Sunday, June 14, 2020

Very old Irish lighthouses

I have been trying, for many moons now, to get a definitive list of the oldest lighthouses around the coast of Ireland. As many of you realise, I am not particularly academic, so my research will never be published as a 'paper' or a thesis or whatever it is they call scholarly works on maritime history.
To fix an arbitrary date, I have been working on pre-1700 lighthouses. These are, of course, few and far between, all of them probably coal-burning braziers atop a house or tower.
Anyway, to cut to the chase, the 'definitive list' - which I am hoping can be added to - is as follows:-

1) The Old Head of Kinsale. In 1665, Robert Reading received a patent to run six lighthouses around the coast of Ireland and to extract taxes from shopping for them. The lighthouse off the sea at Howth was never built, so that leaves five. The cottage from which the fire burnt at the Old Head is still standing.

2) Barry Oge's castle - Presumably a light was shone from a tower or a building at this Gaelic chieftain's castle on the approach to Kinsale when Reading received his patent. Shortly afterwards, the castle was razed to the ground by some entity called 'The Crown' and Charles Fort was built on the site. History does not tell us where the earliest light was situated.

3) Hook Head  The Big Kahuna of Irish lighthouses needs little introduction from me. Probably built in the 1200s, the dissolution of the monasteries extinguished the flame in the 1500s, only for Reading to relight the fire in 1665 or shortly thereafter.

4) The Baily, Howth - The lighthouse at the Baily is the third on that part of Howth. Reading's 1665 light was located halfway up the hill (as opposed to today's location on the toe of the headland), another cottage-style, brazier burning lighthouse. The illustration below is taken from Gabriel Stokes' map of 1725, by which time a tower had been added to the original brazier-burning cottage.

5) Isle of Magee - The final lighthouse to come under the Reading patent was at Isle of Magee, aka Islandmagee, which is not really an island but an isthmus overlooking the approaches to Belfast. By all accounts, the lighthouse did not last very long (Reading was a complete waste of space and ran the lighthouses into the ground through neglect) and nobody seems to know exactly where it was. My money is on Muldersleigh Hill just above the present Blackhead lighthouse, for reasons outlined in the link above.

Okay, that's the five Reading lights done and dusted, but what others were there? Well, we know there was another cottage-style lighthouse at
6) Loop Head - WD Adams, writing in 1891, says a light was first exhibited here in 1802 but he was probably talking about lighthouses as we know them today. The CIL page for Loop Head puts the record straight and places the cottage's construction to 1670, yet it is unclear who ran the light at this early stage. The remains of the cottage are still on the site.
7)Youghal - Roughly where the present lighthouse stands, was an old tower, from which the redoubtable nuns of St. Anne used to keep a fire blazing at night to guide ships into the harbour. The tower was said to have been built around 1190 - a condition of the donation of land for the nunnery was that the light should be kept by the sisters. Like Hook Head, the dissolution of the monasteries quenched the light, though it was certainly lighting and guiding again by the 1640s.

8) Blackrock Castle - Quite near the site of the present-day Jack Lynch Tunnel, sits Blackrock Castle, or Blackrock Observatory. When sailing upriver from Roches Point to the city of the Cork via the River Lee, the Castle was one of the last approaches to the port itself. The original tower was built in 1582 as part of a fort. It became part of the Castle when the latter was constructed in 1604 and certainly from at least that time, peat fires were lit on top of the tower to guide ships up and down the river.

9) Rosslare Fort? - Slightly speculative this one, as I can't be sure about the dates but there was a fort on a spit of land jutting out from Rosslare into Wexford Harbour. This fort was constructed in the late 1500s. It was said to have contained a wooden lighthouse, which was gone by 1800. The Speed map of 1610 shows a Jewish candelabra symbol, which could indicate a light shining there, though the same symbol appears in Offaly and Kildare!
In 1925, the community at Rosslare Fort was abandoned, when the sea broke through the spit. The whole spit is now underwater, except at very low tides.

And that, I'm afraid, is my 'definitive list.' I haven't included The Maiden Tower at the entrance to the Boyne, because I have found nowhere to indicate that it was ever lit, although it was apparently a maritime daymark and is certainly old enough to have served as a pre-1700 lighthouse. I also read somewhere that there was a very old light on the front in Kinsale before the land was reclaimed from the sea but I seem to be one of those people that folk don't answer when I ask them questions!
Where would there have been other lighthouses? Well, in general, the pre-1700 population would not have been greatly in favour of lighthouses, as they deprived them of much-needed salvage from shipwrecks. I would suggest they would probably need to be located in a fortified place (Charles Fort, Rosslare Fort, Blackrock) or be under the management of the local clergy (Hook Head, Youghal). Though of course, the Baily and the Old Head of Kinsale survived without either.
They would also need to be located at places favoured by shipping - Kinsale, Youghal, Cork, Wexford, Dublin, Belfast, Limerick and Waterford are already represented. There could be more at these locations. A forgotten tower near the port of Limerick? A light somewhere near Cheekpoint where the river bends around to Waterford? Something near Roches Point would have been handy, I'd have thought!
If anybody has any suggestions, or, indeed, concrete information, I'd dearly love to hear from them. My email is

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