Blacksod Lighthouse Beacon has been guiding sailors for 155 years
by Joanna McNicholas
It was a hot day, gentle waves caressed the shores of Erris and there was a lot of activity around Blacksod Pier.
A green shutter on the lighthouse was open and a coffee pod across the road was ending the sale of tickets for the newly opened lighthouse tours.
Blacksod had woken up and the air was filled with excitement.
Situated on a peninsula of beautiful beaches and spectacular scenery, Blacksod sits on the Atlantic coast of Ireland and on the far western shores of Europe.
Two weeks ago, for the first time since 1866, Blacksod Lighthouse opened to the public and guided tours are now available.
Located at the southern tip of the Mullet Peninsula, the lighthouse draws people from far and near, curious to peek inside one of Mayo’s most historic buildings.
Blacksod’s lighthouse is very different from the usual images we see of tall, round, thin headlights. Square headlights are rare and Blacksod’s is one of them.
Above the house, a tower houses the lighthouse which has guided sailors safely for 155 years. The building looks quite modest despite the incredibly important role it has played over the decades.
The Blacksod Lighthouse is owned by the Irish Fire Commissioner and is under the management of Comharchumann Forbartha Ionad Deirbhile (CFID), a development cooperative in the nearby village of Eachleim.
CFID received funding from the Ministry of Rural and Community Development, Roinn Oidhreacht, CultÃºr agus Gaeltachta and ÃdarÃ¡s na Gaeltachta for the creation of a tourist pole in EachlÃ©im. The first stage of the project is the opening of the lighthouse as a tourist attraction.
Despite delays to its opening caused by Covid-19, work to convert the building was finally completed and the lighthouse finally opened to the public on July 30.
Two rooms inside the building have been converted into galleries with informative exhibits about the four lighthouses of Erris.
Here you’ll see how each of the lighthouses located at Blacksod, Blackrock Island, Eagle Island, and Broadhaven have their own key roles in driving boats safely around the jagged rocks off the Mullet Peninsula.
Tour guides Fergus Sweeney and William Duffy give tours of the lighthouse, including upstairs where the light is positioned. There is a lot of interest in North Mayo’s new tourist attraction, and groups are kept in small pods to comply with Covid-19 regulations.
Evin Walker, tourism manager at Comharchumann Forbartha Ionad Deirbhile, said tours should be booked online in advance. âWe have seen a huge demand and we are only open for a few days,â he explained.
As well as being a navigation aid guiding maritime traffic safely in Erris waters, Blacksod Lighthouse was also a family home for its lighthouse keepers.
In 1933 Ted Sweeney was appointed keeper and the lighthouse became the family home of successive generations of the Sweeney family.
Ted’s son, Vincent Sweeney, has been an attendant at Blacksod since 1981, and another son, Gerry Sweeney, has served at several lighthouses, including on nearby Eagle Island.
The lighthouse tradition continues with Fergus Sweeney, Ted’s grandson being one of the tour guides for the new Blacksod Lighthouse tours.
In 1884, the collection of weather information began at Blacksod, and in the next century a weather report sent from there was to change the course of world history.
Maureen Flavin, a young Kerry working at the Blacksod Post Office, announced the approach of a storm in June 1944. This forecast changed the timing of the D-Day disembarkation, which marked the beginning of the end of the Second World War.
Maureen then married lighthouse keeper Ted Sweeney and it was years later that they discovered their weather report had guided thousands of Allied soldiers safely across the Channel to Normandy.
Earlier this year, Maureen, 98, received the prestigious US House of Representatives award, an honor that is rarely bestowed. This means that Maureen’s accomplishments will be recorded in perpetuity at the Library of Congress of the United States.
Although Blacksod Lighthouse is now a tourist attraction, it will continue to function as an advanced refueling base for search and rescue helicopters on mission in the area. Lighthouse attendant Vincent Sweeney and his brother Gerry, assistant lighthouse attendant, are always on call to respond to a supply request.
If a helicopter needs to be refueled during visiting hours, tours will be temporarily suspended until this essential task is completed. âWe are available 24/7, 365 days a year for refueling. We have to be close, âsaid Vincent.
In March 2017, the peaceful village of Blacksod was cast in the public eye following the tragic crash of the Irish Coast Guard helicopter Rescue 116. Captain Dara Fitzpatrick, Captain Mark Duffy and the winch crew Paul Ormsby and Ciaran Smith were all killed when their plane collided with Blackrock Island.
In the aftermath of the accident, the local community gathered their resources and provided shelter, food and support to relatives and rescue services. The operation lasted for several weeks.
Tragedies such as this strike the heart and soul of a community and the upheaval of the traumatic event has naturally left its mark.
Information about the Rescue 116 crash is not included in the guided tour. Indeed, the official report on the incident is not yet complete.
The Great Lighthouses of Ireland operate 15 lighthouses as tourist attractions around the Irish coast, but until now a guided lighthouse tour has not been available in the Connaught area.
(For anyone interested in learning more about the four Erris Lighthouses, their keepers, and their history, a visit to Blacksod Lighthouse is a must. Tours can be booked at visitblacksodlighthouse.ie).