The Spit bank, a shallow area of mud and sand, lies opposite the town of Cobh in Cork Harbour. While it forms a natural breakwater that shelters Cobh from the worst of storm induced swells, it presents a hazard to vessels taking the 90-degree turn to navigate the shipping channel.
In the mid 19th Century, overall responsibility for lighthouses in Ireland fell under the remit of the Ballast Board and in 1850 they decided that a lighthouse on the Spit Bank was required. The engineer behind the unique design of this lighthouse platform was Alexander Mitchell. Blind to all intents and purposes by the age of 23, Mitchell nevertheless pursued his chosen vocation with a vigour and ambition that his able sighted colleagues would envy.
Based on the humble corkscrew, Mitchell had patented his “screwpile and mooring” technique as far back as 1833. It ensured that the platform would not drift. The system had been proved at Maplin Sands and Belfast lough and would be successfully employed in locations around Ireland, Britain and North America
Previous attempts at pile driven platforms had seen the spindly constructions migrate with the sandbar, that is, if it wasn’t simply crushed in the process. Floating lights, traditionally used where lighthouse construction was not possible, were not ideal. The movement of the light ship altered the light’s location during storms, and floating lights could break from their mooring, causing havoc for mariners.
Mitchell personally oversaw the construction, ferrying out to his lighthouse, even on rough seas (falling overboard twice), and climbed up and down ladders, crawling along planks, examining the wood, iron and rivets. Through touch he checked the quality of the ironwork, sometimes noting flaws that had escaped the labourers’ or foreman’s eye. One worker is recorded as exclaiming: ‘Our master may say what he pleases, but I’ll never believe that he can’t see as well as thee or I!’
The light was exhibited for the first time in 1853 and a foghorn was added in the 1890s. Only half a kilometre from shore, but with no living accommodation on the platform, the light was managed by a principal and assistant keeper who commuted across from nearby Cobh.
The light was updated and automated in the 20th century. Now in use for over 150 years, it is one of only three remaining screw-pile lighthouses in Ireland. It was repaired following a collision in 1978, and renovated in 2013.
Location: 51 50.7222 North, 8 16.4533 West.
Character: Isophase, 4s, 196-221 white, 221-358 red, 358-87 no light, 87-196 red
Range: W: 18 km , R: 13 km
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