A History of Fanad Lighthouse

  • Fanad Head Lighthouse is situated on the northern coast of the Fanad Peninsula in North Donegal.
  • This light is classified as a sea light as distinct from a harbour light although it does mark the entrance to Lough Swilly which is a natural harbour of refuge.
  • The original building was commissioned following the Saldanha wreck. Building commenced in 1815 and was completed in 2 years by the Commissioners of the Ballast Board. It is of granite and was sent from the North hall , Dublin, ready prepared.
  • The building was designed by the corporation’s inspector Mr George Halpin and the building work was overseen by a Mr.Carpenter of Dublin and cost £2,000. The light was first lit on St. Patrick’s day 17th March 1817. It used Argand sperm oil wicks. A new larger and higher tower was commissioned and the light, using paraffin, went into operation in Sept 1886.
  • Further improvements saw the use of an incandescent paraffin burner in 1909, which was not completely replaced until 1975 when the light was converted to unwatched electricity meaning that the night watch could be discontinued. The building consisted of two separate dwellings for Light-keepers connected to the central tower.
  • The Tower is 22 metres high from foundation to the top of the tower not including the lantern. The light is 39 metres above sea level and there are 79 steps in the tower.
  • The Lighthouse staff consisted of a Principal Keeper and an Assistant Keeper who lived in the lighthouse with their families. The children attended Ballymichael School, a 1 and a half mile walk (uphill most of the way). This was a Gaeltacht ( Irish speaking) school, which probably presented difficulties for children who may not have been native Irish speakers, in addition to the upheaval they faced in being moved from lighthouse to lighthouse as part of their father’s job. However they made friends with the local children and perhaps became part of the community more readily than their parents. The staff was supplemented in winter time by a third light-keeper, known as a Supernumerary, who used temporary accommodation at the back of the lighthouse.
  • This man was usually a single man, perhaps a trainee, and if no-one was available in Dublin, local labour was used. The light-keepers also acted as unofficial Coast watch.
  • By 1978 only a Principal Keeper was retained in Fanad, and when he retired in 1983 the lighthouse was reclassified as an Attendant station and the retired Principal Keeper remained on as part time Attendant. In more recent years the lighthouse has only required a caretaker.