Monks lit a fire on a rock almost fifteen hundred years ago and a beacon still shines from the same spot to this very day, writes Colm Lambert.
The millennium and a half of history forms the fascinating tale of Hook Head lighthouse in County Wexford – the oldest operating lighthouse in all of Europe. It partly owes its origins to the Crusades of the late 12th century, and its status is such that it has been awarded the accolades by leading travel guide The Lonely Planet as ‘the flashiest lighthouse in the world’ and ‘the great grand-daddy of them all’.
The lighthouse today is a thriving tourist attraction as well as continuing to serve as an important safety marker for craft entering or leaving the gateway to Waterford Harbour, or negotiating the notoriously rocky local coastline – known as ‘the graveyard of 1,000 ships’.
It had approximately 80,000 visitors last year, of which some 40,000 took a tour of the lighthouse itself, with all who did gaining an insight into medieval architecture and fiefdom as well as maritime history.
The tale of Hook Lighthouse begins back in the mists of time, around the late sixth century, after a monastery was founded at nearby Churchtown by St Dubhán (Irish for ‘Hook’), from whom the entire area now takes its name.
The monks witnessed several shipwrecks and the loss of lives, and eventually began to burn large fires on a rocky outcrop there, to warn sailors of the dangers of the area. The fires continued to be set for centuries, and were still a feature of the area when the Normans landed at Baginbun, just a few miles away, in 1169.
As the invaders assumed control of the area, one knight – William Marshall, Earl of Pembroke, who was married to Strongbow’s daughter Isobel – became most powerful of them all in the decades that followed, and commenced a massive building programme that saw him found the town and port of New Ross as well as other major structures such as Tintern Abbey and the castles at Ferns and Clonmines.
Needing to safeguard the passage of his fleet to and from New Ross, he also ordered the construction of a lighthouse tower at Hook Head, inspired in part by what he had seen of the famous lighthouse at Alexandria in Egypt (one of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World) while he took part in the Crusades.
The architect of the tower is unknown, but he is believed to have come from the upper echelons of French society due to the mix inside the tower of both Gothic and Romanesque arches, in the style which was popular in Normandy at the time.