Lighthouse service celebrates 200 years


IT WITNESSED the closing stages of the Napoleonic Wars, two world wars and it has saved countless lives – the Irish lighthouse service tomorrow marks 200 years of providing safe navigation around 7,500km of coastline.

Known as the Commissioners of Irish Lights, the all-island organisation, which has its headquarters in Dún Laoghaire, Co Dublin, was the only statutory body to survive partition, and answers to both the Dáil and the British House of Commons. It has moved from candle power to satellite navigation, once employing gasmen and gunners, blacksmiths and bricklayers, among a number of specialist staff.

Among its best known lighthouses are Hook Head in Wexford, one of the four oldest lighthouses in the world, and Fastnet, the granite finger also known as the “teardrop of Ireland” to departing emigrants.

Fastnet comprises 2,074 granite blocks cut to precise size in Penryn, Cornwall. When a hurricane smashed its lantern in 1881, it was reconstructed over seven years from 1896 by charismatic Wicklow foreman James Kavanagh, who set every stone with his own hands and died before it was completed.

The organisation’s lightkeepers and lightshipmen, engineers, designers, builders, masons and administrators encompassed a myriad of skills sharing a common bond and goal – safety of all at sea – its chief executive, Dr Stuart Ruttle, has said. Lighthouses are now automated, but some 79 part-time lighthouse and other attendants are employed among its 190 full-time administrative and technical staff.

Dr Ruttle said it was “appropriate that 2010 is also designated as the year of the seafarer by the International Maritime Organisation” and “together with our sister organisations in Britain, Trinity House [Britain and the Channel Islands] and Northern Lighthouse Board [for Scotland and the Isle of Man], we continue to operate a seamless and integrated service for all waters around Britain and Ireland”. Dr Ruttle said the future would undoubtedly be electronic in an age of e-navigation, and the organisation would adapt to change.

A recent review has recommended transfer of some services to harbour boards, while fog signals will no longer be considered to be aids to navigation, and will only be used as hazard warning signals.

Financing has also been reviewed and the Irish lighthouse service could lose its British subsidy. The recently published Atkins report on the lighthouse services noted that over half the cost of the Irish network was being subsidised from British sources.

Lighthouse services are paid for through dues collected on merchant shipping using ports. Dues are calculated on the tonnage of ships, and are then pooled in a central lighthouse fund.