Howth Harbour Lighthouse

Nice Building, Great Location - But the History is Important Too

An evening stroll in Howth - bracing
An evening stroll in Howth - bracing.

Bernd Biege

The lighthouse guarding the entrance to Howth Harbour is, without doubt, a scenic sight. Here you have an old building that instantly inspires both the longing to travel abroad and the home-sickness that you are bound to experience when doing so. The Howth Lighthouse can be seen as a farewell, and as a welcome as it is both a symbol of adventurous travels and a symbol of returning home. However, for anyone interested in Irish history, it is also a symbol for the fight for Irish independence, as a small plaque at the lighthouse will tell you. Here is how and why to visit the Howth Lighthouse and more about the building's unique history.

Howth Harbour Lighthouse

The Howth Lighthouse at the end of the pier is one of the most recognizable landmarks on on a visit to the fishing and pleasure harbor of Howth on the northern end of Dublin Bay. The historic lighthouse is not only in a prominent position at the harbor entrance but also quite big and impressive (mainly due to its isolated location, one has to admit).

The big and impressive impact of the building are in part due to the dual purpose the lighthouse once served. Not only was it a lighthouse, but it also had a stout circular wall, enclosing a gun position. It was built in post-Napoleonic and at that moment in history, not every visitor was welcome to the sparkling new harbor. In fact, when you visit Howth Harbour Lighthouse and take a good look around, you will notice several defensive fortresses from the same era, the so-called Martello towers, scattered in the vicinity. These were built to protect the area from potential invading forces.

History of Howth Harbor Lighthouse

Today, visitors and locals look about Howth Pier and Howth lighthouse fondly and it is a popular area to visit. However, it might be said that the mighty lighthouse was a costly mistake, in the context of the far costlier mistake that was Howth Harbor itself. Only a fairly small quay existed here since the 17th century, used by local fishermen and as a convenient point to unload coal and supplies for the lighthouse on Howth Head (later replaced by the Baily Lighthouse). Only around 1800 it was decided that Howth would make a good alternative to the Pigeonhouse Packet Station and that a new harbor should be built here.

The first stone of Howth's new harbor was laid in 1807. The granite stone used in construction was quarried locally (at Kilrock), and the was economy booming. However, the good times ended almost immediately, as sand and mud proceeded to fill the harbor in record time. Maintaining the manmade harbor at sufficient depth for the packet ships from Holyhead (Wales) proved to be a never-ending, costly enterprise. Very quickly, it became too expensive to keep up. Nonetheless, construction of the lighthouse went forward and it was completed in January, though the light was not lit due to some red tape. So when the Post Master General of England decided that packets would no longer dock in Howth from July of the same year (transferring that business to Dun Laoghaire), things became a bit hectic.

The main bit of work had to be done because the current "completed" lighthouse was not really up to standard. Hasty improvements had to be made but finally, on July 1st, 1818, a fixed red light with twelve oil lamps went into operation. The Howth Lighthouse has a stout tower approximately 48 feet (14.5 meters) high and very similar to the Rennie design that already was in operation near Holyhead. Only 18 years later, the Treasury raised the inconvenient question whether Howth Harbour Lighthouse needed to be lit at all, due to the loss of the packets to Dun Laoghaire. Inspector Halpin, on behalf of the Commissioners, argued that the Treasury did not provide funds and that Howth Harbour was still somehow useful as a harbor of refuge in emergencies. So they kept her lit, with already outdated technology.

It wasn't until after World War II that electricity as a means of lighting was finally considered. A 250 Watt lamp on battery power (constantly recharged by mains electricity) replaced the old oil lighting in early 1955. This form of lighting lasted until 1982 when Howth Harbour was modernized and the role of the lighthouse in warning approaching ships of the shore was essentially replaced small new tower and powerful light on the East Pier Extension. However, Howth Harbour Lighthouse was retained in its original (but unlit) form, still serves as a day mark, an aid to navigation in good conditions.

Howth Harbour Lighthouse in Irish History

Howth Harbour Lighthouse has its own complicated history but it also became the setting for an unforgettable event during the Irish fight for independence. On July 26th, 1914, the author Erskine Childers (his "The Riddle of the Sands" is still a first-class spy thriller) arrived here with supplies for the Irish Volunteers. These were, of course, illegal supplies. Sailing in on his private yacht, Childers was effectively gun-running and brought a cache of arms into Ireland. There is a slight irony in the fact that Childers had warned against a German invasion of England in his bestselling book, but had sailed from Hamburg to Howth with arms supplied by the Germans, to be used against the British forces.

Childers was later executed for the possession of an illegal weapon during the Irish Civil War. The gun that brought the heavy sentence upon his head was a simple pistol that he had been presented with as a token of thanks for his gun-running activities.

Howth Lighthouse Essentials

  • Website: More information on Irish lighthouses can be found on the website of the Commissioners of Irish Lights.
  • Directions: Howth Harbour Lighthouse is situated at the end of the East Pier of Howth Harbour, but it can be viewed from the end of the shorter West Pier as well. This is the easiest access, as you can actually drive to the end of the West Pier (not recommended on sunny weekends, though). The better idea is to park anywhere in Howth Harbour and either walk along the East or West Pier (or both) for a good look. You can also have a great view of the whole of Howth Harbour from the ruins of Saint Mary's Abbey.
  • Public Transport: Howth Railway Station (terminus for the DART service) is close to the West Pier and Dublin Bus stops are near both West and East Pier.