The name of George Halpin seems to pop up everywhere in Ireland. And Rathlin Island did not evade his engineering pencil; he designed the lighthouse on the east end of Rathlin. Opened in 1856, it was unique by having two lights in order to improve its visibility in foggy conditions.
According to IrishLights.ie it has an upper occulting light and lower fixed light, to avoid confusion with other lights when approaching and passing through the North Channel.
On 18th January 1866 a quite assertive fog signal was established – it consisted of an 18 pounder gun and was fired every 20 minutes during foggy conditions. Over the years the frequency of the detonation was increased to 15 minutes, then 8 minutes. For the lightkeeper, I can only presume that a misty might meant a frazzled morning-after.
Initially, the tower was just natural stone with a red wrap-around painted beneath the lantern, but later the stonework was painted white. This lasted until 1934 when the red changed to black as it is today.
Rathlin East Lighthouse became an electric operation in 1981 and automatic in 1995. The station is cared for by an attendant and navigation aids are monitored via a telemetry link from the Lighthouse Depot in Dun Laoghaire.
The three lighthouses on Rathlin Island have been designated as listed buildings. Unfortunately I did not have time to visit the other two lighthouses – I regretted not having brought a bicycle. The West Lighthouse designed by Charles William Scott and dating from 1912 is Ireland’s only “upside-down” lighthouse, with the light at the base rather than the top. South Light at Rue Point which dates from 1921 was also designed by Charles William Scott, it is unusually small and has an octagonal shape.
A quick research of CW Scott suggests that he was the author of a book called the History of the Fastnet Rock lighthouses: illustrated with thirty-five reproductions of photographs : to which are appended thirty-four plates of reduced copies of working drawings drawn up by desire of the Commissioners of Irish Lights ; by C.W. Scott. One of the images is contained with the National Archive’s online selection:
Rathlin Ireland and the Scottish connection
My visit to the Eastern lighthouse brought me a new understanding of the strategic importance of Rathlin – the stepping stone between Ireland and Scotland. After the Brexit vote in 2016, there were even some who halfheartedly suggested that Rathlin should leave the UK and join an independent Scotland in the European Union. This heritage also includes the possibility that Robert the Bruce spent a winter on the Island in a cave beneath what is now the location of the East Lighthouse.
Bruce’s Cave is the legendary location for his winter hideaway but if the story is true then there is speculation that other caves on the island are more likely candidates for his temporary home. Landscape photographer Andy Mcinroy has a quite physically-involved article about the relevant adventure of Bruce.