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Pharology - History of Lighthouses in the British Isles - Ireland

BR13: Developments in Ireland

The first recorded petition to establish privately owned lighthouses in Ireland was made by Sir Robert Reading to the Privy Council of Charles II. Sir Robert was educated at Oxford and admitted to the Inner Temple in 1659. He later became a member of the Irish Parliament for Ratoath in 1662 and in the same year married Jane, the widow of Charles, 1st Earl of Mountrath. In 1665 he was granted a Letter-Patent to erect 'two lighthouses upon the hill of Howth; a lighthouse on the Isle of Magee, near Carrickfergus; another on the Old Head of Kinsale, near Barry Oge's Castle, in the harbour of Kinsale and a tower at Hook'. After entering into a security for £5000 to pay for the upkeep and maintenance of the lighthouses, he was authorised to levy light dues from shipping. The Parliamentary documents state, 'One penny per ton on all inward and outward bound ships; boats; crayers and ketches', with foreign ships 'a charge of two pence per ton'. The Patent also referred to fishing vessels belonging to any Irish Port. With these ships 'they shall pay only ten shillings a year, each at the respective seasons of fishing'.

Regarding the unusual arrangement of dues being charged by the French Authorities, the Patent added:

'All ships belonging to the subjects of the King of France and trading to or sailing by any harbour in Ireland, shall pay the same due per ton coming in or out, as is charged upon Our ships trading to Bordeaux in France, towards the maintenance of the lighthouse of Cordouan, but such duty shall not be less than two pence per ton.'

Although Sir Robert Reading's wife put up a £2600 surety for the erection of the lighthouses, the project failed. Much of the financial difficulty arose from the refusal of numerous Masters and shipowners to pay the required light dues. There was also the problem of Sir Robert's 'high lifestyle'. To stay out of debtors prison, Sir Robert surrendered his Patent, but in the form of a trust for his wife and himself, to Richard, Earl of Arran.

In 1668 the Isle of Magee lighthouse was abandoned, much to the concern of Irish shipowners and Merchants. Around the end of 1704, the Earl of Arran gave up the Patent to Customs Commissioners appointed by the Irish Parliament. This was the only Royal Letter-Patent issued to a private individual for a lighthouse in Ireland.
Soon after Sir Robert was issued with his Letter-Patent, the Merchants of Dublin Harbour petitioned the Irish Parliament for a much needed lighthouse in Dublin Bay. It would take nearly six years before Parliament granted permission, with a Letter-Patent issued for the construction of the Howth Bailey lighthouse. This structure was finally established in Dublin Bay in 1671.

From the implementation of the James II Charter (1685), the serious business of erecting lighthouses began at last in England. Prior to this time, Trinity House had been responsible for the building of only one lighthouse - at Lowestoft - impeded by the practice of successive monarchs of issuing Letter-Patents to private owners to build lighthouses and collect dues from passing shipping for their upkeep. Trinity House received only an attendance fee for ensuring the lighthouses were properly maintained. Now the pace increased and by 1695 there were 16 coastal lighthouses, which included Dungeness, Hunstanton, Orfordness, Lizard and Spurn Point. So dramatic was the building programme that by 1819 the number of substantial lighthouses had increased to 37.