Howth Harbour Lighthouse

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

An evening stroll in Howth - bracing
© Bernd Biege 2016

The lighthouse guarding the entrance to Howth Harbour is, without doubt, a scenic treat. Here you have an old building that inherently personifies both the longing for travelling abroad, and the home-sickness experienced when doing so. It can be seen as a farewell, and as a welcome. As a symbol of adventurous travels, a symbol of returning home. But for anybody 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. So let us have a look at the location and the building's history:

Howth Harbour Lighthouse - Unmissable by Default

Whoever manages not to spot the lighthouse on a visit to the fishing and pleasure harbor of Howth on the northern end of Dublin Bay, must either be legally blind, meandering about in a very thick fog or, worst, be totally focused on their smartphone and ignoring real life. Because the 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 latter attributes, big and impressive, are in part due to the dual purpose the lighthouse once served. Not only was it a lighthouse, it also had a stout circular wall, enclosing a gun position. Because in the post-Napoleonic times of its construction not every visitor was welcome to the spanking new harbour, and evil-minded Johnny Foreigner (more than likely Jean l'Etranger, truth be told) was not to be allowed access to the harbour. 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.

A Short History of Howth Harbour Lighthouse

It might be said that the mighty lighthouse was a costly mistake, in the context of the far costlier mistake that was Howth Harbour 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 harbour was laid in 1807, granite stone used in construction was quarried locally (at Kilrock), the economy boomed. And faltered almost immediately, as sand and mud proceeded to fill the harbor in record time, and maintaining a sufficient depth for the packet ships from Holyhead (Wales) proved to be a never-ending, costly enterprise. Too expensive to keep up. Nonetheless, in January 1818 the lighthouse was completed, though the light was not lit due to red tape. So when the Post Master General of England decided that packets would stop at Howth from July of the same year (transferring that business to Dun Laoghaire), things became a bit hectic.

Mainly due to the fact that the "completed" lighthouse was not really up to scratch and hasty improvements had to be made. But finally, on July 1st, 1818, a fixed red light with twelve oil lamps went into operation. In a stout tower approximately 14.5 metres 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, made a case 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 outdated technology.

Only after the Second World War, electricity as a means of lighting was considered. And finally installed - a 250 Watt lamp on battery power (constantly recharged by mains electricity) replaced the old oil lighting in early 1955. Which lasted until 1982 - as during the modernization of Howth Harbour the lighthouse was effectively made redundant by a 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 became the setting for a momentous event when 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. Illegal supplies. Sailing in on his private yacht "Asgard", 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 bestseller ... but had sailed from Hamburg to Howth with arms supplied by the Germans, to be used against the British forces.

And with history's tendency to move from the sublime to the ridiculous, Childers was later executed for the possession of an illegal weapon during the Irish Civil War. A pistol he had been presented as a token of thanks for his gun-running activities.

Howth Harbour 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, even better, 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 quote near the West Pier and Dublin Bus stops are near both West and East Pier.
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