This article is sourced from the archives of the Inishowen Maritime Museum, Greencastle, Co. Donegal

The first lighthouses could only be built onshore where the builders could get solid  foundation. Most lighthouses were built on rocky headlands, islands and offshore rocks. such as rock, which would be able to support the weight of the tower. If a light was needed on a river or in a muddy estuary, then an old ship was normally anchored in a suitable position with a lamp hung from the mast.

Alexander Mitchell was born, in Dublin, in 1780. He went to Belfast to study at the Belfast Royal Academy. Whilst studying there, he started to lose his sight and, by the time he was 23, he was totally blind.

Belfast Lough is a wide muddy estuary where it was impossible to find a rocky foundation for a normal lighthouse.

This caused Mitchell to look at alternative ways of securing navigation lights within the estuary.

By 1833, he had designed and patented what became known as the screwpile. It was a round wooden, or iron pile with a cutting thread on the bottom, like a corkscrew or augur.

It also had a wide helical plate above the screw head, a bid like the blade of a fan or like the screw pegs you see today to tie down your tent.

He carried out his tests in Belfast Lough, in bottoms from sand to mud.

With the advent of steam powered ships which could move up and down rivers at night,

the Londonderry Port & Harbour Commissioners decided that, if they wanted to keep up to date then they would put lights in the channel.

In the 1840’s and 1850’s the Commissioners installed a series of pile lights along the coast at Redcastle, Whitecastle, Quigley’s Point and Ture Point, as well as small lighthouses on land from Culmore down to Derry.

There was no pile light at Moville, just a small light on a pole on the rocks, beside the old fish quay.

Glasgow steamships started taking on passengers at Moville from 1860 and these large ships were not happy coming to anchor in Moville with only a small light on the shore to guide them.

The Commissioners agreed  to build a large pile light with a very strong light at Moville.

This was established in the Spring of 1884. It had a visibility up to fifteen miles.

It was built on nine iron girders , screwed ten feet into the bed of the lough. These nine girders rose 30 feet above the seabed and the balcony floor was sixteen feet above high water. This was reached by two ladders.

On the balcony, there was a lower house which was twelve feet in diameter and eight feet floor to ceiling, which would be used by two men at night. These men rowed out to the light every evening and returned every morning.

Above the lower house was the light room, which was split into two halves – the mechanism on the bottom and the three-foot lantern on the top. The light was called ‘intermittent’ and would shine for five seconds and then go out for five seconds.

This was achieved by obscuring the lamp with a revolving prism.

The machinery that made the light revolve was powered by weights which hung down into the dwelling room. The lightkeepers had to wind the weights back up to the top at regular intervals during the night.

The light was originally powered by paraffin but was later changed to gas.

Some of the early lightkeeper names survive, Thomas Webber and Robert McKeague. The Webber name has gone now but some McKeagues still survive in the locality.

Slowly all the lighthouses along the Foyle estuary and river became unwatched and automatic.

Some started to rot away, some had one leg, or 2, scoured away by the current and fell over and one lost a leg when the Scotch Boat ran into it.

As the cost of maintaining these extravagant structures grew, they were gradually taken down in the 1960s and replaced by simple platforms or even poles.

The remains of the old pile lighthouse at Whitecastle can still be seen sticking up above the water, next to the new light on a post. It was used in an experiment for nesting seabirds but now seems to be derelict.

Only Moville Light remains. It was refurbished by Foyle Port in 2009.  It is now solar-powered. Its range has been decreased to four miles and a red sector warns mariners of the dangers between the lighthouse and the shore. The character of the light has also been changed to one flash every 2.5 seconds.

Around the coast of Ireland, practically all the pile lights have disappeared. There were four in Belfast harbour and three in Cork Harbour, for example. The only ones that remain are one at Dundalk, one at Cobh and a very sad, sorry one at Passage East in Waterford, now, shamefully, on its last legs.

Moville remains, so the ballad, “We have a lovely lighthouse in Moville……..” lives on.

Ask your parents for the rest of the words!