Extremely old lighthouses in Ireland are few and far between. There are tales that fires were lit on the Old Head of Kinsale and the Baily, Howth two thousand years ago, whether to lure ships onto the rocks or to guide them into harbour. The general accepted - though not officially endorsed - story of Hook Head is that St. Dubhan lit warning fires on that coast from the early days of Christianity. All would have been wood or turf fires and probably only lit when a ship was seen or expected.
I came across another possible addition to that list recently when reading about a place called Nendrum in Strangford Lough.
Map of Strangford Lough. Nendrum is situated on the western end of the horizontal Japan shaped island to the left of the tran in Strangford
Close-up. Nendrum is accessed from the mainland by a bridge to Reagh Island, a drive down the island and a bridge onto Mahee Island. For those wishing to bag a few islands accessed by bridges, only Reagh and the very beginning of Mahee are open to the public.
I visited on a beautiful morning on the first day of the ALK tours in October. I actually had the whole place to myself. It is said the site dates from the 5th Century - unsubstantiated - but it was abandoned some time between 974 and 1178AD. Although relatively unknown - well, I'd never heard of it before September last year - it seems to have been quite an important place, with the biographer of St. Finian writing of the 'portus insulae corum monasterio' (the port of the island of the monastery) at Nendrum, where certain ships from Britain had landed.
Strangford Lough is a difficult place to access. The currents at the entrance have done for many boats and the coasts of the lough are studded with small islands and rocks, eager to trap the unwary boatman. Situated at the north-west end of the lough, a voyage from Britain to Nendrum must have been a trial.
An unusual sundial on the Nendrum site. The five major marks (with the split) would have marked the five prayer times of the day - prime, terces, noon, nones and vespers)
In Colin Breen's "The Archaeology of Early Harbours and Landing Places in county Down 800-1700AD" (Ulster Local Studies Vol.19. No.2), he mentions two landing places at Nendrum:
"Two curvilinear walls delimit the area of a landing stage on the southern foreshore of the monastery. A second, similar feature can be seen directly to the west of the main stage... A raised pathway is apparent, leading from the monastery down to the landing place. Two large boulders stand on either side of the feature and were apparently used as navigation beacons. It is quite difficult to navigate safely through the treacherous channels that surround the monastery but, by following a transit, sighted directly in the centre of these two large stones, a boat can be brought safely to land. It is reasonable to suggest that lights may have been originally placed on these stone beacons to enhance their usefulness."
I was unable to see anything on the southern foreshore but on the western shore, there do appear to be two large stones on the foreshore. The photo above is indistinct but by double-clicking, you may be able to see them. One is almost directly down from the round tower on the hill. The other is slightly to the right, below where the thicket starts.
Unfortunately, I could not find a way down to the foreshore, the way being blocked by a thick hawthorn hedge. It was broken in one place, fortunately right in front of one of the stones. It was impenetrable but at least I got a photo (top of the page) Of course this might just be a large boulder!!
A further visit is needed I think, not simply to try and find the southern foreshore but because it is such a wonderful, old, peaceful and unknown site.
The location of Nendrum was actually lost in the Middle Ages and was only rediscovered when William Reeves discovered the remains of a round tower there in 1844. Since then it has been excavated and among the discoveries is the oldest known tide mill in the world, still visible on the eastern foreshore.
And, as a bonus, just across the water at Ballydorn on the mainland, we have the Lightship Petrel, now over 100 years old and the oldest surviving Irish lightship, thanks in no small part to the Down Cruising Club, who have used it as their headquarters since 1969.