Fanad Head: sandy beaches, epic views, whales and sunken treasure…4 min read
Standing between idyllic Lough Swilly, one of Ireland’s very few glacial fjords, and sandy Mulroy Bay, lies Fanad Head Lighthouse.
With its location in the Donegal Gaeltacht, an Irish speaking area, on the eastern shore of windswept Fanad Peninsula, it’s little wonder that it is considered one of the most beautiful lighthouses in the world.
In addition, this area is regularly visited by creatures including whales, porpoises and dolphins.
Fanad Lighthouse was proposed in response to a maritime tragedy, the wrecking of HMS Saldanha just in Lough Swilly. On the night of 4th December 1811, the vessel, a Royal Navy frigate, struck rocks near Fanad Head during a violent storm and ran aground at Ballymastocker Bay. Over 250 souls were lost, including the young Captain William Pakenham. The only survivor is said to have been the ship’s parrot, who was shot down a few weeks later. It bore a silver collar inscribed with the ship’s name.
The lighthouse was designed by one of the foremost civil engineers of the time, George Halpin and first lit on 17th March 1817, on Saint Patrick’s Day, using sperm oil wick lamps and parabolic reflectors, showing red to the Atlantic and white to Lough Swilly.
It could be seen for 14 miles (about 22 kilometres) in clear weather.
Another famous shipwreck in the area is that of SS Laurentic, a British ocean liner of the White Star Line. Built in Harland & Wolff in 1908, the same year as Titanic, it was converted to an armed merchant cruiser at the beginning of WW1.
On 23 November 1917 the Laurentic, one of the most technologically advanced ships in the British navy at the time, departed Liverpool for Halifax, Canada with 479 souls on board and a secret cargo of gold, payment for munitions from Canada and the United States. She stopped at Buncrana two days later, under doctor’s orders to let a small number of passengers with yellow fever symptoms disembark. Then, from Buncrana, she sailed for Fanad Head where they were to meet an armed escort. Despite weather was ferocious with a blizzard blowing, when the escort didn’t show, Captain Norton decided to proceed regardless, despite reports of u-boat sightings in Lough Swilly earlier in the day.
As a result, within an hour of leaving Buncrana, disaster struck: the Laurentic hit two mines laid by the German submarine U-80 and one of it hit near the engine room causing the ship to lose power. The vessel was plunged into darkness, and was unable to send a distress signal.
She sank within the hour.
354 men were lost in the disaster and bodies washed up on shore for weeks afterwards. Many had frozen to death in their lifeboats as they tried to reach land, while the lucky ones were rescued by fishing trawlers, and Captain Norton himself survived.
Over the next seven years, more than 5,000 dives were made by Royal Navy salvage divers and, despite part of the secret cargo of 3,211 gold bars worth £5 million (or over €410 million today) were recovered, a part was lost probably forever.
In any case the lighthouse was converted to electric operation in 1975 and automated in 1983.
Fanad Head Lighthouse is classified as a sea light, not a harbour light, despite it marking the entrance into Lough Swilly which is a natural harbour of refuge.
Its tower is 22 metres high from foundation to the top of the tower, not including the lantern. It is one of 70 lighthouses operated by the Commissioners of Irish Lights around the coast of Ireland and continues to provide a vital role in maritime safety still today.
Author’s notes: The lighthouse has been open to the public as a tourist attraction since 2016 and also offers overnight accommodation in three beautifully restored lightkeepers’ cottages. In the right sea conditions, you can dive to the wreck of the SS Laurentic. It’s also worth noting that 22 of those gold bars are still missing…
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Images from web – Google Research