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