A Signal Success in Irish Engineering – Part 7: Cloghane, Mizen Head

It’s a long way from West Cork, Ireland, to Sydney, Australia! And I’m not suggesting that signals could travel that far in the early 19th century . . . But I couldn’t resist putting up this engraving when I found it while researching signal towers generally as it is in fact an exemplary view with which to head up this – the seventh of our explorations into a fascinating subject. It has everything: the signal station itself, built on a prominent headland with a lighthouse nearby; a ‘telegraph’ mast and a flag mast for signalling; a man with a telescope looking out for a signal coming in – and a pile of logs with which to make a beacon fire to communicate urgently at night! The only difference, in fact, between the Irish stations and this ‘colonial’ one on the other side of the world is the building material. In Terra Australis (the name used for that continent until 1824, and meaning ‘southern land’) it was timber, whereas in Ireland the towers were of masonry and constructed with elements resembling medieval tower houses.

But it’s fair to say that today’s foray into the story of the Irish Napoleonic-era signal towers also has everything. Perched on Ireland’s most southwesterly point – Mizen Head in the townland of Cloghane – this site is one part of a craggy, indented promontory which is scattered with historical elements.

I have tried to illustrate a history time-line graphically by superimposing some of the significant sites on an aerial view (above – courtesy of mizenhead.ie), although even this does not tell the full story. Apart from an undated promontory fort in the north of the townland the signal towers are the earliest elements, specifically dating from 1804 and part of the network of 81 towers around the whole coast of Ireland which we have been charting in our posts. Interestingly, the two towers shown on the top of this view – at Cloghane and Brow Head – are the closest together of any around the coast, being only 3.8 km apart. The average distance between towers is 13.5 km, while the maximum distance is 36.9 km (between Ballydavid and Kerry Head in Co Kerry): we have not yet explored those sites. Here are two views from Cloghane across to the signal tower at Brow Head:

A feature at Cloghane which doesn’t show up on the aerial view is this Second World War lookout post, built close to the early signal tower around 1942. 83 of these structures were built by the Irish Defence Force to monitor activity at sea, many of them relating to Napoleonic-era sites for obvious reasons: these locations had already been selected for their inter-visibility and the panoramic views which they commanded. We have encountered these ‘Emergency-era’ posts previously at Kedge Point, Baltimore, and Ballyroon Mountain, Sheep’s Head (see the full list of links at the end of this post). We shouldn’t get diverted, but if you want to know more about these here is an excellent creative presentation on them carried out in 2014 by Tim Schmelzer of Vienna – particularly, I recommend that you view the first of the videos: it’s wonderful! The LOPs were designed by Howard Cooke RIBA of the Irish Office of Public Works in 1939 and I was fascinated to see that the design achieved recognition (‘posthumously’) from the National Inventory of Ireland Buildings Archive. The posts were cramped, damp and minimal, but apparently at least equipped with small fireplaces:

Mizen Head has drama: there is no land beyond this place until you reach America. And, if you are approaching Ireland from the south or west, Cloghane will be your first landfall. But it’s a dangerous coastline, particularly in stormy weather or at times of poor visibility. Hardly surprising, then, that a fog signal station was established on the furthest point in the early 20th century, under the jurisdiction of the Fastnet Rock Lighthouse. This was initially only a foghorn, powered by explosives: a light was not placed there until 1959.

That this signal tower is the virtually identical ‘twin’ of the one we explored at Robert’s Head must be significant, as both are unlike the general pattern we have seen elsewhere: a simple ‘defensible’ structure some 6m square with flat roof, parapets, machicolations and bartizans. My conclusion at Robert’s Head was that the tower had been substantially rebuilt to incorporate upgraded accommodation, perhaps for use by the Coast Guard which was formally established in 1822. Comparing it now with the Cloghane structure it seems more likely that these might both have originated as larger, better appointed buildings. I wonder if this could be because of the relative remoteness of both sites, which would not be easy to populate and service from any nearby community. It was a long trek to Cloghane: the original dedicated trackway, some 2.7 km long is still defined on the landscape, and passes under the 232m high Mizen Peak.

The signal tower at Cloghane is in reasonable condition considering its age and the long period of abandonment (many of the towers went out of use after 1812 although some – possibly including this one – were revived and adapted for use by the Coast Guard). Many visitors have left their marks over the years, and some of the graffiti is intriguing! There is also some vestige of the timber casement frame remaining in one of the window openings: surprising considering the level of exposure to severe storms at this remote site.


There’s a conundrum at this site that I want to share with you. A little distance to the south of the signal station building is a grouping of stones which are easy to miss at first glance, Have a closer look:

It’s the base of a circular building, or enclosure – a few metres in diameter. Archaeologists amongst you might think in terms of round towers but we can discount that in this desolate location. It does not seem to relate to the signal station buildings, either in terms of architecture (it gives the impression of being rougher and, perhaps, earlier) or usage. With regard to its age, it shows up as a feature on the early 6″ Ordnance Survey map:

What might it be? A mine chimney? But the Mizen Head Copper Mine was a long way from here (refer to the annotated aerial view). The size and shape resemble a gunpowder magazine which we came across at Dhurode Mine, on the north side of the peninsula. The only reason for having a gunpowder store at a signal station would be for a fog signal operated by explosives, as was the case at the Fog Signal Station lower down the Head, built in the early twentieth century. This is clearly much earlier. The dreamer in me pictures, rather, a hut lived in by a medieval hermit, supported by a local monastic settlement to keep beacons burning on Ireland’s headlands in perpetuity. Like the round towers, these were signals to travellers in ancient times that here might be found a haven. For seafarers, perhaps, this one signalled the gateway to a fertile land of enlightenment.

The previous posts in this series can be found through these links:

Part 1: Kedge Point, Co Cork

Part 2: Ballyroon Mountain, Co Cork

Part 3: Old Head of Kinsale, Co Cork

Part 4: Robert’s Head, Co Cork

Part 5: Downeen, Co Cork

Part 6: Dunnycove

A Signal Success in Irish Engineering – Part 2: Ballyroon Mountain

Following on from last week’s account of Kedge Point signal tower, our second foray in search of Ireland’s coastal communication stations dating from the early years of the nineteenth century takes us to the Sheep’s Head Peninsula in West Cork. The waymarked trail that passes the now ruined Ballyroon Mountain signal tower is on the Sheep’s Head Way and is fully accessible from the parking area at Fáilte Faill Bheag (if walking from east to west), or from the Cupán Tae tea-room parking area at the very end of the road (if walking from west to east). Although there is very little of this signal tower left standing – it was largely destroyed by a storm in 1990 – the walk itself is a visually stimulating experience, not to be missed! As with the majority of the remaining signal station sites, the location here is on high ground with prominent panoramic views in all directions.

When walking the off-road Sheep’s Head Way trails, please remember that dogs are not allowed: this is one of the conditions that have been agreed with landowners when the trail routes were negotiated, so it must be respected by all users.

These two aerial images show the remote setting of this signal station. The site was developed a little over two hundred years ago, and one of the necessities was providing a firm trackway along which to bring building materials, and also to provide efficient access to and from the signal tower when in use. In the top image, also, you can make out a substantial walled field to the south of the tower: this would have been used to pen ponies or donkeys and – possibly – a goat for milk.

The track that served the signal station in its heyday has become the ‘green road’ that takes you there today. In bad weather it’s a bit wet underfoot in places, but otherwise it is a joy to walk and, on a good clear day, provides spectacular views in all directions. Look out for the other signal towers that can be seen from this site: Cloghane on Mizen Head, Mallavoge on Brow Head, Derrycreeveen on the Beara Peninsula, and Knock, which is an inland site near Lowertown, Schull.

In the upper picture here you are looking back towards the vestigial Ballyroon signal tower from the higher ground on the footpath from the Cupán Tae tea-room, while the lower picture shows the ‘pimple’ on the horizon which is the Cloghane signal tower at Mizen Head seen from Ballyroon.

The upper picture shows the Mallavoge signal tower at Brow Head (more about that site here), while the Knock signal tower is seen in the middle picture, which was taken close to the start of the Ballyroon Mountain trail. Both these photographs have the benefit of a modern zoom camera lens, but imagine how good the optics of the telescopes needed to be for those who manned the towers in the early 1800s. Not only did these silhouettes have to be clearly defined, but the flag and ball signals that were put up on the associated masts had to be readable. The lower picture looks north across Doo Lough towards Bere Island, where there were extensive fortifications in Napoleonic times, including a signal tower. Below is a photo of the Malin Head signal station, Co Donegal, dating from 1902 (National Library of Ireland Collection). There the station was kept in use for strategic purposes long after the Napoleonic era and became the site for one of Marconi’s telegraph stations. While the flags in this picture are not from the earlier times, it gives you some idea of what had to be picked out from a great distance. By eye, put the scale of the tower in this photo to the scale of the distant towers in the images  above: it’s hard to fathom how accuracy was possible yet messages were dispatched and received successfully. It evidently took about four minutes to put up a message on the mast: allowing for reading and deciphering, I would expect a message to be sent from Sheep’s Head to Cork via 11 towers in about an hour, or all the way to Dublin via 33 towers in three hours. This would depend on daylight and good visibility at all times.

The most comprehensive map of Ireland’s signal tower distrIbution that I have found so far is this one drawn for the authoritative book on the subject Billy Pitt had them built: Napoleonic towers in Ireland by Bill Clements, The Holliwell Press 2013. This clearly shows that invasion was expected to come from the west or south, rather than from the more naturally protected north-east coast.

The selection of photographs above shows the state of the ruined tower at Ballyroon Mountain today (2020). Although there’s not much of a structure left it’s still a poignant memorial to those who built and operated this and all the other links in the communication chain that substantially encircles the coastline of Ireland. It’s a legacy well worth celebrating, and we are fortunate in Cork County that we have so many examples of the building type, some of which, like this one, are accessible to visitors. We will be exploring more of them in due course. To neatly finish off this post, here is an exquisite drawing of the Ballyroon tower executed by our friend Peter Clarke who writes the Hikelines series. It’s a lovely sketch which, for me, captures the slightly edgy romanticism of this beguiling location. Thank you, Peter.

Next time: Signal Towers Part 3 – Walking into history!