A sign of history restored in Malin Head

The 'Eire' sign restored from a different view.
The 'Eire' sign restored from a different view.

Photographs of the restoration of the ‘Eire’ sign at Malin Head, with the lookout post number ‘80’ have been shared widely on facebook in recent weeks after being snapped from a drone by Peter Homer.

The sign has been restored by Malin Head Community Association, with work being carried out by the Malin FAS Scheme.

Malin Head during World War II. Picture provided by Peter Homer.

Malin Head during World War II. Picture provided by Peter Homer.

Peter, who is also an amateur radio enthusiast and researcher, kindly shared with the Journal a piece he has written and researched on the history and significance of the signs and lookout posts along the coastline.

“On the flat plain just below the Banba’s Tower at Malin Head, Ireland’s most northerly point is the word EIRE, marked in stone and painted white. This was an important navigational marker for pilots in World War Two to alert aircraft to neutral Ireland (“Éire” English: “Ireland”).

A Coastal Watch was set up in 1939 to guard against invasion of Ireland, which was declared neutral. There were 83 sites chosen around the coast from North Louth to Inishowen Donegal and Look Out Posts (LOP) were located on these sites. A team of men carried out watch duties over the sea from these sites.

Each site was numbered from 1 through 83, with number 1 being located in Ballagan Point, County Louth and number 82 on Inishowen Head, County Donegal. The only odd one was No. 83 that was located at Foileye Head Kerry which seemed to be out of sequence.

The restoration of the Malin Head 'Eire' sign

The restoration of the Malin Head 'Eire' sign

Initially, the watchmen at these sites were housed in tents; however these did not provide great shelter especially at Malin Head where the weather can be very severe so eventually a standard pill box was erected at each of these sites.

These were pre-fabricated boxes with room for a small fire and six windows facing towards the sea. Each was equipped with a telephone. The watchmen, who were generally locals, kept a constant watch on activity at sea and noted the movement of ships and aircraft throughout the duration of the war.

From 1942-1943, a large number of signs also known as The EIRE signs, EIRE markings or the Neutrality Signs were placed along the Irish coast to tell pilots where they were. Today we take technology navigational aids like GPS for granted as in the early days the pilots relied on the navigator skills. In 1942-43, close to the locations of the coastal watch huts signs were placed on the Irish coast to identify the land below the flying aircraft as Eire, and not, for example, Northern Ireland that was close by. Shortly after the EIRE signs were constructed, mostly by the volunteers of the local Look Out Post (known in the documentation as LOPs), the identifying number of the relevant LOP was added, enhancing the sign’s value as a navigational aid. A list of LOPs, their locations and numbers were given to allied pilots thus allowing them to reduce the risk of landing in the Republic of Ireland and also giving them greater detail on where they were.

The signs were really only of use during the day light hours and fires may have been lit near some of the signs during the dark winter nights.

A total of 83 lookout posts were positioned around Ireland’s coast and eight of the EIRE signs are still to be seen on headlands in Donegal, where the greatest number of them has survived to this day. Three of these are still visible on the Inishowen Peninsula. No.80 Malin Head (constructed in 1944) is the most known about and seen by many visitors, No.81 Glengad Head and No.82 Inishowen Head.

The letters and numbers were made using the local rock which there was an abundance of in the area and cemented into place and whitewashed

Look out Posts

Eighty-three LOPs (Lookout Posts) were built or reconditioned between 1939 and 1942 and each was built in situ to a an identical design using 137 pre-cast concrete blocks.

This design was done by Howard Cooke RIBA in 1939. Cooke was an English-born architect with the Irish Office of Public Works.

Their construction was one of the most widely spread engineering exercises undertaken by the Irish Defence Forces during the Second World War and, located at intervals of five to fifteen miles, the network stretched the entire coastline from Ballagan Point in County Louth 
to Malin Head.

The lookout post at Malin Head overlooking the sea with its six lookout windows was carted in prefabricated sections from the bottom of the Tower road to its present day location by Tom 
Houton of Ballyhillion.

After the outbreak of war Ireland was determined to keep its neutral status therefore the “coast watching service” was set up comprising of army personnel and local militia. The Department of Defence designated the 83 Look-Out Post Stations mostly on former Napoleonic signal tower sites. Many of the smaller buildings (mostly soldiers’ quarters, storage and animal shelter areas) at the tower date from this era.

The 83 lookout posts were positioned around the coast beginning at Ballaghan Point in Co Louth (No. 1) and ending up with Inishowen Head. No. 82. Malin Head was No.80. No. 83 was in Foileye Head Kerry.

Coast watchers worked around the clock in pairs on eight or twelve hour shifts. One man operated the telephone inside the LOP, the other patrolled outside. They had to report every activity they observed at sea or in the air in the vicinity of their LOP. Each LOP was assigned a unique identifying number starting with “LOP 1” in County Louth and finishing with “LOP 82” in Inishowen Head County Donegal.

The personnel at Malin Head Look Out Post No. 80 were “Corporal C. Houstan, with volunteers Tom and Eddie Doherty (Jack), Arty O’ Connor, D.G.Glackin, Thomas Glackin, T Mc Laughlin, H.Mc Laughlin and 
P.Mc Laughlin.

In the Atlantic Ocean the second world war began 250 miles north-west of Malin Head on the evening of 3rd September 1939. The Athenia, bound for Montreal with 1,418 passengers and crew, was torpedoed without warning by U-30. One hundred and twelve of the Athenia’s passengers and crew were killed in the attack. The survivors were rescued by British destroyers and landed at Galway.

In August 1940 the lighthouse keeper on Inishtrahull used semaphore to relay to Malin Head look-out posts that the crew from the torpedoed cargo ship, The Havildar (which was enroute to Burma) had landed 
on Inishtrahull.

In the same month another ship in distress was the 16,923 ton Transylvania which was damaged by a torpedo off Malin Head. Three hundred survivors were safely transferred to trawlers. Two officers and 20 men were killed. Today the wreck of the Transylvania sits upright and almost intact 135m below the water’s surface.

During the Second World War the other small basic huts were built and used by the Irish Defence Forces at Malin Head while keeping a lookout and protecting the Irish neutrality. There is a 4 foot (1.2m) wall surrounding the building. Why there is a wall around the area of this building is unclear unless the area was used by the occupants as a garden and was built simply to keep the animals out.

On the west part of the wall there is an opening where a gate opening that would have been the access into and out of the area. There was no water supply and the personnel used rain water for all their washing and cooking needs.

The small building at the bottom of the tower in the lower field with no roof on is believed to be used for the weather gathering instruments and in later years an animal shelter/keep and helped to protect the animals in severe weather.

Activity Noted

At the beginning of the war there was very little activity but from 1940 German air raids on merchant shipping became a common sight, On August 12th 1940, Malin Head recorded 41 life boats and 13 rafts washing ashore as a result of sustained German U-boat attack on a British convoy and the sinking of five ships. Gunfire and explosions were recorded regularly and on March 11th 1941 the body of British RAF sergeant was washed up in Malin Head following a dogfight between the RAF and Luftwaffe out at sea. He was buried the following day in Malin Church of Ireland graveyard.

In May 1942 it was recorded that 30 ships stopped for three hours, 20 miles off the Head until a further 10 ships joined the convoy. All then headed westwards.

Éamon de Valera (Fianna Fáil,) then head of government visited Malin Head lookout post number 80 in 1943, signing the log book. In June 1944 the Éire sign was constructed to warn incoming aircraft that they entering neutral air space. They proved a great navigation aid for Allied air crews for the remainder of the war.

During these years the large flat-roofed semaphore building on the left as you approach the Tower seen here behind the LOP building shown above became an integral part of the Sunday afternoon social scene in Malin Head. Its flat concrete floor was used for dancing with the likes of Neal Toland, John Donovan and William McLaughlin (Williams) Michael Doherty (Sprigger) providing the music. The band was called

Seaside Serenades. When the war ended the site quickly fell into ruin.

On July 29th 1943 a 40 ship convoy was spotted off Malin Head reflecting the numerous convoy sightings in the area which became a major assembly point for Allied convoys heading west. Military engagements at sea could be often heard from the lookout post.

An extract of the navigation map used by USAAF pilots during the WWII on which the numbers are marked of each of the Look Out Points. These were of great assistance to the allied pilots as a navigation aid.