Travel: St John's Point lighthouses make for illuminating holidays, according to John Manley
Ireland has two St John's Point lighthouses and John Manley has a long-held affinity with both. He recently travelled west to spend a few days in one of the former lightkeeper's houses on a headland in Donegal Bay
THE allure of lighthouses is both visceral and spiritual. Usually located in isolated places, outward-facing, on the edge; their presence serves as a warning about the perils of the sea, while also reassuring those venturing out onto the waves.
The structures themselves are like nothing else – each has its own style and personality, designed and coloured deliberately to distinguish it from its counterparts along the coastline. The compounds in which they are housed reinforce the sense of isolation, imbuing them with a monastic quality.
Operated by the Commissioners of Irish Lights, the original cross-border body, there are more than 60 onshore and offshore lighthouses around Ireland’s coastline, from Fasnet in the south to Inishtrahull, off Malin Head. As an island nation, such heritage is to be treasured.
In recent years the value of the lighthouse’s unique appeal has been recognised by the Irish Landmark Trust, an all-island not-for-profit body that conserves unusual and architecturally important buildings. Along with various gate lodges, tower houses and old schoolhouses, the former lightkeeper’s homes at a number of Ireland’s lighthouses have been made available throughout the year as rented holiday accommodation.
Living close to St John’s Point lighthouse in Co Down, I regularly encounter those enjoying a break in either the JP Sloop or JP Ketch, the two properties beneath the 40-metre tower with its iconic sweeping beam – a rarity in this age of LEDs. Recently I met a couple who’d stayed in more than a dozen lighthouses in Ireland and Britain, and were even married in one.
My own affinity for my nearest lighthouse dates back nearly 50 years. As a boy, young man, father and companion to numerous dogs, I’ve enjoyed many varied pleasures in its rugged, isolated surroundings. Likewise, its namesake in Co Donegal, which I first visited in 1971 on a family camping holiday. I returned in the mid-90s with my now wife, wild camping close to where we’d pitched a quarter of a century earlier.
Two fussy teenagers and the ordinarily unpredictable Irish weather ruled out a camping trip on this occasion, so we opted for the comfort of the SJ Schooner, one of two two-bedroomed lightkeepers’ cottages situated beside the lighthouse at the end of a finger of land protruding into Donegal Bay.
The two St John’s Points are on opposite sides of Ireland and have much to distinguish them, yet they also have many similarities. In Co Down the view south-westwards across the bay is of Slieve Donard and the Mournes. In Donegal, you are doubly spoiled – to the south is the primordial, truncated profile of the Dartry Mountains, while to the north is Slieve League, its relatively tame aspect disguising the sheer sea cliffs of the hidden north face.
St John’s Point lighthouse is a harbour light for the fishing port of Killybegs, about three miles away as the gull flies but closer to 10 by road. Reflecting the force of the prevailing winds coming off the Atlantic, the 19th century, granite lighthouse and surrounding buildings are squat. Together they create a courtyard with the beacon on the western seaward side and the two L-shaped flat roofed properties forming much of the other three sides.
Surrounded by thick six-feet-high walls, in the midsummer sun they are akin to little whitewashed haciendas. While they may create a sun trap on a warm summer’s day, clearly the walls’ purpose is to guard against less benign conditions.
The visitors’ book in our accommodation provides testimony to the adversity of the weather, with one entry recalling a sleepless night as Storm Ophelia lashed the exposed headland. For many visitors, however, this exposure to the elements is one of St John’s Point’s key selling points, and accordingly, the open fire is well used.
Sleeping four in each, both the SJ Schooner and SJ Clipper are spacious and well kitted out for the modern family, with two notable exceptions – there’s no TV or Wi-Fi. How we persuaded two teenagers to live without a phone effectively for three days and three nights may in the future form the basis of a best-selling book, though timing our stay in the midst of Ireland’s most prolonged heatwave for decades proved crucial.
Having no TV during the tail end of the World Cup group stages was also challenging but it provided the right incentive to venture out in the evenings to nearby Dunkineely, or slightly farther afield westwards to Killybegs or in the opposite direction, Donegal town.
Access to St John’s Point from the main coast road is by a six-mile, single track road which can be reasonably busy at the height of summer, demanding plenty of patience and a degree of skill to navigate. It therefore makes sense to limit your journeys inland to a maximum of one a day.
If the weather’s amenable, there’s enough to keep you occupied in and around the lighthouse. The warm, stable conditions meant we were able to enjoy a swim off the nearby rocks, in the same deep, clear waters that attract scuba divers from across Ireland. The lighthouse accommodation wisely includes a wetroom with showers, separate to the living quarters.
Like fishing off the headland, however, such activities are only for experienced and capable swimmers, as the Atlantic swell can be unforgiving, even on a beautiful, sunny day.
A mile back inland from the lighthouse, a sandy bar connects the peninsula with the headland, which is where you can enjoy more conventional and safer beach pursuits.
Soaring mercury is far from conducive to hillwalking but the argument in favour becomes more compelling when both Benbulben and Slieve League’s One Man Pass are on your bucket list. We gave the kids (one of whom is 18) a fiver between them and dumped them in Bundoran before we adults headed south to Co Sligo.
Benbulben was proving too time-consuming logistically so we opted for the nearer but no less imposing Benwhiskin – meaning ‘peak of the haystack’ – a 514m mountain reminiscent on one side of a breaking wave, that lies at one end of the upland ridge known as Gleniff horseshoe.
It looks relatively easy. It is after all just steep – make that very steep – grassy slopes rising to a flat top, typical of the Dartry range. However, despite its ostensible benignity, the ascent demands hands, knees and a degree of bottle.
On top, the haziness caused by the heat thwarts hopes of seeing as far as Co Mayo but the views over Donegal Bay were nonetheless superlative. The descent – in part on my backside – was equally perilous, the situation not helped by scorching early afternoon sun.
While we encountered only one person during our adventures on Benwhiskin, it was a contrasting situation on Slieve League the following day – one of those where after a short while you stop greeting fellow walkers because there are just too many. Despite the comparatively crowded clifftop path, the views did not disappoint, though I'd be less enthusiastic if the weather wasn't as pleasant.
Without doubt there's a strong element of preaching to the converted when you're evangelical about the charms of Donegal in the pages of The Irish News; however, if you ever fancy enjoying a unique perspective on this beautiful county you could do worse than spend a few nights at St John's Point lighthouse.
:: John Manley stayed in the SJ Schooner at St John’s Point, Co Donegal.
Alongside the adjoining SJ Clipper, the former lightkeeper's accommodation is available to rent for a minimum of two nights.
:: Both houses sleep four in a double room and a twin room.
Prices begin at €422 for midweek low season (October-May excluding public holidays).
:: To view these and other Irish Landmark Trust properties see irishlandmark.com. You can also email firstname.lastname@example.org or call +353 1 6704733