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Residents rail at plans to replace listed lighthouse's 19th century lamp

By Deborah McAleese

Published 07/04/2015

Protesters gather near the lighthouse yesterday
Protesters gather near the lighthouse yesterday
Activists George H Smyth and Willie Mulhall

A group of residents set up camp yesterday to guard one of their oldest landmarks - a light that once guided the Titanic - to prevent contractors from taking it away.

The treasured antique is a six-ton lamp and has shone from the lighthouse at St John's Point in Killough, Co Down, for 176 years.

But officials claim the lamp, which rotates in mercury, is a health hazard.

The Commissioners of Irish Lights (CIL), who want to replace the huge bulb with a more energy-efficient LED light, were expected on site yesterday but failed to show.

More than 50 residents had turned up in a bid to prevent anyone removing the lamp. Such is the importance of the lamp to the local area that Prime Minister David Cameron and Taoiseach Enda Kenny have both been asked to intervene by the area's MP Margaret Ritchie.

"This is part of our local heritage and is particularly iconic. I would hope that the views of the local community, who also greatly rely on the benefits of this lamp from a safety point of view, are listened to," the SDLP woman said.

For almost two centuries the lamp has brought fishermen to shore. It once safely guided the Titanic too, and even found fame in a Van Morrison song. Chris Murphy, a maritime conservationist, said the CIL's health hazard fear was unfounded.

"Before these lights went automatic, they had to be turned hourly by lighthouse keepers," he said.

"They had to physically turn the mercury bath so it's just nonsense to claim now that this is a health and safety issue. Nobody has suffered from mercury poisoning."

Volunteer lifeboat member Ross Mulhall said: "When you are out at sea it is very cold, dark and lonely.

"Once you see the light you know where home is, you feel a sense of security and it reassures you."

Residents do not want to see the traditional light replaced.

Eileen Peters is concerned the area's cultural and historical significance will be swept away with the modernisation.

"If that were to go, all you would have would be a thing like a bicycle light or an airport landing light," she said.

The Fresno lamp can be seen up to 30 miles away, and is one of only a few left across the world. A more modern replacement would only provide visibility for around two-thirds that distance.

The lighthouse was mentioned in Van Morrison's song Coney Island, in which he describes stopping off at St John's Point.

The listed building, painted with distinctive yellow and black stripes, is held dear by those in the community, with the sweeping beam a feature of the shoreline.

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