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Fastnet Lighthouse: the story behind “Ireland’s Teardrop”

3 min read

On a jagged tooth of shale rock a few miles off Ireland’s south coast, Fastnet Lighthouse is deserving of the utmost respect for its beauty, for its history, for the sheer danger of its location, and, basically, just for its existence, really.
Already getting close to it is a challenge, given its surrounding churning seas: if you wanted a more challenging location on which to build anything, it would be hard to come up with something more difficult.

It is often referred to simply as “Fastnet Rock” due its location, or “Ireland’s Teardrop”.
The name Fastnet Rock, a small clay-slate islet that rises to about 30 metres above the low water mark, possibly come from Old Norse Hvasstein-ey or ‘sharp-tooth isle’, and it is also called Carraig Aonair, meaning “lonely rock” in Irish. It lies roughly 6.5 km southwest of Cape Clear Island, off the coast of West Cork, and It earned the nickname ‘Ireland’s Teardrop‘ as it was the last part of Ireland that many 19th-century Irish emigrants saw as they sailed across to North America.
Many never returned.

Interestingly enough, it is to tallest and widest rock lighthouse in Ireland (and in Great Britian, as it happens).
The decision for Fastnet Lighthouse to be built came after a tragic event on a foggy evening on November 10th, 1847.
A ship known as The Stephen Whitney, which was making its way from New York City to Liverpool, mistook the Crookhaven lighthouse for the lighthouse at the Old Head of Kinsale. As a result, the ship struck the head of West Calf Island, causing the death of 92 of her 110 passengers and crew.
The first lighthouse was constructed with cast iron and completed several years after the incident, and it first produced a light on 1 January 1854.
However, the original structure proved no match to the intense weather conditions and it was soon in need of reinforcement. Storms shook it to the point that crockery was sometimes thrown off tables, and it seems that also a 273 L cask of water was washed away. The black base of the original lighthouse is still visible on top of the rock still today.
Later, on 27 November 1881 the whole of the nearby tower had been carried away during a gale, although without loss of life and, on the same day, the sea had broken the glass of the Fastnet Rock lantern.
Thus not long after the decision was made to construct a new lighthouse. The Commissioners of Irish Lights had resolved that the light was not sufficiently powerful, particularly for the first landfall for many ships crossing the Atlantic.
The beautiful Cornish granite tower, designed to withstand the force of the ocean by Engineer William Douglass, took five years to build, and was a monumental achievement when completed in 1904.

In any case, It is Continental Europe’s last, or first, depending on your direction of travel, outpost for those crossing the Atlantic, and the Titanic sailed past it into oblivion, and an icy grave, 100 years ago.
The area has been rich fishing (and piratical plundering) grounds for centuries, and in 1915 a German U-boat surfaced by its shadow to buy fish from a local boat before going on, later that day, to sink the Lusitania.
Still today, anyone travelling the Irish coastline of an evening or night may see the light (now unmanned, since 1989) far out to sea, doing its silent, signal rotations.
If you want, there are several different ferry providers offering tours around Fastnet Lighthouse, and not onto the island itself, as you just sail around it.

Images from web – Google Research