There’s something special about lighthouses. In nearly every coastal town you’ll find gift shops filled with calendars, pictures and models of the structures. Ethna Murphy is used to meeting lighthouse lovers. She works for the Commissioner of Irish Lights, the maritime organisation delivering this essential safety service around the Irish coast.
Recently they’ve opened up eight of their iconic buildings as accommodation. Ethna has personally tested the lighthouses by staying in them and says they offer incredible views and wildlife-watching opportunities because of their elevated positions.
I asked Ethna to name her favourite. Laughing, she told me that was, “like asking a mum to name a preferred child. Each property has something different to love. Wicklow Head looks like the sort of tower Rapunzel would have let her hair down from, while the St John’s Lighthouse is striped orange and black. Its striking appearance resembles a huge wasp!” she says.
“They were designed to stand out and sailors could identify where they were along the coast by the markings on those towers,” Ethna explains. What a great way to see Ireland. And there’d be no pulling over the car to check maps and sat nav. Just wait until sunset and let the beam guide you in. “When people come to experience the Wild Atlantic Way or if they’re visiting the Giant’s Causeway, what better than to stay in one of our lighthouses,” says Ethna.
I get the impression that reading the guestbook at each lighthouse is one of Ethna’s job perks, along with staying in the lighthouses. “Many people say it’s been the highlight of their holiday,” she proudly informs me.
“Loop Head in Clare is so well positioned at the top of the peninsula and you can see birds and schools of dolphins that are coming in and out of the estuary,” Ethna says. “Fanad Head in Donegal also offers wildlife watching with another incredible natural sight. During certain times of the year you can actually experience the Northern Lights.”
If you’d rather watch man-made sights, Blackhead in County Antrim is near the mouth of Belfast Harbour. “It’s a great shipping lane and a great place to sit, looking out the window and watching the activity on the sea with different boats passing by. A guest has written in the guestbook that it was wonderful to look out of the same window as my grandfather. He was a lighthouse keeper and saw the Titanic sail by!”
Ethna told me that Fanad reminded her of the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ tower from Disneyland. Guests who want to experience something really unique about Irish culture and heritage should stay there. “It’s in the heart of the Irish-speaking community and is the second discovery point along the Wild Atlantic Way, when you travel from north to south,” she advises. “It has three beautiful apartments let on a self-catering basis. I nicknamed it ‘the lover’s retreat’. It’s actually jutting out over the water and it has a mezzanine. When you’re doing the dishes after breakfast, the waves are lapping up in front of you.” I’d never heard such a compelling reason to don the rubber gloves. Scrubbing a pan following a full Irish breakfast seems a joy with that view!
If you’d rather be pampered, Clare Island on the Atlantic coast in Mayo offers a ‘boutique’ style lighthouse stay. Catch the boat across for a dinner, bed and breakfast experience with gourmet cooking served at a communal table. “You’ll meet the most interesting people while you are really cosseted,” she says. Your stay can bring you into contact with fascinating people – and not just other guests. The manager of the lighthouse at Galley Head in Cork is a former keeper and has written books about his work. Gerard Butler was one of the last people to be winched off the Fastnet Rock in the middle of those iconic and terrifying storms.
It seems that all of the lighthouses are in the most breathtaking locations and really contribute to a memorable holiday experience. You could soon be writing praise in one of Ethna’s guestbooks if you book your stay at Great Lighthouses of Ireland.
You can listen to my conversation with Ethna here: