An Bhoireann, the Burren or the stoney district forms the northern part of County Clare, bounded by the south shore of Galway Bay to the north, the Atlantic Ocean to the west, Gortaclare mountains to the east, with Lisdoonvarna, Kilfenora and Corrofin to the south, well over two hundred and fifty square kilometres (one hundred square miles) of unique carboniferous limestone.
"Not a tree whereon to hang a man; no water in which to drown him; no soil in which to bury him."
A description of the Burren from Ludlow's Memoirs 1651, a general in charge of the Cromwellian forces in County Clare.
The area comprises a number of terraced hills with Slieve Elva the highest reaching 345 metres (1134 feet) 3.2 km (2 miles) in from the Atlantic seaboard. The whole district with its limestone paving, caves, underground streams, dolmens, stone forts, wedge and gallery graves, Christian crosses, oratories and churches, and wooded valleys, with perhaps more than anything else when the Burren is mentioned to someone conjures up wild flowers growing in sheltered crevices in the limestone pavement. Some of the varieties are not found anywhere else in Ireland or the British Isles but one would come across them within the Arctic Circle, the Alps or the Mediterranean. Gentians, mountain avens (growing at sea level instead of high altitudes), saxifrages, orchids, cranesbills, seedums and rock roses, to name a few which form one of natures loveliest wild gardens.
The most northerly tip of County Clare is Blackhead, lying northwest of Gleninagh Mountain 318.5 metres (1045 feet) and forms the turning point where the southern shore of Galway Bay changes from east west to northeast southwest. It commands a magnificent view of the whole of Galway Bay from its western barrier of the Aran Islands to Oranmore Bay east of Galway City, with a back drop of the Connemara hills and mountains. Why, in English, the headland is called Blackhead I have not been able to discover because its name in Irish is Ceann Boirne or Burren Head which is more appropriate; perhaps in murky weather the three hundred metre headland made a dark impression on locals or fishermen.
Galway Bay from early in the nineteenth century had been recognised as a good shelter or harbour of refuge; the Aran Islands giving it a natural barrier from the south westerlies. Fishing too was one of the main forms of employment, the land around Galway being mainly of rocky or stoney character not conducive to wide scale farming as carried out in the more fertile parts of the country. The first lighthouses to be built and established in Galway Bay were on Inishmore, the largest of the Aran Islands in 1818 and Mutton Island, off Salthill 1817, in effect a harbour light for Galway.
Inishmore was found to be ineffective in cloudy or misty weather being at an altitude of 122 metres (400 feet) so it was replaced by two lighthouses almost at sea level on Eeragh or Rock Island at the northwest end of the Arans and Inisheer at the southeast end. These were established late in 1857 and Inishmore was discontinued. Local fishermen both from the Arans and Galway suddenly found Killeany Bay and Kilronan without a light and campaigned for a light on Straw Island at the entrance to Killeany Bay for fourteen years before the Board of Trade eventually sanctioned the light and even then it was not established until 1878. Other navigational aids were established in Galway Bay in the form of buoys and unlighted perches and Galway Harbour Commissioners too have their lights closer to Galway harbour.
Notwithstanding the depressions of the 1930's trans-Atlantic liners regularly called at Galway either allowing tourists to visit the city and the Aran Islands or collecting emigrants. Cunard had a monthly westbound scheduled call and the S.S. "Dun Aengus", of 1912 vintage, used for the twice a week service, with extra sailings in summer, to the Arans acted as a tender to the Cunarders and any other liners which called.
The captains of these visiting liners were the main reason for a lighthouse being built on Blackhead; they used to anchor their vessels off Ballyvaghan, east of Blackhead. A letter from the Galway Harbour Commissioners dated 18th September 1934 to the Irish Lights Commissioners referred to the Galway Harbour Master's report of continual complaints from captains of liners using Galway port. They stated that a light on Blackhead would be of great assistance to all vessels anchoring under the headland.
Captain Davis, Inspector and Marine Superintendent and Mr Tonkin, Engineer-in-Chief discussed the request with the Galway Commissioners pointing out that much as they would like to grant facilities for the improvement of the port it was not possible to obtain official sanction for any expenditure which was regarded as local interest. They also asked whether a light on Blackhead was more important than a Wireless Beacon on North Aran (Eeragh).
The Galway Commissioners had to agree that the latter was more important but as we know it never materialised; the alternative of erecting a light on a repayment basis was also discussed. Consideration to this was given by the Galway Commissioners and in their reply, 11th October 1934 they stated that a Wireless Beacon on North Aran is of importance but a light on Blackhead is an immenent and urgent necessity. They also stated that they would consider repayment of costs to Irish Lights over a short period.
Towards the end of October Mr Tonkin estimated that the capital cost would be £1730 and the annual cost of maintenance would be £45 plus the attendant's salary.
A verbal agreement was made with Mr Joseph Casey of Morrough, Ballyvaghan, the owner of the land required for the lighthouse in October 1934. The agreement for acquiring the 30-foot (9.1m) strip of land from the roadway to the sea was for, from £5 to £7, providing no fences would be erected and the plot would be marked by six concrete posts.
In November the Galway Commissioners agreed to Irish Lights erecting the light, the Board of Trade in London were informed who approved early in December providing the Galway Commissioners entirely maintained the light and that no charge would fall on the General Lighthouse fund other than the cost of erecting which would be recovered in three stages. £500 three months after the decision concerning the establishment, £500 six months later and the balance on the exhibition of the light.
In January 1935 after one or two loose ends had been tidied up the Galway Commissioners agreed to take over the light.
By February 1935 the Galway Commissioners had reached agreement with Mr Casey for the purchase of the land and the following month, March, the agreement between Irish Lights and the Galway Commissioners was approved and sealed. The site being available from the 1st April for building.
The 13'4" (4.0m) square by 16'9" (5.1m) high concrete tower was built by Mr Robert MacDonald of Galway. Chance Brothers of Birmingham supplied the 4th order optic, Steven and Struthers of Glasgow the lantern, glass for the lantern by Seddon and Sons of St. Helens, Lancashire and W Moyes of Glasgow, the twin 56lb (25.4 kg) generators for the carbide-to-water acetylene generating plant, they also supplied the flashers.
During July 1935 the Galway Commissioners requested that a red sector be provided to cover Loo Rock and give better defining of the anchorage. They also asked if the Finnis Rock buoy off Inisheer, could be lighted. The Board agreed to providing a red sector for Blackhead but referred the lighting of the Finis Rock buoy to the Inspecting Committee. The latter was not converted to lighted until 1978.
By August 1935 Macdonald reported that he intended putting the roof on the tower on Tuesday 22nd but due to unforeseen circumstances the roof was not begun until the 30th.
Towards the end of August Mr Tonkin interviewed Mr John Casey, the prospective attendant who lived with his family near the lighthouse at Morrough. The Galway Commissioners were informed and if they decided to employ him they could offer him £12 per annum plus a further £2 for painting the tower at least once a year. Also the appointment to date from the exhibition of the light.
A Notice to Mariners was issued by the Galway Harbour Commissioners, 16th September 1935, stating that at an early date they intend to establish at Blackhead Galway Bay an unwatched acetylene white flashing light of 2000 candle power with a red sector over Loo Rock showing 40 flashes every minute. Flash 0.3 seconds eclipse 1.2 seconds. The light to be shown from a square white tower 28 feet (8.5m) high. The focal plane of the light 67 feet (20.4m) above high water.
Due again to unforeseen circumstances, faults in the construction of the lantern by Steven and Struthers, caused delay in the completion and it was not dispatched from Glasgow until early December 1935. Macdonald was instructed to transport the gear when it arrived in Galway to the site and store it in the tower, then when erected the acetylene gear was to be transported to the tower.
Erection went ahead using the Board's tradesmen and further delay was caused by an error on the part of the lantern glass supplier. Templates were held up by British customs when being returned to Seddon & Sons and yet another delay was caused when the Irish Customs held up the new glass which ironically was too big!! A Dublin firm was then engaged to grind the edges; meanwhile temporary glazing was fitted into the lantern and the light was established on 21st February 1936. The correct glass was fitted a few days later, and the light was checked by the Commander of the Irish Lights Tender "Isolda" Captain Holinshead on 29th April 1936.
With the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 trans-Atlantic liners ceased to call at Galway and in the post-war years this traffic never returned on the same scale and coastal traffic was similarly affected. As the Galway Harbour Commissioners did not collect light dues for Blackhead it became an increasing financial burden on their resources, especially when the attendant looked for a further £2 per week! The Galway Commissioners approached Irish Lights in April 1952 and enquired if they would consider contributing 50% of any increase granted and assist towards the maintenance of Blackhead out of the General Lighthouse Fund. Reluctantly, they said they were seriously considering discontinuing its function.
Irish Lights replied stating they had no power to accede to the request.
Towards the end of May the Galway Commissioners wrote again this time enquiring if the Irish Lights Board would take over the maintenance and attendance of the light otherwise they would regretfully have to discontinue the light.
The ball was now in the Irish Lights court and they informed the Galway Commissioners early in June that the matter had been referred to the Inspecting Committee when on Tour in July.
On the morning of Tuesday 15th July 1952 the Inspecting Committee on board the ILT Granuaile received a deputation from the Galway Harbour Commissioners who pointed out their financial difficulties and unless Irish Lights was prepared to take over the maintenance of the light would be compelled to discontinue it. The Inspecting Committee stated that the Minister for Industry and Commerce would have to be approached with a view to obtaining financial aid and the Galway Commissioners were asked to furnish a return of vessels using the port and if possible those which sheltered due to weather. Also to check with masters of vessels and pilots as to the necessity for retaining the light.
A year, all but six days, passed before the Galway Commissioners replied giving the information required. All masters of both regular and occasional trading vessels, Galway Bay pilots including the liner pilot, Aran Islands trading vessels and the Minister of Defence on behalf of the Irish Naval Service pointed out and agreed the value of Blackhead light. They also reiterated the reason for discontinuing light, that is stricter financial economy but did not give the return of the number of vessels using the port or any comment on contacting the Minister for Industry and Commerce.
Irish Lights stated in their reply, 8th August 1953, that they have under consideration the possibility of taking over Blackhead light and appreciate that its discontinuance would be retrograde step. They enquired if the Minister for Industry and Commerce had been contacted and they noted that the Galway Harbour Board had received a Government Grant for harbour works.
The Galway Commissioners replied in late September stating that they regretted a misunderstanding at the meeting on the Granuaile on 15th July 1952 with regard to approaching the Minister for Industry and Commerce but the Chairman of the Inspecting Committee, Captain Webb, was informed that such an approach would be abortive. The Grant received recently was towards Harbour Developments and improvements.
The Irish Lights Commissioners felt that the Galway Harbour Commissioners should still approach the Minister and said so in their short letter dated 30th October 1953.
In their reply 15 January 1954 the Galway Commissioners quoted a statement from the Minister's Department dated 1st January 1954 in which he stated that the light was most desirable, in the event of trans-Atlantic liners resuming their calls to Galway but also for vessels seeking shelter in Galway Bay. The Minister saw no reason why the Commissioners of Irish Lights should not take over the responsibility and there are no such funds at the disposal of the Minister towards the upkeep of the light.
This statement apparently was all that the Irish Lights Commissioners required they informed the Galway Commissioners on 30th January that they were submitting the matter to the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation in London. The latter replied 10th May 1954 acknowledging the Board's letter dated 29th January and the report for the Advisory Committee whos meeting was held on 16th March, the outcome of which agreed that Irish Lights should take over Blackhead lighthouse from the Galway Harbour Commissioners providing the latter make arrangements for the free legal conveyance of the land and property involved to the Irish Lights Commissioners.
The Galway Commissioners were informed of the decision on 17th May and in their reply later in May they thanked the Commissioners for the satisfactory manner negotiations for the future of Blackhead lighthouse had been dealt with and they will arrange with their solicitor for the conveyance bearing the expense of same.
By 1st March 1955 the Galway Commissioners informed Irish Lights that the conveyance had been completed and enquired for a suitable date for "take over". Die to sickness in Irish Lights Office formal take over was delayed but on 13th April 1955 Captain W.H. Ball Assistant Inspector and Mr A.D.H. Martin Deputy Engineer-in-Chief represented the Commissioners in the Harbour Office of the Galway Harbour Commissioners. The two groups proceeded to Blackhead and found the tower in an excellent state of repair and tidy condition. Captain Ball interviewed John Casey whom he recommended to be retained as Attendant Keeper; he would receive the appropriate remuneration for the class of station that Blackhead fell into, and for Mr Casey it meant an immediate increase of £30 on his previous money. Mr Martin realising that Mr Casey had to cycle 3 miles (4.8km) twice a day to turn on the light one hour before sunset and extinguish it one hour after sunrise, recommended a Newbridge 15-day clock gas valve to be fitted. Mr Casey must have thought it was his birthday! What with the extra money and the prospect of not having to cycle six miles a day every day as he had done for the previous nineteen years!
Captain Ball collected the Deeds and the property was formally accepted.
In September 1977 it was proposed to convert the light to propane as the carbide-to-water acetylene generators were old and obsolete. The conversion was to be included in the 1980/81, and Department of Trade sanction was obtained in March 1980.
The existing character of one 0.4 second flash every 2.0 seconds was unsuitable so a 1.0 second flash every 5.0 seconds was agreed between the Inspector and Engineer. The Board approved the change on 13th June 1980 and the Notice to Mariners was issued on 18th September 1980 stating that the character would be changed on Wednesday 22nd October. AGA Navigation Aids supplied the propane flasher and burner with a cluster of three mantles, together with the miscellaneous equipment. As a point of interest Blackhead was the last of many stations around the coast to use carbide-to-water acetylene generators. On 18 February 2002 the gas light was change to a solar powered light.