Ballycotton Lighthouse is indirectly linked to numerous requests between 1828 and 1846 from merchants of Youghal and Cork, shipowners, masters, Cork Harbour Board, and the Admiralty for a lighthouse on Capel Island off Knockadoon Head, 8km (5 miles) south of Youghal. Throughout this time the Inspector of Works & Inspector of Lighthouses, George Halpin, supported by the Ballast Board, much preferred, if there was to be a new lighthouse, for it to be positioned on Ballymacart Head or Mine Head as it is called today.
While legal steps were being taken to acquire ground on Capel Island during 1846-47 an incident occurred which was to eventually seal the fate of the proposed Capel Island lighthouse and set the wheels in motion for Ballycotton. On 16 January 1847 the paddle steamship Sirius, the first vessel to cross the Atlantic Ocean completely under steam in April 1838, struck the Smith's Rock, south west of Ballycotton, in dense fog and later became a total wreck when Captain Moffatt tried to run the crippled vessel into Ballycotton harbour.
A Board of Trade enquiry under Captain Denham, RN was held on the loss of the Sirius and in his report he drew the attention of the Ballast Board to the propriety of forthwith establishing two lighthouses on a transit to clear Smith's Rock, one on Ballycotton the other either on Helvick Head or Ballymacart (Mine) Head to avert the frequency of wrecks along the unlit coast between Old Head Kinsale and Hook Head. The Board acknowledged the Board of Trade's letter and informed them that the subject would receive prompt attention.
Early in 1848 the Cork Steam Ship Co. together with numerous merchants, shipowners and masters of Cork urged the Board expeditiously to carry out the erection of the Capel Island lighthouse. The Cork Steam Ship Co. was informed that the Capel Island lighthouse tower was now six feet (1.8m) above the cut stone and that a road had to be constructed from the landing to the site due to the steepness of the island.
The Cork Steam Ship Co's letter was soon followed by another, via the Admiralty, from the Cork Harbour Board and merchants, traders, and shipowners of Cork City and County, requesting for lighthouses on Ballycotton and Ballymacart (Mine) Head. No mention whatever was made of Capel Island for which they had been looking for the previous twenty years.
The Ballast Board pointed out this sudden change to the Admiralty, to which the Admiralty replied that they were aware of the differences of opinion but the Ballast Board should determine a course which seemed best calculated for the service of the public, also that the works on Capel Island should be suspended.
As it would not be economic to remove Capel Island's tower to Ballycotton, Inspector Halpin suggested completing the tower to the second storey and finishing it off as an unlit beacon which, if required at a later date, could be made into an outer harbour light for Youghal.
Sanction to build Ballycotton Lighthouse was obtained from Trinity House in March 1848 and an Inquisition was held in Youghal on 16 June for the valuation of the ground required. The result of this was made known in September and Mr M. Longfield, the proprietor of Ballycotton Island received £36:5s:0d; twenty others including the Archbishop of Dublin and the Bishop of Cork received one shilling each and Queen Victoria received five shillings!
Meanwhile Inspector Halpin had designed the lighthouse and dwellings, which were to be made from the old red sandstone quarried on the island. Stone for lintels, sills, lantern, blocking, tower stairs etc would have been brought in from granite quarries on the mainland. Messrs W. and P. Brash of Cork were awarded the contract to build the tower and dwellings in November 1848.
Building progress at first was slow but a judicious letter from the Board reminded Brash not to delay or neglect executing his contract. This helped to spur on progress and by July 1849 the tower was ready to take the cut stone lantern blocking. In March 1850 the bulk of the building had been completed and the dome of the tower was being sheeted with copper.
The first order optic (920mm focal distance) was supplied by Messrs W. Wilkins of London who at that time relied on French optics for their apparatus. The catadioptric apparatus was the only one of its type around the coast, with a fixed inner optic and a rotating outer. The fixed inner cylindric reflector consisted of upper and lower catadioptric prisms without a centre belt. The rotating outer optic had eight faces each with an annular lens, and a set of upper and lower vertical condensing prisms. These prisms revolved around the inner fixed upper and lower catadioptric prisms. The resulting effect was a powerful beam from each face of the outer optic. The light source would have been a multiple wick oil lamp.
A draft notice to mariners for the light to be exhibited on 1 March 1851 was approved by the Board but due to the optic being slightly damaged before leaving Wilkins the lighting was postponed until 1 June 1851 which coincided with Mine Head's lighting.
The light's character was flashing white every ten seconds, and it could be seen at a distance of 18 miles (29 km) in clear weather. The overall height of the tower is 50 feet (15.2m) and the height of the light above high water is 195 feet (59.4m). The tower was natural stone colour and the compound walls were white washed on the outside. A black band was painted around the centre of the tower in 1892 so that the tower would not be confused with Capel Islands beacon, and in 1902 the whole of the tower was painted black, again for the same reason.
Early in June 1856 the Reverend J. Hopkins, incumbent of Ballycotton, wrote to the Board and mentioned two possible accidents which might have occurred during fog off Ballycotton Island and before some sad catastrophe happened he hoped that the Ballast Board would establish a fog bell. The matter was referred to the Inspecting Committee who, being on tour at that time, agreed that steps should be taken to erect a fog bell. No record can be found of the fog bell being established. However, Inspector Halpin reported in July 1856 that estimates for a bell and belfry had been received and soon after that reported that difficulty had been experienced in delivering the two items to Ballycotton, so 1856 can confidently be taken as the year the fog bell was established.
In July 1896 the Inspecting Committee recommended that Ballycotton, along with three other stations, should be converted to relieving and the Keepers and their families granted lodging allowance pending dwelling being built ashore. Bringing families ashore from rock stations was triggered off by a storm on 29 December 1894 which damaged, beyond repair, the dwellings of the east station on Eagle Island, off the Mullet Peninsula, Co. Mayo.
Houses in Ballycotton were offered early in 1898 by Mr O'Keeffe and Mr Power. Mr O'Keeffe's four houses overlooked the lighthouse but were too exposed and lacked a water supply. Mr Power's were better situated, marginally superior, but required coal houses and earth closets. Mr Power's houses were recommended by Mr William Douglass the Board's Engineer. By March 1899 the dwellings were occupied by the four keepers and their families.
In 1904 the light source was converted to an incandescent vaporised paraffin burner.
Proposals to build new shore dwellings were made by Mr Scott, the Board's Engineer, in 1904 and 1910; both were unsuccessful. The first time Mr Power reminded the Board that they had not given him six months notice to surrender the lease and the second time the Board of Trade questioned the excessive price compared with Coast Guard houses in England and Scotland. Over the years the lease was renewed periodically and in 1958 the Commissioners bought the four houses.
In June 1908 Mr Scott reported that the bell tower was unsafe and suggested that either the bell should be re-positioned on the lighthouse tower or, alternatively, a reed horn should be established. With the sanction of both Trinity House and the Board of Trade the bell was replaced on 30 December 1909 by a reed horn fog signal with a character of six blasts every two minutes. The horn was positioned on the lantern balcony rail, with two Crossley compressor sets on the first floor and an air receiver on the ground floor of the tower.
By 1921 Mr Scott recommended replacing what had become an unsatisfactory reed horn by an 'A' type diaphone. Approval was obtained. The Crossley compressor sets were retained and an extra air receiver, transferred from Tory Island, was installed. The diaphone, again positioned on the balcony rail, went into operation towards the end of 1924 with the same character as the reed horn.
With Board of Trade sanction early in 1937 the fog signal underwent a complete change in 1938. A 'G' type diaphone was located in one of the first floor windows of the tower, two new Ruston and Hornsby 3 XHR engines driving Reavell DSA7E compressors were located in the two end rooms, converted into one, of the dwelling nearest to the tower, and two extra air receivers were located in the yard near the tower. The improved fog signal went into operation on 16 February 1939, with a different character: four 1.5 second blasts every ninety seconds, (blast 1.5, silent 2.0, blast 1.5, silent 2.0, blast 1.5, silent 2.0, blast 1.5, silent 78.0).
The station was converted to non-dwelling status on 1 September 1972, the lightkeepers and their families moved out to homes of their own, and the terrace of three houses sold in 1973. The fourth house was retained as a staff holiday house until 1997.
On 28 August 1974 a Radio Beacon and Radio Direction Finder Calibration Beacon was established, the aerial being slung between a mast and the tower.
The main light was converted to electric on 15 January 1975 when the original 1851 optic was replaced by an AGA sealed beam lamp array with a character of Fl W 10 seconds. On 14 August 1975 a 175° landward red sector was incorporated into the main light.
A modernisation of the station was carried out in 1976-77. New quarters were built for the keepers and tradesmen, with a watchroom on the roof, and the old keepers' dwelling became a general store. The other dwelling nearest the tower which housed the two compressor sets was further converted to accommodate the three Lister HR2 generator sets. The two Ruston engines and Reavell compressors were replaced by two Lister HR3 engines and Ingersol Rand 40 compressors and the two older air receivers were repositioned nearer the two 1939 receivers in the yard. The diaphone itself was repositioned in a new diaphone house in the south-east corner of the compound complete with an ex Osprey lightvessel air receiver and an ex Inishtrahull diaphone trumpet. An eleven metre diameter concrete helicopter landing pad was constructed. Since April 1978 the light is exhibited in poor visibility when the fog signal is sounding.
The Radio Beacon and Radio Direction Finder Calibration Beacon service was discontinued on the 26th November 1991.
In 1991 the diaphone fog signal was changed to an electric horn retaining the same character.
On 28 March 1992 the lighthouse was converted to automatic operation. The three keepers were withdrawn from the station, and the station was placed in the care of an Attendant. The aids to navigation are also monitored via a telemetry link from Irish Lights Dun Laoghaire.
An undersea mains electricity cable was laid by the ESB from the pier at Ballycotton to Ballycotton Island on 17 July 2004. The three generator sets were replaced with a 10 kW mains fail generator on 16 April 2005, and the batteries and chargers were upgraded. The existing light and 4 nautical mile fog signal were retained. This project was designed to provide reliable operation of the station for the ensuing 10 years.
On 11 January 2011, following a review of aids to navigation, the fog signal at Ballycotton was permanently disestablished. The light continues to be exhibited in poor visibility during daylight hours.