Story of Fanad Lighthouse

Learn about our social enterprise Teach Solais Fhánada, and why the wrecking of HMS Saldanha was the motivation for the building of Fanad Lighthouse.

Photograph courtsey of Brian Cannon. His grandmother Mary Agnes Cannon of Ballymichael took this photo circa 1950s.


Rooted in the Community

‘Inspired by our landscape, language and heritage we promote Fanad globally to benefit Fanad locally’.

Fanad Lighthouse was opened to the public as a visitor attraction with accommodation in three beautifully restored lightkeepers’ cottages in 2016. It is a not-for-profit social enterprise run by voluntary local committee Forbairt Fhánada Cuideachta. Rooted in the community, it is the flagship visitor attraction of the Fanad peninsula, an area of outstanding natural beauty which has much to offer the visitor.

Fanad Head is one of three Signature Discovery Points on the Wild Atlantic Way in Donegal.

Fanad Lighthouse has been a working lighthouse since 1817.

fanad lighthouse

One of the most beautiful lighthouses in the world

Fanad Lighthouse is an iconic working lighthouse at the mouth of Lough Swilly. It has been voted one of the most beautiful lighthouses in the world and it’s easy to see why. Photographers regularly capture stunning, atmospheric images of this evocative structure and the surrounding wild coastline.

We offer fully guided tours where you can hear all about the lighthouse and climb the tower in the company of a local guide. We also welcome group tours all year round by appointment.


HMS Saldanha

The wrecking of HMS Saldanha was the motivation for the building of Fanad Lighthouse. On the night of 4th December 1811, the Saldanha – a Royal Navy frigate – struck rocks near Fanad Head during a violent storm and ran aground at Ballymastocker Bay.

The ship, along with the sloop HMS Talbot, was sailing from Buncrana to enforce a naval blockade against France in the North Atlantic when tragedy struck. As the storm rose, both ships decided to turn back to seek shelter in Lough Swilly, but the Saldanha struck rocks at Carraig Dhónaill. Some of the guns broke loose, wreaking havoc. Over 250 souls were lost, including the young Captain William Pakenham. The only survivor was the ship’s parrot, who was shot down a few weeks later.

Fanad’s Tribute To HMS Saldanha

The Building of Fanad Lighthouse

The lighthouse was designed by George Halpin, one of the prominent civil engineers of the era. The light was first lit on Saint Patrick’s Day 1817, using sperm oil wick lamps and parabolic reflectors, showing red to the Atlantic and white to Lough Swilly.

Soon after the Saldanha was wrecked Captain Hill of the Royal Navy in Derry wrote to a member of the Ballast Board suggesting that a lighthouse should be built at Fannet Point, as Fanad Head was then known. The Saldanha would not have been wrecked, he insisted, if there had been a lighthouse at the entrance to Lough Swilly. Permission was granted and work began in 1815 with a budget of £2,000.

fanad lighthouse silhouette

A New Design

By the 1870s, investigations were being made into how the light at Fanad could be improved. The tower needed to be taller in order to be more visible from the Atlantic side. And so, a new, higher tower was built, and commenced operations on 1 September 1886.

Plans of Fanad Lighthouse

Did You Know?

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 76 steps in the tower – 59 spiral granite steps and 17 ladder steps.

The Lighthouse staff consisted of a Principal Keeper and an Assistant Keeper who lived in the lighthouse with their families. The staff was supplemented in wintertime by a third light-keeper, known as a Supernumerary, who used temporary accommodation at the back of the lighthouse.

Fanad is one of 11 lighthouses in County Donegal (the others are Saint John’s Point, Rotten Island, Rathlin O’Birne Island, Arranmore Island, Ballagh Rocks, Tory Island, Buncrana, Stroove, Dunree and Inishtrahull – the most northerly lighthouse in Ireland).

Fanad Lighthouse survived a lightning strike on the night of 20/21 December 1916.

Children who lived at the lighthouse attended Ballymichael School, a 1.5 mile walk (uphill most of the way). Being a Gaeltacht (Irish speaking) school, this would have given them an opportunity to experience the Irish language, if they were not native speakers. While it may have been an upheaval being moved from lighthouse to lighthouse as part of their father’s job, they most likely made friends with the local children and perhaps became part of the community more readily than their parents.

The 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.

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.

Stay Overnight at Fanad Lighthouse

Imagine watching the light’s beam sweep across the peninsula as darkness falls. Wake up to the sound of waves and seabirds. Explore the beautiful, rugged landscape of Fanad and North Donegal by day.


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