Skellig lighthouse is one of the main sea lights off the south
west coast and is located on the outer and larger of the Skellig
rocks; eight miles (12.8km) from the nearest mainland point, north
east of Puffin Island.
Compared with the monastery the lighthouse presence is comparatively
short (1826) nevertheless its history, in its own way, just as fascinating.
Early in 1816 Maurice Fitzgerald, Knight of Kerry,
reminded the Corporation preserving and improving the port of Dublin
that over twenty years previously the grand jury of the county
of Kerry had looked for a lighthouse on Bray Head, Valentia Island,
which had been agreed but suspended until the opinion of Trinity
House had been taken. Fitzgerald also reminded the Board of two
merchant ship casualties in Dingle and Ballinskelligs bays both
for the want of a light between Loop Head and Cape Clear Island.
Mr Fitzgerald was informed that the subject would be looked into.
Eighteen months later Inspector of lighthouses George Halpin made
his report to the Board in which he recommended Great Skellig rock
instead of Bray Head as the best position for two lighthouses. His
reason for two lights was so as not to be confused with the fixed
light on Cape Clear Island to the south. The Board agreed and Trinity
House were informed, who at first queried the size of Great Skellig
before giving sanction in November 1820.
The Board then approached Mr J. Butler of Waterville,
Co. Kerry for terms on which he would lease forever Great Skellig
rock. He replied the following month stating a rent of £30 per annum for the
986 years left of his own lease. He hoped that it was not too extravagant,
as heretofore both he and his father had been paid a rent of 16 to
18 stone of puffin feathers, which would rear 100 sheep in summer
and 50 in winter. He also mentioned he was prepared to leave the
valuation to any fair person. By March the board agreed to pay £30
per annum but would prefer the fee or purchase of the rock. The law
agent meanwhile had been checking up on Butler and was not satisfied
with his powers to sell or lease and in May recommended an inquisition
which was held in Tralee during July and a value of £780 was
placed on the rock, this amount was paid into the Butler estate in
Construction work on the rock appears to have started
in August 1821. The buildings, rock cutting and roadways were designed
by Inspector George Halpin and carried out under his direction
by workmen of the board. At each station the tower and dwelling
were built of rubble masonry with slate cladding on the outside
walls. The dwellings were semi-detached (one house for the principal
keeper, one for the assistant) the lower was two storeys the
upper single, each had attic rooms. The pitched roof of the lower
house was flattened circa 1910. Each house had its own cast iron
porch all four are still in situ. The only "imported" stone was granite for the lantern blocking,
tower floors and stairs, windowsills and certain wall coping stones.
Unfortunately there are no detailed records of the
building and construction of either station or the approach road
from the east landing at blind man's cove. The north landing at
Blue cove together with the path and steps had already been constructed
by the monks and only required modifications at the landing and
lower end, by the Corporation. The east-landing road being set
into the rock towards its lower end at blind Man's Cove necessitated
blasting tonnes of rock into the sea. Unfortunately a considerable
length of the lower end of the path and steps leading up to the
eastern end of the beehive settlement were permanently destroyed
and lost forever.
During the five-year and a half years of construction Inspector
Halpin made three brief reports and in each he emphasised the
difficulties that had to be contended with. By April 1823 the
roads were being cut and prepared. By March 1824 they had not
started on building the stations and at the late stage of January
1826 one, presumably the lower, lighthouse was built and ready
to receive the lantern but the other (upper) had not been commenced.
The Inspector hoped the spring summer and autumn would be moderately
favourable so that the lights could be exhibited before winter
sets in- his wish was obviously granted. During the August the
lights were almost complete and the Ballast Board ordered the
Inspector to issue a notice to Mariners stating the lights would
be exhibited on Monday 4th December 1826. Not surprisingly the
cost of the whole operation was£45,721:15s10d.
Finishing went on for the best part of another year.
The lights were
fixed; first order catoptric, (reflective light) each using
Argand oil lamps and parabolic reflectors. The upper light was
372 feet (121.3m) above high water and could be seen at a distance
of 25 miles (40.2km) in clear weather, the lower light was 175
feet (53.3) above high water and could be seen for 18 miles (29km).
Each tower was approximately 48 feet(14.6) overall height and they
were 745 feet(227m) apart. The towers and dwellings were painted
Two or three items of interest are perhaps worth
mentioning during the early years of the Skellig lights. During
the winter of 1845-46 rape seed oil was tried by the service and
found to be better than sperm oil, it was generally introduced
and by 1849 the two Skellig lights benefited from the change. Wooden
divisions were added to one or two bedrooms in 1862 to give more
privacy for the younger members of the families. In April 1865
the Principle Keeper of the upper station complained that he had
been cruelly beaten up by the P.K. of the lower station. The board
summoned them and the lower P.K., who had a drink problem, was
Towards the end of 1889 the parish priest of Cahirciveen claimed
in the interest of the Roman Catholic Church that the keepers who
since 1880 had been appointed "caretakers" by the Board
of Works of the National Monuments on Great Skellig, should be of
the faith and desired that the present Protestant keepers should
be replaced. The Board ordered that the Reverend gentleman be informed
that they cannot accede to his request but assured him every care
is taken of the monuments.
On a sad note a minute was read to the Board on the 3rd April 1869
from W.Callaghan, P.K. of the lower station requesting removal to
another station stating he had buried his two children on the rock
and another was lying ill. It was noted by the Inspector, but the
request was not immediately carried out. The small grave in the medieval
chapel reminds us of the two unfortunate mites, Patrick aged 2' who
died in December 1868 and William aged 4 who died in March 1869.
When Inishtearaght, the most westerly island of the Blaskets, 22
miles (35.4km) north of Skellig rocks, was established 1st May 1870,
the upper light of the Skellig was discontinued, not without a fight
I may add but the Elder Brethren had made up their minds it was not
necessary and they stuck to their decision.
A block of eight shore dwellings for the keepers and families of
Skelligs and Inishtearaght were built at Knightstown, Valentia Island,
at the turn of the century by Mr W.H. Jones of Dunmanway for £7570. The keepers took up residence
in 1901 and both Skellig and Tearaght became relieving from Valentia Harbour.
Times change, keepers preferred, quite naturally, to live in their own homes
and the Knightstown dwellings were sold in 1964.
A proposal by the Engineer-in-chief Mr C.W. Scott in 1904 to build
a new and more powerful light on the projecting spur of rock
below and to the west of the disused upper light got as far as
a detailed survey being made in the summer of 1905. It was discussed
with new lighthouse works (1906-1907) at conference level in
London but the end result was, after captains Fredric (Bot) Clarke
and Blake (T.H) had visited the great Skellig in July 1906, to
improve the light in the existing tower and establish an explosive
fog signal on the western spur.
Trinity House and Board of Trade sanctioned in April 1907 a triple flashing 3rd
order light and an explosive fog signal 3 quick reports every 10-minute. Chance
Brothers of Birmingham supplied the optic and pedestal and David Brown of Leeds
the rotation machine. The new 120000 candelas light using vapourised paraffin
incandescent burner was established on the 22nd December 1909 with a character
o 3 quick flashes every 10 seconds.
Soon after the automatic fog signal was established, 13th June 1914, difficulties
were experienced so it was temporarily discontinued in July. Checked both on
the rock and at sea it was re-established by 9th December. On the Inspecting
committee's recommendation in 1919 the automatic fog signal operated manually.
The Character was altered to one report every six minutes from the 1st of June
1934 and from 1940 until 1948 the signal was discontinued. Two severe rock slides
between the lower station and fog signal occurred in November 1953 were sufficient
to cause a Notice to Mariners to be issued stating the signal would be out of
action until further notice. Consideration was given and sanction obtained for
a fog signal firing house on the balcony of the tower but the inspecting Committee
on tour in 1959 realising that there had been no requests from for the re-establishment
of the fog signal recommended that it should be discontinued. By August 1960
a Notice to Mariners stated that the fog signal was permanently discontinued.
For their help in rescuing two boat- loads of survivors from the "S.S. Marina" early
in November 1916 the three keepers were awarded £1 each from the Board
of Trade and one guinea each from the owners of the "Marina".
During the 1939-1945 war on 27th February 1944 an aircraft crashed, exploded
and fell in flames into the sea off the north side of the rock. A search by the
light keepers and a British aircraft found neither survivors nor wreckage.
The 1962 Inspecting committee on Tour recommended the modernisation
of Skellig lighthouse. This entailed replacing the hand operated
derrick crane at Cross Cove by a diesel driven derrick. A complete
overhaul of the dwellings for both tradesmen and keepers including
electric light, central heating, bathroom and toilets. An office
for the Principal Keeper. Increased storage for both diesel fuel
and fresh water. Demolishing the 1826 tower and the 1924-connecting
corridor to the dwelling. Building a new tower and adjoining
engine room. The 1909 Chance Brothers optic was retained with
a 3kw 100v.lamp replacing the vapourised paraffin mantles and
driven by a ¼ h.p.electric motor
On the 25th May 1967 the 1,800,000 candlelas light
came into operation. The 40ft.(12.2m) tower and dwellings were
painted white. The whole operation took over 2years and cost almost £49,000.
The engineer in chief with overall responsibility for the project
was Mr. H. Martin.
In 1949 relief by helicopter came into operation taking over
from the service steamer out of Castletownbere
In 1978 the inspecting committee made a recommendation that the both the Fastnet
and Skelligs should be automated.
In 1981 both the engineer in chief Mr. N.D. Clotworthy
and the inspector and marine superintendent Captain H.N.Greenlee
agreed that automation was possible.
In 1985 work commenced with installing the necessary equipment,
new generating sets,1kw metalarc lamps for the optic, remote
control and monitoring links via Knockgour ( Mountain in the
Beara Penninsula) to Caltletownere Helicopter base and Iirsh
Lights HQ in Dublin.
On the 22nd of April 1987 the Skelligs closed it
doors to the lighthouse men who had watched over the seamen since
4th December 1826 when it became fully automated.
Back to top