Skelligs lighthouse is one of the main lights off the south west coast and is located on the outer and larger of the Skelligs Rocks; eight miles (12.8km) from the mainland.
Compared with the monastery the lighthouse presence is comparatively short (1826). Nevertheless its history, in its own way is 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 Skelligs 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 was informed, who at first queried the size of Great Skelligs 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 Skelligs 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. A value of £780 was placed on the rock, this amount was paid into the Butler estate in November 1821.
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 tons 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 emphasized 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 By 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.
Characteristics of the Early lights
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 white.
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 dismissed. Towards the end of 1889 the parish priest of Cahersiveen 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 Skelligs, 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.
Two or three items of interest are perhaps worth mentioning during the early years of the Skelligs 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 Skelligs 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.
On a sad note the minutes of a meeting were 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.
The Inspector noted it, 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.
Closure of the First Lighthouse
When Inishtearaght, the most westerly island of the Blaskets, 22 miles (35.4km) north of Skelligs rocks, was established on the 1st May 1870, the upper light of the Skelligs was discontinued.This was contested but the Elder Brethren had made up their minds that it was not necessary and they stuck to their decision.
Housing the Light keepers on Valentia
A block of eight shore dwellings for the keepers and families of Skelligs and Inishtearaght were built at Knightstown, Valentia Island, by Mr. W.H. Jones of Dunmanway at the turn of the century for £7570. In 1901 the keepers from both Skelligs and Tearaght lighthouses took up residence in the dwelling houses at Valentia Island. In 1964 the dwelling hoses were sold by Trinity House.
Upgrading at Light 1904
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.
On the 22nd December 1909 the new 120000 candelas light using vapourised paraffin incandescent burner was established with a character o 3 quick flashes every 10 seconds.
The Fog Signal
On the13th June 1914 the automatic fog signal was established, but 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 realizing 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
Rescues by Lighthouse Keepers
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.
Modernisation of the Lighthouse
The 1962 Inspecting committee on Tour recommended the modernisation of Skelligs 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.
1949 relief by helicopter came into operation taking over from the service steamer out of Castletownbere.
1978 the inspecting committee made a recommendation that the both the Fastnet and Skelligs should be automated.
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.
1985 work commenced with installing the necessary equipment, new generating sets, 1kwmetal-arc lamps for the optic, remote control and monitoring links via Knockgour ( Mountain in the Beara Peninsula) to Castletownbere Helicopter base
andIrish 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.
Read More »
« Read Less