Where does one begin with something as fascinating as the Fastnet Lighthouse, perched out in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean off the southwest coast of Ireland? Since 1854 this grand old light has guided and served many a ship through these treacherous waters. As George Bernard Shaw once said, “I can think of no other edifice constructed by man as altruistic as a lighthouse. They were built only to serve.” And the Fastnet Lighthouse has served for well over 150 years.
As a part of the John Eagle Extreme Lighthouse Tour in July of this year, my wife, Barb, and I had the opportunity to see the infamous Fastnet Lighthouse as close as is now possible. We have been on many a tour and have seen well over 275 lighthouses, but the Fastnet Lighthouse was second to none. Although we saw over twenty lighthouses on this wonderful tour with John Eagle, who is a professional Irish photographer and author, the Fastnet was our favorite
During our tour we had the opportunity to meet former Fastnet Lighthouse Keeper Dick O’Driscoll and his wife Maura at their home where we were graciously served sandwiches, treats, and lots of great memories of the life at the Fastnet. Dick had been an Irish lighthouse keeper for 50 years and had been stationed at Fastnet Lighthouse for an amazing thirty of those years. He had also served at Mizen, Eagle, Skellig, Bull Rock, and others.
Dick was on duty at Fastnet Lighthouse in 1985 when a wave crashed into the tower with such immense force that it caused a pint of the mercury to spill out of its reservoir into the lantern room, an experience that none of us can possibly imagine.
Because the keepers at Fastnet Lighthouse had very small living quarters, they were forced to find various ways to occupy their spare time. They often got off the rock and swam around it for something to do, taking about half an hour to get around the light. They often fished for activity as well as for fresh food. Dick appeared to truly love his years at Fastnet, something that takes a special kind of person, especially one who lived there for thirty years.
As well as guiding hundreds of ships every year, the famous lighthouse and its keepers witnessed the Titanic pass by in 1912 on its fateful voyage. The lighthouse was also the last structure of Ireland that many immigrants to the United States saw as they left Ireland seeking a better life across the Atlantic.
The first tower at Fastnet was completed and first lighted in January of 1854, but it proved to be too weak and needed to be replaced. Construction of the new and current tower started in 1899 and was not completed until 1903. It was constructed under the on-site supervision of James Kavanagh, who, with the exception of a few short breaks to go back home, lived and slept on the rock for the entire four years the lighthouse was under construction. Kavanagh personally oversaw the laying of every one of the over 2,000 granite dovetailed blocks that weighed from 1.6 to 3 tons each. All of these blocks were first assembled at a Cornwall site to ensure their perfect fit and then shipped to the Fastnet. Interestingly, former Fastnet Lighthouse keeper Dick O’Driscoll’s father was responsible for the shipping of these massive granite stones to the site where the lighthouse was being built.
The Fastnet Lighthouse was electrified in 1969 and automated in 1989, thus ending the era of lighthouse keepers on the rocky outpost. In 2011 the fog signal was discontinued, leaving the massive tower as a silent sentinel from another time in history.
In the 1980s a rogue wave, estimated at 157 feet high, struck the tower, totally covering it, but it stood firm and it will probably stand firm against the forces of nature for hundreds of years into the future. We can only wonder what future civilizations will think of this relic of a bygone time when hearty men lived there for the good of others.
This story appeared in the
Sep/Oct 2012 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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