Kilkenny-based artist, Roger O’Reilly, shines the spotlight on the treasury of architectural gems that are Ireland’s lighthouses in his new book. Áilín Quinlan reports
Name-checked in Van Morrison’s classic hit ‘Coney Island’, St John’s Point Lighthouse is also Ireland’s tallest.
A lesser known fact about this eye-catching 40-metre-high lighthouse, is that in the early 1950s, it was (badly) painted by Brendan Behan, the renowned poet, novelist and playwright.
Behan was tasked with painting the building in Killough, Co Down, by his father, but the subsequent paint job, says Kilkenny-based artist Roger O’Reilly, author of a new book about Ireland’s lighthouses, was so “poorly received,” that “by mutual consent he never reached such heights in the painting and decorating game again!”
It’s just one of many anecdotes contained in O’Reilly’s beautifully illustrated study of the lighthouses of Ireland.
For hundreds of years, long before the advent of GPS, or even radio transmission or radar, they served as beacons, helping ships safely navigate the sometimes treacherous waters around our coasts.
Many of these tall, picturesque, and for many, deeply romantic sentinels around the Irish coastline have a colourful and sometimes funny history, as the award-winning artist and illustrator was to discover.
O’Reilly spent a year or so criss-crossing Ireland, visiting this treasury of architectural gems for what would turn out to be a visually stunning new book.
He’s particularly enamoured of a story related by the keeper of the isolated and very compact Beeves Rock Lighthouse on the Shannon Estuary in 1910.
He was James McGinley, grandfather of former Taoiseach Enda Kenny. After taking time off to marry Margaret Heekin, McGinley returned to his lonely post on Beeves Rock, which was only accessible by boat.
Meanwhile his new wife moved — alone — into a Commissioners of Irish Lights cottage on the mainland, near Askeaton:
“Daily communication was only possible via semaphore (a visual signalling system using hand-held flags), as there were no phone or radio communication,” explains O’Reilly. Margaret could see the lighthouse, and, using binoculars, James could see his new wife — but until his leave came due, this was the newly-weds’ sole form of intimacy.
O’Reilly, who grew up in Drogheda, near the Boyne Estuary lighthouse in County Meath, has always associated a sense of peace and reassurance with the warm glow of lighthouse beacons.
However, with a busy and highly successful artistic career, which has encompassed projects as diverse as storyboarding the Vikings TV series and illustrating for editorial and advertising clients around the world — O’Reilly’s paintings are also to be found in collections at home and abroad, including the Musée d’Histoire Contemporaine in Paris — it was decades before he rediscovered his childhood fascination with the lighthouse.
He was, in fact, in his 50s, married and living with his wife and three children in Kilkenny when it happened.
In 2016, O’Reilly had begun designing a popular series of retro posters, Irelandposters.ie, in the style of old-fashioned railway advertisements, of well-known Irish landmarks like Newgrange, The Cliffs of Moher and The Spires of Cork. Coming up to Christmas he decided to add two lighthouses, Hook Head, and the Fastnet Lighthouse to the series as Christmas gifts.
He enjoyed painting the two lighthouses so much, he recalls, that early in 2017 he decided to draw all the lighthouses in the south-east.
He started in Ballycotton, but he found it so much fun that by the time he reached Youghal he had firmly decided, he recalls, to do every lighthouse in the land. “I probably forgot about the lighthouses for 20 years,” he ponders, “and then when I started this project it all came back.”
Fitting the lighthouse visits between his normal work, and making occasional family trips to some of the more picturesque locations at weekends, he managed to visit more than 40 of the 87 lighthouses he portrays in his book by the end of that year.
Those lighthouses situated in very remote or difficult-to-access locations, such as the Fastnet, off the coast of West Cork, or Inishtrahull in Co Donegal, he sketched from photographs.
The result is an extraordinary collection of images and information. Each beautifully depicted landmark is accompanied by a wealth of practical and insightful background: history, location, elevation, signal and range as well as quirky anecdotes — did you know, for example, that Spitbank Lighthouse at Cobh was designed in 1850 by a blind engineer?
Despite his lack of vision, Alexander Mitchell personally oversaw the construction, and was ferried out to his lighthouse, even in rough seas, falling overboard twice. He climbed up and down ladders, crawling along planks examining the wood, iron and rivets — all through touch. He sometimes, reports O’Reilly, discovered flaws that had escaped even the foreman’s eagle eye.
Most Irish lighthouses belong to the Commissioners of Irish Lights — a few, such as Hook Head in Co Wexford, Mizen Head in West Cork and Fanad Head are open to the public, while more can be visited through the successful Great Lighthouses of Ireland tourism initiative.
These structures, as O’Reilly points out, are not only eye-catching in themselves, but they are often located in some of the wildest and most beautiful environments in the country:
“I would bring the sketch book out when I went to see a lighthouse, and I’d generally do some sketches,” he recalls.
“Lighthouses tend to be in the most beautiful, isolated and wild areas of the country.”
As a result, the book features many local nature scenes from around the featured lighthouse — he sketched basking seals below the lighthouse at Dunbar Head in Co Wicklow, for example, and the Roseate Tern at the Rockabill Lighthouse at Skerries.
On occasion, he was confronted by the unexpected:
Disconcerted, he realised the tide had crept in — and, once he stepped off his rocky perch, he found that he was up to his waist in water. “I waded back to land with my sketchbook over my head — if it hadn’t been for that little fish I might have ended up ringing the coastguard.”
One of his personal favourites is the Fanad Head Lighthouse in Donegal — that drawing is accompanied by sketches of Canada Geese arriving for winter along the Lough Swilly headlands:
“It has a little spiral staircase inside and the last section of the tower is a little ladder to the lantern.
“It is a very picturesque lighthouse up in the Gaeltacht in Donegal. The views from the top of the lighthouse over Lough Swilly are extraordinary.”
It was a fascinating and fulfilling project, he recalls now: “I did every single lighthouse on the island of Ireland, apart from one or two harbour lights and one or two lights which are called lighthouses but were basically just a big box with a light on top.
“Lighthouses are an 18th century invention whose time has possibly passed – already because the job could be done by an LED light on a pole. Ships today have GPS and the lighthouse more often than not the lighthouse is just a back- up. “When I went to see Fanad Lighthouse, for example, the light in the lantern there was basically an LED light the size of my fist - but the old lantern that it had replaced was gigantic.
“This will gradually happen in all the lighthouses,” he says.
O’Reilly believes that eventually the conversation will have to be had as to what we do with our lighthouses — and, he predicts, Ireland will have to “find a compromise between maintaining them as heritage structures and also as working lights.
“There’s this whole romantic notion about lighthouses. It can be hard to explain, but everyone feels it, and everyone has a soft spot for them.
“I think that is what will save them in the long term.”
- Lighthouses of Ireland - An Illustrated Guide to the Sentinels that Guard our Coastline Roger O’Reilly, The Collins Press. Price €27.99/£24.99; hardback; full colour.