Showing off the bright lights of Ireland

July 31st, 2016 7:11 AM

By Southern Star Team

LOOK TO PORT! Siobhan says goodbye to the Fastnet lighthouse. (Photo: John Eagle)

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THERE seem to be two types of people in this world: the people who love lighthouses, and the others who just don’t ‘get’ us.

One West Cork-based photographer is very firmly in the first camp, and has been capturing them for years.

John Eagle has even produced two books of his photos, including the popular ‘Ireland’s Lighthouses – A Photo Essay’.

Having been bitten by the bug in the late 80s, it didn’t take John long to realise that his fascination with lighthouses was shared by quite a large part of the population.

And so he set up his Lighthouse Tours some years ago, and they are growing in popularity each year.

When John discovered he had a like-minded soul in this reporter, who has been fascinated with the majestic buildings, and their spectacular locations, for many years, he was keen to get me
 to join the tour.

So on a wet and windy recent Friday morning, I got the call from John to meet him at Schull pier for a trip to the iconic Fastnet Rock lighthouse.

At the pier I met John, his jolly bus driver Tommy Hartnett, and five lighthouse enthusiasts from around the world, including the US, the UK and Holland.

With skipper Michael O’Driscoll at the helm of charter boat Blue Thunder, we headed off for the ‘teardrop of Ireland’ – as the Fastnet was called – which was the last part of the emerald isle that many people saw when they emigrated from Cork.

‘I did my first Lighthouse Tour as an add-on for the US Lighthouse Society’s tour of 2009,’ John explained to me, over the roar of the engine, agreeing that he caught the bug many years before that.

It seems he had the same ‘light bulb’ moment as the Star Wars location crew, because the first lighthouse that captured his heart was Skellig Michael in Co Kerry, after he photographed it in 1986. 

From then on he was hooked – an appropriate term, as the historic Hook Head in Co Wexford is another one of John’s favourites.

On board the Blue Thunder, Amercian lighthouse fan Bob Shaw, who had travelled from Michigan with his wife Diane, told me he had a dual purpose in travelling to Ireland – as well as loving lighthouses, he would dearly like to track down his family, who he believed emigrated several generations ago, from some part of Ireland. ‘One of my ancestors was an orphan, so it’s been difficult to trace my family tree,’ he told me, as we hopped and bumped along a pretty rough Schull harbour, heading for the latest stop on the 8-day ‘Southern Irish Lighthouse Tour’. 

Also on board were Joan and Dan Gish from Minnesota and Hendrick Schilpzand from Holland.

The tour had already visited Kerry when I joined them, and while it was too choppy to get to Skellig Michael, they did see a lot of the Kerry coast, closer to shore, but just as spectacular, while waiting for the weather to improve.

The weather wasn’t looking a whole lot better on our trip from Schull, but we were all appropriately dressed so a bit of rain and wind wasn’t going to deter us in our quest to get up close and personal with our target.

As the distinctive silhouette of the Fastnet began to take shape in the distance, I felt a chill up my spine. This wonderful rock, a symbol of both sadness (emigration) and security (landmark), is one of the most enduring images in West Cork.

Its very recognisable outline has been adopted as a logo by everyone from food companies to walking trails, and yet here it was looming large in front of us.

As we got closer on our little, but feisty, Blue Thunder, the immense size of this incredible feat of engineering was striking. It was hard not to be silenced by its sheer presence. 

For a moment, nobody spoke, we just all looked up at this beast of the Atlantic, rising 159ft into the sky, (the highest lighthouse in Ireland) with the seas crashing unforgivingly onto the rocks at its magnificent base. 

But soon we realised we couldn’t stay forever so it was time to get the critical photos taken, the group shots, couples shots, selfies and of course, the portraits of the Rock itself.

This, the second lighthouse built on the rock, (the first was built in 1854) went into commission on June 27th 1904, having cost about £90,000 to finish.

We circled it a number of times, in order to get a look at it from ever perceivable angle, marvelling at how the construction gangs, lighthouse crews, boatmen and later, helicopter pilots, had managed to negotiate such a treacherous path to access the tower.

And then, after our chats, and questions  – most of them answered by our knowledgeable guide John – it was time to head for home again, and travel past yet another lighthouse – this time on Long Island, with more tidbits of information on its history from John.

On the way home, we chatted about the success of John’s tours and he revealed how they had managed to get started, almost by mistake: ‘I started the tours because a woman in Alabama wanted me to run a tour in 2008, but in the end she didn’t come on it. In fact no one came on it. So I posted on my website, cheekily, ‘Thank you all for coming on my lighthouse tour. What a great success it was. I hope to see you all again sometime.’ 

But, two months later, I had eight people booked for the 2009 tour!’

From then on John held the tours every year – one in June for the southern leg, and in August for the Northern leg. The comprehensive brochures, which give details of each lighthouse and its vital stats, are written by Felicity Englhardt, who lovingly compiles them, knowing they will likely be kept as souvenirs by the enthusiasts.

Initially his southern tour was also in August but he quickly noticed that there are a lot of pretty violent storms in August on Ireland’s south coast, putting the trips to more extreme locations in doubt.

‘The puffins are also still at Skellig Michael in June, so it works that way too,’ he explained.

Of course, there are plenty of additional treats for the Lighthouse Tour visitors, like the sight of dolphins or sharks, playing or basking in our pristine Irish waters. In fact, a whale did a merry little jump – too fast for the cameras – alongside the Blue Thunder as we appraoched the Fastnet.

Gannets and other seabirds are often as much a treat for the visitors as the lighthouses themselves, as Dubliner Tom Ferguson reminded me, with his enthusiasm to get the perfect shot of one of these sea creatures flying daringly between our boat and the Rock.

That afternoon the group travelled over to East Cork to see Ballycotton Lighthouse, and the next day they had a wonderful tour of Galley Head’s famous tower with lighthouse keeper and author Gerard Butler.

The weather had also much improved by then, leaving them with some stunning shots of West Cork, ready to grace the mantelpieces of homes in Holland, the US and maybe even Dublin.

John Eagle’s next Lighthouse Tour, the Northern Irish Lighthouse Tour, takes place from August 20-27th and there are just two places left. It will visit the Aran Islands, land on Inishmore, see the lighthouses of Mayo, Sligo, Donegal, Antrim, Down and Co Dublin. It will also spend two nights at Blackhead Lighthouse and visit Tory Island for a night, and the all-inclusive price is €1,395. John also organises customised lighthouse tours for groups. (027) 74275.

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