President visits the Commissioners of Irish Lights on the 50th anniversary of the Kish Lighthouse

Mon 9th Nov, 2015 | 11:30
location: Dún Laoghaire Harbour

Speech at the 50th anniversary of the inauguration of Kish Lighthouse

Commissioners of Irish Lights, Dún Laoghaire, 9th November 2015

A dhaoine uaisle, tá an-áthas orm a bheith anseo libh i nDún Laoghaire ar maidin chun páirt a ghlacadh i gceiliúradh 50 bliain Theach Solais na Cise.  Ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil leis an bPríomh-Oifigeach Feidhmiúcháin, Yvonne Shields, An Cathaoirleach, David Delamer, Ard-Mhéara, Críona Ní Dhálaigh, Bord na gCoimisinéirí, agus iar Coimisinéirí as ucht cuireadh a thabhairt dom a bheith libh anseo inniu ar an ócáid stairiúil seo.
[Ladies and gentlemen, I am pleased to be here in Dún Laoghaire today to join you in celebrating 50 years of Kish lighthouse, and also to acknowledge the work of the Commissioners of Irish Lights and of its staff since 1786.  I wish to express gratitude to the Chief Executive Officer, Yvonne Shields, Chairman David Delamer, Lord Mayor Críona Ní Dhálaigh, and the Board of Commissioners and former Commissioners, for their invitation to me to be with you today.]

We are marking a 50th anniversary here today, which celebrates the Kish Lighthouse and reminds us of the proud history and tradition of the Commissioners of Irish Lights.   

As an island nation, the sea has been an integral part of our existence. A travelling and trading route, a natural resource and in more recent times a place for recreation and enjoyment. It has been an inspiration for poets, painters and philosophers for millennia. It is also a place of danger. Our relationship with the sea is very much part of today’s celebration as it is the perils of the sea that brought you as an organisation into existence and it is the safety of mariners that has driven your efforts for almost 230 years.

Tradition has it that the monks from Dubhán’s monastery, founded in the fifth century on Hook Head, erected the first fire beacon there to warn seafarers to keep away from the dangerous rocks. The baton has since passed to the Commissioners of Irish Lights who we all associate with Light Houses. These iconic buildings around our coast, provide light in the darkness, guide the way, keep our seafarers safe.

Although they are often thought of as historical structures, lighthouses, along with the other aids to navigation, have always reflected the most up to date technologies and have often been at the forefront of innovation and engineering ingenuity. The Kish Lighthouse itself was a good example of innovative design and construction back in 1965.

Building lighthouses that can withstand the hostile environment of where they are needed has always been challenging. It is a testament to your civil engineering achievements and the efforts of maintenance staff that the structures have withstood the test of time and have remained fit for purpose.

And of course the light technology itself has changed dramatically. The signal fires of long ago gave way to candles and oil burning lamps which, in turn, have been replaced by the solar powered and LED light sources of today.  Irish Lights has a strong tradition of embracing new thinking in the provision of its services.

Similarly with the Kish lighthouse, Irish Lights back in the 1960’s,  was quick to seize on innovative approaches to lighthouse construction being used by the Swedes, and were confident enough it their own expert judgement to use the approach on a scale not previously undertaken.

Most of us are familiar with the Kish as a landmark in Dublin Bay but may have forgotten that it was originally a manned station.  With six bedrooms, tv and radio facilities it was, at the time of its construction, lauded by the “New Scientist” magazine as being most luxurious, as well as being the “largest pre-fabricated telescopic lighthouse yet built”.   

However, even the best and most up to date buildings and technology still have to face the power of the seas and the weather.  Hurricane Charlie in 1986 hit the Kish Lighthouse with such force that it knocked the power out and the waves were reported to be breaking over the top of the tower.  The three keepers remained at the lighthouse and their skill and expertise got the power back up and running.  Luckily they stayed safe, but it is a sobering thought that, here and at other lighthouses, keeping the light on for seafarers requires a rare kind of commitment and courage.

This story reminds us of the many lighthouse keepers and their families throughout the years who, often at remote locations, lived their lives quietly and courageously. It is undoubtedly with some sadness that we have said goodbye to the era of manned lighthouses, and the vigil that was kept by these dedicated and often isolated individuals for the safety of others.  

An opportunity has now presented itself for a new type of occupant in the now empty buildings and I am glad to see that the Commissioners are opening up to the public 12 of their still working lighthouses, in stunning locations around the coast. That people can visit and even stay in these spectacular places as part of the Great Lighthouses of Ireland programme is an imaginative step and a departure for the organisation into the tourism field. That over 160,000 people visited lighthouses last year alone shows that you are pushing an open door.

It is sometimes not easy for organisations to maintain a sense of energy and involvement, or even a sense of purpose when the context of its work is changing rapidly. Technological advances over the years including radar, sonar and global positioning systems have lessened mariners’ reliance on light and sound to keep them safe. Your recent history, even since the Kish was built, has seen enormous changes in your areas of expertise.  It was only then that the electrification programme began in lighthouses. Since then you have also embraced helicopters, radar beacons, solar power, lighthouse automation, low-global navigation satellite systems, automatic identification systems and the collection of meteorological data.

Evolving technologies and the imperatives of a modern service continues to drive new demands from mariners around the island of Ireland. At the same time more traditional aids to navigation must also be maintained. Measures that keep the sea routes open, safe and running smoothly are essential for both the economy and safety.  You, the successors of Dúbhán’s monks, do a vitally important job for us all and you can be justifiably proud of yourselves and of each other for the services you provide.

The world doesn’t stand still and the maritime sector is experiencing pressures and opportunities for change.  There have been many changes and many exciting new developments since the Kish Lighthouse was built 50 years ago and no doubt the next 50 years will see many more.  Your proud history of dedication, innovation and creative thinking will stand to you as you face the challenges and opportunities that now present themselves. 

My thanks to the Commissioners of Irish Lights for their invitation here today, and for giving me the opportunity to speak to you on this important occasion.

Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.