Baily Lighthouse

Spectacular Setting on the Northern Fringe of Dublin Bay

Baily Lighthouse - one of Howth's landmarks, guarding the entrance to Dublin Bay
© Bernd Biege 2016

Baily Lighthouse in Howth, just why should you bother? Well, because lighthouses are one of the most iconic motives in landscape photography, either as themselves or as a part of the often rugged landscape. And Baily Lighthouse, situated on cliffs extending into Dublin Bay from Howth, must be one of Ireland's most photographed lighthouses on the eastern coastline. Because of its scenic setting. Because of its old-fashioned design. And because of its relatively easy accessibility.

So why not include the Baily Lighthouse in a visit to Dublin's old-fashioned suburb of Howth? Here's what you need to know:

Facts About the Baily Lighthouse

Shining its guiding light for nearly 50 kilometers (or 26 nautical miles) out over the Irish Sea, and marking the approaches to Dublin's harbor, Baily Lighthouse is located on the south-eastern part of Howth Head - at 53°21'44.08 North and 6°3'10.78 West, to be precise. It is part of the huge number of lighthouses operated by the Commissioners of Irish Lights and has been automated since 1996.

The lighthouse itself, part of a larger building complex on a rocky outcrop accessible by road (though not with public access), is only 13 meters high. But the "focal height" (the term for the actual height the light is displayed over normal sea levels) is 41 meters. Which accounts for a range of 48 kilometers across the water.

Though the Baily Lighthouse has been fully automatic for several years, making the lighthouse keeper redundant, an attendant still lives in the old Principal Keeper's residence.

A small museum has also found its home at the Baily Lighthouse, established in 2000 and displaying memorabilia and smaller artifacts, most of which were collected and donated by retired staff. Unfortunately, this exhibition is not open on a regular basis, it can only be visited by arrangement (which may be a bit difficult to arrange).

Even the grounds are not open to the public, signs at the access road forbid entry. But all is not lost, as the Baily Lighthouse can be viewed from the paths around Howth Head, with the easiest access to a great view being from Howth Summit via a short walk along the Cliff Path Loop.

A Short History of the Baily Lighthouse

The first lighthouse at Howth was erected about 1667 by Sir Robert Reading, who held letters of patent from King Charles II. Originally only a square tower with a coal-fired beacon and a cottage were built, parts of which actually remain high on the headland.

Only in 1790 was the coal-fired beacon replaced by six oil lamps with a silvered parabolic mirror and a "bulls-eye" glass pane to focus the light. Operations fell under the Revenue Commissioners'office at this time, who might also have used the lighthouse as a look-out to thwart smugglers.

By 1810 the clumsily named "Corporation for Preserving and Improving the Port of Dublin" took over, and was dissatisfied with the location of the light - the relatively high location meant that fog often interfered with visibility. By the end of 1811, Little Baily (also called Dungriffen) was identified as a far better location. And by Saint Patrick's Day in 1814 a new tower and a house for the lighthouse keeper were finished in the present location. It had no less than 24 oil lamps and reflectors.

Still, fog could be a problem ... and two accidents in fog proved that non-optical improvements to the Baily Lighthouse were needed. In August 1846, the paddle steamer PS "Prince" of the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company ran into cliffs just 2,500 meters off the lighthouse in the heavy fog. While this raised concerns, money was tight. Until in February 1853, the PS "Queen Victoria" came to similar harm, a maritime tragedy in which more than eighty people died, crew and passengers. As a direct result of this massive loss of life and the inquiry which rules that acoustic warnings might have prevented the shipwreck, a fog bell was installed in April of the same year.

During the 1860s, Baily Lighthouse received improved lights, and the fuel burned in them was switched from oil to gas (first on an experimental basis) - so the station received its own small gas works. And while the fog bell was kept as an emergency measure, acoustic signals were switched to first an air horn, then a siren during the 1870s. With the addition of personnel accommodation over the years, the Baily Lighthouse slowly acquired its current state.

Only in 1972 was the system electrified, now a massive 1,500-watt bulb in a rotating lens started producing a flash every 20 seconds - but lights were fast becoming secondary warning system, with radio beacons becoming primary systems for warning and guiding ships. So from as early as 1978, the still new light was operated not 24/7, but only in poor visibility. And even the acoustic fog signal was scrapped in 1995 (which must have been a relief for locals). Finally, in 1996, Baily Lighthouse was converted to automatic operation.

The last of the regular lighthouse keepers left Baily Lighthouse on March 24th, 1997 - 183 years and seven days after operations started. And with the lighthouse keeper, the job went ... as Baily was the last of the Irish lighthouses to be converted to automatic operation.

Why You Should Make a Detour to See the Baily Lighthouse

Well, look at the picture above - and then tell me it is not worth a visit. The scenic setting on the rocks just off the main peninsula, the old-fashioned design of the lighthouse itself, and the "aerial view", they all combine to make you fetch your camera. Or to just enjoy the view and take in some sea air.

Isn't that reason enough? Even if you are only remotely interested in Ireland's maritime heritage, the Baily Lighthouse will certainly rank amongst your favorite holiday snapshots.

Baily Lighthouse Essentials

  • Website: More information on Irish lighthouses can be found on the website of the Commissioners of Irish Lights.
  • Directions: Baily Lighthouse is situated on a rocky outcrop on the south-eastern side of the Howth peninsula, there is an access road (authorized entry only), but parking near this is difficult. The easiest access to a bird's eye view of Baily Lighthouse can be had via the car park on Howth Summit. Follow the main path from the summit downhill for a short distance and you are all set to snap away.
  • Public Transport: Howth Summit is a Dublin Bus stop - the car park and access to the cliff walks are just a short walk uphill from there and signposted.

A Small Addendum

The optic used in Baily Lighthouse between 1902 and 1972 was saved from destruction and is on display in the National Maritime Museum of Ireland in Dun Laoghaire - quite a long way off, but easily reached if you take the DART skirting the coast of Dublin Bay. Nearer by you might also want to have a look at the Howth Harbour Lighthouse - a historic building with links to the fight for Irish independence.

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