They warned off Luftwaffe bombers, told the RAF they were straying over neutral airspace and helped rookie US Air Force navigators find Allied airspace. Now there is renewed interest in restoring the giant ‘EIRE’ symbols which dotted our coastline, writes David Tucker.
SILENT and ever-present, the guardians of our shores, they protected Ireland during the dark days of World War Two. But almost as soon as the last bomb dropped on the European mainland, our protectors were left to an uncertain fate, crumbling and neglected, their usefulness gone, their painted stones hauled away to build walls, or to repair broken down farm buildings, what remained covered in ferns and earth.
Now decades on there is renewed interest in preserving our heritage and restoring the giant ‘EIRE’ symbols that warned off the bombers of the Luftwaffe, told the RAF they were straying over neutral airspace and helped rookie US Air Force navigators lost in unfamiliar skies return to Allied airspace.
In 1939 the Coast WatchEing Service, effectively Ireland’s wartime eyes and ears, was set up to monitor and record aggressive activity around our coast. Eighty-three Lookout posts (LOPs) and ‘EIRE’ signs painted on rocks were eventually set up at strategic locations from Ballagan Head in Louth (no. 1) to Inishowen Head in Donegal (no. 82). The final one no. 83 was then added in Foileye, County Kerry.
In practice Ireland operated a policy often called ‘benevolent neutrality’ towards the Allied forces, allowing British airmen to over-fly the Donegal Air Corridor during the Battle of the Atlantic.
Official policy was that Allied aircraft passing over Ireland were on ‘training missions’ whereas Luftwaffe aircraft were on combat missions. During the Belfast Blitz in 1941, fire crews from Dublin, Dundalk, Drogheda and Dun Laoghaire travelled over the border to answer an emergency request from Northern Irish authorities.
Allied pilots were supplied with a list of lookout post (LOP) numbers, meaning they and the ‘EIRE’ signs next to them became a valuable navigational aid.
These locations were monitored 24 hours a day by two-man teams.
At first accommodation was rudimentary – just a tent – but then a number of pill box structures were built to house the watchers, with rearward communications and a list of ‘hot’ phone numbers to the Gardaí, the Department of Defence and Coast Guard as well as to the other LOPs, so that sightings and information could be quickly passed between them. Any aircraft movements had to be scrupulously recorded and passed on.
A look at the hand-written logs shows the frequent contacts between neighbouring LOPs, with flashing lights, suspicious boats and even submarines recorded off our shores.
At a local level, the Gardaí checked in several times a day with the LOP crews, who passed on any intelligence they may have detected, however minor it seemed. The information flowed both ways.