By Dan MacCarthy
It is a formidable place and one of Ireland’s truly great wild places. If the Wild Atlantic Way concept could be captured in its essence then surely Bull Rock at the tip of the Beara Peninsula in Co Cork is it.
Then again, to experience the ferocity of the waves as the lighthousekeepers of old did is a different kettle of fish. A mere 10-minute helicopter flight from Castletownbere courtesy of the Commissioner of Irish Lights doesn’t convey the difficulty of arriving by boat from the Co Cork fishing port to this forlorn outpost.
The facts: The Bull Rock lies 4km off Dursey Island and 9km from the mainland. It is situated on a major sea thoroughfare at the tip of the Beara Peninsula and the entrance to Kenmare River.
The rock (logically an island as people lived there) is 93m high and is roughly 228m by 164m. It is a small island true, but its steep cliffs give the lie to that seeming small scale.
The lighthouse was constructed in 1889 to replace the cast-iron lighthouse built in 1866 on Calf Island but which was blasted into the Atlantic by a storm.
The keepers were hardy men whose duties included looking after the lamp which in the early days meant keeping it fuelled up with kerosene, trimming the wick and polishing the lenses. They also carried out basic maintenance duties of painting, polishing brass and taking care of the station’s boats.
Later on, as technology advanced they needed to be able to operate two-way radios and in some cases provide weather forecasts. Bull Rock island had between one and seven permanent residents between 1901 and 1991.
The lighthouse was automated in 1991 and the keepers’ days were numbered. Advances in technology meant that solar-powered LED lights could now do the job of the men. It was a sad day for this traditional honourable way of life for men who saved countless lives over the years.
According to the Commissioner of Irish Lights “as part of the automation process the original lantern and optic, which was too large to be automated, were replaced by a much smaller lantern and quartz halogen lamps giving a high intensity light with low power consumption.”
However, the generators and foghorn buildings on this island are still in very good condition. So too the keepers’ quarters, but on a recent visit the only sign of human activity was a chessboard and a good news bible.
The gannetry: The cliffs that fall away from the old lighthouse are decorated in summer with a magnificent pink canopy of sea thrift. There is also so much gannet excrement that in places it looks like painters had been hired to whitewash the buildings who proceeded to splash it around carelessly.
The colony was established in the mid-19th century and is the fifth most important nesting colony in Ireland for gannets after Skellig Michael, Great Saltee, Lambay Island and Ireland’s Eye. On Bull Rock the birds congregate at the top of the island around the modern lighthouse tower but also around the old gas station and other out buildings.
The fiction: The Bull Rock with its massive underneath rock passage resembles a triumphal arch such as was built by Napoleon on the Champs Elysees in Paris.
Of course the one at the Bull Rock is a natural phenomenon and is supposed to be the gateway to the underworld. In the time of the Milesians in the dim and dusty past it was known as Teach Duinn and was the site of a shipwreck with over 100 lives lost (www.exclassics.com).
It is possible to make boat trips to Bull Rock and its bovine neighbours the Cow and the Calf. Des O’Shea of Skellig Coast Discovery will even pilot his RIB under the sea arch to give a comprehensive sea tour. Make sure your sense of awe is fully tuned up.
Dan MacCarthy travelled courtesy of the Commissioner of Irish Lights and though Bull Rock is inaccessible to the public Irish Lights occasionally entertains requests from photographers and birdwatchers to visit.