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Fastnet Rock - Ireland's Teardrop

Updated on July 19, 2019

Fastnet Lighthouse

A treacherous rock

Situated just over 8 miles (13km) off the west coast of County Cork, Ireland, at the tender mercies of the North Atlantic seas lies the famous, or arguably infamous, Fastnet Rock with its distinctive lighthouse. Many will be familiar with the name Fastnet due to its association with the international yacht race of the same name but few will be aware of how it became known as Ireland's Teardrop or it's traditional name in Irish, Carraig Aonair, meaning lone rock. Ireland's Teardrop reference has it's origin in mass Irish emigration across the vast Atlantic to North America following the Irish famine holocaust when Fastnet was the last sad sight of Ireland the majority of Irish emigrants would ever see.

Prior to the establishment of the first early navigational aids on Fastnet in 1854, the rock itself was a significant threat to shipping, responsible for numerous wrecks even with the presence of the much longer established beacons and lights nearer to the coast at the much larger Cape Clear island. The first Fastnet lighthouse was constructed largely of cast-iron but within a few years it's effectiveness and equally importantly, it's potential to withstand the harsh Atlantic's battering was called into question following the destruction by the elements of a similar structure on Calf Rock off Bantry Bay in 1881. By 1891, a decision had been made by the Commissioners of Irish Lights (an Ireland-wide institution to this day) to construct a large granite lighthouse on Fastnet similar in fashion to the third and fourth Eddystone lighthouses which are both based on John Smeaton's groundbreaking tower modeled on the structure of the Oaktree and it's tensile strength

A breathtaking aerial tour around the lighthouse known as the "Teardrop of Ireland"

The Commissioners of Irish Lights

Fastnet Lighthouse was completed after 8 years of highly complex, painstaking work in 1904 and at 150 feet it is the tallest and indeed the widest rock lighthouse on the coast of either Ireland or Britain. The Fastnet Lighthouse is a magnificent testimony to innovative engineering and construction methods under the most adverse conditions. William Douglas of the famous lighthouse building family was the architect and James Kavanagh the chief foreman on the Herculean Fastnet project which was constructed out of over 2000 custom-built large interlocking, dovetailed Cornish granite slabs, each weighing between 1-3 tons in weight. Fastnet's light was converted from paraffin to electricity in 1969 giving it an illumination strength of 2,500,000 candelas and an official range of 28 miles, although in very good conditions it has been reported to be visible from up to 50 miles away.

During the era of fully manned Lighthouses in Ireland, which sadly ended for Fastnet in 1989, lighthouse keepers would have found it a challenging posting due to its extremely isolated position, with relief often postponed for weeks on end due to adverse weather conditions in the unforgiving Atlantic Ocean. Lighthouse keepers on Fastnet would have had a precarious existence providing a much-needed hazard warning to shipping, even in the less Spartan conditions inside the tower in more recent times, with gigantic waves of over 150 feet crashing against the isolated structure!

In 1915, at the height of World War One, Fastnet Lighthouse keepers witnessed a German U-Boat surfacing to buy a nearby fishing vessel's catch and despite warning the Royal Navy of its presence in the area, the same submarine almost certainly went on to sink the Lusitania later that day, with the loss of 12000 civilian lives. In 1921, during the Tan War in Ireland, Fastnet Lighthouse's magazine stores, which in those days contained much-needed detonators and guncotton for the fog signal, were mysteriously and successfully expropriated by the Irish Republican Army (IRA). In 1985 near tragedy struck when a freak gigantic wave crashed through the glass dome of the 150-foot lighthouse toppling the large container of mercury that the light rotated in and sent its toxic contents pouring through the interior of the tower.

Lighthouse keepers

Transferring lighthouse keepers in days gone by.
Transferring lighthouse keepers in days gone by.

For lighthouse devotees, Fastnet remains one of the most outstanding and fascinating rock lighthouse structures in the world. In keeping with the Ireland wide automation of lighthouses by the Commissioners of Irish Lights, Fastnet now has an attendant who visits the lonely tower for one day every 3 weeks to perform maintenance checks. Gone, probably forever, are the pre-automation detail of 3 lighthouse keepers who would have spent rotas of 4 weeks on the rock and 4 weeks off. Access to Fastnet rock is by air via the helipad, weather permitting or by sea which is extremely hazardous in all but the calmest of conditions. Few people get the opportunity to visit the site of the remote Fastnet Lighthouse although in Spring/Summer boat trips around the rock are available. An even smaller number of people are permitted to access the rock or indeed the lighthouse station itself.

It has been argued by some that due to the rapid advances in modern shipping's navigational technology, mariners are no longer as heavily reliant on lighthouses generally as they were in the less hi-tech times of years past. However, even in the present age of digital communications, lighthouses such as Fastnet will always retain navigational usefulness to mariners in large and small craft alike. Lighthouses' unique and alluring mystique, standing as they do as lonely sentinels of the sea, run no risk of ever being fully eclipsed by GPS. In recent years, a slowly spreading hairline fissure has appeared close to the base of the lighthouse, leading many to believe that the North Atlantic may yet again reclaim Fastnet Rock.

An Carraig Aonair

Fastnet, like all Irish lighthouses is now fully automated.
Fastnet, like all Irish lighthouses is now fully automated.

© 2019 Liam A Ryan


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