Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Wannabe lighthouses - No.1 Capel Island

The one that got away. Capel Island lighthouse today

Some lighthouses around Ireland's coastline are currently in use; some are defunct but still standing; and some are lost and gone forever.
There is a further category - the wannabe lighthouse - structures that were started but for one reason or another (mainly 'sod this for a game of lightkeepers') were never completed and from whom a beam never issued forth. Their number is few - I can only think of three - but, in my mind's ear, I hear them sobbing that, only for hard luck, they could have played at county level.
First up, and the one that got the nearest to completion was Capel Island near the entrance to Youghal harbour, also called Cable Island at the time.

Position of Capel Island, in between Youghal (top right) and Ballycotton (bottom middle)

A glance at the 1828 lighthouse map of the south coast of Ireland (below) shows a long length of dark coastline between the Old Head of Kinsale and Hook Head, lit only by the small harbour light at Roches Point. Where today shines Ballycotton, Youghal, Mine Head and Dungarvan, there was precious little shining back then to help the transatlantic vessels navigate the south coast safely at night.

As early as January 1826, the Cork Constitution printed a letter from a mariner lately shipwrecked on that stretch of coast, which show that, even at that early date, it was recognised that the lack of a light on that stretch of coast had long been a source of irritation to the shipping community in Youghal: -

The Southern Reporter, in an article entitled Lighthouse on Cable Island in 1832 said that the merchants and ship-owners of Youghal had been agitating for many years for a lighthouse on Ballycotton or Cabel Island but nothing had been done. At first, the article continued, the Ballast Board had denied the need for a light at either location.. Then, when they finally agreed that one was necessary, Inspector Halpin argued that Ballymacart Point (Mine Head) was the proper place for it. Yet, it said, there were no guarantees that a lighthouse would be built at either spot.
Stung into action, the Ballast Board finally took the nettle by the horns and, in 1846, began to erect the lighthouse on Cable Island. The Merchants of Youghal were delighted, though there were still some mutterings as to the precise placement of the light. But at least all the arguments between the Merchants and the Ballast Board and Trinity House and the Board of Trade and the Admiralty were at an end and the lighthouse was under construction.
However, in January 1847, the Paddle Steam ship Sirius - the first vessel to cross the Atlantic completely under steam in 1838 - was wrecked off Ballycotton with the loss of twenty lives and the debate over the best place for the lighthouse was reignited. So vituperative was this debate that public meetings were held in Youghal, prompting the editor of the Irish Examiner  to pen a long piece about the self-defeating arguments put forward. It began:

Eventually, the  Cork City and County merchants, shipowners, traders and businessmen wrote to the Ballast Board saying that, um, actually, they wanted a lighthouse on Ballycotton and another on Mine Head. George Halpin said, "But what about the bleedin' lighthouse on Capel Island that yous were pushin' for? It's over ten feet tall!" but he had to back down. Ballycotton and Mine Head were both exhibited on 1st June 1851 and Youghal harbour light a year later.
As for Cable / Capel Island, it was not considered expedient to knock it down, so Inspector Halpin decided to build it up to the second floor, and place a dome over it, so that it could be easily turned into an outer harbour light for Youghal, "in case them bleedin' Youghallers change their minds again," as he said, in my imagination.
These days Capel Island is a bird sanctuary (permission required from Birdwatch Ireland to land on it) and home to a herd of mad goats. According to the legendary Dan McCarthy in the Examiner, the door is open and a spiral staircase winds up 7.5 metres to the domed ceiling. Though it serves as a daymark, it has never been lit.

View from the mainland


  1. Probably better coming from you than me Finola but I know what you mean!