Tuesday 20 February 2018

'Seeing is believing' - How an 800-year-old lighthouse became Ireland's No.1 hidden gem

Reader Travel Awards 2018: Ireland's Hidden Gem is an ancient old lighthouse with a 21st-century edge

Hook Lighthouse. Photo: Tourism Ireland
Hook Lighthouse. Photo: Tourism Ireland
Ireland's Hidden Gem 2018: Hook Lighthouse, Co. Wexford
Ryan Lynch (7), Molly Lynch (9) and Ava Lynch (6) at Hook Lighthouse

Claire O'Mahony

That Hook Lighthouse is the oldest intact operational lighthouse in the world is by itself enough to make it one of the most interesting attractions in the country.

Delve a little into its history and you’ll discover that William Marshall, the man who built it, was such a fascinating character that Hook’s present-day general manger, Ann Waters, is surprised an epic film hasn’t been made about him yet.

The 13th-century Norman-Anglo knight, who was reputed to be handsome, married Strongbow’s daughter Isabella; never lost a duel and made his fortune in tournaments. A sort of David Beckham of the Middle Ages, his name was known everywhere and he built the tower, which was in use by 1240, to guide shipping to his port at nearby New Ross.

Fast forward almost 800 years, and the distinctive, black-and-white striped lighthouse is today owned by the Commissioners of Irish Lights (who own all of the lighthouses in Ireland). Hook Lighthouse was the first project of this kind that the organisation undertook. Overseen by a not-for-profit company run by a voluntary board of directors, it functions as a social enterprise that benefits the local community and encourages tourism onto the peninsula.

Last year over 50,000 visitors bought tickets for the guided lighthouse experience, but that’s not including those who came to avail of the surrounding amenity area on the Hook Peninsula. Total figures for 2016 are estimated at 210,000 visitors and 2017 saw a 4pc increase in visitor numbers across the board.

They come to climb the 115 steps of the tower; learn the rituals of the lightkeepers who served at Hook; enjoy incredible sea views from the balcony (in season, you might even be lucky enough to spot passing whales) and refuel with delicious eats in the café.

It’s all enhanced by a lively calendar of events, including intimate gigs by artists like Kieran Goss and The Four of Us; barbecues, a full time artist-in-residence (Rose Finn), and more. From February 2-4, an Imbolc festival celebrating the beginning of spring sees a sunrise tour, storytelling and a sold-out concert by Brian Kennedy.

General manager Ann Waters is delighted that Weekend and Independent.ie readers have voted Hook Lighthouse Ireland’s Hidden Gem for 2018.

“I’m so happy, it’s unreal,” she states.

The secret to its success? Ann says a lot of this development has been organic. “We started out with this absolutely iconic, one-of-a-kind attraction. There is also so much goodwill and pride of place towards the attraction in Wexford county and along the South Eastern seaboard. We already had that and our board of directors has always been very strong. It started off with Dr Billy Colfer and TD at the time Hugh Byrne and they had very definite ideas on sustainability and growth within and to be able to keep it manageable and always with community at the forefront… we’ve grown every year since Mary McAleese opened it in 2001.”

Ryan Lynch (7), Molly Lynch (9) and Ava Lynch (6) at Hook Lighthouse
Ryan Lynch (7), Molly Lynch (9) and Ava Lynch (6) at Hook Lighthouse

Today, the lighthouse has 10 full-time staff and a policy to employ local students as temporary employees (20 are on the books at any one time). There are great plans in store for 2018 and a focus on eco sustainability is one of them — straws have been banned, keep cups have been brought in, they’re using compostable everything and there are vegan options on the café menu. In another testament to its progress, this year the lighthouse will be open, for the first time, until 8pm from July to the end of August.

Another target for 2018 is the coach tour market.

“There’s really not an awful lot for international visitors to do in evening time, during the 5-8pm period. German and French people don’t want to be in the pub all the time, so we’re developing some evening packages where they can have dinner with their tour guide. We can give them a nice couple of hours’ experience like a seafood supper and add some interest,” Ann explains.

More: 10 great reasons to visit Wexford

The lighthouse is only closed for three days over Christmas, and during extreme weather. At any other time, visitors can expect festivities — whether that’s St Patrick’s Day when Paddys and Patricias go free; cheeky pirates who will try and lure children to become part of their crew with chocolate coins, sea food jamborees and even the Hook Strongman competition.

“You can spend an afternoon and not spend money and we always felt that was important for the domestic market,” says Ann. “It still is.”

Ireland's Hidden Gem 2018: Hook Lighthouse, Co. Wexford
Ireland's Hidden Gem 2018: Hook Lighthouse, Co. Wexford

Being part of Ireland’s Ancient East (irelandsancienteast.com) has undoubtedly been a boost to Hook Lighthouse, she adds.

“The whole South East, but Wexford and Hook especially, has been very much a traditional holiday base for Irish people and in particular people from Dublin and the surrounding areas. It’s almost always been 100pc domestic, but the impact of Ireland’s Ancient East — and we’re only in the second year — has really boosted the European and American market.

“Unusually we didn’t see the effect of Brexit yet and maybe we will in 2018, but the French, German and American market in particular has exceeded our expectations.”

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