TV series recalls  the tragedy of 1979 Fastnet Race off Cork coast

The second series of Great Lighthouses Of Ireland starts on Sunday
TV series recalls  the tragedy of 1979 Fastnet Race off Cork coast

The stunning Fastnet Lighthouse features in Great Lighthouses Of Ireland on RTE1 tomorrow (Sunday May 8)

ALMOST 100 years ago, in 1925, the first Fastnet Race was held, a biennial offshore yacht race attracting competitors from around the world.

It is named after the Fastnet Rock at the halfway point of the race, around which the vessels must sail before turning back for the finishing line.

However, the 1979 Fastnet Race was struck by tragedy when an unexpected hurricane-level storm hit.

The events of that day are recounted when the second series of Great Lighthouses Of Ireland starts on RTÉ1 tomorrow (Sunday May 8) at 6.30pm.

The first episode looks at the lighthouse which has occupied the Fastnet Rock since the 1850s.

John O’Donnell, a crewmember on board the yacht Sundowner in the 1979 race, relives the terrifying experience, while retired lighthouse keeper Gerald Butler, who witnessed the events from his lofty building , describes the deadly sea conditions of force 10 winds and 40 foot waves and the vital role lighthouse keepers played in assisting the rescue services.

Commodore John Kavanagh, former Flag Officer Commanding Irish Naval Service, details the rescue operation and the Irish Naval Service’s role in locating missing yachts and their crews - extremely challenging in the days before GPS technology.

Of the 303 yachts that entered the 1979 race, 15 participants died, and a further six people who were following the race in convoy were also killed. 

At least 75 yachts capsized, 24 were abandoned, and 5 sank.

The episode also looks at the history of the Fastnet lighthouse, and expert James Morrissey explains how this engineering masterpiece was built.

William Douglass designed the lighthouse, made from more than 2,000 individually carved, interlocking granite blocks which continue to withstand the most ferocious Atlantic storms today.

No less remarkable was the foreman, James Kavanagh, who personally oversaw the installation of each stone, and ensured the welfare of the men on the rock for months on end.

Kavanagh, his team and the construction of the lighthouse were captured in an extraordinary, historic collection of photographs from the National Library of Ireland which feature in this programme.

Professor Robert Devoy of UCC explains how a bustling coastline led to the establishing of lighthouse buildings which were needed to help reduce the frequent shipwrecks.

Historian Dr Michael Martin tells the story of Alexander Mitchell, the ‘Blind Engineer’. He was born in 1870 and despite being blind by 23, became a world-renowned inventor and invented the screw-pile which revolutionised the building of lighthouses.

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