Wicklow Head Lighthouses

Cliff edge, tower and dwellings, with watch-room in centre.

The first step towards the erection of the Lighthouses was taken on 1st November, 1773 when 2 plots of ground of approximately 9 acres were leased from the Marquis of Rockingham by the Revenue Commissioners for the erection of 2 towers to distinguish it from Howth and Hook Heads which had single lights, as an aid to seamen to negotiate the dangerous range of sand banks along the Wicklow and Wexford coasts.

The plans were prepared by Mr. John Trail Architect and Engineer to the Commissioners, and by December 1778 work was so far advanced as to allow for the publishing of a contract for the lighting of the towers. Each house was to be lighted continuously from sunset to sunrise, with twenty tallow candles, five candles of two pounds weight, each candle having fourteen threads of cotton and not exceeding twelve inches in height. On the 3rd of May, 1781, Mr. Thomas Winder Secretary of the Commissioners of His Majesty’s Revenue issued a notice to mariners which read in part…. “These two Lighthouses are erected on the coast of Wicklow the eastern most on the saddle of Wicklow Head, the other on the Long Hill, Bearing from each other west north west, and east north east distant one quarter of a mile. The western most so elevated as to be seen directly above the other. On the upper floor of each house there is a space of five parts out of eight glazed for a lantern which takes in every necessary sea view and will be lighted by candles assisted by re?ecting glasses. Ships coming up channel bound for Dublin through Wicklow Swash (a channel between the India and North Arklow sand banks) must not bring the lights to the northward of north by west until they bring Wicklow Swash open, which they will know by the lights drawing near into one….” The lights were commissioned on Saturday the 1st September, 1781.

Wicklow Head showing from left, 1818 cliff edge Tower, 1818 Tower on saddle of Head minus its Lantern, and 1781 Tower.

The towers continued in the care of the Revenue Commissioners until 1810, when they were taken over by the Corporation for Preserving and Improving the Port of Dublin. Shortly afterwards a proposal was made to build two new Lighthouses, as the lanterns had fallen into disrepair and the upper tower was sometimes obscured by fog. Permission was granted by Trinity House and the Lord Lieutenant in 1816,

The next major change came in 1865 with the placing of a light vessel 8 miles off the Head and the extinguishing of the light on the middle tower, the vessel was withdrawn from service on 10th October 1867, when the Codling and North Arklow light vessels were established. The remaining light was improved the old lantern being replaced by one supplied by Messrs. J. Edmundson of Co. Dublin, a revolving shade was fitted to give a ten second flash every fifteen seconds. In 1868 the oiland the towers were designed by Mr. George Halpin the Boards Inspector of Works and built by the Boards tradesmen. They were on the same bearing as the 1781 towers. The lower tower is on the cliff face 121 feet above high water mark. The lights were commissioned on 12th November 1818 and were lit by 16 Argand oil lamps and reflectors, replacing the candles which had do-ne service for 37 years. Wicklow Head was the last station in Ireland to use candles. The old tower on the saddle of the hill was then demolished. Fortunately the one on the Long Hill was retained as a day navigation mark. This tower is octagonal in shape and is approximately 95 feet high and built of masonry. On the 10th of October 1836 it was hit by lightning, the lantern and six ?oors being destroyed in the blaze which followed. Mr. Halpin recommended that the tower be capped and this was agreed by the Board, but it was not carried out until 1866. Mr. J. S. Sloane the Board Engineer had the remains of the lantern removed and a brick dome added, while this work was in progress a Mr. Kavanagh of Dunbur was injured in a fall. The parapet and dome were repaired by Mr. James Kavanagh in 1962, the remains of a small derrick approximately 6ft. in length is on top of the tower, this may have been used to hoist material for the dome. Near the base of the tower the word EIRE is formed in rubble. During the Second World War it was whitewashed for easy identification by aircraft, to prevent over flights, and is now overgrown.

Centre Tower (1818) with its dwellings, and on the rock behind is the watch hut. Photo circa 1910.

lamps were replaced by coal gas, to a design by Mr. J. R. Wighams and based on his experiments at the Baily Lighthouse in 1865. It was manufactured in a small gas works which had its own operator and was situated near the Tower, the only piece now surviving is the chimney seen in the centre of the sketch. The light was given its ?ashing character by varying the pressure to the gas jets, and it remained in use until 1906. It was replaced by an incandescent oil burner. “The optic was replaced by a Chance Brother revolving apparatus driven by a David Brown clockwork rotation machine, giving three ?ashes every ten seconds”. The lens and burner rested on a layer of mercury, a constant rate of rotation was maintained by means of a governor, power for the movement was supplied by a counter weight hanging in the centre of the tower. The weight had to be rewound every 30 minutes, this was done by hand, and was signalled by a bell as the weight neared the end of its fall. The light had a range of 17 miles and was angled so that if you approached nearer than 400 yds. you could not see the ?ash.

The 1781 Tower with Ballyguile Hill in background and 1818 Tower on right. Photo circa 1950.

In October 1974 a modernisation scheme was started at the station, and continued for two years. A new watchroom was built on the top storey of a Keepers house, and was fitted with radar and monitoring equipment for the Lanby buoys (Large Automatic Navigation Buoys) which in June 1976 replaced the Codling and North Arklow lightvessels. On 31st March 1976 the oil burner was replaced by electricity. A radio beacon was added, the aerials were slung from the centre tower minus its lantern and the top of the Head. It became operational on 5th April, 1978 and it was coupled with five other beacons each station had its own morse signal Wicklow’s being WK (.— -.-) transmitted every six minutes at two, eight, fourteen minutes etc. past the hour. It was discontinued on 3rd of February, 1992.

The centre tower and its dwellings had a varied career after its closure in 1865, the dwellings were used to house members of the Admiralty Coastguard up to 1922, then as private houses and from 1934-39 they were used by An Oige as a Youth Hostel. They were then requisitioned by the Government for the Coastwatching service and were used for this until 1945, look-out Post No. 9 was established on the rock above them. The dwellings were demolished in 1946. The station has a landing stage now long disused, onto which supplies were landed by means of a hand winch and cargo derrick, a man was drowned during this operation at the tum of the century. The winch now lies on the seabed alongside the stage. The tide at Wicklow Head can reach as high as 6 knots, and if running against the wind can cause very rough water. The depth of water in the area is from 3 to 10 fathoms.

The automation of the Lighthouse has been on test from 1st April and will continue for 1 year. The lens now revolves continuously and the light is activated by a photo electric cell, it is fitted with a stand by generator. The character of the light stays the same. A satellite system called D.A.T.A.C. has been fitted and this will monitor Wicklow Head and the Codling and North Arklow Buoys. The Keepers also provided weather reports 6 times a day to the Meteorological Office from 6a.m. to 11p.m., these give details of cloud cover, wind force and direction, aneroid barometer pressure, height of sea, temperature and past and present weather. This service has been discontinued.

The light will be fully automated and the station demanned at 12.00 hrs. on the 1st April, 1994. The last Keepers to serve on Wicklow Head are Principal Keeper Brendan Conway of Wicklow Town and Assistant Keeper Joseph Stenning, Wexford and J. P. O’Brien of Castletownbere.

Thanks for their help with the article to James Kavanagh, Brendan Conway, Ciaran Doyle.


Commissioners of Irish Lights.

Beam Vols. 6 and 7.

Subsea Number 71.

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