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Huge lighthouse lens bound for Belfast waterfront

By Linda Stewart

Published 22/07/2016

An artist’s impression of how the Mew Island Optic will look on the Titanic Slipways
An artist’s impression of how the Mew Island Optic will look on the Titanic Slipways
The lighthouse

For more than 100 years it stood at the gateway to Belfast Lough, guiding ships safely to shore.

Now, the 130-year-old optic from Mew Island Lighthouse has a bright future on Belfast's waterfront.

The rare hyper-radial Fresnel lens, built for one of the tallest lighthouses in Ireland, is to take pride of place where the Titanic Slipways meet the water's edge.

The Titanic Foundation said it had commissioned architects Hall McKnight to design a structure to house the optic, with the company seeing off competition from 11 other practices.

The proposed structure, which resembles a lighthouse lantern room and will be open to the public, will be designed to last for at least 100 years.

There will be no entry charge to the attraction, which will tell the story of lighthouses, their keepers and their role in Ulster's industrial heritage.

It is estimated that 100,000 people will visit the lens's new home every year.

Mew Island Lighthouse was built when Belfast was the world centre of linen, shipbuilding and rope-making, and one of the world's most important ports.

It replaced one constructed on Copeland Island in the 1700s that was placed in the wrong spot, with its light blocked by land.

Before the new lighthouse was built, the Copeland Islands claimed the lives of many sailors, including those on the slave ship Enterprise, which was on its way to Liverpool in 1803 with slaves and silver dollars when it was wrecked, with everyone on board killed in the accident.

The optic of the replacement lighthouse was made in Paris in 1887, and many believe it is the largest of its kind ever built, coming in at seven meters tall and more than two-and-a-half meters wide. It also weighs approximately 10 tonnes.

The lens is one of only 18 still in existence. There are just three similar optics across the island of Ireland, none of which are operational.

The mechanism was replaced with a solar-powered flashing LED light in March last year.

The Titanic Foundation and the Commissioners of Irish Lights have been awarded a first-round pass from the Heritage Lottery Fund to help save, restore and display the lens.

That award, along with support from Ulster Garden Villages and a commitment in principle of £85,000 from Belfast City Council's Local Investment Fund, will allow the project to progress to the second stage.

The architecture competition was organised by the Royal Society of Ulster Architects, which helped the Titanic Foundation oversee a high-profile contest that put design to the fore.

Ciaran Fox, director of the Royal Society of Ulster Architects said: "What we build tends to be with us for a long time, so getting the design right is an investment which pays for itself many times over. We hope that this project can add to Belfast's cultural landscape for generations to come."

Titanic Foundation chief executive Kerrie Sweeney added: "Hall McKnight really captured the beauty of Mew Island optic. It's an amazing piece of scientific heritage and requires a design that allows the optic to be appreciated visually and intellectually.

"I'm delighted that Hall McKnight and Belfast City Council are both now on board to deliver the new landmark for Belfast's waterfront."

Belfast Telegraph

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