“High up on dangerous cliffs, out on lonely rocks, Irish lighthouses were built to last and most have stood for well over 150 years.” John Eagle is an artist, photographer and author of two books on Ireland’s lighthouses.
We asked him to share his six favourite lighthouses – most notably along the West Coast where they stand tall to protect sailors from the crashing Atlantic Ocean.
The Skellig Islands, County Kerry
The jagged, windblown rock of Skellig Michael is an enchanting place: a pillar of remote living for Christian monks from the 6th to 12th Century, and then the lighthouse keepers who watched over the crashing Atlantic from 1826 to 1987 when it became automated. I flew out there at the end of October 2010 on the day President Mary McAleese flew into Bere Island, where I had been booked to take pictures of her by a local newspaper. I photographed her in the morning and as soon as she had gone I raced back to the helicopter pad on the mainland. I took off at 2.30pm, and the weather was fabulous. The pilot allowed me to have the door open – there’s nothing like having the door open for taking pictures. Safely strapped in, I finally got my sunny shots of Skellig Michael after 15 years of waiting.
Clare Island, County Mayo
Clare Island’s lighthouse provided over 150 years of valued service before it was decommissioned, and sold to a private owner. In 2008 it was purchased by a German doctor as a present to his wife. I had taken had a shot of the Island from a boat looking up at the mighty cliffs, but it wasn’t great as there was a white cloud and the lighthouse tower blended into it too much. I was already running late for the deadline of Ireland’s Lighthouses: A Photo Essay, but I needed a new shot. I avidly watched the weather forecast, and finally saw a window of opportunity in the middle of the month. I told the B&B on Clare Island to expect me and hailed a sea taxi. After good night’s sleep on the island, I got to the lighthouse before dawn and waited patiently on the hill behind it. I caught the first shards of dawn light as the sun rose above Croagh Patrick across Clew Bay and that is how I got the marvelous shot that I did.
Eagle Island, County Mayo
Eagle Island stands close to the continental shelf, so powerful waves often surge up and pound the island; you can see in my photo the massive storm wall that had to be constructed to defend the lighthouse. There actually used to be two lighthouses, but one of them was destroyed in a storm and to this day debris litters the ground. On one occasion a rock was thrown up by a severe storm, it smashed the glass and the tower filled up with water. The door had to be drilled to let the water out before it could be opened. I photographed my namesake island in August 1996. The day of the flight was glorious, one day in a month of rain. My white collie Quisha came with me, and after going to nearby Blackrock lighthouse we went for a swim together on one of the many sandy beaches there. On the next flight we circled Eagle Island and then went for tea in the keeper’s cottage. I couldn’t resist leaving my business card on the notice board, John Eagle on Eagle Island.
Fanad Head, County Donegal
Fanad is a dramatically cliff-edge placed lighthouse that was built in response to the Saldana being wrecked on Fannet Point in 1812, with the only survivor of the wreck being the ship’s parrot, which bore a silver collar inscribed Saldana. I have been out to photograph it many times, flying out to Rathlin Island and to Tory. I feel so alive and away from it all up there. I slept in the keeper’s cottage the last time; I love that big silent light sweeping over me and all else. The picture I took became the cover shot for my book.
Fastnet, County Cork
The Fastnet Rock marks Ireland’s most southerly point, and some claim it was known as ‘the Teardrop of Ireland’, as it was the last sight of Ireland to be seen by emigrants to America. The lighthouse is the tallest lighthouse in Ireland (54 metres) and is protected from its constant battering Atlantic waves by its hourglass shape. It might look majestic standing there on the rock 4 miles out to sea, but it was built in that fashion to make the waves split on impact and not affect the tower too much. To me it looks like an elegant lady, often with a beautiful wedding train swirling about her legs. I normally shoot it from the air, but in the summer of 2009, conducting a tour for some American lighthouse enthusiasts, we went to the rock by boat. We cruised out before dawn, and the light and the waves were perfect. I got some of the best shots I have ever taken of Fastnet and this one takes up a double page spread in the book.
Inishtearaght, County Kerry
Known as ‘the Tearaght’ to many, this is the most westerly lighthouse in Europe, and is usually pounded by fierce Atlantic storms. I have flown out here a few times. I did my shot for the book in June 2009, on an incredibly flat calm day, even getting a reflection of the island in the sea. It reminds me of the pyramids of Egypt: I love the arch in the middle. The pilot hated the flight, with good reason: the updrafts can throw the helicopter off course and it has the reputation of being one of the most dangerous helicopter-landing pads in Europe. The boat owners don’t care for it much, either; lots of half submerged rocks make for treacherous approaches. Keepers could be there for weeks past their shifts, unable to get off. To me though it is a spectacular sight, especially with the other Blasket Islands in the background. You can also see it in the background of the film ‘Ryan’s Daughter’.
Find out more about John’s two books on Ireland’s lighthouses, as well as postcards and prints, on his website www.JohnEaglePhotography.com
Lighthouse spotters will also like the site of Ireland’s General Lighthouse Authority at the romantic-sounding address of www.commissionersofirishlights.com
Fancy a bird’s eye view of some of these lighthouses? We’ve rounded up some great deals to get you within yards of some of these West Coast stunners…