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Fastnet tragedy features in new lighthouse series

May 7th, 2022 11:00 AM

By Siobhan Cronin

Fastnet tragedy features in new lighthouse series Image
This image of the building of the Fastnet Lighthouse is part of an exhibition on show on Spike Island in Cork Harbour. ‘Old Cork in Colour’ runs at the Mitchell Hall from now until November. The image has been loaned to the exhibition by the National Library of Ireland.

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THE dramatic story of the disastrous 1979 Fastnet Race will feature in the second series of Great Lighthouses of Ireland which returns this weekend.

The four-part series covers a wide range of other topics including shipwrecks, the power of waves, lighthouses in art, engineers, lightships, Marconi, Admiral Beaufort, bird surveys, the Dingle lighthouse keeper who first spotted Fungie, the importance of food and the tactics employed by lighthouse keepers to get on with the men they shared a very small space with, are just some of the topics explored.

The series kicks off with the Fastnet and James Morrissey, author of A History of the Fastnet Lighthouse, explains how the masterpiece was built.

William Douglass designed the lighthouse, made from more than 2,000 individually carved, interlocking granite blocks which continue to withstand the most ferocious Atlantic storms today.

No less remarkable was the foreman, James Kavanagh, who personally oversaw the installation of each stone, and ensured the welfare of the men on the rock for months on end.

Kavanagh, his team, and the construction of the lighthouse were captured in an extraordinary, historic collection of photographs from the National Library of Ireland which feature in this programme.

Since 1925, the Fastnet Yacht Race has attracted competitors from around the world, and the lighthouse marks the halfway point around which the yachts must sail before turning back for the finishing line.

However, the 1979 Fastnet Race was struck by tragedy when an unexpected hurricane-level storm hit. John O’Donnell, a crew member on board the yacht Sundowner, recounts the terrifying experience.

Retired lighthouse keeper Gerald Butler, who witnessed the events from inside the lighthouse, describes the deadly sea conditions of force 10 winds and 40 ft waves and the vital role the lighthouse keepers played in assisting the rescue services.

Commodore John Kavanagh, former flag officer commanding, Irish Naval Service, details the rescue operation and the Irish Naval Service’s role in locating missing yachts and their crews, which was extremely challenging in the days before GPS technology.

Of the 303 yachts that entered the race, 15 participants died, and a further six people who were following the race were also killed.

At least 75 yachts capsized, 24 were abandoned, and five sank.

The story will also feature in a documentary being screened on Cape Clear island during the Fastnet Film Festival later this month.

Other lighthouses, including at Crookhaven and the Old Head of Kinsale, will feature in future episodes of the RTÉ series.

• The Great Lighthouses of Ireland begins on Sunday May 8th on RTÉ One at 6.30pm.

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