The Great Lighthouses of Ireland
By Manus Weed
Stay at a lighthouse in the wildest areas of Ireland
Imagine being far from anywhere, but close to everything that’s good for your heart and great for your soul, in a wild circus where the four elements compete with each other. Fresh air. Incredible views. Nature around you. And the sea stretching out in front of you, vast, powerful and mysterious. It’s no wonder that people come to lighthouses and propose! Or to celebrate what’s special: birthdays, anniversaries, family, friendship.
For hundreds of years lighthouses have helped seafarers find their way. Now they shine their light on a truly unique experience around the stunning coastline of Ireland: ‘Stay at a lighthouse’. Great Lighthouses of Ireland is a new all-island tourism initiative, developed by the Commissioners of Irish Lights.
These iconic structures are all now unmanned and fully automated. In 1997 the last lighthouse keeper left the Baily Lighthouse in Dublin Bay, making the Baily the last Irish lighthouse to go automatic. However, they are still fully functioning and play a vital role in maritime safety.
The Great Lighthouses of Ireland initiative offers people the opportunity to visit or stay at a lighthouse, cherishing their rich heritage. It gives people an insight into the history of these lighthouses, and how important they’ve been, and will remain for seafarers & mariners. Each lighthouse offers a distinctive experience, true to its own history, heritage, people and place.
Ballycotton Lighthouse (County Cork)
In 1847 the paddle steamship Sirius, the first vessel to cross the Atlantic Ocean completely under steam, was shipwrecked here in dense fog. Ballycotton Island Lighthouse was built as a result. The lighthouse was first lit in 1851.
Blackhead Lighthouse (County Antrim)
Blackhead Lighthouse was built and its light first exhibited in 1902. It would have guided many famous vessels during Belfast’s golden age of shipping, including the ill-fated Titanic.
Clare Island Lighthouse (County Mayo)
The original lighthouse was built in 1806 by the Marquis of Sligo, on the isolated northern tip of Clare Island. Seven years later it was destroyed by fire due to the lighthouse keeper throwing ‘the snuffings’ of the wicks of candles into a tub which caught fire. The new lighthouse tower was built toward the end of 1818.
Fanad Head Lighthouse (County Donegal)
Following the shipwreck of the HMS Saldanha in the waters of Lough Swilly in 1812, a lighthouse was proposed for Fanad Head. The only survivor of the HMS Saldanha tragedy was the vessel’s parrot, which bore a silver collar inscribed with the ship’s name.
In 1917 the SS Laurentic, one of the most technologically advanced ships in the British navy, sank after hitting two mines at the entrance to Lough Swilly. The ship sank with the loss of over 300 lives. Her secret cargo of 3211 gold bars worth £5 million (or over €410 million today) was also lost. 22 of those gold bars are still missing. The lighthouse was first lit on St. Patrick’s Day, 17th of March 1817. It has been voted the second most beautiful Lighthouse in the world.
Galley Head Lighthouse (County Cork)
When Galley Head was first constructed in 1875, it was the most powerful lighthouse light in the world. The Lighthouse’s lantern, dome and 21-metre tower are still painted white, just as they were in the 19th century.
Hook Lighthouse (County Wexford)
Built 800 years ago, Hook lighthouse is now the oldest operational lighthouse in the world. There has been a beacon on this site since the 5th century. Willie Marshal, a Knights Templar, known as the Greatest Knight, built the lighthouse to protect and develop the shipping trade, which was so important in the 13th century. Monks looked after the lighthouse tower until 1641.
Loop Head Lighthouse (County Clare)
There has been a lighthouse at Loop Head since 1670. Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s grandfather, James Mc Ginley, was a stationed there as a lighthouse keeper in the 1930’s.
Rathlin West Lighthouse
The famous ‘upside down’ lighthouse took five years to build, as it was built into a cliff face between 1912 and 1917. The light was first exhibited in 1919. Robert the Bruce, the famous Scottish King, is said to have taken refuge in a cave on Rathlin during a fight against the English in 1306. He was inspired to keep up the struggle for Scottish independence by a spider in the cave, which tried again and again to spin its web.
St. John’s Point Donegal
In 1588 violent storms drove the Spanish Armada off course to the west of Ireland. Up to 24 of its ships were wrecked, including three huge ships which were wrecked on nearby Streedagh Strand. The merchants and traders of Killybegs requested a light on St. John’s Point in 1825. The Lighthouse came into operation in 1831. Its tower was made out of cut granite.
St. John’s Point Down
St. John’s Point Lighthouse was designed by George Halpin Senior, one of the most famous civil engineers of the time. The light was first exhibited in 1844. The Titanic did some of her initial sea trials in the waters around St. John’s Point. Its current striking markings of black and yellow bands have been in place since 1954.
Valentia Island Lighthouse
The fossilised footprints of a dinosaur are visible from the lighthouse. A tetrapod stepped from water onto the land here over 300 million years ago. The lighthouse sits on the site of the 17th century Cromwell Fleetwood Fort, which guarded against the threat of invaders right up to the 19th century.
On a good day from the lighthouse you’ll see the UNESCO World Heritage Site Skellig Michael and the remote Blasket Islands. You’ll also see the landing point for the transatlantic cable that connected Europe with North America for the first time in 1866. It marks the birth of our modern communications systems.
Wicklow Head Lighthouse
The octagon stone tower was built in 1781, with an eight-sided lantern (for the light) on top of it. The lighthouse in operation on the headland today was first lit in 1818. The lighthouse was struck by lightning on the 10th of October 1836. It was converted to automatic operation in 1994.
Stay at a lighthouse
If you have, you’ll know what a fantastic and truly original experience it is. If not, add it to your ‘must do’ list right now! Go and explore the Great Irish Lighthouses.
Most Irish lighthouses offer perfect places to spot whales, dolphins and seals. The rock ledges and caves of the dramatic cliffs are home to many seabirds, including guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes, fulmars and puffins. The sights and sounds of so many seabirds at such close quarters is an experience you’ll never forget.
All of these lighthouses are part of a group of 70 lighthouses operated by the Commissioners of Irish Lights around the coast of Ireland that continue to provide a vital role in maritime safety today (with the exception of Clare Island Lighthouse, which was decommissioned in 1965).