The lamp was switched on for the very first time at Fanad Head Lighthouse on St Patrick’s Day, 1817.

In the intervening years, it has been a guiding light along the rocky shores of North Donegal. Famed as much for its stunning scenery as it’s life-saving role, Fanad Head Lighthouse is now a tourist destination and a Signature Point on the Wild Atlantic Way.

Not surprisingly, it was voted one of the most beautiful lighthouses in the world. Indeed, a quick internet search shows that it is an extremely popular subject for photographers, both from the local area and from further afield.

The lighthouse was commissioned following a significant shipwreck in the area in the early 19th century. The navy warship HMS Saldanha struck rocks while caught in a violent storm in Lough Swilly on December 4, 1811. She sank near Ballymastocker Strand with the loss of at least 250 lives. According to local lore, the captain made it ashore but didn’t survive for long. Apparently, he died after being given a drink of poitín.

Renowned civil engineer George Halpin designed the lighthouse. It was built from pre-cut granite and its seaward light could be seen for 14 miles in clear weather. The lighthouse cost €2,000 to build.

200 years ago, on March, 1817 the light shone for the first time. The original lamp used Argand sperm oil wicks. The light shone red towards the sea and white on the land side.

Later that century, a larger and higher tower was commissioned. The lamp, too, was upgraded and went into operation in 1886 using paraffin.

An incandescent paraffin burner was installed in 1909. It was watched over by a Light Keeper and Assistant Light Keeper. Both Keepers lived with their families in accommodation at the lighthouse. A third Keeper provided support in winter. This job usually went to a single man who slept at the emergency accommodation at the back of the lighthouse.


As with other lighthouses along the coast, the role of the Light Keeper gradually became redundant with the installation of electricity.

In Fanad, the switch to electricity took place in 1975. By 1978 there was only one employee, a Principal Keeper. He remained in the role until his retirement in 1983 but stayed on afterwards as part-time Attendant. Nowadays, the lighthouse only has a caretaker.

The lighthouse tower stands an impressive 22 metres high from foundation. This does not include the lantern which is 39 metres above sea level.

Fanad Head Lighthouse is one of the Great Lighthouses of Ireland recently opened to the public. It offers self-catering in the three Keeper’s cottages and it is also open to day visitors. Situated between Lough Swilly and Mulroy Bay with the world-famous beach at Portsalon nearby, it is without doubt an excellent base for visiting Donegal.

More information is available at

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