“It’s amazing... it’s an amazing place to work,” our tour guide smiles at us as we look out at the view. We’re standing on a balcony 46 metres off the ground being gently buffeted by a fresh sea wind.
Looking out, a cinematic panorama sweeps out as far as the eye can see taking in the Waterford Estuary, a blanket of green fields, the green-blue Celtic Sea, and some dangerous looking limestone rocks, where seals like to sun themselves on warm days. This is Hook Head Lighthouse in County Wexford, the oldest operational lighthouse in the world, and a beacon that has protected boats from these rocky shores since the 5th century.
The soaring black and white striped tower that stands here today dates from the 13th century, but a light has burned on this spot since Welsh monk St Dubhan lit one to warn passing sailors of the treacherous coastline in the 5th century.
Walking up through the chambers within this cylindrical tower is a surprisingly profound experience – the building is unadorned and functional, but it bears the marks of soot from medieval coal and boasts the original rib vaulted ceilings under which monks in the 13th century would have slept, ate and worked.
As our guide explains the history and workings of the lighthouse over its 800 years, we start to get a sense of what an astonishing place Hook is and how much history is contained here, in this maritime gateway to Ireland’s Ancient East.
Stepping out onto the balcony, we pause a minute to look around us and think about where our journey might take us next. To Loftus Hall, a spooky 19th century mansion overlooking the estuary? To Duncannon Fort, a 450-year-old fortress perched on the edge of the water? Or to Ballyhack, where a car ferry sweeps across the River Suir to the seaside village of Passage East? In this part of the world, decisions don’t come easy.