Mew Island Lighthouse

Mew Island Lighthouse
Photo: Patrick Tubby

Mew Island Lighthouse is located on one of the Copeland Islands, three islands off the coast of Donaghadee. The islands are known for their strong tidal currents and are located at the southern entrance of Belfast Lough.

Copeland Lighthouse

Before the lighthouse at Mew Island, the approaches to Belfast Lough were marked by a light on Lighthouse Island, one of the Copeland Islands. 

This lighthouse was established early in the 18th century and was one of four coal-burning lights around the coast of Ireland.  The others were at Loop Head, Old Head of Kinsale and Howth Head.

The Copeland lighthouse had a 6-foot diameter lantern added in 1796, overseen by Thomas Rogers, and its operation changed from coal to oil.  Six oil-burning Argand lamps.

In 1810 responsibility for the Irish lighthouses transferred to the Corporation for Improving the Port of Dublin (also known as the Ballast Board) following an Act of Parliament.  Following this change, George Halpin was commissioned to improve the Copeland Island lighthouse.  A new tower, 52 feet high, was built alongside the old tower displaying a fixed white light powered by 27 Argand oil lamps.  This new tower was first exhibited on 24th January 1815.  The old tower was later used to house a fog bell driven by clockwork.

Copeland Island
Lighthouse Island – the former lighthouse tower is just visible

Towards the mid-19th century, with the increase in size and frequency of ships, there was a demand for a light to be better positioned in the area.  The Belfast Harbour commissioners recommended that the Copeland light be transferred to the outer island, Mew island.  The port was expanding with the export of linen, and Harland and Wolff were launching numerous large ships.

The original Copeland Lighthouse was not in the right location.  Mew Island was more difficult to see during the dark hours.  In 1803 Enterprise, bound for Liverpool with slaves and silver, was wrecked on Mew Island.  In October 1851, the Cunard paddle steamer Africa ran aground on the island.

The 52ft high stone tower remains and is used as a bird observatory. The island is owned by the National Trust, and volunteers of the Copeland Bird Observatory occupy the island.  It is possible to stay in the old lighthouse as a volunteer.

Mew Island Lighthouse

In 1882 work began on the new Mew Island Lighthouse, designed by William Douglass.  The light was established on 1st November 1884.

Lighthouse and buildings
Photo: Patrick Tubby

The tower and cottages were built from stone on Mew Island and nearby Newry. The lighthouse had its own gas-making facility, which was used up until 1928, being replaced with oil.  At the same time, a bi-form hyper-radial optic from Tory Island replaced the original optic. Paraffin vapour burners replaced the coal gas, and its character changed to four flashes every 30 seconds.

The lighthouse was electrified in July 1969, and its range was increased to 30 miles. 

The tower had always been painted black until 1954, when a wide white band was painted halfway up the tower, and the lantern was painted white.

The keepers’ accommodation was built next to the lighthouse on the island. Five other dwellings were built at Donaghadee as a shore station for the keepers and their families. The keepers and their families lived in Donaghadee until 1957, when the dwellings were sold.  The keepers then lived in their own homes and travelled to Donaghadee for their duty. The former shore station is located just outside Donaghadee in Warren Road.

From July 1981, the Mew Island Lighthouse keepers monitored the South Rock automatic light float.

Mew Island Lighthouse was automated in 1996.

Mew Island is one of the tallest lighthouses in Ireland, and initially, it had a triform optic with six first-order fresnel lens panels on each level. However, in the 1920s, the lighthouse was reported to be flashing irregularly, so in 1928, panels from the Tory Island hyper-radial optic replaced the current optic.

Old and new optics
The old and new optics

On 2nd September 2014, the Mew Island optic shone for the last time.  The hyper-radial optic from the lighthouse was removed in November 2015 and is now on display as The Great Light on the Maritime Mile in the Titanic Quarter, Belfast.   Following the optic’s removal, a new solar-powered LED light was installed.

Great Light
Former Mew Island optic now on display in Belfast
Photo: Patrick Tubby

The Copeland Islands can be visited by boat from Donaghadee, but it is not possible to land on the islands unless you are staying on Copeland Island as a volunteer.

Copeland Island Lighthouse

  • Decommissioned: 1884
Established: 1884
Engineer: William Douglass
Tower Height: 37 metres
Light Character: Fl (4) W 30 s
Light Range: 24 miles
Elevation: 35 metres
Automated: March 1996