Lighthouse beam must be preserved

Lighthouse beam must be preserved

4 September 2019

THE campaign group lobbying for the retention of the iconic sweeping beam at St John’s Point Lighthouse near Killough has again insisted that it must be preserved, with the building developed to provide a leading tourist attraction.

The Lecale Lightkeepers have written to the Commissioners of Irish Lights (CIL) — which wants to remove the beam powered by a six ton Fresnel lamp and replace it with an LED light — highlighting the importance of retaining the beam in its current form for future generations.

Campaigners say that the century-old beam must not be confined to the pages of history, warning CIL that if it persists with its controversial plan, it will miss a “tremendous opportunity” to preserve both the iconic lighthouse and its beam.

The Lecale Lightkeepers say the beam, which is an integral part of the lighthouse’s heritage and a stunning feature of the Lecale landscape, must be retained for people to enjoy.

CIL has argued that because the current lamp rotates in a bath of mercury and poses a health and safety risk, it is looking at designing a new mechanism which would allow the mercury to be removed.  

However, campaigners do not agree, claiming that such an option would be expensive to operate and, most significantly, alter the character of the light. 

They have also branded claims that the mercury bath poses a health and safety risk as a “red herring” and fear that replacing the existing mechanism could potentially damage the lens.

In a letter to the Dublin-based CIL, campaigners say they remain as “committed as ever” to preserving the sweeping beam which is important to the local community.

In July, CIL confirmed that trials of an alternate bearing system were ongoing but it was unable to make a final determination as to the suitability of such a system.

Seeking an update on the trials, campaigners say they have held since the outset that a solid metal-on-solid metal bearing “defies common sense as a practical approach” since the energy necessary to overcome the friction forces therein would be costly and the apparatus itself require lubrication and continuous maintenance. 

“Such problems were addressed successfully by Messrs Bourdelles & Fresnel, the distinguished French lighthouse engineers in the 19th century and their designs, including the almost frictionless mercury bearing, were employed in lighthouse construction world-wide, including Ireland and at St John’s Point in 1909,” the letter continues.

“We believe it is an established fact that any potential hazard to health by mercury vapour can be managed by adequate ventilation. This was  foreseen in the design of St John’s Point lighthouse where there is excellent lantern sidewall and cowling ventilation in a tower 100 feet above the ground in this remote location. There is little hazard from the liquid mercury since it is not readily absorbed dermally.”

Campaigners have suggested that it would be interesting to see CIL’s lighthouse keeper health monitoring records for mercury covering the past 80 years and more when the lighthouse was manned and used the present system. They also said it would be interesting

to see the training records for keepers in safe mercury handling during all these years.  “Presumably, these would have been managed by independent bodies of experts since the Commissioners probably didn’t previously have and don’t today have any toxicological experts on your permanent payroll,” says the campaigners letter.

Another area of concern highlighted is the poor state of the lighthouse, including adjoining housing which a delegation from the Commissioner’s office recently visited.

Campaigners point to the “lamentable state” of the walls of the lighthouse station and the grounds, suggesting that they present a picture of “woeful neglect” and asking  how CIL can expect the public to be impressed with a lack of basic asset maintenance.

The letter highlights that the current Fresnel lens system turns 24 hours a day and is clearly visible from the road outside the lighthouse station.

Campaigners say this in itself is a visual attraction during daylight hours “since the magnificent large lens system is big enough to be seen turning on it’s mercury bearing and is even more magnificent at night”.

The letter continues: “We believe that CIL will miss a tremendous opportunity to preserve this lighthouse and its sweeping beam if you persist with your alternative bearing plans. The whole lighthouse station could become part of a wider tourist attraction in the area. Future generations will thank you for retaining the current historic beam system, still going smoothly after 110 years and showing no signs of obsolescence. You have not made an economic case for change of lens system at St John’s Point as far as we know and it is difficult to see how you can.

“What happens at the lighthouse remains the focus of keen and widespread local and political interest in this area and we will ensure this continues to be a high-profile local issue.”  

The letter adds: “Lecale Lightkeepers are willing to fully support CIL and others in any preservation programme that involves retaining the sweeping beam. However, we reject the idea that the use of mercury in this lens bearing application represents a health hazard that cannot be managed by a sensible, low-cost maintenance programme involving chiefly adequate ventilation. This has always have been the case anyway.”