Lighthouse is known as The Teardrop of Ireland, the last sight
of Ireland for emigrants sailing to America.
The Fastnet Rock is 4.5 miles southwest of Cape Clear and
southwest of Mizen Head. There are two pinnacles of hard clay
shale with veins of quartz rising to a height of 30m. above low-
water mark surrounded by deep water.
The Corporation of Trinity House sanctioned the first
lighthouse, a cast iron tower designed by George Halpin, in 1848
to replace the Cape Clear Lighthouse, which was too far inside
the dangers, too high and too foggy.
Three dwellings were built at Rock Island at the entrance to
Crookhaven Harbour to house the Lightkeepers’ families. The
Tower was finished in 1853 and the light first shown on January
1st. 1854. The total cost including the dwellings was £20,000.
On November 26th. 1881 a similar tower on the Calf Rock was
carried away in a gale. In the same gale the sea broke the glass
on the Fastnet lantern. In 1883 an explosive fog signal was
installed. A charge of gun cotton was electrically fired every
five minutes during fog or thick haze.
In 1891 the Irish Lights Board resolved that the light on the
Fastnet was not powerful enough for its position as the
principal landfall light on the southwest coast. They applied
for the sanction of the Elder Brethren of Trinity House to build
a new tower to make it the best possible light.
Mr. William Douglass, the Commissioners of Irish Lights’
engineer, surveyed the Rock for a new site for the tower. He
proposed a granite tower 42’ in diameter at the lowest course
and 147’ in height with the focal plane of the light at 159’
above high-water mark. The cost was estimated at £70,387.
After much negotiation between the Commissioners, the Board of
Trade and Trinity House, the Board of Trade sanctioned the
expenditure for the building of the new Lighthouse on November
Mr. Douglass increased the diameter of the base of the tower to
52’. The first course of stone is 6” below high-water mark. The
first ten courses are built into the natural rock. After
twenty-five courses there are 5 courses with built-in water
storage tanks. The entrance floor is at a height of 57.75’ above
Above the entrance floor the masonry of the tower extends to a
height of 88’. It is divided into seven rooms with granite
The first floor room is the Storeroom. It contained the magazine
for storing the gun cotton for the fog signal.
The second floor room was the oil-room with oil tanks and a pump
for forcing the oil up to a small supply tank in the lantern.
The third floor room was a spare bedroom for workmen.
The fourth floor room was the principal storeroom with presses
and shelving. There was a special felt lined cupboard for
storing the detonators for the fog signal charges.
The fifth floor room served as a kitchen with a cooking range, a
circular table, a bookcase, shelving and a white glazed
stoneware washing up sink.
The sixth floor room was the bedroom for the lightkeepers with
bunks, a wardrobe, lockers, shelves and a rail with sliding
hooks. The floor was covered with cork carpet.
The top storey was a service room with a cast iron rainwater
tank, which collected the water falling on the lantern and upper
balcony, the wireless telegraphic instruments, a sink, a
wash-hand-basin, cupboards and shelves for light room utensils
and stores. The windows were louvred to give bottom ventilation
to the lantern.
The total height of the masonry is 146.33’ and the external form
tapers for a height of 116’ in an easy curve, which is the
segment of an ellipse. There is an easy curve under the
projecting balconies of 26’ diameter at 133.5’ and 146.25’ to
throw the spray clear of the service room and the lantern.
The staircases follow the elliptical curve of the tower. They
have radial cast iron treads.
The first courses were laid in June 1899 and the masonry work
was completed in May 1903. A total of 89 courses consisting of
2,074 stones, having a nett cubic content of 58,093 cubic feet
and weighing 4,300 tons, were landed and set in 118 working
days. In addition 4,500 cubic feet of granite blocks used to
fill in holes in the foundation and the space between tower and
rock up to the level of the Entrance gallery.
The granite stones were brought from Messrs. John Freeman and
Sons of Penryn, Cornwall. Good hard granite was needed for the
base, but as it would be covered with seaweed its pure colour
and coarse grain were not important. For the upper courses, hard
fine-grained uniform coloured stone was bought.
The stones were cut with dovetail joints in all directions to
interlock and give strength to the tower. No stone can be
removed unless all stones are removed from above it. This system
of dovetail toggles bonds the entire structure into a monolith.
The entire tower was erected in sections of 6 – 8 courses in the
contractor’s yard in Cornwall where Mr. Douglass or Mr. Foot,
the Resident Engineer, inspected them before they were
dismantled and transported to Rock Island. They were checked
rigorously at the Rock Island yard again before they were
transported on the ‘Ierne’ to the Fastnet Rock.
The ‘SS Ierne’ was specially built for carrying the stones. A
powerful steam winch and derrick deposited the stones on two
tiers of rollers on the deck. The ‘Ierne’ moored onto three
buoys next to the quay. The stones were lifted into the water
with derricks from the quay and lifted from the water with the
ship’s derrick onto the deck. At the Rock, the stones were
lifted by means of a series of pulleys and masts up to the new
course. The main mast was held in a 16” diameter hole in the
stones at the centre of the floor at each storey.
James Kavanagh, the foreman, joined the project in 1896. He was
to stay with the construction on the Rock until the last course,
89, was finished in June 1903. He went ashore at the end of June
complaining of sickness. He died in July and was taken for
burial in Arklow on the Irish Lights’ vessel. He had personally
set every stone on the Lighthouse.
Bad weather and the difficulty of finding suitable stone delayed
construction. During the summer months 11 – 15 men lived on the
Rock in addition to the foreman with 4 – 6 extra hands being
landed on any day that stones were set. In 1899 when the rock
was being cut for the foundations as many as 22 men lived on the
Rock, not counting the Lightkeepers.
An office, stores, carpenters’ and blacksmiths’ shops, a barrack
for the workmen and two keepers’ dwellings were built on Rock
Island, giving work to the men when the weather was too severe
for work on the tower
The characteristic of the light and its apparatus was finally
decided by the Irish Lights Board and sanctioned by Trinity
House in February 1902. The character adopted is a single flash
every 5 seconds. The power of the beam through the lens for the
centre of the flash is about 750,000 candlepower. The burner
used 1.2 pints of oil per hour at 1200 candles.
This strong beam was achieved by the use of a biform four-sided
apparatus – Dioptric. If one burner went out there was a
duplicate. A flash of greater power is achieved with this
apparatus. A flash of 38% more power is achieved with this form
of light. The biform type can be more easily cleaned with the
use of a gallery inside and outside. Finally, the duration of
the flash is longer than with a monoform light.
The light floats in mercury, which enables it to revolve evenly.
The light apparatus weighs 6 tons and needs a weight of 290lbs.
falling at 49’ per hour to rotate at a speed of 3 revolutions
per minute. The weight falls through a tube in the centre. One
of the tasks of the lightkeeper was to keep the light wound up.
The Lantern is 17’ in diameter at the inner surface of the
glass. The framing is steel with an intermediate cast iron sill.
The two firing jibs for the Fog Signal were clamped outside.
Messrs. Chance of Birmingham constructed the whole optical
apparatus and lantern.
In 1904 The Marconi Wireless Telegraphy Company installed
wireless telegraphy equipment and signal-flag masts on the roof
of the lantern to contact passing boats. Mr. Rickards, the
Marconi Company’s Engineer, stayed on the Rock for some months
to instruct the light keepers in the use of the apparatus and to
experiment with several aerials. The Rock was used as a regular
Lloyd’s signal station, receiving flag-signals from passing
ships and telegraphing the messages ashore to the Brow Head
J. Kavanagh, son of the foreman, proceeded with the plumber and
four men to dismantle the old tower in March 1904. The old tower
was taken down to the top of the casing so that the remains
could be used as an oil store. Six 300-gallon oil tanks were put
in this store and five 130-gallon tanks for the oil store in the
A temporary light was installed while the work proceeded. In
1903 a storm damaged some of the lantern parts, but by April
1904 repairs had been made in Birmingham and the lantern
returned to Rock Island, but it was not until June 25th. that
the lantern and burners were ready.
The Commissioners came to Crookhaven on board the Irish Lights’
Steamer SS Alexandra to inspect their new light. They were
delighted with the intense flash of the light at 22 miles
There were six Keepers at the Fastnet Rock – four at a time and
two on leave. Reliefs were twice a month when two men were taken
off. Each man did four weeks on two weeks off. One man had to
stay on watch during daytime to look out for fog and to signal
passing ships. As soon as fog was seen another man was called up
to work the fog-signal.
The annual cost of maintenance and repairs was about £1000.
Lloyds repaid £200 to the Commissioners for the services of a
lightkeeper. The cost of oil, mantles, etc. for the light was
about £45 and ammunition for the fog signal was £260 p.a.
The rate for a labourer was 2s 6d. (12.5p.) per day for nine
hours with an extra 1s. (5p.) when working on the Rock. Every
man employed had 10d. (4p.) deducted from his pay per month for
The men provided their own provisions but were not allowed to
let their stock run lower than a fortnight. The Commissioners
set up a stock of reserve provisions on the Rock, which the men
were allowed to purchase. On average they kept 2 cwt. (110kgs.)
Salt beef, 2 cwt. Salt pork, 2 cwt. Tinned meats, 18lb.Tea, 1
cwt. Sugar, 12 tins Cocoa, 180 tins Condensed milk, 2.5 cwt.
Biscuits in barrel, 70 lbs. Biscuits in tins (35kgs), 20 lb.
Rice, 65lb.Green peas, 32lbs.Split peas. Of these the biscuits,
tea, sugar and milk were most in demand and the meat was hardly
When there were so many men on the Rock they slept three to a
bunk. They were all turned out at 5 o’clock in the morning and
made to wash themselves thoroughly, turning out all the bedding
to air and washing down the barracks. This way the men stayed
Communication was kept with the shore by semaphore signals three
times a day when the weather was clear and a set of canvas ball,
cone and diamond signals for bad weather.
The temporary buildings and the wharf at Rock Island were
dismantled. The SS Ierne was retained for service at other
stations in the southwest.
Extracts from ‘History of Fastnet Lighthouses’ by C.W. Scott.
First published by the Commissioners of Irish Lights in 1906,
reprinted by Schull Books in hardback in 1993 in a limited
edition. Reprinted in soft back in 2001. Available from Jack and
Barbara O’Connell, Schull Books, Ballydehob, West Cork.
Characteristics of the Fastnet Rock Lighthouse
51º 23.3’ North 9º 36.1’West
Fl W 5s White Flash every 5 seconds, also exhibited by day when
the fog signal is sounding: nominal range 27 nautical miles.
Morse ‘G’ on vessel’s radar display.
4 blasts every 60 seconds
Height of Tower
Height of Light above mean high water springs