Maritime column: The 81 little towers built to play a big part in our history

Maritime column: The 81 little towers built to play a big part in our history

The Lusitania Museum and Old Head of Kinsale signal tower. Picture Dan Linehan

THERE are 81 Napoleonic signal towers around the Irish coastline. They are small, but interesting, and date from 1805.

They were intended by the then British administration of Ireland as a defence against invasion, a response to the unsuccessful French armada that brought Wolfe Tone to Bantry Bay in 1796.

The only tower restored for public use is at the Old Head of Kinsale, that impressive headland projecting into the Atlantic where the ocean strikes the Cork coastline.

“They are amazing buildings,” says Con Hayes, secretary of the Lusitania Museum at the Old Head. “Most of them are still standing: Simple, square, 16-foot wide, two stories high; small, in actual fact. 

"The idea was to transfer messages by signal from one to the other and from sea to shore and up to Dublin Castle, where the government headquarters were.”

The British administration may have forgotten “about things like the fog on the south coast”, Mr Hayes says. “I am not sure if they ever made much use of them, because they fell into disuse after the Battle of Waterloo. Their day was done in 10 years.”

RMS Lusitania
RMS Lusitania

That battle was fought on June 18, 1815, and nearly 100 years later — on May 7, 1915 — the Cunard liner Lusitania was sunk off the Old Head by a German submarine in the First World War, with 1,198 of the passengers and crew killed.

“The Lusitania took its bearings from the Old Head lighthouse just as it was being struck by the U-boat,” Mr Hayes says. “She sank just 12 nautical miles south of the Old Head.”

The memorial committee restored the tower as a mini-museum, containing items from the Lusitania. “We have many more we would like to display to tell the full story in detail,” says Mr Hayes, announcing the committee’s plan to build a new museum.

“We have commissioned an architectural team to design it, wrapping around the garden and the tower, a modern museum, which will cost significant money,” Mr Hayes says.

“We are focusing, at the moment, on the design stage and starting a GoFundMe campaign to raise €150,000 to take us to the full planning stage and look for full planning and major funding from government and EU grants.

“The local people of the Old Head and Ballinspittle areas have been magnificent in their support of our work. The general public have been extremely generous, also, in many ways, so we hope they will be again. People have come from all over the country to see the memorial.”

The centrepiece of the Memorial Garden, to the south of the tower, is a sculpture of a wave that lists the 1,962 names of all those aboard the Lusitania.

Mr Hayes established a personal link with the owner of the Lusitania wreck, US multi-millionaire Gregg Bemis, who died last year and who signed it over to the memorial committee.

“He came over twice to see what we had done, gave us artefacts, and we had a strong relationship,” Mr Hayes says. “He saw us as the people he trusted to put it into our hands. On May 7, 2019, the anniversary day of the sinking, he signed it over to us. We now own the wreck of the Lusitania.”

The new plan is ambitious, but Mr Hayes says the committee believe that the Lusitania, such a major part of the maritime history of Ireland and the Cork coast, deserves a full museum.

“We started small, to prove ourselves and show how determined we were and what we believed in,” Mr Hayes says. “Now, the time is to do more and we hope to achieve this.” 

You can hear Con Hayes in an interview on this week’s edition of my radio programme, The Maritime Ireland Radio Show.

MICHAEL KINGSTON JOINS CONWAYS

International maritime lawyer Michael Kingston has joined Conways Solicitors, Maritime Law, led by Dermot Conway, in Cork. Mr Kingston is well-known for campaigns in connection with the victims of the Betelgeuse oil-tanker tragedy in Bantry Bay and the Marine Casualty Investigation Board. Mr Kingston is an expert in maritime law and has worked for the United Nations on Polar regulations and other issues.

OCEAN-TO-CITY TIME TRIALS

Cork Harbour Festival’s flagship Ocean to City race will be going ahead this June, with an altered format, supported by the city and county councils and the Port of Cork.

The intention is to link events in Scotland and Wales with Cork in a ‘Five Miles From Home’ series of rowing time trials, to overcome Covid-19 restrictions that are preventing crew from travelling to Cork for what has, annually, been a major sporting-and-visitor attraction.

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