Bog beacon - on one of Ireland’s more unusual lighthouses

An Irishman’s Diary

Passing through Portarlington the other day, I stopped to visit a local architectural feature that I had been told was inspired by a throwaway line in this column once.

About 10 years ago, I presented a "History of Ireland in 100 Insults", and at number 88 was "brilliant but useless, like a lighthouse in a bog". And Portarlington being central to Ireland's largest expanse of bogland, this in time led to a man named Dave Maher having a lightbulb moment.

When, years afterwards, he and his business partner started building a vast eco-friendly garden centre on the edge of town, named Solas, they decided it would not be complete without a lighthouse of sorts. The result now towers over the facility, brilliantly if without practical purpose.

The original phrase was not mine, of course. I don't know who first said it, although I should. It's the sort of thing the late John Healy, formerly of this parish, might have written in one of his savage political columns. But the earliest mention in our archives is from a 1978 letter to the editor, quoting it as an established saying (and, on that occasion, as a description of Conor Cruise O'Brien).


In any case, the lighthouse at Solas is no rival to the Kish or Fastnet. It may not win any architectural awards. In fact, the sign that announces the garden centre to the main road, while doubling as an “insect hotel”, is probably a greater marvel.

Still, in my vainglorious imagination, the lighthouse carries an echo of an even more famous quotation. You’ll remember how Helen of Troy’s face launched a thousand ships? Well, my line launched a recycled shipping container, now attached vertically on to the horizontal containers that comprise much of the garden centre’s storage and food village space.

And modest as its height is, when Maher asked me if I’d like to climb the interior ladder, the prospect was forbidding enough that I asked if there was anything worth seeing up there. There isn’t, really. The windows at the top are opaque, allowing only a translucent glow to escape the beacon.

Also, unusually for a lighthouse, the light shines only on three sides. Since Solas adjoins a large housing estate, Maher thought that even an opaque window on that side might invite problems. In the event, and in keeping with local goodwill towards his enterprise, none of the 118 householders objected to any of the plans.

As all table quiz veterans will know, Laois is the only Irish county surrounded by counties that don’t touch the sea. And yet it’s not entirely illogical that a town called Portarlington should have a lighthouse, even if the “Port” bit of the name is now a mystery.

The place was originally Cúil an tSúdaire ("the nook of the tanner"), anglicised to Coolatoodery. But the charms of that were lost on the English settlers with which Henry Bennett, aka Baron Arlington, hoped to populate his planned new town in 1666. Fearing the Irish terminology might be "inconvenient" to them, he instead named it Portarlington, probably (according to Logainm,ie) "from a harbour constructed on the river".

Like many start-up enterprises, that English colony was a failure. The town had to be relaunched a generation later by French Huguenots, refugees from the wars of religion. To this day, Portarlington has a French Church Street.

Solas itself has risen on the site of a former steel works and its refurbished factory provides most of the vast indoor retail space; a shop “10m longer than the pitch at the Aviva”, Maher says. Having worked for several big US companies before deciding that corporate life was not for him, he did not immediately hit on this line of business as a way forward. He considered other, higher-tech options. Then, noting that many tech products have a life cycle of only 14 months, from start-up to obsolescence, he opted for something more sustainable, in every sense.

Speaking of which, the complex is also overlooked by a first-floor poultry house, where a parliament of hens was in session while we spoke. “Parliament” is not the correct collective term, I know. But their facilities included a tiered-bench structure for roosting and they were clucking non-stop during my visit, so it felt right.

They were also highly productive, however. Before I left, in the classic Irish country manner, Maher insisted I take a few eggs home. On the basis that it was a legitimate fee for architectural consultancy services, I accepted. After a quick sweep of the nests, I departed with seven very fresh ones, speckled with bits of straw and other eco-friendly additives.