Fastnet Rock (An Charraig Aonair – “Solitary / Lone Rock”) lies at latitude 51.37°N, 6.5km southwest of Cléire / Cape Clear Island and 11.3km south of Mizen Head in mainland County Cork. It rises to about 30m above low water mark. The English name is derived from Old Norse Hvastann-ey – “sharp tooth island”.
Divided into Fastnet Rock proper and the much smaller Little Fastnet to the south by a 10m channel, it has also been nicknamed ‘Ireland’s Teardrop’ as it was the last part of the country seen by Irish emigrants to the Americas.
The waters around the Fastnet have been the scene of shipwrecks, naval battles, submarine warfare, and dramatic sea rescues.
The Fastnet Light
The first Fastnet lighthouse replaced an early one built on Cape Clear Island in 1818, partly motivated by the loss in thick fog on nearby West Calf Island during November 1847 of an American sailing packet, Stephen Whitney, causing the death of 92 of her 110 passengers and crew. Construction started in 1853, and it first produced a light on 1 January 1854.
The cast iron lighthouse proved too weak, and was replaced between 1899 and 1904 by the current structure, designed by William Douglass and built of Cornish granite blocks under the supervision of James Kavanagh.
Standing 44.5m / 146ft high, with the focal point of the light 48.5m / 159ft above high water mark, this is the highest and widest lighthouse in the British Isles. It was converted to automatic operation at the end of March 1989. The lighthouse is not open to the public.
The Fastnet Race has used the Fastnet Rock as its turning mark since 1925. The bienniel race, one of the world’s classic offshore yachting races, is a 979km / 608mi nearly round trip from Cowes on the Isle of Wight via Fastnet and the Scilly Isles to Plymouth. The current record completion time is 44hrs 18mins. The race brings colour and excitement to Cape Clear, Baltimore and Schull every second August as the yachts of many nations sail past the now unmanned lighthouse.
In 1979 a severe storm at Fastnet turned the race of that year into the greatest tragedy in yachting history, with the loss of 15 lives. The disaster is commemorated by a monument on Cape Clear and explained in Cape Clear Museum.
Fastnet Rock / An Charraig Aonair, a bilingual booklet by Dr. Éamon Lankford, covers the history of Cape Clear Signal Tower, Cape Clear Lighthouse, the building of two lighthouses at the Fastnet Rock and the Fastnet Race disaster of 1979.
In the Summer months a Cape Clear based boat runs trips around the rock from Baltimore and Cape Clear.