Trip idea: Ireland's Great Lighthouses

Hook Head Lighthouse, County Wexford

When it comes to this island’s coastline, there’s always more than meets the eye – but when you follow the trail of Ireland's Great Lighthouses, the sea surrenders its secrets...

A lone island at the edges of the Atlantic Ocean, Ireland has lit the way for many an intrepid mariner over the centuries, its waters striped by beacons beaming from an army of lighthouses. Countless tales of shipwreck, romance and tragedy swirl in the very water that surrounds these towering structures. Why not pay them a visit and find out the secrets and surprises of the stories behind the lights?

Great Lighthouse Trail

Lighthouses on the northern coastline

Combining two of Europe’s best road trips – the Causeway Coastal Route and the Wild Atlantic Way – the raw and sometimes savage beauty of Ireland’s northern coast has been carefully guarded by three story-filled lighthouses for centuries.

A driving 2 hrs 5 mins
St John's Point Lighthouse

The Spanish come to St John's Point

St John’s Point in County Donegal has always been known for its dangerous coastline and swirling waters. In fact, way back in 1588, three ships of the Spanish Armada were wrecked during storms on nearby Streedagh Strand in County Sligo – within sight of St John’s Point. It took another 250 years for the merchants and traders of Donegal's busy Killybegs harbour to decide upon the need for a guiding light at this spot. Designer George Halpin Senior – one of the era’s most lauded civil engineers – created a tower of cut granite, with the light itself coming into operation in 1831.

If you have more time

You're in Northern Headlands territory here, along the Wild Atlantic Way, where fine food is plentiful. Try the delectable Harvey's Point on the shores of Lough Eske. According to the Michelin Guide, its "classic dishes make use of local Donegal produce and are presented in a modern manner".

B driving 3 hrs 29 mins
Fanad Head Lighthouse

Polly wants a cracker at Fanad Head Lighthouse!

Built as a result of HMS Saldanha’s tragic wreckage in 1811 at Lough Swilly – according to reports, the only survivor was the vessel’s parrot and his silver collar inscribed with the ship’s name – Fanad Head Lighthouse in County Donegal has saved countless lives since. Perched on the western shore of the Fanad Head peninsula, it is known as a sea light. Three views – Tory Island, Dunree View and Inishtrahull – make up the three self-catering cottages at Fanad, so just take your pick and settle in!

If you have more time

On the same peninsula, at Doaghbeg, the Great Arch is a stunning sea stack indented with a huge Atlantic-formed hole. Take a camera, take pictures and keep watch for Fanad's water-based residents, including grey seals and whales.

C driving 2 hrs 23 mins
Rathlin West Lighthouse

Topsy-turvy charm at Rathlin West Lighthouse

Known as Ireland’s only “upside down” lighthouse, views from the vantage point of this County Antrim cliff-face are pretty incredible. Built between 1912 and 1917, this is one of three lighthouses on the island, but the legend behind this one is special. It was in a cave underneath the West Lighthouse that Robert the Bruce, King of Scots, is said to have learned the gift of perseverance from a tiny spider, thus sealing his determination to return to his homeland of Scotland in the 1300s. The arachnids aren't the only wild occupants of Rathlin: a colony of energetic seals at Mill Bay and the razorbills, puffins and kittiwakes of the RSPB Seabird Centre make this a wildlife lover's paradise. Catch the ferry from Ballycastle to tour the island, and should a bed and a pint be required, you won't be short of accommodation and a pub or two.

If you have more time

Not only are you on the magnificent Causeway Coastal Route, you can whip out your broadsword with a visit to HBO's Game of Thrones® filming locations – Larrybane, Ballintoy Harbour and Murlough Bay.

D driving 1 hr 43 mins
Blackhead Lighthouse

One of the best: Blackhead Lighthouse

Sitting at the northern shore of Belfast Lough, Blackhead Lighthouse's beams once watched over the likes of the Titanic, Olympic and Britannic as they left Belfast for open water. Today, thanks to the Irish Landmark Trust, you can spend the night at the lightkeeper’s house beside this great beacon. While you’re here, keep your eyes peeled for the secret tunnel used by keepers to access the light from the house during stormy weather. And take your waterfront adventure that bit further with a stroll around The Gobbins, a winding path that wraps its way around County Antrim's cliff face: created over 100 years ago, this is a stunning feat of Edwardian architecture.

If you have more time

Titanic Belfast (25.5km from Blackhead Lighthouse) in the eponymous city is a stunning interactive insight into the myth and realities of the “Ship of Dreams” – take afternoon tea by the Grand Staircase while you're there.

E
St John's Point Lighthouse

Same name – but this time with stripes! St John’s Point Lighthouse

Standing 24 metres above the Irish Sea, St John’s Point Lighthouse in County Down is the tallest onshore lighthouse on the island of Ireland. While today it might look like an ode to bees, it didn’t start out that way; in fact, the lighthouse has undergone two separate makeovers in its time. White when first exhibited in 1844, two black bands were added in 1902, with the yellow bands you see today painted on in 1954. Fancy overnighting in the sensitively renovated lighthouse keeper’s house here? Thanks to the Irish Landmark Trust, you can.

If you have more time

Pay a visit to Castle Ward, an 18th-century mansion enveloped by 820 acres of woodland. If you recognise the views, that's because the castle appears on Game of Thrones®.

Wicklow Head
Wicklow Head

Lighthouses along Ireland's Ancient East

Lining the southeastern rim of Ireland's Ancient East, these three, centuries-old lighthouses reveal tales of lightning strikes and stormy seas, and the source of the well-known phrase, by Hook or by Crook. Enjoy!

F driving 2 hr 5 mins
Wicklow Head Lighthouse

Wicklow Head Lighthouse: an octagonal original

Not only is Wicklow the Garden of Ireland, it's also graced with a stunningly beautiful coastline. Standing watch over the Irish Sea, surrounded by sprawling fields and vibrant yellow gorse bushes, the striking octagon-shaped Wicklow Lighthouse was one of two lighthouses built along the shore in 1781. But it wasn’t all plain sailing: 55 years later, on the 10th of October, a bolt of lightning struck the tower. Thankfully, the metre-thick stone walls stood their ground, but the interior was not so lucky and was completely destroyed. These days, though, its six floors are the epitome of nautical luxury, available to rent from the Irish Landmark Trust.

If you have more time

Get spooked at historic Wicklow Gaol. The overcrowded prison used to count Famine-era thieves, criminals awaiting transportation to Australia and even children among its inmates. Today, its guided tours still send shivers down the spine!

G driving 2 hr 26 mins
Hook Head Lighthouse

The Wexford wonder of Hook Head Lighthouse

At almost 800 years old, Hook Head has seen a thing or two. Named first in Lonely Planet’s Top 10 Flashiest Lighthouses list, records tell of a 5th century Welsh monk keeping a beacon lit on the peninsula here to warn sailors of possible shipwreck. Also, some say we have Hook Head and the tiny Crooke village (68km from Hook Head Lighthouse) to thank for the phrase “By hook or by crook”, which means something was done by any and all means necessary. Pop by and keep your eyes peeled for the humpback and fin whales that often visit the waters here for feeding during the winter months.

H
Ballycotton Lighthouse

A County Cork beauty: Ballycotton Lighthouse

Did you know that the Sirius was the first vessel to cross the Atlantic under power of steam in 1838? Just nine years later, the jubilation of that milestone was soured when the ship hit Smith’s Rock during dense fog, to the southwest of Ballycotton. By the time the captain attempted to bring the ship into Ballycotton harbour, it was a wreck. Inspired by this disaster, the lighthouse was built, its beam shining across the water from 1851. Only accessible by boat from Capel Island, make sure to greet the resident goats before climbing the stairs to share the Celtic Sea views from the red lantern balcony.

If you have more time

Raise a glass of whiskey at The Jameson Experience before dining out at the Pier 26 Seafood Restaurant in Ballycotton.

Galley Head
Galley Head

Lighthouses along the Wild Atlantic Way

Spanning the south and western points of the Wild Atlantic Way, our beacons of light have seen the tragic sinking of the Lusitania, the landing point of the first transatlantic cable and views of 3-million-year-old fossilised remains!

I driving 3 hr 11 mins
Galley Head Lighthouse

The great and gorgeous Galley Head Lighthouse

The lightkeepers at Galley Head have witnessed many tragedies in their time, including the loss of the Lusitania in 1915, as well as many British and German vessels during World War I and II. An imposing 53 metres above the Atlantic Ocean, Galley Head is a gleaming white lighthouse on a picturesque headland, pointing towards mainland Europe. Built in 1875 during the heyday of lighthouse building, Galley Head was once the most powerful lighthouse in the world. A major County Cork navigational aid to this day, along with the Old Head of Kinsale and Fastnet Lighthouses, mariners still watch for its blinking light as they pass. Spend a night in one of the two lighthouse keepers' houses, courtesy of the Irish Landmark Trust, and dream a little dream of times gone by.

If you have more time

Explore more of the Wild Atlantic Way's Haven Coast, with maybe a whale-watching trip around the town of Baltimore.

J driving 4 hr 5 mins
Valentia Island Lighthouse

Enjoy the views at Valentia Island Lighthouse

Quite a view, isn’t it? While you’re enjoying it, spare a thought for the Right Honorary Maurice Fitzgerald, Knight of Kerry, whom we have to thank for Valentia Lighthouse – it was he who first applied for the light to be built here. Manned by an attendant up to 1947, this dramatic lighthouse isn’t the only point of curiosity on Valentia Island: add a 16th century defensive fort, plus the landing point where the very first transatlantic cable was laid, connecting Europe with North American in 1866. Take a wander around the Skellig Experience, and find out more about nearby Skellig Michael – home to 6th century monks and Star Wars' Jedi Knights in its time.

If you have more time

Take in the rest of what's known as The Skellig Ring Drive. Coastal roads, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and galactic exiles are highlights of what's been named Best in Travel 2017 by Lonely Planet.

K driving 3 hr 48 mins
Loop Head Lighthouse

Lovely Loop Head Lighthouse

If lonely isolation attracts you to a lighthouse, Loop Head in County Clare might be just the ticket. Just three miles from the nearest village, Kilbaha, the original light here in the 1670s was a brazier of burning coal, sitting on a platform on the roof of a stone cottage where the original lighthouse keeper lived. Today’s light stands some 90 metres over the Atlantic Ocean, on a peninsula voted as ‘The Best Place to Holiday in Ireland’ in an Irish Times competition. And, yes, you can rent the lighthouse keeper's house directly from the Irish Landmark Trust...

If you have more time

Drop into the Kilbaha Gallery for art, design and a pretty tasty onsite café! Or take to the water to see the 160 bottlenose dolphins that reside in the Shannon Estuary with Dolphinwatch.

L
Clare Island Lighthouse

Hugging the cliffs: Clare Island Lighthouse

Built in 1806 and settled into the humps and bumps of Clare Island’s most northerly point ever since, Clare Island Lighthouse drinks in some of the Wild Atlantic Way’s most dramatic sea views. More modest in size than its siblings, the lighthouse here was decommissioned in 1965. The reason? Its setting on the high County Kerry cliffs saw it too often shrouded in mist for its light to be effective. Renovated into luxury accommodation, the owners see the dwellings here as a “great escape – a restorative haven”. And they’re not wrong. WiFi, wrought-iron beds and art deco furnishings sit side by side with panoramic views of Clew Bay, salty Atlantic swells and miles of jagged cliffs.

If you have more time

The pretty Heritage Town of Westport is filled with cafés and restaurants, or head to Glen Keen Farm to learn how to herd Connemara sheep!

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