From date is bigger than To date
While lighthouses in Ireland are no longer manned there are few things more romantic than the cylindrical towers which cast their light on the dark and mysterious seas and the stories they harbour of men and women through the centuries, of days and nights, of storms and calm oceans. Tall and round, their distinctively painted exteriors distinguish them from each other and mark their location. They are at least places of interest to most but to some passionate enthusiasts they are revered.
Mayo, with its long, craggy coastline has its fair share of lighthouses. While some are so remote as to be impractical to visit, some make for very satisfying visits. Clare Island Lighthouse, which is now a luxury guesthouse, perched on a lonely promontory on the north end of the island, offers a unique experience to the visitor. Built in 1806, but destroyed by fire (an occupational hazard, particularly in early lighthouses) it was rebuilt in 1818 and operated for 159 years before it was decommissioned in 1965. Today its pristine painted exterior gives way to a tastefully designed interior, with warm furnishings, cosy fires and breathtaking views. Even with its luxury accommodation it is possible to imagine, if only for for a fleeting moment, what the life of a dedicated lightkeeper and his family in such a remote and exposed spot might have been like.
Before GPS, satellite and other technological advances, sailors used a variety of tools to determined their positions at sea and lighthouses played a vital role. Most of the country;s lighthouses exist thanks to George Halpin, Inspector of Works in the Ballast Board and later Inspector of Lighthouses, who in the early 1800s modernised the country’s existing 14 lighthouses and designed a further 50 which contributed to the 72 lighthouses in the country by 1867.
Each lighthouse had day-markings, which were their signature colours, as well uniquely timed flashing lights at night to help mariners who scanned the horizon trying to determine their location. And they still do. The light on Clare Island’s 11 metre tower flashes every five seconds. Other lighthouses flash at different intervals, such as Blackrock, with one flash every 12 seconds or Inishgort on a small island in Clew Bay which flashes for 2 seconds every 10 seconds.
Some of the more remote, inaccessible lighthouses include Blackrock, a solar powered lighthouse on an exposed rocky outcrop on the Mullet Peninsula, 20 km west of Blacksod Point and accessible only by helicopter, or Achillbeg Lighthouse on the small island off the coast of Achill.
Ireland’s neutrality in World War II presented the country with few opportunities to impact the war in any favourable way. But in early June, 1944, Ted Sweeney, the lightkeeper in Blacksod Bay, Mayo’s most westerly point, provided the most important meteorological report of his generation. When he was delivering his hourly weather updates to London, little did he know that his reports were going to General Eisenhower, who used them to determine the day and time of the D-Day landings in France. An historic event, it was the culmination of a series of international conferences and disagreements between the British and Americans over the likelihood of suitable weather for the landings, but it is a date that has been remembered for generations and will continue to be.
A pair of lighthouses stood off the west coast of Belmullet, on Eagle Island, which is subject to powerful waves from the Atlantic. Though they stood some 65 metres above the sea, there were numerous reports of storms wreaking havoc on the island, which the 1841 census shows as having 7 dwellings. By the 1911 census only 1 remained. One of the lighthouses was destroyed in a terrible storm and only one remains to this day. While the island took terrible beatings from the weather and the ocean, and most inhabitants were relocated by the end of the 19th century, it wasn’t until the 1980s that the lighthouse became unmanned. Still north, in the northeastern tip of the Belmullet Peninsula, Broadhaven Lighthouse benefits from the relative calm that being in the mouth of a harbour brings and is accessible by car.
In her novel ‘The Light Between Oceans’, M.L. Stedman evokes the extreme conditions which lighthouses endure in her novel:
“There are times when the ocean is not the ocean - not blue, not even water, but some violent explosion of energy and danger: ferocity on a scale only gods can summon. It hurls itself at the island, sending spray right over the top of the lighthouse, biting pieces off the cliff. And the sound is a roaring of a beast whose anger knows no limits. Those are the nights the light is needed most.”
A visit to any of the jagged edged coastal outcrops in Mayo reminds us of the rich and interesting histories lighthouses connect us to. Their stalwart presence in all weathers hold a power for us, be it romantic, maritime or historical, a power reminiscent of the ferocious sea, whose dangers they work tirelessly to protect us from.