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Baily Lighthouse, Howth, Co. Dublin

Since the early ninth century, there has been a lighthouse watching over Dublin port from Howth Head 560 feet (172m) above sea-level. The first lighthouse on Howth Head summit was known as 'The Green Bayly'. It is believed that this first lighthouse was simply a fire on a mound of stones or tall rock organised by local fishermen or their families to warn ships of the dangers of the immense cliffs and white water. In 1912, archaeologists unearthed cinders and other remains of such medieval beacons.

In 1665, King Charles granted a letter patent (franchise) to Sir Robert Reading to build six coal-fired lighthouses on the Irish coast: two at Kinsale, one at Hook Head, one on the Island Magee and two at Howth. The patent said of the two at Howth that one was 'to mark the land', and the other 'to come over the bar'. The lighthouse to guide ships over the bar was never built and in its place was located a crude perch and buoy.

A vaulted cottage was built in 1668 with a short tower attached to its eastern side that was a little taller than the house. It had a brazier on top. It is believed from drawings of the time that turf or peat was first used to fuel the light. Coal became the fuel of choice later but because of the large amount required a special quay was constructed at Howth village to service the lighthouse. Horse-drawn carts were used to transport coal and other supplies to the lighthouse.

The control of the port of Dublin changed hands twice during the 1700s. In 1707, an Act of Parliament established a Ballast Board to control the port. Later, in 1786, the Corporation for Preserving and Improving the Port of Dublin was created. The corporation was later called the Port Authority. They hired Thomas Rogers, who had recently come from England at the invitation of the Lord Lieutenant, the Marquis of Buckingham, to build a new lighthouse. Rogers was responsible for inventing a new type of illumination called catadioptric lights. The lantern he proposed for the new lighthouse had as its source six Argand oil lamps each with a silvered copper parabolic reflector that focused the light through six bull's-eye lenses. The building was built on the same site as the old cottage lighthouse.

Impressing the Irish Government with his work, Rogers was offered the position of 'Lighthouse Contractor and Inspector' for the Revenue Commissioners. He was to be given complete control over all matters relating to lighthouses since the Revenue Commissioners were not really interested in such affairs. Thomas Rogers' troubles began when it became obvious that the Baily lighthouse he built was too high. It was constantly lost in the mist and fog. In order to maximise his personal profit from the lights, Rogers hired too few keepers and paid them pitiful wages. Desperate to support themselves, the staff turned to other ways of earning a living such as shoemaking, carpentry, prostitution, illegal distilling and basket weaving. It became such a scandal that a special Act of Parliament was passed in 1810 giving management of the lighthouses back to the Ballast Board of Dublin, better known as the Port Authority of Dublin, who had managed the Dublin Port and the Poolbeg light successfully for 30 years.

The new management immediately appointed George Halpin Senior as the Engineer to the Board and as Inspector of Lighthouses. Thomas Rogers continued as a lighthouse contractor for a number of years until Halpin found the lights to be in such poor condition with broken lenses, towers that leaked and rusting equipment that his contract was terminated. It was said that the situation was so bad that the rain beat through the lanterns.

On 5 December 1811, the Ballast Board recommended that a lighthouse be built further down the hill at a spot known as Little Baily to avoid the fog, mist and low clouds. Little Baily is a rock standing in the sea below the cliff but joined to it. The area was famous for being the place where King Crimthan, 2,000 years before, had built his fortress and is still called Duncriffan Point.

The new lighthouse, officially finished in 1814, became known as Howth Baily although unofficially it was known as Baily lighthouse (navigational location 53o 21.7' N 6o 3.1'W). Originally, the 47-foot (14m) cut granite tower was painted white and remained so until 1910 when the Engineer-in-Chief, C.W. Scott, had it restored to its natural granite. A revolutionary lighting device by John Wigham, one of the world's greatest lighthouse engineers and a Scot who lived in Ireland for many years, was installed in 1865. He substituted gas for the oil lamps. Wigham's gaslight consisted of 5 concentric rings, ranging from an outer ring of 108 jets to an inner ring of 28 jets. The 340 jets had mica chimneys and created 3,000 candlepower. In 1872, the candlepower was increased to 9,000, which created a beam of 500,000 candlepower when focused. This was ten times more powerful than any other light. The beacon was increased again in 1901 to a 1,000,000 candlepower optic weighing 13 tons. In 1972, the current optic was placed in the tower. Today the light has a nominal range of 27 nautical miles.

'The Bells of Baily' tells of an accident on 3 August 1846 when The Prince, a City of Dublin Steam Packet Company paddle steamer, struck the cliffs 1 mile (1.6km) north of the Baily with no loss of life. No one was sure whether the fog bells at the lighthouse had been operating or not, so the Ballast Board ordered new fog bells to be installed. On 15 February 1853, in a terrible snowstorm, another City of Dublin paddle steamer, Queen Victoria, ran into Casana Rock in the area of the Baily. Fifty-eight lives were lost including the captain. No bell had sounded in the snow as the bells promised seven years ago had not been installed. Inspector George Halpin said the Ballast Board had to postpone the installation of the bells because of their heavy workload. Two months later, the fog bell was installed and served well until it was replaced by a horn in November 1867. A siren replaced that horn in 1879, and in 1926 a diaphone was installed.

With its close proximity to Dublin, the lighthouse was a popular assignment for keepers. The Baily was also the training facility for Supernumerary Assistant Keepers (SAK), the first step into the lighthouse service. After their training at Baily, they would be assigned to lighthouses all over Ireland. If they wanted to make the lighthouse service their career, they could advance to Assistant Keeper and then Principal Keeper. It seems fitting in a way that the training facility for lighthouse keepers would be the last light in Ireland to be de-manned. The keepers moved out on 24 March 1997.

The lighthouse can be found near the town of Howth and can be reached from Dublin by taking the North DART. From the station you double back towards Dublin by climbing a hill. At the top of the hill, turn left down a lane and follow it to the gates. You will not be able to proceed any further but you will see the lighthouse in the distance.

extracted from Irish Lighthouses by Sharma Krauskopf, published by Appletree Press.

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