Oldest Lighthouse in the World!

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.

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.

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.

Galley Head Lighthouse

Galley Head Lighthouse

Galley Head Lighthouse

On a sparkling day last September we set out with the Skibbereen Historical Society to tour the Galley Head Lighthouse. We were fortunate to have as our Guide the man who wrote the book (literally) on this and other Cork lighthouses. Gerard Butler wore his full dress uniform for the tour: not only did he look dashing, but he wowed us all with his encyclopaedic knowledge of irish lighthouses, and amused us with many stories about the characters who looked after them.

bookLighthouse keeping ran in families, and Gerard recounts in his book, The Lightkeeper, the roles his father, mother siblings and grandparents played in keeping lighthouses going along the Irish coast. He spent many years at Mizen Head, at Skellig Michael and on the famous Fastnet Rock, scene of a horrendous sailing disaster in 1979. In the 90’s the automation of lighthouses spelled the end of the traditional role of light keeper, but Gerard continues as the ‘attendant keeper’ at Galley Head.

The Galley Head lighthouse is not open to the public, so this was a rare privilege. It is a classic – an enormous white tower visible from miles around, gleaming on the headland. Each lighthouse has its distinct ‘character’ – the rate at which the flashes are visible – and Galley Head’s was seven flashes in sixteen seconds, followed by forty-four seconds of darkness. This was later converted to five flashes every twenty-five seconds. When the lights were directed solely out to sea in the late 60s the local people missed the familiar flashes so much that they petitioned to have them restored and this was done. (We understand this very well – we see the flash of the Fastnet Rock from our house and would miss it greatly if it were to stop.) 

The deep sound of the foghorn, a feature of so many lighthouses, no longer booms through the fog from Galley Head – foghorns have been rendered obsolete by modern technology. Gerard recounted that the foghorn was actually powered by explosive charges, and that during the War of Independence and the Civil War lighthouses were regularly raided by Republican forces who carried off the explosives. During that period the foghorns were silent also, although not by choice.

The light itself has undergone a radical evolution in technology. Originally powered by gas, with a gasworks built to supply the fuel, it was later converted to paraffin, and finally to electricity. At one point in the early days the light was the brightest in the world, and with each improvement to the fuel and the optics, it became more efficient. 

From the top deck

From the top deck

Scrambling up the curved staircase; listening to the stories of the hardship, bravery, adventure and occasional boredom of the keepers’ lives; surveying the countryside from the vantage point of the top deck; scanning the sea in hopes of a whale sighting; imagining ourselves in one of the hurricane-force storms that regularly swept over Galley Head; learning the history and culture of the Irish Lights Service: it was a unique insight into a way of life that has vanished forever, and a marvellous afternoon!

Looking up