Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Great Lighthouses of Ireland


The recent tourist initiative by the Commissioner of Irish Lights, The Great Lighthouses of Ireland, is, in general, a Good Thing for lighthouse enthusiasts. It has heightened people's awareness of these guardians of the seas and hopefully will generate a great deal of money that can be used for various lighthouse-related projects, from preventing the disappearance of some of the older, no-longer-active lights to archiving the vast array of material on the subject.
However, I am being constantly reminded of the incredible variety of maritime lights around this little country of ours and would not like to think that the thirteen lighthouses chosen in this initiative represent the very pinnacle of lighthouse engineering on this island, or that they are the most picturesque or historical or interesting.
Basically the word 'Great' is slightly misleading in this context. Everybody has their favourite lighthouse and we could argue till the gannet comes home as to which of our lighthouses are 'great.' What these lighthouses are are 'visitable.' And I quite accept that The Visitable Lighthouses of Ireland doesn't have the same marketable quality.
If I was compiling a list of 'Great' Irish lighthouses, naturally a couple would coincide with the official list. The Fastnet (above) for its symbolism and incredible feat engineering; Hook and Loop Head for their history; Fanad for its photogenic possibilities; St. John's Point in county Down and Ballycotton for their colouring. But, of the others, well, they are no more or no less great, than many others around the coast.
CIL manages seventy odd lighthouses around Ireland and there are many more harbour lights that are often ignored. Many of these would be very deserving (in my opinion) of the appellation 'Great.' 
The Old Head of Kinsale has a tremendous history; Poolbeg is, after the Fastnet, one of the most iconic lighthouses in Ireland; Dunmore East is possibly the most graceful lighthouse on our coast; Spit Bank? You think it should have been washed away 100 years ago but its still standing, thanks to a blind engineer. You never hear of Beeves Rock in the Shannon but again, what a feat of engineering. I personally love the triumvirate at the mouth of the Boyne, like giant crabs watching over the estuary. Haulbowline is simply awe-inspiring. Kish, the most unusual and with a great story of construction. 
This is not to denigrate the lights included in the tourism initiative. Each has its own history and many a keeper could tell a good story about them. I am simply pointing out that the 13 lighthouses selected are not necessarily 'the greatest' of the bunch.


Saturday, February 22, 2020

A dream job?


There is a famous story of the late Irish playwright, Brendan Behan, being sent up to St. John's Point in county Down to paint the lighthouse there. Behan, a staunch Republican, was asked, as his first job, to repaint the lighthouse 'no trespassing' sign, which he did, adding, off his own bat, the words, 'By order of Mr. De Valera.' The lighthouse keeper present was later to write back to Dublin, requesting they get rid of Behan because of his laziness.
I am reminded of this by a piece that appeared in the Irish Examiner recently, looking for painters to paint every lighthouse under the control of the Commissioner of Irish Lights.
There are 65 of them in all, ranging from the very very large to the very large. This is probably my dream job in terms of access to practically inaccessible islands like Inistearaght and Inistrahull. 
I have two problems with applying for the tender, though. The first is that I already have a job, as well as a part-time unpaid job.
The second is my approach to painting. If I have to paint a room, I start off with determination and vigour and by the time I'm finishing off the second coat, I'm rushing like mad to get the bloody job done and not being quite so thorough as I was at the start.
Somehow, I can see myself halfway up Mine Head lighthouse, wondering if I should really bother with the little patch I missed....
However, I can well see that giving all those lighthouses a lovely lick of paint is bound to make all the adjoining houses and cottages look desperate shabby...

Saturday, February 15, 2020

The first Poolbeg lights, Dublin



Poolbeg Lighthouse stands guard at the entrace to Dublin harbour, built on a remarkably long breakwater that dates back to the 1750s. It is one of the iconic buildings for returning emigrants, approaching their homeland from Holyhead, though admittedly these days, most people opt for Ryanair.
I photographed this lighthouse from land in 2007 and from the sea in 2014, yet it occurred to me that I have never given a historical view of Ireland's second most-famous lighthouse


In a bid to stop drifting sand from silting up the River Liffey, an ambitious project was begun in the 1740s to construct this breakwater, using first wooden piles and then granite blocks. Slightly further out from the end of the proposed breakwater was a sand bar, which had caused many wrecks. During the construction of the breakwater, a light ship was placed on the bar. I can find no picture of this lightship, save for the very crude representation in the 1750 map above.


The lighthouse was built under the direction of the Ballast Board by the very suspiciously-named John Smith, who was obliged to first build a small island of granite blocks and rocks on which to place his edifice. It was built before the breakwater was completed and took seven years from 1761 to 1768 to build.
It presented a very different appearance to the squat, almost dumpy look of the present day lighthouse. It was not nearly as tall and it sloped much more quickly to the top. It had an octagonal lantern with eight heavy-duty windows. A stone staircase with an iron balustrade led up to the gallery on the second floor, which circumnavigated the building.
It originally operated on candle-power but in 1786, it was changed to oil.
Fortunately, we have at least four depictions of the old lighthouse (above and below)


The sea-wall was eventually completed in 1795


From A view of ancient and modern Dublin, with its latest improvements” published in 1807: 
"“The Light house was begun June 21 1762 under considerable difficulties, from the depth of the water, from the power of the winds in such an exposed situation, and from the raging of the seas. These however were overcome by the masterly skill of Mr Smyth, the architect, who collected vast rocks and deposited them in a huge caissoon or chest which was sunk to the bed of the sea and afterwards guarded with a buttress of solid masonry, twenty five feet broad at the base. On this, the ingenious architect raised a beautiful circular structure, three stories high, surrounded by an octagonal lantern of eight windows. It is composed of white hewn granite firmly cemented gradually tapering to the summit and each story strengthened with stone archwork, A stone staircase with an iron ballustrade winds round the building to the second story, where an iron gallery surrounds the whole. The lantern is supplied with large oil lamps whose light is powerfully increased by reflecting lenses."



The lighthouse as we know it today was revamped in 1820, extended in height and lost its staircase. At some stage around 1850, it was painted black. I have yet to discover when it became red.












Tales of a travelling lighthouse - North Wall Quay, Dublin Port


In Ireland, there are examples of lighthouses bein built on the same site as original lighthouses (Fastnet, Ferris Point, Ardglass etc)
There are also many examples of lighthouses being built very close to existing lighthouses, Wicklow Head, Loop Head, Clare Island, to name but three.
But, off the top of my head, ( a part of my body diametrically opposite another part that I often speak out of) there have only been two examples in Ireland of lighthouses having been moved from one location to another. This has happened in England and in the US, normally when coastal erosion has threatened a particular lighthouse.
The two are Roches Point Lighthouse in county Cork which was taken down in 1838, transported to Wexford and rebuilt as the Duncannon Rear Light.
The other one is the North Wall Quay on the northside of the River Liffey in Dublin.
The original lighthouse here was built in the early nineteenth century (see previous post)
The rapid development of Dublin as a port was down to the foresight and hard work of one man, Bindon Blood Stoney, in the mid nineteenth century. Large areas of marshland were reclaimed, a Breakwater (with light) was built to facilitate the port's expansion and a quay was built, extending from the existing North Wall quay, almost enclosing the new Alexandra Basin.
The harbour works were completed in 1884. One presumes that a light of some sort must have been erected at the end of the North Wall extension but the current lighthouse only went up in either 1902, 1904 or 1908, depending on which source you go by. It is cast iron and stands 39 feet above the end of the pier in a highly-restricted area.
The pier was extended to provide extra berths  both inside and outside the basin and the lighthouse was moved to the end of the pier extension in 1937, where it has remained ever since (see map below, showing 1930s proposals for the pier extension)



It now appears that the lighthouse may be on the move again, which I reckon would be some kind of global record for a fully-working lighthouse. It appears that the North Wall Quay extension is planned to be shortened, roughly back to its pre-1937 location. And, in line with modern observances of industrial heritage, the lighthouse is to be lifted up and plonked down at the end of the new, shorter pier, along with the granite stones it sits on.
And the good news is, Dublin Port plans to make the lighthouse a heritage site, with access to the lighthouse free to the public, though on an appointment, rather than an ad-hoc basis.

Above and below, some pictures of the lighthouse interior.







Dublin North Wall light - lost lighthouse


The illustration above comes from the Dublin Penny Journal of 1834 and shows a rather grand lighthouse at the end of the North Wall, near where the Point Depot, or O2 or 3 Arena (depending on your age) is now. Basically, this view is looking across the East Wall Bridge from where the Dodder joins the Liffey (the bridge obviously not yet built!) This was the extent of the north quays in Dublin at the time, before the incredible north bank reclamations and extensions carried out by the legendary Bindon Blood Stoney in the mid 1800s.
(Rather confusingly, the current North Bank lighthouse, near Poolbeg, having been built at the end of the Great North Wall, is also sometimes called the North Wall lighthouse. This lighthouse is two miles upriver from that))
There is evidence to suggest that this light was built in 1809, though the lighthouse directory, which is rarely wrong, dates it back to 1820. 
To confuse matters, maritime historian John de Courcy Ireland, writing in 1996, said that "In 1836, the Board issued instructions to build the northwall lighthouse atb the corner of the wall opposite Ringsend. It would replace the earlier watch-house. From this corner, the wall turned north."
The 1834 illustration above clearly shows the lighthouse at the end of the quay and the map below, from the mid 1800s, shows the extent of the quay and the wall turning north. 
In my opinion, the picture above is of a lighthouse, not a watch-tower, so de Courcy may have his dates wrong.
An 1877 journal of sailing directions in Dublin port says that "a circular iron lighthouse of a grey stone colour, near the eastern extreme of the north wall, (or quay, which is now in course of extension) ... shaows a fixed white light at an elevation of 29 feet, visible in clear weather at a distance of ten miles, and a sector of red light across the river, to the southward."
When the North Wall extension was completed in the early years of the twentieth century, the lighthouse was replaced by the current North Wall Quay black and white hooped lighthouse.


Saturday, February 8, 2020

Dublin Port, Alexandra Basin East Breakwater - Good news!!


The light at the end of the Eastern Breakwater at the east side of the Alexandra Basin in Dublin's north port area was demolished in 2004. It consisted of a  square brick tower, which had four storeys with a lantern on top. It also had a fog bell on the side of the wall near the top. The pierhead was demolished to make way for a new pier wall, to take Berth 50a.
The lighthouse measured 4.875 meters by 4.875 meters and had a height of 15.3 meters to the apex of the lantern. It was built in 1904 and replaced an earlier lighthouse, smaller, but still probably brick, that dated from the time that the new breakwater was completed in 1884.


Now, the good news is that plans are afoot to create a new Industrial Heritage Park at the very eastern extremity of the north Dublin Port. This will be a place the public can come and enjoy with great views up and down the Liffey. The centrepiece of the Park will be an entity called The Marker, which will comprise a pole, an elevated walkway and crucially, the lantern and the bell from the lighthouse demolished in 2004. I had no idea that the bell and lantern had been preserved but I see that it was a stipulation of the planning permission.


Above, the 1904 light showing lantern and bell

Photo just prior to demolition. The blue building was something to do with port administration.






A very rare photograph (I haven't come across any others) of the original East Breakwater lighthouse (1884 - 1904) It appears to be smaller, though still with a lantern and bell. It appears to be located on the edge of the dock, where the long straight breakwater turns into a roundel. The 1904 light was positioned more centrally on the roundel.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Lightship Gannet update


The latest news in the soap opera that is the Lightship Gannet comes to me from the legendary Russ Rowlett, compiler and editor of the the Lightshouse Directory, the unofficial bible for all lighthouse enthusiasts.
Lightships were once very common around the shores of Ireland and indeed the small island to the east of us. They were located wherever it was too dangerous, or too economically unviable to build a lighthouse, such as the Saltees off the coast of county Wexford or the shifting sands of Dublin Bay.
Nowadays, these guardians of our coastline have all but disappeared. The only complete lightship left in Ireland is moored in Strangford Lough; there is a mast and light on one of the quays in Arklow; another lightship is, I believe, being used as a floating restaurant on the Seine in Paris.
Lightship Gannet, built in 1954, was stationed off the county Down coast at the site of the very old South Rock lighthouse, one of the world's first wave-washed lighthouses.


It was decommissioned in 2009 and purchased by a man with the very strange name of So long and thanks for all the Fish who had her towed to the Medway in Kent for a conversion. The blog of that conversion incidentally makes fascinating reading.
Anyhow, the mercurial Gannet has been on her travels again, ending up in the heart of mainland Europe. She was towed up the Rhine to Basel where, to the delight of thousands of onlookers, she was hauled out of the water by a giant crane and laid gently in Holzpark Klybeck, which appears to be a part of Basel's harbour area, dedicated to culture and the arts. For those of you that know Basel, it is a part of the Swiss section of that city. The 600 tonne vessel will be used for restaurants, cultural events and a radio station.


I was a little perturbed at first that the photographs did not show the mast and lantern on the ship but at last I found another photograph that indicates that they are not far away!!


My thanks to Tom Brunner for sending me a video of the hoist. The lantern incidentally is back attached to the ship.