Breezin’ past the teardrop of Ireland

FASTNET Lighthouse, one of Ireland’s most remarkable structures, is normally left to the birds to wheel past, and for fish to shoal around.

Today, thousands of people will troop past it.

On a jagged tooth of shale rock a few miles off Ireland’s south coast, the lighthouse is deserving of the utmost respect, for its beauty, for its construction history, for the sheer elemental danger of its location, just for its existence, really. The lighthouse beacon and building marvel is one of the least visited of any Irish iconic structures.

Getting close to it is awkward, given its surrounding churning seas: if you wanted a more challenging location on which to build anything — even a nest — it would be hard to come up with something more difficult.

Its rugged, cylindrical grace, and its presence, will be remarked upon by sailors in the Fastnet Race today as they sail to, around and bid adieu to it as fast as their craft can carry them.

Some 350 boats, carrying 3,000 sailors, left Cowes yesterday for the biennial race down the Solent, past Land’s End and into the Celtic Sea and the Atlantic. They’ll round the rock with the sailing equivalent of a handbrake turn — not even a circling donut — and set a course back to a finish line in Plymouth. It will all be done unnoticed from the Irish coastline.

The lighthouse signals its presence by its flashing light set 50 metres above sea level, and has faithfully guarded life for over a century: an earlier structure in cast-iron first put a light here in 1854, but it was 50 years later that the current Cornish-granite tower first signalled its presence with a light the power of one million candles.

Nearly five miles off Cape Clear island, the rock (called Carraig Aonar, or the ‘lonely rock’ as gaeilge) has a special place in maritime lore.

The need for a signal was acted upon after the sinking of the Stephen Whitney in 1847, with the loss of 92 lives from the packet ship’s complement of 110 passengers and crew.

It is Continental Europe’s last, or first, depending on your direction of travel, outpost for those crossing the Atlantic. The Titanic sailed past it into oblivion, and an icy grave, 99 years ago. It has been rich fishing (and piratical plundering) grounds for centuries, and in 1915 a German U-boat surfaced by its shadow to buy fish from a local boat before going on, later that day, to sink the Lusitania. Dives to unearth the Lusitania’s story have been rekindled this summer in a National Geographic exploration.

In 1979, the Fastnet Lighthouse savagely reminded fragile humans of the perils and power of the sea when force ten storms and 40’ waves descended on its race fleet, capsizing yachts. That year’s fleet of 303 boats has stood as a Fastnet race record until this year’s 350, out there, right now, today. In 1979, only 105 boats finished, dozens were lost, an epic rescue operation saved many lives and 15 sailors died.

Approaching the Fastnet has never been taken for granted.

It’s a bit of a goal for day sailors and RIB drivers still, heading out from Baltimore or Schull. Some have done it by canoe, and a Skibbereen ‘iron man’ has swum out to it and back.

The rise in whale- and dolphin-watching out of ports like Union Hall means many more people again, with no more than a day trip in mind, have gotten close to the Fastnet.

Anyone travelling the Irish coastline of an evening or night may see the light (now unmanned, since 1989) far out to sea, doing its silent, signal rotations. For those of us without access to boats, and not strong swimmers, the visitor centre at the Mizen lighthouse, near Crookhaven in west Cork, has a room dedicated to the Fastnet, telling its story, depicting the lives of its keepers, and how it came to be built by heroic labours and engineering feats, positioning precision-hewn grange rocks weighing tonnes in one of the most inhospitable places and getting it straight and true, apparently within one-16th of an inch of true vertical at its 50-metre crown.

A new bridge to the Mizen officially opened just this month: it’s worth making the visit and the crossing for its own sake, but it also opens an accessible door to the marvel that is the Fastnet, further out to sea.

As George Bernard Shaw said: “I can think of no other edifice constructed by man as altruistic as a lighthouse. They were built only to serve.” Respect.

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