Given that Ireland is an island, it isn’t a surprise that lighthouses are part of our landscape. Ireland boasts 70 operational lighthouses to illuminate more than 1,300 miles of rugged coastline. They stand out along the horizon, starring in landscape paintings and inspiring the images on Irish gifts.
The sea has always been foremost in the Irish imagination. We’ve fished it and sailed across it. It is both friend and foe. A source of food, and of grief. Some of Ireland’s most famous scenic spots are along the coast – the Cliffs of Moher, the Giant’s Causeway, and Dingle Peninsula are loved by locals and visitors alike. From St. Brendan the Navigator to the mass emigration caused by the famine of the 1840s to the current frequent ferries to Wales, the Irish have a long, long history of setting sail across that sea. Lighthouses have helped us return safely, whether we’ve been fishing for the day or travelling the world.
Hook Lighthouse – the Oldest Functioning Lighthouse in the World
Since humans first crafted boats and took to the sea, we’ve developed many tactics and technologies to come back safely. Experts believe the first lighthouse was built in ancient Egypt, but the oldest one still in operation is in County Wexford. It towers at the end of the Hook Head Peninsula, guiding boats safely into Waterford Harbour. (The harbor is the boundary between counties Wexford and Waterford.)
The earliest known navigational light here was the work of a Welsh monk. Dubhan built a monastery on the peninsula in the fifth century, and the monks soon saw the need for a beacon to guide ships into the harbor at night and in poor visibility. They built a large fire at the end of Hook Head.
Between 1210 and 1230, Knight William Marshal had the tower lighthouse built. He was Strongbow’s son-in-law and succeeded him as Earl of Leinster. The local monks continued in their role as caretakers of the lighthouse, protecting sailors, for centuries. Eventually, the lighthouse was abandoned, leaving ships vulnerable to wrecking on the rocks below – which they did
Sir Robert Reading, who was elected to the Irish House of Commons, restored Hook Lighthouse and four others in Ireland in the 1670s. He modernized the lighthouse, adding the first glass lantern.
Get A Lighthouse of Your Own
Honoring Ireland’s Maritime Heritage
Nautical motifs adorn many different Irish gifts. From curragh boats to lighthouses to the rich heritage of Aran knitting, the sea has shaped Ireland’s culture. It’s featured in our legends and our songs. No matter where in Ireland you are, the ocean isn’t that far. Even the middle of the country sees seagulls swooping through the skies.
Inspired by Ireland’s Seas
The sea is so primal. It offers both life and death. A day at the beach filled with laughter, and screams of grief when a ship is lost. Lighthouses are more than just towers; they guide us safely to shore, back to our loved ones. Perhaps that is why they are such a powerful symbol on Irish gifts.