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Sunday 3 December 2023 Dublin: 4°C
hidden history

Heritage Ireland: The oldest lighthouse still in use in the world

Let archaeologist Neil Jackman lead you through the amazing past and present of Hook Lighthouse as well as trips to a major ancient monastery and Georgian splendour.

IN THIS EDITION of our Heritage Ireland series, we pay a trip to Wexford’s lovely Hook Head Peninsula to visit the oldest lighthouse still in use in the world, the remains of a medieval abbey in Laois and the splendid Castletown House in County Kildare.

Hook Lighthouse, Co Wexford

Hook Lighthouse is claimed to be the oldest still-operational lighthouse in the world. This iconic and unique monument was constructed by the powerful medieval magnate William Marshall in the early thirteenth century, thought to be some time between 1210–1230.

The tower was maintained and operated by the monks of St Saviour’s of Rinndeuan. That monastery had originally been founded by a Welsh monk called St Dubhán in the fifth century. He is believed to have started the practice of lighting a warning beacon at Hook Head.

This tradition was continued through the centuries by his monks until William Marshall had the lighthouse constructed. It is from Dubhán that the Hook Peninsula takes its name, as it was originally called Rinn Dubhain before being incorrectly anglicised to Hook Head.

The tower of the original 13th century lighthouse stands around 25 metres tall, and a large beacon fire would have been lit on top of the tower in the medieval period. The lighthouse was maintained without interruption until around 1641, but it is described as ‘a former lighthouse’ in 1657 suggesting it had fallen out of use.

It was restored in 1671 by Robert Readinge who encased the light in glass, and it was powered by coal. The lighthouse keeper and his assistant, together with their families, would have lived in the first and second floors of the building in quite cramped conditions.

In 1791 the large lamp of the lighthouse was powered by whale oil, and the lighthouse was under the control of the Ballast Office. By the middle of the 19th century, new houses were constructed for the lighthouse keepers, and the distinctive black and white stripes became the identifier of the lighthouse. In 1867 the tower was handed over to the Commissioners of Irish Lights who still operate it to this day.

The lamps were converted first to gas, then paraffin and finally electricity in 1972. In 1996 the last lighthouse keeper left Hook Lighthouse, when the operation was automated. Today the lighthouse is a really fascinating and unique place to visit, and the experience is made all the more rewarding by the lovely scenery of County Wexford and the Hook Head Peninsula. For opening times and entry fees please see

Aghaboe Abbey, Co Laois

Nestled in a low lying area and surrounded by fertile fields you can discover the ruins of the  monastic site of Aghaboe. The name Aghaboe means field of the ox, probably reflecting the great pastureland surrounding the remains of the monastery.

St Canice founded a monastery here in 560AD. He positioned the monastery close to one of the great ancient highways of early medieval Ireland – the Slighe Dála. This routeway connected many early medieval monasteries and led from Munster all the way up to the Hill of Tara. By founding his monastery close to this routeway, Canice ensured that it was easily accessed by pilgrims, and could benefit from connections and trade links with other monasteries and settlements along the route.

Feargal, also known as Vigilius, was another abbot of Aghaboe who rose to prominence in Ireland and Europe. He became abbot of Aghaboe in around 730 AD. He resigned this post in 739 AD and set off on the long pilgrimage to the Holy Land. He then travelled around Europe and became a friend of Pepin, who became the first Carolingian King.

King Pepin helped to establish Feargal in Salzburg. He was later elected Bishop of the City in the late eighth century. He was a noted intellectual and unusually for the time, believed that the earth was a sphere. He died in Austria in around 784 AD. Feargal’s links with Salzburg were celebrated during the churches restoration.

You can see a plaque that commemorates the visit of the Bishop of Salzburg in 1984 who officially launched the conservation works, and a second plaque commemorates the visit of the Austrian Ambassador who visited the site when the works were completed.

You can see evidence of the more unsettled side of medieval life at Aghaboe, as the steep sloped grassy mound covered in trees you can see in the field to the north is all that remains of a motte and bailey, an early Norman fortification.

The motte was a man-made steep sloped earthen mound, with a strong wooden tower constructed on top of it. It would have had a bailey positioned to one side of the motte, a bailey was a raised platform that was surrounded by a large fence to protect the livestock and stores. Motte and baileys were very effective defensive fortifications that were cheap and quick to construct.

Life continued to be unsettled into the middle of the 14th century, and the Abbey and its adjacent settlement were raided and burned by Dermot MacGillaPatrick. However, in 1382 Fingin MacGillaPatrick established a Dominican friary on the site, perhaps as an act of repentance for the desecration carried out by his kinsmen some forty years before. Much of what you can see at Aghaboe today dates to this period.

You can discover more about the story of Aghaboe and the other ancient monastic sites of County Laois with our free mp3 audio guide – The Laois Monastic Trail, available to download free from our website and also available as a free audio-visual app for iOS and Android – please see here for more info.

Castletown House, Co Kildare

Castletown House is one of Ireland’s most spectacular landed estates. The handsome Palladian building was designed by Alessandro Galilei and work began in 1722. It was to be the palatial residence of William Conolly.

William Conolly, was originally from Ballyshannon in Co Donegal. He was the son of a publican, but had a stratospheric rise through the ranks of Irish society to become one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in Ireland and Britain. By the age of 34, his annual income was estimated to be in the region of £17,000 (roughly equivalent to over €3 million per year).

He had a residence on Capel Street in Dublin, and his grand estate at Castletown in County Kildare is one of the finest examples of Palladian architecture in Ireland. He was a famous parliamentarian, and achieved the rank of Speaker in the Irish Parliament from 1715–1729, a role that became synonymous with him, as he became known as William ‘Speaker’ Conolly.

Unfortunately William Conolly did not have time to enjoy his beautiful house as he died in 1729.

His widow Katherine Conolly, continued to live in the house, and commissioned a number of spectacular follies (like the nearby Wonderful Barn and Conolly Folly) to keep local people employed during periods of hardship.

Today the house is under the auspices of the Office of Public Works. You can enjoy a superb tour of this fantastic building, and on a fine day the grounds really are a wonderful place to enjoy a walk or a picnic. For more information on opening hours and entry fees please visit

  • In the next edition I’ll be suggesting three more great places to visit from around the island of Ireland. I’d love to hear your suggestions; if you have a favourite heritage site please leave a comment below.

You can discover more great heritage sites and places on Neil’s blog, Time Travel Ireland.

Neil has also produced an acclaimed series of audioguides to Ireland’s heritage sites, they are packed with original music and sound effects and a really fun and immersive way of exploring Ireland’s past. They are available from

If you’d like to receive daily updates about great heritage sites then please consider following us on FacebookTwitter and Google+.

All photographs © Neil Jackman /

What on earth is the Wonderful Barn?>

Read more of Neil Jackman’s weekend guides to Irish heritage gems>

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