This piece is from issue two of Go Wild Magazine. You can buy the issue here.
Being an island, it’s no surprise that Ireland’s coast boasts a large number of lighthouses. With jagged rocks peppering the ports and bays around the Emerald Isle, the long history of lighthouses here saved hundreds, if not thousands, of lives over the years and prevented many sea tragedies. In fact, the lighthouses were a lifeline; landmarks that lit the way home and still do today for many. Along the Wild Atlantic Way, sailors would seek the flashes along the horizon to mark exactly where they were on their journeys home. One flash every two seconds would signal that they were near Valentia Island off the coast of Kerry while they knew they were further north, approaching Loop Head in Clare if they witnessed four flashes every twenty seconds. These flashes guided many a mariner home and during the day, they would seek out the colours on the lighthouse tower to pinpoint their exact location.
Today, as technology moves on and we are surrounded with radio, radar and GPS, many of Ireland’s lighthouses are redundant, but they stand strong, a reminder of the constant battle that fishermen face against the sea. And they remain as picturesque as ever, with many dotted along the Wild Atlantic Way visited daily by tourists.
01. Loop Head, Clare
Established in 1670, the original lighthouse at Loop Head, a signal fire on the roof of a single-storey cottage, can still be seen on the grounds where the light keeper lived. Today’s tower, which is 23 metres high and erected in 1854, boasts a white light which travels 23 nautical miles and can be identified as it flashes four times in 20 seconds. The lighthouse was automated in 1991 and now opens to the public from April to October annually. Lighthouse fans will find an exhibition on the history of Irish lighthouses in the Light Keeper’s Cottage. The highlight is a guided tour to the balcony where you can see south as far as the Blasket Islands and north to the Twelve Pins in Connemara along the Wild Atlantic Way.
02. Fanad Head, Donegal
Erected in 1811 in the wake of the sinking of HMS Saldanha’s tragic wreckage, where according to reports, only the ship’s parrot survived and bore a silver collar inscribed with the ship’s initials, Fanad Lighthouse has saved countless lives. Situated on the western shore of the Fanad Head Peninsula in the heart of the Donegal Gaeltacht, it has been praised as one of Ireland’s most breathtaking locations. Locals boast that the lighthouse is taller than the Eiffel Tower – a height which is popular among whale-watching enthusiasts. The lighthouse was automated in 1983 and today, is ideal for a unique getaway with three cottages at the base of the lighthouse available for weekend and midweek rentals. The light is 39 metres above sea level with 79 steps in the tower, while the tower itself rises 22 metres high from foundation to the top of the tower, not including the lantern.
03. Old Head Lighthouse, Cork
Situated on the highest point of land on one of Ireland’s most scenic and easily accessible south coast peninsulas, the Signal Tower at Old Head Lighthouse offers spectacular views- hail, rain or snow.
The Old Head Lighthouse is the nearest point of land to one of the most significant historic shipwrecks. The RMS Lusitania, which was hit by a single torpedo fired by a u-boat in 1915, lies just over 11 miles due south and a few degrees west of the Old Head. Today, the black and white striped lighthouse overlooks the deep waters where the wreck of the RMS Lusitania lies. The light of the tower extends some 20 nautical miles, while the tower itself is 30 metres high. It is one of the major lights on the south coast and a key guiding point to Kinsale. Today the lighthouse is automated.
04. Skellig Lighthouse, Kerry
One of the main lights off the south west coast, Skellig Lighthouse sits on the larger of the Skelligs Rocks, about eight miles from the mainland. The island itself boasts a long religious tradition, but the lighthouse not so much, although it was built in 1826. In fact, the island had two lighthouses – one remains in operation today. It was only in 1987 that the lighthouse became unmanned and fully electric and it is said that in the past, George Bernard Shaw paid it a visit. Today, the lighthouse operates via solar power and continues to act as a vital guide for mariners. The Skellig Experience Centre allows tourists to step into (a reconstruction of) Skelligs Lighthouse, and inspect equipment, artefacts, log books, charts and discovery what life was like as a lighthouse keeper.
05. Tarbert Island Lighthouse, Clare
It is hard to miss the picturesque beauty of Tarbert Lighthouse, which has been safely navigating ships since 1834 up and down the Shannon Estuary into the port of Foynes. The lighthouse is built on a tidal rock on the north side of Tarbert Island and a cast iron bridge connects the lighthouse to the shore. One of Ireland’s prettiest lighthouses, it stands lonely without a keeper’s cottage, which is no longer in existence.
06. Valentia Island Lighthouse, Cork
Situated at Cromwell Point on the north of Valentia Island, this idyllic lighthouse was originally home to Cromwell Fleetwood Fort. It was one of two lighthouses built on the island in the 16th century and the first light for Cromwell Point glowed in 1828. Since 1947 the lighthouse has been automated and today it is open to the public for guided tours. Its white light extends 17 nautical miles while its red one shines 15 of those. The tower itself is 15 metres high and the lighthouse operates a harbour light to guide vessels from the sea and lead them through the northern entrance of Valentia Harbour past Harbour Rock. The lighthouse is open for private group tours during the winter months, subject to weather conditions.
A tower was first built on the site of Youghal Lighthouse in 1202 before the nuns of the Chapel of St. Anne took over the running of the light in the tower. Situated on the cliffs at the entrance to Youghal Bay, the tower at the lighthouse was knocked in 1848 to make way for the current lighthouse, which can cater for a larger number of vessels. Today the lighthouse, which began working in 1852, is automated with a light flashing every 2.5 seconds – it shines 17 nautical miles from shore. Movie fans will recognise the lighthouse from Moby Dick – Youghal stood in for New Bedford, Massachusetts in the classic film.