A labour of love to draw Ireland’s lighthouses

Most Irish lighthouses are painted white as their surroundings appear dark on the horizon

The Baily lighthouse

The Baily lighthouse


In the days before easy communications, to a ship on the final and perhaps most treacherous part of its voyage, the flash of the lighthouse would have signalled the end of a long journey and safe harbour for some well-earned respite. To present-day admirers, the lighthouse represents a unique part of our maritime history and an aesthetically pleasing part of our built heritage. While at its core, a lighthouse is simply a tower and a beacon, these structures have captured the imagination in a way that few other buildings have, conjuring images of romance and adventure, danger and deliverance in the minds of landlubbers and mariners alike.

In 2016, I went out sketching and illustrating some of the lighthouses on our southeastern coast with no goal other than to document these impressive structures in the wild and dramatic locations they inhabit. A big part of the attraction was the extraordinary and ever-changing light of their coastal position, but there was something else I just couldn’t put my finger on. It wasn’t until I took a trip to my home-town of Drogheda and ventured out among the sand-dunes at the mouth of the River Boyne that their centrality to my growing up became apparent. Perched among the high marram grass of the estuary are the now de-commissioned North, East and West lights that until recently guided shipping past the shifting sand bar at the river’s entrance. As teenagers, pointing out bikes homeward for tea, the lights would splutter into life and illuminate the evening sky. As we raced home, far to the south, the sweeping beam of the Rockabill, off Skerries, Co Dublin, was visible right until I reached my front door. All these years later, as I ventured out, sketchbook in hand, it now occurred to me that I was simply reacquainting myself with old friends.

The collection of lighthouses contained in the book was never meant to be comprehensive, but as time went on the list kept growing and I ended up illustrating almost every substantial light along our coastline and a good many estuary lights while I was at it.

There are more than 80 lighthouses dotted around Ireland’s shores, varying in size from the colossus that is Fastnet to more modest harbour lights. Their architecture varies considerably, due mainly to the demands of their location rather than to any design trends of the day, as the vast majority were built in a 57-year period between 1810 and 1867.

Lighthouses in many ways have no nationality and indeed in times of war they are neutral, pledged only to save life, to guide ships to shore and away from rocky reefs, shoals and sandbanks. As Europe’s western outpost, the safety of our coastline is of immense importance to shipping plying its trade across the Atlantic. The proliferation of lights that pepper the coasts of Donegal and Antrim, of Kerry and Cork, Waterford and Wexford reflect this concern for safe passage into and out of European waters. The offshore lighthouses of our western coast are of a different mould than those along the east coast. A keeper’s three-week tenure on the likes of Eagle Island or Inishtearracht, storm-battered and often inaccessible, could easily turn into a sojourn double that length.

Probably the most extreme example of enforced exile on an island station occurred in the winter of 1943-43 on Blackrock Lighthouse off the coast of Mayo when a prolonged winter storm trapped the keepers on the island for a record 117 days. In usual circumstances, fresh provisions would be delivered to the lighthouse every 10 days, but during this unprecedented spell, the keepers had to survive on wartime rations for more than 65 days before John Padden, the contract boatman on his second attempt in three days made the 15km trip into the teeth of the storm and managed to haul a basket of provisions onto the rock before having to hurriedly retreat across the waves. Spotting a brief lull in the weather the following February, he made his way back out and finally the keepers were relieved, aside that is, from the principal, Jack Scott, who stoically remained to direct operations until service was back to normal.

Life could be lonely too. In the early part of the 20th century, one of the keepers of Beeves Rock lighthouse in the Shannon estuary happened to be the maternal grandfather of former taoiseach Enda Kenny. James McGinley, stationed on the rock, took time off to marry Margaret Heekin and she moved into a Commissioners of Lights cottage on the mainland, near Askeaton, Co Limerick. She must have spent many lonely days in the six-room house as her husband did his duty out in the estuary. From the records of the 1911 census we know she was at that time once again alone and completing the record, she signed the form “Maggie McGinley – head of family”. Daily communication with her husband was only possible via semaphore as there were no phones or radio communication. She could see the lighthouse, and James could see her through his binoculars, but until his leave was due, this was their only form of intimacy. Of course not all lighthouses are marooned in inaccessible locations. Probably our most famous lighthouses is also our most visited.

The present structure of Hook Head lighthouse is about 800 years old and is the second oldest intact operational lighthouse in the world (that record goes to the Roman-era “Tower of Hercules” near Corunna in northwestern Spain). Hook was founded by St Dúbhan, a Welsh monk who settled on the peninsula then known as Hy Kinsellagh. Legend has it that, distressed at finding so many shipwrecked sailors washed up on the rocks below, he commissioned a local blacksmith to make a chauffer or metal basket, in which he built a fire and displayed it in the cliffs each night to warn ships away. The lighthouse is also reputed to be the origin of the phrase, “by hook or by crook”. Back in 1170, the Norman earl Strongbow landed here on his way to capture Waterford. He instructed his men to land by “Hook or by Crooke” as the village of Crooke lay across the harbour from the lighthouse.

Lighthouses at night have a distinctive beam, for example, one flash every two seconds tells a sailor that they are near Valentia Island off the coast of Kerry. They are also painted to help with their identification by sailors during the day. Most Irish lighthouses are painted all white as their surroundings of mountains or cliffs appear dark on the horizon. All black (Slyne Head and Ballycotton), or black with white bands tend to be used where the lighthouse is silhouetted against the sky from the sailor’s perspective. Unique among the colour schemes is St John’s Point in Co Down. It’s the only lighthouse in the country that boasts yellow and black bands.

In the early 1950s Brendan Behan’s father had the job of painting the lighthouse and decided to subcontract the task to his playwright son. Perhaps the colours didn’t suit him. Perhaps black with a creamy white band on top might have been more his cup of tea. In any case his work was poorly received and by mutual consent he never reached such heights in the painting and decorating game again. The decorating trade’s loss was our literary gain.

As we move towards the third decade of the 21st century, the truth is that virtually all the lighthouses around our shores are in operational terms already facing redundancy. They are a back-up system for when a ship’s GPS or navigational system fails or where a vessel doesn’t have the latest equipment. Even in this role, they might often as easily be replaced by an aluminium pole with an array of LEDs – Roancarrig being a good example – were it not for the great affection in which the public holds them; a sentiment which the Commissioners of Irish Lights appreciate and to which they are committed to preserving in as much as their remit allows – hence the Great Lighthouses of Ireland initiative. At some stage in the future, however, the commissioners and local councils will be forced to divest themselves of those structures that cannot be repurposed and in fact the process has begun, with a number of lighthouse buildings being sold off as private dwellings and the demolition of external buildings and stores at many of the stations.

The decommissioned Drogheda North light will be restored as part of the Boyne tourist trail stretching from Mornington to Newgrange, then onwards to Slane and eventually Navan. It will preserve for the public this historic structure and with it part of the legacy that lighthouses have played in maritime history in this country. Long may it shine.
Roger O’Reilly is an awardwinning artist and illustrator whose career has encompassed projects as diverse as storyboarding the Vikings TV series and illustrating for editorial and advertising clients around the world. His paintings are to be found in collections at home and abroad including the Musée d’Histoire Contemporaine in Paris. He is the author of Lighthouses of Ireland: An Illustrated Guide to the Sentinels that Guard our Coastline published by The Collins Press

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