March 17: Out of Tragedy, A New Lighthouse is Born

March 17, 1817

In the northern region of the present-day Republic of Ireland, a new lighthouse first went into service at the end of a peninsula known as Fanad. (At that time, the kingdoms of Great Britain and Ireland were merged together as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland; this sovereign state remained in existence until the establishment of the Irish Free State, forerunner of the Republic of Ireland, in 1922.)

The genesis of the original Fanad Head Lighthouse can be traced to a maritime disaster in that area of the Emerald Isle. This disaster took place when the frigate HMS Saldana was wrecked off the coast of Fanad in 1812. This shipwreck’s only survivor was a parrot wearing a silver collar with the word “Saldana” inscribed on it.

Not long after the loss of this vessel, Royal Navy Captain Marcus Hill began lobbying for the installation of a lighthouse at Fanad. Along with being stationed in that region of Ireland, Hill had grown up there in the city of Londonderry (also called Derry) in what is now the part of the United Kingdom officially known as Northern Ireland. Hill, therefore, had a strong and unmatched familiarity with the terrain and other geographical features of the area to help him further bolster his case for a new lighthouse. He underscored, in particular, his belief that a navigational aid on Fanad could have averted the wreck of the Soldana.

Hill submitted his formal petition for a new lighthouse to a member of the Dublin Ballast Board, the predecessor to today’s Commissioners of Irish Lights. That board and other public officials concurred with Hill’s recommendations, and the construction of the first Fanad Head Lighthouse was approved during the summer of 1814. This new structure was designed by civil engineer George Halpin Sr., who had been appointed inspector of lighthouses for the Dublin Ballast Board in 1810. Halpin remained inspector until his death in 1854, and the original Fanad Head Lighthouse was one of 53 lighthouses built in Ireland during his long tenure.

For nearly seven decades following its debut on St. Patrick’s Day in 1817, the first Fanad Head Lighthouse stood guard over that section of North Atlantic along the Irish coast. The renowned editor Samuel Lewis, in a topographical dictionary that he published in 1837, provided details about the lighthouse and how it operated. He noted that the lighthouse’s “lantern has an elevation of 90 feet [27.4 meters] above the level of the sea at high water; it consists of nine lamps, displaying a deep red light towards the sea, and a bright fixed light towards the lough or harbour, and may be seen in clear weather from a distance of 14 nautical miles [25.9 kilometers].”

In 1886, the lighthouse was replaced with a taller and larger structure. This version of Fanad Head Lighthouse remains in operation today and continues to play a vital role in local maritime safety.

For more information on the original Fanad Head Lighthouse and its successor, please check out https://www.irishlights.ie/tourism/our-lighthouses/fanad-head.aspx

Additional information on lighthouses in Ireland is available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_lighthouses_in_Ireland.

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