EVEN though Ballycotton Island is a near neighbour from where I live in Garryvoe, I’d never set foot on it.
That’s until Ballycotton Sea Adventures launched its 2023 summer season with a tour, including a climb to the very top of the historical lighthouse itself, which has been operating since 1851. The last lighthouse keeper left the island in the early 1990s.
Setting off on a fine afternoon with an enthusiastic crew on board, the 15 minute boat journey from the pier in Ballycotton was delightful - the deep blue sea was calm, only swelling in a see-saw motion halfway out.
As the island loomed closer, we saw Garryvoe Hotel getting smaller in the distance and the island itself getting larger.
Eddie Fitzgerald, who used to call the lighthouse home when he was a lighthouse keeper, may be 79 now, but he is as sprightly as ever as he alights from the boat and leads his crew on their merry way from the landing spot to the lighthouse.
Eddie, ever knowledgeable, stops at various vantage points along the green mossy way to tell us about the history of the iconic lighthouse. The resident goats and noisy seagulls are unperturbed about their territory being invaded.
Ballycotton island has two landings, known as the East and West landings. The East one is the most used but in the event of severe easterly winds, the keepers could be brought on and off at the west landing.
Eddie is accompanied by numerous other guides, who all love their work. Polish native, Iwona Zulawinska’s boat was floated when she landed in Ballycotton from Krakow.
“I found my joy in Ballycotton,” says Iwona, who conducts Ballycotton Island tours in Polish and in English.
“Two years ago, I decided to change my life. I thought about moving to the UK, but my brother and sister are here, so Cork was to be my destination.”
How did Iwona land her dream job?
“I came to Ballycotton visiting a friend and we did the cliff walk,” says Iwona.
“On the walk I saw Sea Church and told them I had just arrived, and I asked were there any jobs going at the restaurant and concert venue? I left my CV at Sea Church.
“I got a reply back two days later to say there were no jobs available, but that Ballycotton Sea Adventures were looking for someone to organise tours. I thought; ‘Oh My God, that is something I’d like to do’.”
Iwona had already found her sea-legs.
“When I was younger, I was in a sailing club from the age of 13 to 18, and I took part in competitions. I love the ocean. The first year here, I was organising schedules and selling tickets. Then I learned the history of the island and I became a tour guide.
It was the best decision ever!
“I love the island, the lighthouse and the people. I am totally fascinated by everything! I promote Polish tours as there are a lot of Polish people in the area. For instance, a family has booked a whole boat next weekend for a communion.”
Iwona is a sea-faring woman.
“I wake up in the morning and I think, how many tours today? I could keep going for 24 hours! I am so happy to have found this job.”
Eddie is happy to continue the tour, stopping to show us a well weathered map, speckled with red dots that show markings where a vessel was wrecked over the years, documenting the importance of the lighthouse’s role, and whilst we take in the massive views from all angles; he relates that for almost 50 years, the lightkeepers and their families lived permanently on the island. During that time the children would be rowed across to Ballycotton village to go to school. A keeper would be posted to Ballycotton for three to four years on average before being moved on. In 1899, the families were moved off the island to houses in the centre of Ballycotton village that the lighthouse authorities rented for them. From then on until the 1970s the keepers and their families became an integral part of village life. The last lightkeepers left the island in 1992 and since then the light has been monitored remotely from Irish Lights HQ in Dun Laoghaire.
During our tour, we explore the two keepers’ cottages and extensive boundary walls - and marvel about the structure before we climb the spiral staircase to the top of Ballycotton Lighhouse, designed by prominent engineer and lighthouse builder, George Halpin. Atop the lighthouse is akin to being on top of the world with the ocean swirling below.
The lighthouse was built following decades of campaigning from the mid-1820s to construct a lighthouse that would help keep ships safe as they travelled between Cork and Youghal. In the distance, we can see stunning wildlife with a variety of plants, birds and rocks - the large number of goats basked in the carpet-soft hillocks happy as the day was long.
Stefan and Kerstin Schaefer, originally from Germany and who lived in New Jersey for 23 years, thoroughly enjoyed the tour.
“We saw pictures of Ballycotton Island when we were looking for accommodation here; the island and surrounds are so beautiful; we decided to set up home here in east Cork. The island intrigued us from the first moment,” says Stefan.
“The Ballycotton Sea Adventure tour is a great day out. I love the guides who were so interesting history-wise. The guides are the soul of the operation. The lighthouse was great and the guides really bring it back to life. The entire group of people were so much fun.”
The exertion was fun too.
“The walkway is 260 metres,” says Stefan. “The elevation is 50-60 metres, which is 23% of an incline. It is very steep.”
Kerstin was fascinated by the goats, the sea-gulls, and the lush vegetation on the island.
“The soft pillow of grass was surprising,” says Kerstin.
I love boats, I grew up on the Northern sea- board. The views from the island are amazing - we were so lucky with the weather. The fog descended later on.
Descending from the boat back at the pier, we were given picnic bags courtesy of Sea Church - we retired to the hostelry for tea and coffee and a chat about the wonderful afternoon provided by the Ballycotton Sea Adventure tour guides.
We all decided we must look further into the maritime treasures of Ballycotton!
Ballycotton Sea Adventures also provide other coastal experiences such as fishing trips off the bay and private charters off the coast of East Cork that includes whale and dolphin watching.
It’s one of many tourist attractions in the picturesque village of Ballycotton, which is also home to the Michelin Guide listed restaurant and guesthouse, Cush, and the stunning Sea Church, a restored church which provides casual dining and an event space all year round, and is home to the Ballycotton Sessions which has aired for two seasons on RTÉ.
The Ballycotton Lighthouse Tour is suitable for those age three and over. The whole trip takes about 90 minutes and costs €27 per person, (€16 age three to 11 years), with family tickets for €80. Children must be accompanied by an adult and bookings can be made on https://ballycottonseaadventures.com/