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Hook Lighthouse, Wexford: The History Behind The World’s Oldest Operational Lighthouse

Hook Lighthouse, Wexford: The History Behind The World’s Oldest Operational Lighthouse

One of my favourite things to do in Wexford is to take a spin out as far as Hook Head for a coffee and a ramble around Hook Lighthouse.

If you’ve never been to Hook Head, lash it onto your ‘to-visit-sharpish’ list. It’s a gorgeous little corner of Ireland.

The historic Hook lighthouse is the OLDEST operational lighthouse in the world, which is pretty damn impressive!

However, even with all that history, many people visiting Wexford never venture out to Hook Head (it’s a bit of a treck, but worth the spin), which is a shame.

In the guide below, you’ll discover the history of Hook Lighthouse and you’ll find a load of info on tours, opening hours and all that craic.

Hook head at sunset

Photo by Hook Tourism via Failte Ireland

The story of Hook Head Lighthouse (the quick version)

I’ve popped in a short and a long version of the history of Hook Lighthouse, for those of you stuck for time. If you fancy reading the longer version (you should), scroll to the end:

  • A monastery was founded around 1.6 km north of Hook in the 5th century
  • The first Tower of Hook was built around 1172
  • Monks kept Hook Head Lighthouse running until civil war arrived in 1641
  • In 1667 the lighthouse was finally re-established
  • Over the years it fell into disrepair
  • It wasn’t until 1791 that a contract to maintain it was granted
  • Various enhancements were introduced over the years (scroll down for more info)
  • In 1972, electricity took over
  • It was equipped with a radar beacon in 1974.
  • The station was converted to ‘unwatched’ in 1996.
  • Automatic Identification System functionality was introduced in 2009

Things to do at Hook

I’ve visited Hook Lighthouse several times over the years. If you arrive on a fine day, there’s plenty to do. If you arrive when it’s p***ing down, you’re a little more limited. Here are some suggestions:

1. Take a guided tour

If you want to go inside the lighthouse, you’ll need to pay to get on a guided tour. I did this tour about 8 or 9 years ago, and it was brilliant (there’s a picture from the visit hanging in front of me, randomly enough).

You can do a regular tour of the lighthouse which will take you on a journey through its history, or you can head off on one of the sunrise or sunset tours.

The Hook Lighthouse tours are led by local tour guides who’ll fascinate you with the areas rich history. Visitors will pass through the lighthouse chambers and hear about those who inhabited the structure over the years.

The tour climaxes at the balcony, where there’s a magnificent view of the surrounding countryside.

Opening hours

  • July & August: 09.30 a.m. – 7.00 p.m.
  • Rest of year: Daily 09.30 a.m. – 5.00 p.m.
  • Tours every half hour
  • Closed Christmas eve and Christmas Day

2. Head for a ramble along the coast

The last time that I visited Hook was during the summer of 2018, and the sun was blazing. We dodged the tour on this occasion, grabbed a cup of coffee and headed off on a ramble along the coast.

In the photo below (from the day mentioned), you can see how clear the waters surrounding Hook Lighthouse were. On the day that we were here, we perched ourselves on the rock and watched a group of divers swimming around.

3. Head for a coffee and a bite to eat

You’ll find a little cafe in the visitor centre next to the lighthouse. If you visit on a wet day, forget all about rambling along the coast.

Head for the cafe, grab something warm, and gaze out of the windows at the waves crashing against the rocks.

hook lighthouse drone

Photo © The Irish Road Trip

The story of Hook Lighthouse, Wexford (the longer version)

The story of the Hook Head Lighthouse begins way back during the 5th century when a Welsh monk by the name of Dubhán founded a monastery around 1.6 km north of Hook Head.

It’s said that Dubhán set up a beacon at Hook Point (this was possibly a pile of stones with burning timber on top) to act as a navigational light for ships entering the nearby Harbour.

The first lighthouse at Hook Head

Many years later, between 1170 and 1182, a Norman named Raymond LeGros landed at Baginbun (a headland in Wexford) where he found the remains of a Celtic fort.

After some time, LeGros constructed another fort. From this point, he battled and beat the Irish advance from Waterford. LeGros was later killed, but it’s said by some that he left his mark on the area by constructing the first Tower of Hook, around 1172.

Another theory is that the first Hook Head Lighthouse was built by a chap named William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke, in 1245.

Monks and shipwrecks

The Hook Lighthouse (it was just a tower at this point) was placed in the hands of the monk and they kept it running until civil war arrived in 1641.

During this time nothing was done to maintain the beacon and shipwrecks at Hook Head became the norm. Mariners spent many years trying to convince the Governor of Duncannon Fort to help re-establish the beacon at Hook. 

It wasn’t until 1667 that Hook Lighthouse was finally re-established, and the waters nearby were made safe once again.

Hook head at sunset

Photo by Hook Tourism via Failte Ireland

Falling into disrepair 

During 1704, Hook Head Lighthouse was transferred to the Revenue Commissioners by Queen Anne. The lighthouse wasn’t taken over for some time, as Henry Loftus, the owner of the supposedly haunted Loftus Hall, had a 21-year lease on it.

The lighthouse passed to Henry’s son, who had a dispute with the Revenue Commissioners over the renewal of the lease. It’s said that in 1726 he made a threat to extinguish the light unless rent was paid in advance by Revenue. The disagreement went on for two years.

Over the years Hook tower started to fall into disrepair. It wasn’t until 1791 when Revenue granted a contract to maintain and staff Hook Point along with a number of other lighthouses in Ireland.

A new lease of life

A new lantern was installed along with 12 Argand oil lamps. This was enhanced later, in 1812 and again in 1864. A new lantern and fixed dioptric lens were installed and the lighthouse at Hook tipped on as strong as ever.

In 1871, the oil lamps were replaced by coal gas. This lasted for just under 30 years. In 1910, a revolving focal distance optic replaced the dioptric lens. Coal gas was given the boot, with vaporised paraffin taking its place. Many years later, in 1972, electricity took over.

Guns, bells and horns

Hook Head Lighthouse has used many different sounds to help with navigation over the years:

  • A fog signal bell (introduced in 1838)
  • A gun (introduced in 1872)
  • An explosive charge (introduced in 1905) 
  • An electric horn (introduced in 1995)
hook lighthouse wexford

Photo by Failte Ireland via Ireland’s Content Pool

Recent years at the historic Wexford lighthouse 

Hook Lighthouse was equipped with a radar beacon recently enough, in 1974. This signalled the coming-of-the-end to the ‘old’ way in which lighthouses were run in Ireland.

3 years later, in 1977, Lightkeepers families were removed from lighthouses across Ireland. 6 keepers were assigned to the lighthouse at Hook, with three on duty at any one time.

The end of the lighthouse keeper post at Hook arrived in 1996 when the last keepers were withdrawn. In January 2009, Automatic Identification System functionality was introduced to Hook Head Lighthouse.

Hook head webcam feed

Hook Head webcam

If you want to see what this corner of Wexford looks like for yourself, without actually visiting, there’s a Hook Head webcam that’ll give you a peek.

There are several different webcams currently live on their official website.

Have you visiting Hook Lighthouse? What did you think? Let me know in the comments section below!

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