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History of Lighthouses in Ireland

Now and since 1810 all the principle lighthouses of the whole of Ireland, the Republic and Northern Ireland has been looked after by the Commissioners of Irish Lights, but this is not the start of lighthouses in Ireland.  We knew of a lighthouse at a location still in use that dates from the time of the Normans, in the 12th century, but said to have been the site of a light, from the 5th century. Its likely that lighthouses existed well before this, but I have yet to discover details on these.

In part the story of lighthouses in Ireland is the story of the formation and existence of the Commissioners of Irish Lights.   I am expecting, as I research more on Irish lighthouses, to discover far more of the history, so am expecting to be able to expand this article over time.

The history of older lighthouses and others connected with our story

For those not aware of Irish history, we should perhaps set the scene:-

  • In older times the King or Queen and through their agents, had far more involvement then they did later across the whole of the UK.

  • A little later well before the formation of the Irish Republic, all of Ireland was a part of the relevant UK/Great Britain grouping of the time, controlled from London, but with its own Irish Parliament sitting in Dublin. In a similar way to having Welsh and Scottish Assemblies or Parliaments at the moment, but overall authority for many items still being held by the UK Parliament at Westminster.

  • Like now, London can seem a long a way from others, and even parts of England now feel that its out of touch outside the cities, and in those days it was in effect further as communications and travel was far slower.

In mainland Britain the first lighthouses were built by the Romans, although some say some existed before, but the Romans never went to Ireland, or if they did they did not stay and their visit is not recorded.

Our story of lighthouses in Ireland starts with the oldest operational lighthouse in Ireland and the British Isles at Hook Head, in County Wexford.  The tower, with additions and modifications, dates from the Norman times, 12th century, and is reputed to be built on the site where the Monks of St. Dubhan established a fire beacon in the 5th century.

Chaine Memorial Tower Photo by Anne Burgess

Chaine Tower Lighthouse

In the background is the lighthouse on Ferris Point at the approach to Larne Lough.

Another Norman lighthouse at Youghal was in the hands of local sisters attached to St Anne's Convent, but the tower fell out of use around Cromwell's time and was replaced by the present tower in 1852.

But it was not until 1665 that we know of the first officially recognised lighthouses in Ireland.

In 1665 King Charles II granted letters patent to Sir Robert Reading to erect six lighthouses on the coast of Ireland, two of which were placed on Howth, one to mark the land, the other to lead over the bar, the others were at Old Head of Kinsale, Barry Oge's castle (now Charlesfort, near Kinsale), Hook Head and Isle of Magee, near Carrickfergus.

Of these six lights, two were short lived - the Howth bar light and Isle of Magee. The latter was re-established later on the Lesser Copeland Island. All these lights had a coal fire on each of their roofs.

Llighthouses were commercial enterprises back in these times, contributions, mostly voluntary, being obtained from ship passing. Those that could get the ship owners to pay could make a lot of money, while many who could not, could not afford to keep the fires going and some went bankrupt.

These lighthouses were transferred to certain Commissioners set up by Queen Anne in 1704. (These commissioners were not the present Commissioners of Irish Lights.)

In 1717, during the reign of King George I, the lands on which barracks and lighthouses were built were vested in the Crown at a price ascertained by special commissioners. These powers were transferred to the Commissioners for Barracks in 1767.

In 1708, Dublin Corporation, through Parliament (and I am not sure if this is the UK or Irish Parliament), set up a Committee known as the Ballast Committee. Ships would arrived full, but at that time needed ballast, often dredged up stones to add to their holds so that the could still float upright when empty. The sale of this ballast provided revenue, and was a good earner, until later when ships could be made that could take on water into tanks to replace the need for ballast.

First steps to forming the corporation

It was an Act of the Irish Parliament sitting in Dublin in 1786, that set up initially "The Corporation for Preserving and Improving the Port of Dublin". It's functions were the operations of Dublin Port. This in reality replaced the Ballast Committee with a new ‘body corporate’, independent of the Dublin Corporation. Not surprisingly most still called it the Ballast Board.

The constitution of this Board is, that of the present Commissioners of Irish Lights, and is the start of the real history of The Commissioners of Irish lights. Until the year 1810, a part from the provision of aids to navigation in Dublin Port, it had no jurisdiction over or connection with lighthouses around the coast of Ireland.

HM Revenue Commissioners were given power in 1796 to erect lighthouses on the coasts of Wexford, Mayo, and Galway. Further Acts between 1800 and 1806 were passed in connection with lighthouses, dues, and purchasing land for lighthouses.

They become the National Lighting Authority

In 1810, the Irish Parliament had been abolished and the British Parliament passed the Lighthouses (Ireland) Act 1810, which transferred to the Corporation all the power, duties and functions relating to the control of lighthouses around the coast of Ireland.

So by this Act, powers given to the Commissioners for Barracks and others between 1767 and 1806 were all vested in the Corporation for Preserving and Improving the Port of Dublin or the Ballast Board. The title and constitution of the Corporation remained unchanged.

The practical effect was that the Board took over the general lighting and marking of the coast when fourteen lighthouses were transferred to it -
  • South Rock

  • Old Head

  • Wicklow , there were 2 here

  • Howth

  • Copeland

  • Hook Head Lighthouse

  • Cranfield

  • Loophead

  • Aranmore

  • Clare Island

  • Balbriggan

  • Duncannon Fort

  • Charlesfort

In 1854 the Merchant Shipping Act created a new and separate title "The Port of Dublin Corporation". So they had "the Corporation for Preserving and Improving the Port of Dublin" looked after Dublin Port, and the new similarly named "Port of Dublin Corporation", looking after lighthouses, buoys and beacons around the coast. At that point they were run together still. It was the same people running both with the same constitution.

In 1867, another Act separated the two bodies and the "Port of Dublin Corporation" was renamed the "Commissioners of Irish Lights" and the other was renamed the "Dublin Port and Docks Board".

  Photo by Henry Clark

St John’s Point Lighthouse  

Originally, the number of Commissioners was twenty two, but when the position of High Sheriff of Dublin was abolished, the number was reduced to twenty one. In 1996 it was further reduced to sixteen, viz the Lord Mayor of Dublin, three members of Dublin Corporation, elected annually by the Corporation and twelve co-opted members.

Today the statutory basis for the Commissioners’ activities in the Republic of Ireland is the Merchant Shipping Act 1894, the Merchant Shipping (Salvage and Wreck) Act 1993, and the Merchant Shipping (Commissioners of Irish Lights) Act 1997. While the the statutory basis for the Commissioners’ activities in Northern Ireland is the UK Merchant Shipping Act 1995, and the Merchant Shipping and Maritime Security Act 1997.

On 2 December 1999 the Irish and UK Governments signed orders establishing the six Implementation Bodies agreed in the Belfast Agreement. One of these is the Foyle, Carlingford and Irish Lights Commission. 11 years on and Primary legislation is still required in both Westminster and Dublin to enable the functions of the Commissioners of Irish Lights to be incorporated into the new body. At this time and until they decide to do this or change their minds, the Commissioners of Irish Lights continue to operate under existing Irish and UK law. Foyle and Carlingford are two river areas around inland river systems, and are heavily into tourism and conservation, so its difficult to see why this would benefit from being connected up with the role of lighting and safeguarding travellers in the oceans around Ireland.

Further information

Commissioners of Irish Lights

Lighthouse map of Ireland     

Featured list of lighthouses - Ireland  

Commissioners of Irish Lights website



By: Keith Park   Section: Lighthouses section Key:
Page Ref: History_Irish_LH Topic: Lighthouses Last Updated: 06/2010

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