This busy industrial cross-border town has its mythical and historical roots dating back to Cuchullin. Delga, whose fort the town is named after, Queen Maeve, Norsemen, Normans, Jacobites, and Williamites, even Agnes the eldest sister of Scotland's Robert Burns is buried in St Nicholas's churchyard.
On 13 January 1846 the Dundalk Harbour Commissioners wrote to the Corporation for Preserving and Improving the Port of Dublin (the Ballast Board) requesting them to consider two suitable lighthouses to guide the ever increasing number of vessels into the harbour. The Board's Inspector of Works and Inspector of Lighthouses, George Halpin, reported favourably on the question although he realised the difficulty in marking the channel.
Two further approaches were made to the Board. One, again, by the Harbour Commissioners, and the other by Daniel O'Connell, MP for Dundalk, the outcome of which was that Inspector Halpin recommended a Mitchell's Patent Screw Pile structure which would be similar to but smaller than the one then proposed for the Kish Bank.
Alexander Mitchell was a blind Belfast engineer who had patented a wrought and cast-iron screw pile. In the case of a lighthouse the piles were screwed into the sand and supported a wooden decking on which was placed limited wooden accommodation and a small lantern. His screw pile principle was also applied to piers, beacons and moorings. Mitchell's first lighthouses were at Maplin Sands in the River Thames (1838-41) in conjunction with James Walker, and Wyre near Fleetwood, Morecambe Bay (1840). His three Irish lighthouses were Hollywood Bank, Belfast Lough (1848), destroyed by a collision in March 1889; Spit Bank, Cobh (1848); and Dundalk (1855). Unsuccessful attempts to place screw piles were made on the Kish, Arklow, and Blackwater Banks.
The Board was favourably inclined to erect two small lighthouses at Dundalk and informed Trinity House who at the time had the final decision regarding the erection of new lighthouses. Trinity House replied on 6 November 1846 sanctioning the lighthouses but stating they must be maintained out of local revenue and not the Mercantile Marine Fund.
Early in 1847 after a further reminder from the Dundalk Harbour Commissioners and the stranding of a 300 ton vessel, Inspector Halpin suggested trial piles should be made by Mitchell at a cost of £170 which was approved by the Board. Unfortunately, due to other commitments, Mitchell did not make a successful trial until April 1848 when he was able to screw down to almost 17 feet. Following this the Board instructed the Inspector to submit plans and the cost of a lighthouse, not lighthouses which were originally sanctioned.
Mitchell's quotation for £3,970 was accepted and the contract signed in August 1848. By March 1849 nine screw piles had been placed together with braces, the platform and part of the accommodation and the whole structure was complete by June, but Inspector Halpin reported he had noticed signs of scouring and shifting sand close to the piles.
Three and a half years later the Dundalk Harbour Commissioners decided to remind the Corporation of their immediate intention to complete the lighthouse with regard to a light. Inspector Halpin again reported that since the lighthouse had been completed scouring had taken place on the south side of the channel leaving the structure in mid-channel. This was quite safe and he undertook to complete the work by March 1853, a very dangerous statement to make as the whole exercise was to be dogged by delays and a further shifting of the channel. The light was eventually established on the night of 18 June 1855 and the structure painted white with red piles was now on the north bank of the channel. The light, 33 feet above high water, was a fourth order dioptric flashing white with red sectors every 15 seconds and its cost to the end of 1855 was £6,769:4s:9d. The optic was revolved by a weight-driven machine.
(George Halpin died suddenly in July 1854 and was succeeded by his son, George Halpin junior.)
Soon after the light was established the Inspector, George Halpin junior, recommended a fog signal bell. This too was similarly dogged by delays and finally came into operation in November 1860, paid for by the Harbour Commissioners although attended by the Keepers. The bell was struck six times every minute by another weight-driven machine wound up by the Keeper on duty.
(In 1867 the Dublin Port Act established the Commissioners of Irish Lights as a completely new body responsible for lighthouses, buoys and beacons, separated from the Ballast Board which became the Dublin Port and Docks Board.)
Two semi-detached two-storey cottages were built for the Principal and Assistant Keepers near Soldier's Point on the south side of the estuary on land rented from Lord Roden, and a third detached house was built in 1886 which subsequently became the PK's house. The Board's Inspecting Committee had recommended a second Assistant Keeper which had been sanctioned by the Board of Trade in 1862 but between this time and 1886 the third man had been a helper who lived elsewhere.
Early in 1869 the Dundalk Harbour Commissioners requested a Half Tide indication suggesting a hoisted ball in daylight and light at night. Inspector Halpin agreed with a ball but thought a light at night would be confused with the main light. Trinity House concurred but for how long the Half Tide indication was hoisted I'm not sure, the 1875 List of Lights does not mention hoisting a ball from half flood to half ebb tide.
The light was improved with a new two-wick burner in 1886, and in 1897 the sectors were altered due to a change in the channel. The following year on the recommendation of the Board's Engineer, Mr William Douglass, a small boat was supplied to both Spit Bank and Dundalk, slung from a small derrick over the edge of the platform for use by the Keepers in case of having to retreat from fire.
Like most important lighthouses around the coast, Dundalk's light was changed from wick burner to vaporised paraffin in 1908, and a new 4th order catadioptric lens, pedestal and rotation machine were installed increasing the intensity of the light. During the alterations a temporary light was set up outside the lantern.
Nothing extraordinary exciting happened for the next thirty until 1938 when electric light replaced oil lamps at the shore dwellings. Twenty years later, in 1958, a Lucas type wind charger was placed on the structure. This charged batteries for a Radio Telephone and standby DC electric motors, driving the optic. Limited room lighting, and later, television was taken off the batteries through an inverter. In 1965 a green sector of 14° was introduced in the red sector towards the south; this sector was purely navigational between the pile light and the offing buoy. Two day-marks were also added to the structure, set on the green sector bearing.
The Inspecting Committee on Tour in 1962 had recommended that Dundalk Pile Light should be converted to electric and unwatched, the Board ordered their Engineer-in-Chief, Mr A.D.H. Martin, and the Inspector & Marine Superintendent, Capt. W.H. Ball, to report and, although postponed until 1967-68, the conversion got underway early in 1967. A temporary light was positioned on one of the structure legs in July 1967 and the bell fog signal discontinued. The structure legs were in good condition but the platform and superstructure were not and had to be completely renewed, this time in metal. The lantern too had to be renewed due to the old lantern being damaged by vandals whilst in a quayside store at Dundalk. A mains cable 2,750 metres long was brought out and buried in the sand from Annaloughan to the north of the light. The mains current is used to charge batteries from which the light, optic rotation motors, fog signal and fog detector and the VHF radio control and indication equipment are operated.
The new electric light was exhibited on 17 December 1968 with an increased intensity to 187,000 candelas in the white sectors, the character remaining basically the same - one flash every fifteen seconds - the flash having been reduced from the pre-conversion 3.0 seconds to 0.4 seconds.
When the light was made unwatched, the fog bell, being the property of the Harbour Commissioners, was handed back to them when it was removed from the structure during reconstruction. Where the bell finished up I'm not sure but two interested parties wanted it for either the Dundalk Museum or a new Roman Catholic church which was being built at the time.
A horn fog signal was established on 25 June 1969, with a character of three blasts of 1.5 seconds each, every sixty seconds, 1.0 seconds between the blasts, all very nice for the mariner but somewhat disturbing to local Annaloughan residents whose first complaint was received in October 1969, requesting that its volume be reduced. It was pointed out to the residents' representative that if the fog signal was reduced it would be of no use to the mariner. From October 1970 to October 1975 a number of complaints were received stating that it sounded when there was no fog, enquiring why the Commissioners had a right to inflict such a nuisance on the local residents, asking what had happened to the sweet toned bell, and claiming that it was driving residents into a mental home. Eventually it was noticed that roosting cormorants in front of the detector triggered off the fog signal. Wires were added in front of the detector without much effect but repositioning the detector solved the problem! A few years later an ultrasonic bird deterant was tried but proved ineffective.
The Attendant ashore received over the VHF radio link from the pile light indications of optic battery on charge, standby lamp in operation, rotation failure, optic flashing, Videograph Fog Detector failure and sector light failure. He could also switch on or off the Videograph optic, fog signal and a microphone.
In 1973, due to silting, the green main light sector was made red and a fixed green spot light established below the lantern pointing a few degrees east of the original green sector. The day marks were moved too. From 1978 the light was exhibited in poor visibility during daylight hours when the fog signal was sounding. The fog signal was permanently disestablished on 11 January 2011. The light continues to be exhibited in conditions of poor visibility during daylight hours.
In 1988 a Datac 932 telemetry link to the remote control and monitoring centre in Dun Laoghaire was established.
In 1989, following a hydrographic survey, the bearing of the green sector light and the day-marks was adjusted to show a new channel approach line.
The undersea ESB supply cable was replaced in 1998. In late 2002 hydrographic surveys carried out in the approach channel to Dundalk indicated that the depths were changing and therefore the green sector light was discontinued until further surveys to more fully determine the extent of any depth changes could be carried out. Notice to Mariners No. 6 of 2003 advertised this change. Following further consideration and consultation with local mariners' representatives it has been decided to discontinue the sectors and change the light to white through 360°.
On 30 June 2011, as a result of a review of Aids to Navigation, Dundalk Pile Light was permanently reduced to a range of 10 nautical miles, to be exhibited during hours of darkness only. The character was altered to fl 1.0, ec 14.0 = 15 sec.