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James Kavanagh and the Fastnet Lighthouse


For sailors who live in Ireland or the British Isles there are few names on a sea chart which deserve more respect than Fastnet. Surrounded by deep waters, it is a solitary outcrop of hard clay shale 4.5 miles southwest of Cape Clear. It's original Gaelic name was "Carraig Aonair" or the lonely rock. It later became known as the 'The Teardrop of Ireland" as it was the last sight of home to be seen by thousands of emigrants sailing for America.

The waters around Fastnet are frequently blown into a raging white foam by storms. In 1847 ninety lives were lost in a single tragedy when an American packet ship was sunk. To protect shipping a cast iron lighthouse was commissioned for Fastnet in 1848 and and on January 1st, 1854 a guiding beam of light shone out from the rock for the first time. But by 1891 the Irish Lights Board had determined that the Fastnet lantern was not powerful enough. The resulting review called for a new granite lighthouse 42 feet in diameter at the base and that would reach 147 feet in height. It would cost over £70,000 to construct compared with £20,000 for the cast iron tower.

A stonemason named James Kavanagh joined the project 1896 and was appointed foreman. Work began in June 1899, by which time the plans had been revised to increase the base of the tower to 52 feet. Granite was shipped from Cornwall in England on the SS Ierne, a ship build specifically for the purpose. In order to provide maximum strength to the tower, each face of every granite stone formed a dovetail joint with it's immediate neighbours. No stone can be removed from the Fastnet lighthouse without first removing the stones above it.

During construction James lived on the rock for up to ten months at a time, alongside eleven to fifteen labourers. They slept three to a bunk and rose at 5 o'clock each morning. On any day that stones were landed an additional four or five men were present. James personally set every block used to construct the tower and in June 1903 he set the final stone, number 2,074 in course 89. The combined weight of the stones was 4,300 tons. The Fastnet project was remarkable in its day, and the lighthouse is still the tallest and widest rock lighthouse tower in Ireland and Great Britain.

At the end of June, 1903 James complained that he was ill and he was taken to the mainland. He died shortly after on July 6th and his remains were taken to Arklow for burial. In March 1904 his son returned to Fastnet to help with the  removal of the old cast iron tower.

In March 1989 Fastnet was converted to fully automatic operation and the lighthouse keepers sailed to the mainland for the last time.