he chooses. Ó Muircheartaigh’s photographs affect me emotionally: they depict places and, more importantly, people that were once real – living landscapes, personalities… There’s a lot of nostalgia surrounding them because they show us the world – Ireland – as we want to think of it: halcyon, idyllically happy, peaceful, carefree. All the photos in Ó Muircheartaigh’s book picture this blissful state: that’s because he saw rural Ireland in that light, or because he wanted his audience to view it that way. In his work we never see hardship, rural deprivation, illness or pain – and we are completely unaware that there could be a terrible world war raging just over the waters.

Goleen

P1010179

Precious moments: how special that through the expert wielding of a camera lens Tomás Ó Muircheartaigh could use a negative to create a positive world! We can still do that: Finola’s photographs capture, digitally (and beautifully), a different world – our own modern Ireland – but also record the essence and enduring appeal of this place which we are pleased to call home. It’s all about the focus…

4 men 3

Not many of Tomás Ó Muircheartaigh’s photographs carry captions to indicate where they were taken. We know his travels encompassed the west coast, particularly the Aran Islands, Kerry, Galway and Mayo. We don’t know exactly where these three views are from (anyone who does, please comment) but it’s interesting that the wonderful portrait of four drinkers, above, has been turned into a painting now hanging on the walls of Levis’ Corner Bar – one of our local hostelries – in Ballydehob! Finola’s photos are all taken on our own Mizen Peninsula

Session, Levis's of Ballydehob

*Birds did once have teeth – up until about 80 million years ago. Occasionally today, but very rarely, a ‘throwback’ bird is hatched with teeth!

Queen of the May

May Eve activity: setting up the May Bush

May Eve activity: setting up the May Bush

I was excited to learn – from one of my favourite and most faithful volumes on folklore: The Year in Ireland by Kevin Danaher (Mercier Press 1972) – that on May Day the Fastnet Rock weighs anchor, casts off her moorings and goes sailing about in Roaringwater Bay! I spent May Eve in a whirl of anticipation – and hot spring sunshine – awaiting the morrow which would present this wonderful spectacle to add to the feast to be seen from our window. The morrow that came, ostensibly the first day of summer, was a disappointment: the wind was in the east – and biting – and the whole bay was encased in damp, grey fog. The perambulations of the rock remained out of sight until nightfall, by which time the sweeping light had smugly returned to its rightful place twelve miles off shore.

Dancing Rock...

Dancing Rock…

My only consolation – again, according to Danaher – is that a cold, wet May morning heralds an excellent summer (and this certainly came about last year). I could write all day about Danaher’s observations on the subject of Mary’s month – in his book 42 pages are devoted to it: the longest section by far, indicating the importance given to this part of the year in the traditional calendar. But I’ll leave that for another time and concentrate on our own activity: putting up our May Bush.

When I lived in the west of England it was a toss-up between going to Minehead or Padstow on May Day – occasionally both. They were contrasting experiences: in Minehead, on the north coast of Somerset, you had to take pot luck – there was no fixed itinerary to the day and you never quite knew what you were going to see, or where or when. What you wanted to see was the Hobby Horse, sometimes known as the Ship-horse, or the Sailor’s Oss. I’ll refer you to another classic book – by chance also dating from 1972: A Year of Festivals – A Guide to British Calendar Customs by Geoffrey Palmer + Noel Lloyd (Frederick Warne):

…The head of the horse (or the mast and sails of the ship) is in the centre; and a long rope tail, once a real cow’s tail, is fastened to the ‘stern’. The man inside the contraption glides and sways through the streets, and sometimes swings his tail around anybody who refuses to contribute to the collecting-box… The ship form of the horse is said to date from 1772 when, on the evening before May Day, a ship sank in a storm off Dunster, three miles from Minehead. The only object to be washed ashore was a dead cow, the tail of which was used to decorate the horse…

Now, the early photograph below is one of my all-time favourites as an illustration of a folk custom: it’s optimistically captioned Hobby-horse Festival, Minehead, Somerset and says to me that such traditions will continue forever because ‘they have to be done’ – even if the rest of the world has lost all interest…

The First of May at Padstow is another matter altogether. It’s a huge gathering: all the roads are closed to traffic and at times it seems impossible that any more people could be fitted in to this modest Cornish fishing community. Here there are two ‘Obby Osses’: the Red Oss, sometimes known as the Original or Old Oss, is stabled in the Golden Lion, while the Blue Oss – or Temperance Oss has its headquarters in the (perhaps more temperance friendly) Public Library. Both horses come out in the morning of May Day, led by a ‘Teaser’ and accompanied by numerous dancers, drums and accordions, perambulate all around the town, and well beyond it, finally meeting in the evening at The Square, in the shadow of an elaborate and colourful May Pole.

Padstow taster… Photos from the 1960s and 2006:

Preparing the Maypole in Bavaria

Preparing the Maypole in Bavaria (Florian Schott, Ellbach)

While I was experiencing my first Padstow May Day in the 1960s, our Cappaghglass neighbour Dietrich was in Bavaria, watching the construction of an enormous Maypole: he also remembers all the children dancing around it holding up May Bushes. For our own May Bush we took our inspiration from Danaher:

…The children set up their May Bush in the same spirit in which we hang out our flags on a national holiday, to celebrate an occasion, but some – at least – of their parents were glad of the feeling of protection against unseen forces which the May Bush gave…

Oh yes! We have to be aware that…

…So powerful were the preternatural forces abroad in the night between sunset on May Eve and sunrise on May Day that almost anything might be expected to happen… (Danaher) while …The powers of evil, always on the alert to entangle and destroy souls, being most dangerous and powerful on May-Eve, on that day the maids were apt to be uneasy and rather sullen, watching us suspiciously lest we might, through our unbelief, frustrate their precautions against danger. They strewed primroses on the threshold of the front and back doors – no fairy can get over this defence – and in the cow-byres they hung branches of rowan while the head dairy-woman sprinkled holy water in mangers and stalls. The milkmaids, at the end of the evening milking, stood to make the sign of the cross with froth from the pails, signing themselves and making a cross in the air towards the cows… from The Farm by Lough Gur by Mary Carbery (Longmans, 1937).

Burning the land

Burning the land

We have had a long, dry spell and there have been a number of gorse fires recently in our neighbourhood: this one occurred on May Eve – traditionally a time in Ireland when bonfires were lit – although the gorse fires have nothing to do with that tradition. Here are the observations of William Wilde (father of Oscar) in Irish Popular Superstitions, Dublin, 1853

…Turf, coals, old bones, particularly slugs of cows’ horns from the tan-yards, and horses’ heads from the knackers, logs of wood etc were also collected, to which some of the merchants generally added a few pitch and tar-barrels. The ignitable materials were formed in depots, in back-yards, and cellars of old houses, long before the approaching festival; and several sorties were made by opposing factions to gain possession of these hoards, and lives have been lost in the skirmishes which ensued… With the exception of one ancient rite, that of throwing into it the May bush, there were but few Pagan ceremonies observed at the metropolitan fires. A vast crowd collected, whiskey was distributed galore… The entire population collected round the bush and the fire; the elder portion, men and women, bringing with them chairs or stools, to sit out the wake of the winter and spring, according to the olden usage… Fiddlers and pipers plied their fingers and elbows; and dancing, shouting, revelry and debauchery of every description succeeded, till, at an advanced hour of the night, the scene partook more of the nature of the ancient Saturnalia, than anything we can presently liken it to…

mass sign

By contrast, our own rural activities were much more calm and constrained. I couldn’t miss out on an outdoor Mass celebrated at one of Lough Hyne’s Holy Wells – the Skour Well. On a beautiful evening – attractive to the midges – it felt the most natural thing in the world to be at a site which has been considered sacred for hundreds, if not for thousands of years, and to take part in a ceremony which is also ancient. I counted over eighty people, including a gentleman of 97, at this event – presided over by two priests and centred on a portable altar with cloth and candles, the revered well being the backdrop. Prayers were said and hymns were sung in English, Irish and Latin.

There’s a continuity here which defies any twenty first century rationale. I was very conscious that this was the way that faith was practiced in Ireland in the penal times (requiring that a watchful eye be kept out for the Redcoats) – but also it was an honouring of nature and a respect for the elements: earth, water, sun and rain – old ways carrying on regardless of new technologies.

A May garland – Hatherleigh, Devon:

Finola’s memory of May Day in her schooldays was of all the girls wearing veils and processing down to the grotto saying the Rosary; and, every day throughout Mary’s month, singing the refrain that was sung at the close of the Mass at Skour Well:

O Mary! we crown thee with blossoms today,
Queen of the Angels, Queen of the May.

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An Charraig Aonair: The Fastnet Rock

An Charraig Aonair: The Lone Rock

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.

The Fastnet from Cape Clear

The Fastnet from Cape Clear

We had been looking forward with great anticipation to visiting the rock close up. We can see it from our home, a craggy point on the horizon –  a far away mystical tor 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 original Cape Clear Lighthouse beside the signal tower

The original Cape Clear Lighthouse beside the signal tower

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. 

Eamon Lankford and Finola

Eamon Lankford and Finola

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. 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. 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 photographs reveal is what is not said by irish Lights – the lighthouse is also a thing of beauty. Tall, slender and elegant and boasting two balconies, it personifies form and function in the most admirable fashion possible.

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. 

Fastnet, showing the steps and stores

Fastnet, showing the steps and stores

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.* 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: a group like this carried out the raid

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 five FLASH…one two three four five FLASH – and know that it’s doing its part to keep our mariners safe on the seas that roll outside Roaringwater Bay.

The full extent of the column of Cornish granite and the stub of the original steel tower.

The full extent of the column of Cornish granite and the stub of the original steel tower.

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