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Great Lighthouses of Ireland - Inishtearaght Lighthouse 150 yrs 1870-2020

Tearaght Island with lighthouse

Tearaght with lighthouse

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Puffin flying "home" to Tiaracht

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Inishtearaght Lighthouse - Tearaght Island - Tiaracht - The Western Isle - Blasket Islands, West Kerry, Ireland S.W. [150 yrs 1870 - 2020]

Lat.      52°04.541' N 
Long. 010°39.677'W

Light characteristics as published on Admiralty chart:
FL(2)20s84m18M/Racon(O)AIS

[Flashing white twice every 20 seconds; focal point of light 84 meters above MHWS (Mean High Water Springs); 18 nautical miles luminous visibility; Radar transponder beacon (Racon) identification Morse letter "O" on vessel's radar display (-- -- --); Automatic Identification System (AIS)]  [Arc of visibility 263° (W Vis 318° - 221°)]


Among Ireland's many lighthouses Tearaght (commissioned on May 1st, 1870 at the same time as the Skelligs Upper Lighthouse was discontinued)* is mostly famous for two reasons: It is the most westerly lighthouse in (geographical) continental Europe (Skellig lighthouse is 20 miles SSE of Inishtearaght at 51°46.108'N / 010°32.519'W and thus it lies 5 miles further east than Inishtearaght) and it still possesses, in abandoned state, the remains of the steepest and shortest funicular rail track in Europe (1.88:1 gradient). A funicular rail track is a narrow-gauge railway - here a  3ft. 3in. gauge track embedded on a 6ft X 100 yds concrete runway - where the carriage is pulled by a cable system, formerly operated on Tearaght by an air winch when built in 1913, and later replaced by a Lister diesel engine in 1980, powering a hydraulic winch. The almost 100 yds rail-track up the precipitous rock also uniquely has different gradients which necessitated the use of custom-cast fish plates to connect the rails. A wonderful piece of industrial engineering and now part of our (abandoned) industrial archaeological heritage.

Many lighthouses in Europe claim to be the most westerly including Cabo da Roca in Portugal in mainland Europe, and both Ponta do Arnel on San Miguel, Azores and Ponta do Allerarz on Flores, also in the Azores, which like Iceland's most westerly lighthouse Bjargtanger lighthouse in the Westfjords, straddle the Mid Atlantic Ridge [MAR] and which are at the frontiers of both the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. Here we can disqualify the Azores island of Flores as it lies on the North American tectonic plate side of the MAR and also the Azorean island of San Miguel lies towards the African tectonic plate side. Bjargtanger lighthouse in the Westfjords, Iceland also lies on the North American tectonic plate side of the 16,000km. Mid Atlantic Ridge. But if by continental Europe we mean all that land including the British Isles and Ireland, which were formerly joined  to the continental land mass - and may be again in the next glacial period - and extends out into the Atlantic to the continental shelf edge and to the abyssal plain then Tearaght lighthouse at 010° 39.677' west is definitely further west than Cabo da Poca at 009°30' west.
The most westerly lighthouse on the Canary Islands is at Punta de Orchilla, Hierro - selected as the site of the prime meridian for map making by Ptolomy [100 -170 AD] as it was then the edge of the known world - and Madeira Islands at Ponta do Pargo and both lie on the African tectonic plate, although both sets of islands are European politically and culturally. Irrerspective of the technical argument of which of these great lighthouses is the most westerly lighthouse in Europe, all of these lighthouse are unique in their own way and surely it would be a wonderful lifetime experience to visit them all.!

 

Obviously, the lighthouse at Cabo da Roca on mainland Portugal is easily visited by car, whereas the Azores, being islands in the middle of the North Atlantic, are more difficult to access although there are regular flights from Lisbon. Both the Canary islands and Madeira are easily accessible. Tearght Island, West Kerry, Ireland S.W. may be the most challenging of all to visit as although Blasket Islands Eco Marine Tours operating out of Ventry Harbour, Co. Kerry ( www.marinetours.ie ) regularly do boat trips around the Outer Blasket islands our main focus is whale, dolphin and bird watching trips further out along the 100 meter depth contour, but whenever sea  conditions are suitable, with not too heavy an Atlantic swell rolling onto Tearaght, then one of our favourite summer tours, especially around the August / September period when the ocean is calmest annd we go through a relatively quiet period for sightings and some of our star summer visitors like the puffins have already migrated out to their oceanic winter feeding grounds in the northwest Atlantic, then we regularly go out to Tearaght, preferably approaching from the NE, and as we approach the channel between Tearaght and Tearaght Rocks which lie about one cable off, the lighthouse appears high on the cliffs on our port bow, sitting squat on the clifftop edge, a tribute to its builders and keepers who have kept its light shining out into the darkness of the Atlantic for the benefit of mariners, uninterrupted since it was first lit on the night of May 1st, 1870, 150 years ago this week.

A Brief Social History of Tearaght (Tiaracht) Island:

It seems incredible to have any kind of social history for a 67 acre precipitous rock ten miles offshore from the mainland, the most westerly in Europe ( apart from Great Foze Rock  which is 3 miles SSW and where the original intention was to build the lighthouse), that is less than 1/2 mile long and 1/4 mile wide and with two steep precipices of 116m and 200m joined by a narrow saddle with sea arch underneath 75m high. The only flat or accessible places are those hewn out of the rock by the masons and sappers who stayed on the rock for a number of years preparing the north and south landings and pathways and steps, and the east landing which is no longer accessible due to rockfalls. The mystery is that there is no remains here of any hermitage or anchorite settlement as on Skellig Rock. to which it is often compared, even though there is evidence of clochans (stone built beehive shaped huts) and church and oratory on some of the nearby Blasket islands of Inishvickillaun and Inish Tuaisceart (The Norther Island known as "The Dead Man" or "The Sleeping Giant") showing that early Christian monks settled here. There was an oral tradition among the Blasket Islanders that the monks lived here also but the only evidence that still remains is the place name of "The monk's garden" for a little stone-enclosed fertile patch of ground below the summit. There is evidence of substantial rockfall in this area which is above where the masons hewed the steps for the east landing and perhaps all other evidence of their presence lies in the deep waters below.

Preparatory work started on cutting landing steps and access and preparing a level platform for the lighthouse in 1864 and continued apace for the next 6 years until completed in 1870. For the men working on the bare rock these must have been very extreme working and living conditions. One worker fell to his death in 1867 while collecting seagulls' eggs to eat. As well as the lighthouse and ancillary access works, two houses were built to accommodate the two lighthouse keepers and their families. Central Statistics Office [C.S.O.] records for 1881 show a population of 13 on the rock including two keepers, their wives and families (9 children) and a total population of 10 souls ten years later in 1891. This must have been a very strange environment for raising children on an oceanic rock where they would never be allowed near the water even near the landings where the water is very deep and always subject to strong tidal currents and oceanic swell; their play limited perhaps to collecting seabirds' eggs for egg collections and keeping young rabbits and seagulls as pets and often confined for days indoors during Atlantic storms and during periods of rain and fog. Keepers and their entire families were also often transferred from island station to island station without ever going ashore onto the mainland. These early lighthouse families truely "served the light" and also the Commissioners for Irish Lights, and their place in our social history should be remembered.

In 1896 the keepers requested that the station be made "relieving" i.e. no permanent continuous habitation, but habitation by keepers only - Principle keeper and 2 Assistant keepers -  on alternating (2/3 weeks) terms of duty with relieving alternate crew. The Commissioners for Irish Lights agreed to their request and they and their families were transferred to new quarters in Valentia, and a terrace of eight new houses were built in 1900 behind Knightstown to house the keepers of both Skelligs and Tearaght and their families. Thereafter their families remained on Valentia while the keepers  went separately to "keep the light" for their 2 /3 week tours of duty. From 1901 the CSO records show a consistent number of 3 keepers on the rock until 1988 when the lighthouse went automatic. Of these keepers one fell to his death while trying to round up some of the island goats for milking and one other keeper broke both his arms and legs in a fall, but lived to resume his former job as keeper and regale the (very rare) visitors to the rock about his misadventures. The rail track was constructed in 1913-14 to facilitate the carriage of heavy fog-signal cylinders to the top where one of the accommodation houses was converted into an engine room.

Sadly, due to Public Liability concerns, the remaining accommodation was stripped in 2015 and much of the old historic machinery broken and destroyed. There may be some remnants (hopefully) of machinery or lenses or light apparatus equipment in the Commissioners of Irish Lights depot in Dún Laoghaire, from where the central monitoring system is located. But the cups and saucers, the beds  and dressers, and even the kitchen chairs and the chequered formica covered tables have all been taken away and dumped, and with them  the stories and tales, the hopes and dreams and good humour and hospitality of the men who "kept the light" and made this rock their home. The writer of this article was lucky enough to have availed of their hospitality in years  gone by with a sweet mug of tea as big as a jug, a tour and walkaround inside the lantern gallery and around the light apparatus and first order (6 ft diameter) lens and a couple of hours spent in blissful sunshine in "the monk's garden". It was  a world apart and the keepers were people apart and as Tomás ó Criomthain said of his fellow islanders across on the Great Blasket Island - "Ní beidh ár leithéidí arís ann" - There will never be the likes of them again.
[In memoriam to my dear friend Aidan Walsh (R.I.P.) Valentia  Island - Lighthouse Keeper, Attendant, raconteur - "Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam uasal"]

Tearaght Lighthouse Keepers were the original citizen scientists and helped collect vast amounts of Big Data for 19th century scientific ornithological purposes.

In the late 19th century the light keepers at Tearaght - as well as 47 other lighthouses and 10 lightships in Ireland at the time - were recruited as virtual data collectors by distinguished ornithologist and Irish naturalist R.M. Barrington to collect data and specimens of birds "striking" the light at night as well as other daylight observations of birds in flight, species, numbers, weather conditions including strength and direction of wind and also requested to send "one leg and one wing (only) of each bird" killed striking the light, mounted on a specially designed card with integral label including both name of bird and name of lighthouse keeper. Rare birds were to be sent entire and he included a special formula for their preservation including soaking in methylated spirits as "it does not injure them" which gives an interesting insight into the scientific study of nature at the time which gives no value to the life of the creature either killed by striking or shot by the keeper (a common method of obtaining animal samples for identification in those days), but the condition of the specimen to be studied and examined is paramount. The instruction to the light keepers contained the provider "Do not put more than one leg and wing in each envelope" and when sufficient were gathered they were  to be put in a larger envelope for collecrtion by the Irish Lights ship when relieving the station, and they were then sent by post (paid for by Barrington) to Mr. Barrington's home in Wicklow.
In total between 1881-1897 he received 3,000 sets of (leg and wing) specimens and 1,000 whole (rare) birds with over 1,000 schedules meticulously filled in by light keepers including name and address of person sending in the report; date; number and name or species of bird; hour when seen; force and direction of wind; direction birds were going (!); weather and visibility ( clear, fog, rain, snow); number of birds striking glass of lantern and condition (!); general observations of specimen-collector (keeper).  Many keepers included their own observations (30,000 in total !) and all of this data was collated and interpreted to form the basis of his book published in 1900 called "The Migration of  Birds" which became the standard book on bird migration until the 1950's when leg ringing etc. led to further advances in our knowledge of bird migration.

Previous to Barrington's work on bird migration it was generally believed that some birds like swifts and swallows - who are not closely related but are an example of convergent evolution -  actually spent the winter on the bottom of lakes possibly because they were last seen descending into reed beds on lakes in the autumn before disappearing (migrating at night)  for the winter, and somewhat like the idea also then prevalent, that basking shark disposed of their plankton gill-rakers for the winter period and slept on the deep ocean bottom! The classic case of mistaken natural life cycle and fable was by the great Carl Linnaeus himself (even though the true nature and differences between Barnacle geese and Goose barnacles was then known)  when he gave a filter feeding crustacean, still referred to as a goose-necked barnacle, the nomenclature "Lepas ansifera"  meaning "goose bearing" from the mistaken belief that because Barnacle geese were only seen in winter and neither eggs nor chicks were ever seen in summer (the fact that they bred in the Arctic in summer was not known then) and drifting logs came ashore with what looked like the growing heads  and necks of Barnacle geese (Goose barnacles) therefore Barnacle geese must come from trees! This theory / myth which was believed even by the Anglo- Roman historian Giraldus Cambrensis in the 13th century was further interpreted by hungry monks abstaining from "flesh" on fast days of abstinance by making an exception for Barnacle geese which they claimed did not "come from flesh"- a fine pre-Jesuital distinction(!). All of which came from a misinterpretation of genuine observations, perhaps aided by the appetites of hungry monks, leading to a false hypothesis.

The achievement of Barrington in establishing a scientific basis for bird migration and bird migration routes was an important achievement of the late 19th century which was only achieved by his enthusiastic army of data collectors - 145 lighthouse and lightship keepers from 48 lighthouses and 10 lightships - collecting data 24hrs a day, day and night, 365 days a year for 18 years! The end result of all this work was the 994 pages of the beautifully bound  work of R.M. Barrington "The Migration of Birds" printed in 1900 of which there were only 350 copies published and very few remaining.

Barrington himself died in 1915, but not the enthusiasm of his collectors, and specimens continued to arrive at his residence long after his demise - one leg and one wing (only) at a time .

But the birds also continue to arrive, and each year thousands of migrating birds are killed around our shores by striking the lantern with no watchers on the (automated) lighthouses any more to record their demise or attempt to interpret their direction of intended travel. Barrington observed from the data provided that this was especially so on dark lunar nights and also that a red light was not as lethal as a white light and a flashing or occulting light not as lethal as a fixed light.

In these troubled times we are all sitting on our own Tearaght Rock looking out towards our own horizon and in times like these it is good to listen and tune our minds to the imaginary sound of tectonic plates beneath our feet slowly forming and reforming continents, or the interconnectedness of birds on their annual migration from time immemorial, bringing  us annually with their birdsong, joy and hope.........

Log of the Whale Watching Tour Boat M.V. "Blasket Princess" [in lockdown]


Captain Whales Galore                    26.04.2020

* Two lighthouses were originally built on Great Skellig and commissioned on December 4th, 1826, one at 55m and one at 115m, as the authorities at the time - The Corporation for Preserving and Improving the Port of Dublin - did not want mariners to confuse the light with the single fixed light on Loop Head to the north and the single flashing light of Cape Clear Island to the south. However it transpired that the light at 115m was almost constantly enshrined in mist and fog and its diminished luminous arc was a source of confusion to mariners so it was discontinued. 

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