For the first time, The Association of Lighthouse Keepers decided to hold their AGM in Northern Ireland, followed by three days of lighthouse viewing, with special access to lights not often open. Most of the membership of the ALK were never actually keepers - it is actually open to anybody with an interest in lighthouses. I fulfilled this criteria, I joined and I got three days of lighthouse gorging off the coasts of counties Down and Antrim at the beginning of October.
The first lighthouse we visited was Donaghadee, about which I'd written before, most recently here. Pier end lighthouses are generally smallish - Ardglass, Wicklow, Rosslare - but, like Dunmore East, Donaghadee is very tall, 56 feet of limestone painted white, designed by the legendary John Rennie, who also had a hand in the Bell Rock, Howth and Holyhead lighthouses. It had the distinction of being the first Irish lighthouse converted to electric in 1934.
I have previously written about mistakenly calling the town Donna Dee and how it had taken me a long time to get to call it Donna Ha-dee. Sadly, during this visit, I overheard two people calling it Donna Ka-dee-dee, and I'm afraid this will never leave my head.
With their links to Irish Lights, the ALK managed to get us all access to the tower, lantern and balcony, though only about four at a time, as space up on top was limited. The views there were magnificent, stretching out to the Great Copeland Island, Old Lighthouse Island and Mew, not to mention the coast of Scotland, within swimming distance away. They say that you can sometimes see the Isle of Man from there, though the view is much better if you actually go there.
As some of you may know, rooting out lost Irish lighthouses is a particular interest of mine. There seems to be a general acceptance that lighthouses prior to 1665 were restricted to Hook Head and Youghal; and since 1665 to Irish Lights aka the Ballast Board. This is mainly due to lack of evidence. A lighthouse is mentioned in a Corporation book in Carrickfergus in 1648 but nowhere else. The Cuckold light apparently operated in Kinsale in the seventeenth century but again, there is no corroborative evidence (that I can find)
A few months ago, I ordered a book from the library called Six Miles from Bangor - the Story of Donaghadeedee and the Copeland Islands by WG Pollock. It's a great little history of an old maritime community and I was struck by a couple of passages:
So, two former, lost lighthouses calling out to us from the dim and distant past. One, adding to my gut instinct that there were more than two lighthouses in Ireland pre-1665, has no further information other than its existence. The other, we are told, was wooden and small and was lit by tallow candles, possibly something like the lighthouse that once stood where the Mew Island optic now stands on the Titanic Mile in Belfast. At least the research will keep me off the street corners for a while longer.
A distinguished old man wistfully ponders the beauty of the Copeland Islands from the balcony of Donaghadee. Or maybe he's wondering how far away the nearest toilet is. (Photo courtesy Lee Maginnis)
Reports of the ALK trip to Donaghadeedee could not be written without mention of Cané who not only ascended to the top of the tower but also joined us on the boat trip to Mew Island, though I would question whether his ALK membership fees are fully paid up. Nevertheless, he was a delightful and erudite companion for the day, notwithstanding him being a Glenavon supporter.
Incidentally, for those people who notice these things, the afternoon began clear and bright and the cloud cover slowly increased over the following few hours!!