The East Light
Although mariners had been petitioning for a light on Rathlin as early as 1827, it was not until 1849 that the building of the first lighthouse began at Altacarry on the northeast headland of the island.
The delay was due to difference of opinion among the relevant authorities. Two lights were at first installed. An upper revolving and a lower fixed so as not to be confused with other lights when approaching and passing through the North Channel. The tower of the upper light is built of Rathlin stone and is 26.8m (88ft) overall height, showing a white light.
It is what one imagines a lighthouse to look like: conical with black and white stripes. In the early stages, the tower was natural stone with a broad red belt under the lantern balcony. It remained like this for 60 years when the red was changed to black and the stone painted white as it is today.
The lower light was discontinued in 1894 and the upper light intensified. The light was converted from paraffin to diesel generated electricity in 1981 and mains electricity in the 1990s. A fog signal was established in 1886. An 18 pound gun fired every 20 minutes (changed down the years to every five minutes). This signal was discontinued in 1972 for security reasons and a radio beacon was set up, sending out a Morse signal every six minutes.
Several dwelling houses were built for six keepers to live on the island at any one time, with their families.
The West Light
The first mention of another lighthouse was made in 1901. Sanction was given by the Board of Trade to begin building at the west end of the island in 1910. Progress was slow, but when one sees the amount of concrete (mixed by hand) poured and set against the cliff face at Crockantirrive, coupled with building an inclined railway and jetty at Cooraghy for landing materials, it is no wonder that it took a long time.
The supplies were taken by horse and cart across Kebble to the site. The workforce was island men, some of them walking as much as 4 miles each way to the job. An engineer and foreman from the mainland took charge. Because it is built down the rock face, with the light at the lower level, it has been called ‘the upside down’ lighthouse.
Towards the end of 1916, the work was complete, but no light went in to operation until March 1919. A fog signal was set up in 1924. This could be heard up to 20 miles away. It was nicknamed the ‘Rathlin Bull’. Three Light keepers manned the station. The duty was rotated every six weeks with the east light – later changed to monthly. The light was driven by paraffin powered engines and had a red flash every five seconds. The cliff top is 300 feet above sea level and the light is 120 feet down the cliff face.
Conversion to diesel generated electricity took place in June 1983 and by December 1983 all keepers were withdrawn. An attendant now looks after the maintenance of the light, which is fully automated. The RSPB has use of the platform and thousands of visitors come there to view the breeding seabird colony each summer. Toward the end of 1915 a temporary white double flashing light was erected and a fog signal installed at the same time. A severe storm wrecked the light in 1917, so it was transferred to higher ground. The Board of Trade was approached in 1918 with regard to building a permanent structure. Due to lack of funds it was not until 1920 that the present six-sided structure was built.
Two keepers lived in a hut, but both they and the fog signal were withdrawn in 1931. The light was powered by a ‘water to carbide’ acetylene generator. This light was converted to electricity in May 1986 and is monitored from Rathlin East, which is also served by an attendant. Officials from the Commissioners of Irish Lights inspect all the stations each summer.
Being a lighthouse keeper was essentially a lonely job, but not so much on Rathlin. Most were based here for two or three years so they and their families soon became incorporated into the fabric of Rathlin life. Their comings and goings were watched with great interest. ‘Lighthouse Relief Day’, once every two weeks (every other Tuesday), was a talking point and cause for gathering at the quay for the arrival of the island based ‘Relief’ boat, laden with stores and ordered goods.
No doubt the construction of the lighthouses brought employment to the island men in the past. Conveyance provided further income. To convey keepers from the pier to the station a horse and cart was used. Later a tractor and trailer or van was contracted. Local ‘temporarys’ were on standby when a light keeper fell ill or went on holiday. Workmen still come to do maintenance and often look for workers.
These things were taken for granted and when the lights became automated Rathlin lost a way of life. Quite a few island women married keepers and their descendants still come back to visit family and friends. The keepers may have gone, but their legacy – the lights – still shine out like old friends, evoking memories of what used to be and giving a sense of usefulness and permanency to Rathlin.
By Peggy McFaul