A mere speck compared to the giant Bere Island beside it, and into one of whose fields it would easily fit, Roancarrigmore Island is of such diminutive size that its north/ south axis can be traversed in 30 seconds.
Its east/west axis requires perhaps double that time.
Nevertheless, this minute rocky outcrop holds a lighthouse whose indestructible walls have resisted the pummeling of the Atlantic in Bantry Bay since its construction in 1847.
It was built by master architect George Halpin who also built Ballycotton Lighthouse among others.
It is one of our lowest-lying lighthouses positioned just a few metres above the high-tide mark. Roancarrigmore lies about 2km off the mainland under the heathery slopes of Hungry Hill and about the same distance from the eastern tip of Bere Island.
In 1891, 11 people resided on the island, lighthouse keepers, staff and their families, but over the ensuing decades it was usually home to just two people for short terms. Gerald Butler was one such — a super-numerary in the early 1970s working towards his full qualifications.
He went on to serve as assistant lighthouse keeperon Fastnet Rock and Bull Rock and wasstationed at over 20 lighthouses in all.
Originally the families lived out on Roancarrigmore, he says, but were brought ashore in the late 1800s under a rule which dictated that all children had to be educated in schools ...and not out on the rock.
For leisure Gerald would swim in the sea at the steps in front of the lighthouse or in a small pool on the island.
The antics of a small tern population was an entertaining diversion he says, though in recent years they have been ousted by seagulls.
He says the arrival of supertankers to Bantry Bay was an incredible sight: “It was like an entire city. It changed the whole face of Bantry in that period.”
It is normally a very quiet, benign rock, he says but nature can unleash its full fury betimes.
Roancarrig is such a low-lying rock that when you get a spring tide and a south-easterly gale the amount of water that will go over the rock will do a huge amount of damage.
To resist that force he says the timbers under the roof are massive, and the slates on the roof are two inches thick. The walls of the compound are six-feet thick.
Roancarrigmore was once hit by an enormous storm where a flagstone was ripped off the wall and flung through the glazing of the tower trapping the principal keeper Denis Dudley inside.
“These type of storms would occur once in every 10 years. When the sea calmed down in the morning assistant keeper Francis Ryan “had to get a hatchet and break in the door and allow the water to come out and allow Dudley to escape”.
By 1975 Roancarrigmore’s lighthouse was decommissioned and the last lighthouse keeper left in common with all our lighthouse keepers in the following years.
The island was recently sold for a mere €130,000 having been on the market for a few years. The light still operates of course, and a crew from Irish Lights carries out regular maintenance on it.
Unusually, Roancarrigmore’s actual light is at a lower elevation than the former lighthouse keeper’s two-storey accommodation and outbuildings.
This is because its current light is built into a separate stainless steel structure whose beam is cast about 18km on a white light and about 15km on a red light.
The earlier light was upgraded on the departure of the keeper. However, this was also replaced in 2011 with a ‘sectored’ LED incorporated into a mini tower.
The silver structure resembles an installation from surrealist Salvador Dali but in fact is an ultra-modern beacon with photo-voltaic panels, automatic identification system (which connects to navigation on such as trawlers) and other hi-tech devices calibrated to ensure the safety of mariners.
It is very sad to see the passing of the lighthouse keeper’s way of life but an annual maintenance trip is all that is required now versus the provision of 15,000 litres of diesel to power the generator.
Roancarrigmore Island is privately owned.
The Lightkeeper: A Memoir, Gerald Butler and Patricia Ahern, Liffey Press; www.irishlights.ie