Trails

WW2 Éire Navigational Aid & Neutrality Markers

WW2 Éire Navigational Aid & Neutrality Markers

by Conor Corbett

Our first markers

What started off as a chance encounter in June 2018 has turned into a 13 month historical and photography adventure! From Malin Head to Mizen Head and everywhere in between, this journey has taken us to places i thought I would never see and some places I hadn’t even heard of before. I first came across one of these markings at Malin Head. At first I thought nothing of it, but in the back of my mind I was curious. ‘What is that big strange white marking?’It wasn’t until a few weeks later that we had discovered there were more markers along the coast: The next ones we came across were ’74 Éire’ at Crohy Head and Éire 59 on Achill Island. We had been on Achill Island for a weekend break. The weather was good, so I was able to get out to sea and capture some of the dramatic coast line. This is great I thought, can’t wait to get back to the hotel and have a look and see what I’ve captured. As I sat scrolling through the photos… BOOM! another one! “59 Éire” my mind shot back to Malin Head “80 Éire” and number 74 Éire at Crohy Head. The three signs were in pretty good condition; people had obviously put time and effort into creating these signs and they were impressive to look at from the air. Naturally, we wondered why they were there and with some searching on the internet, we had the answers! It sparked my interest from the get-go; I had never known about these markings and knew very little of Ireland’s stance during the Second World War. (We’ve added a little of what they were and what they were used for below) I began to research more and came across a simple map on the Irish Military Archives and wondered could I use this map to guide me to these places to see more of these markers? From that moment on the project was born! I ran the idea by Emma and it was a go! (It was also a great chance for her to use her history degree and she’ll be fuming at me for saying that!)

Starting off Co.Donegal

The obvious place to start was Co.Donegal as Emma is from Derry and was closer to home. Even though we knew Donegal well enough, we found the Donegal part of the adventure challenging. On the weekends, (weather permitting) we were trying to get to headlands, some of which felt impossible to reach, trying to locate signs made out of rock, that were seventy five years old! Even if we had the right locations from the map, we weren’t sure if we would find any remains of the markers. Sometimes it felt like a wild goose chase, but my curiosity had been piqued and my adventurous side kicked in and we decided to keep going. It was around this time that Emma came across a site eiremarkings.org managed by a lady named Treasa Lynch. Treasa had spotted the Éire Markers from Google and Bing satellite images and had mapped the locations (If you’ve ever tried doing this yourself, you’ll know how impressive that task is) We had learned that 83 signs were created originally and from Treasa’s website, that as many as thirty probably still remained in various states of repair along the coast. Most of them along the Wild Atlantic Way. Now I had a visual aid and a map. It was a real turning point for the adventure; as what was a seemingly impossible task to complete, now became very possible. We didn’t know how long it would take us, but the journey was now in full swing!

What were they used for?

We discovered that the Éire signs were built as neutrality markers to alert World War Two pilots as they were flying over Ireland, a neutral Country. They had been built by the volunteers of the Coastal Watch Service, that had been in operation since 1939. The Coastal watch were made up of local men, whose job was to record military activities they had observed along the coast. They recorded any activity into a logbook. (some logbooks can be read online Home | Military Archives) and they were to report any aircraft / submarine sightings via telephone.

Coastal Watch Service

The Coastal Watch were stationed in modest looking buildings called Look-Out Posts (LOPs) at 83 locations, five to fifteen miles apart along the coast of Ireland; starting at no.1 Ballagan point in Co.Louth to no.82 at Inishowen Head in Co.Donegal. Number 83 at Foileye Head in Co.Kerry is the only LOP not in sequence, as it was added at a later date to the rest. Many of the LOPs were situated on former Napoleonic Signal Tower Sites. As we were locating the markers, we would often spot both buildings; the modest looking Look out post and the Napoleonic Martello towers near the Markers, some LOPs like the one we encountered on Valentia Island used a refurbished Martello tower as their base.

Éire Signs / Neutrality Markers

The Éire signs were added 1942-1943: A need had arose for them, as the number of sightings of aircraft were increasing steadily during the war and there had also been a number of crash landings in Ireland. The signs were placed close to each LOP and shortly afterwards at the request of the US airforce the number of the relevant LOP was added. The signs were originally built to alert pilots that they were flying over Ireland which was neutral as opposed to Northern Ireland which was not. Whilst travelling around locating the markers we could see for ourselves just how important the markers must have been, especially in places like no.82 at Inishowen Head; where Northern Ireland and Ireland are just separated by Lough Foyle. The numbers added to the signs transformed them into navigational aids (an early form of GPS if you will) as a map of the numbered LOPs was then given to allied pilots so that the signs could then be used as a way to find their bearings, if they became lost or disorientated. This was an attempt to try and reduce the number of crash landings in Ireland. Despite this 16 crashes still occurred, but at least one plane was able to reorientate themselves using the markers and were able to navigate to Shannon Airport.
To make the signs visible to pilots they were made out of local rock, cemented into place and white washed. They had to be a standard size of 12m by 6m surrounded by a wide rectangular border. These were given an aerial inspection by General Hill of the US Airforce based in Northern Ireland and the Chief of Staff of Ireland, General McKenna. Any signs that were too small the Coastal Watch were instructed to make bigger to the standard specifications. We believe we may have come across one such example of this at 48 Éire in Co.Clare. The photo captured clearly shows two Eire signs next to each other, one sign significantly larger than the other.

End of the War

Once the war was over, there was no longer a need for the Éire signs or the Coastal Watch Service, They had served their purpose during the war. The service was disbanded and many of the signs were removed if the land was arable or they were recycled to be for used for walls etc on farmland. Most were abandoned and subsequently overgrown by gorse and vegetation. This is what happened at No.8 Bray Head Co.Wicklow. Forgotten until a gorse fire revealed it in 2018. Of those that remain, we found that they were mainly inaccessible headlands unsuited to farming along the west coast. They were also remote areas, which is probably why, despite many of the signs surviving they were largely forgotten about, at least as a collection. Many locals know about their own Éire sign in their area and quite a few have been maintained or restored; like those on Malin Head, Crohy Head, Achill Island and Downpatrick Head, but until the use of drone photography not many people knew so many still existed. The remote areas and the difficultly in locating some of the markers along the headlands not only made it a long journey, but it also made it an exciting one and an adventure where we rediscovered the beauty of Ireland’s Coast. Whilst the goal of the project was to document what was left of the markers in their various states of repair, it turned into a creative project that blended history with scenery and creativity.

Our project

The original plan was just to photograph the remaining markers in Co.Donegal but my mind was thinking “I wonder what they would all look like in a collection”. We were probably halfway through photographing Donegal when 8 Éire was uncovered by a gorse fire at Bray Head Co.Wicklow, which gained a massive interest from the public so the timing of the project was pure luck! It was far from plain sailing. There were many ups and down; countless hours, miles, early starts, late nights, car problems, drone problems, wrong turns, lonely backroads that led into dead ends and one very strange encounter with an Airbnb… But that’s a story for another time! To say we were off the beaten track would be an understatement! There are just some places a small Ford Fiesta shouldn’t be or can’t get to but Emma got us there! Each location presents it’s own problems and I believe each marker has a story to tell and seems to take on a personality of it’s own.
Throughout the journey we’ve not only collected photographs of the remaining Eire Signs, but we’ve also collected adventures and our stories along the way. There were too many experiences to share here; far too much to write about in one post, but we felt that the story from Sheep’s Head encapsulates the many challenges and achievements we experienced along the whole journey. As I said before each Marker has its own story, but we’d be here forever writing about it.

Sheep’s Head Co.Cork

If there is one location that has stuck in my mind it has to be Sheep’s Head in Co.Cork. Now… We knew Cork & Kerry was going to be hard going, what I had classed as an adventure soon became an endurance test! Our first trip to Cork was plagued with heavy fog. No wind or rain which was great but very heavy fog. We had spent the best part of the day driving around waiting for a break in the weather and had tried a few locations with some success. We took a drive up to Sheep’s Head in the hope that there may be a slight break in the fog but it wasn’t to be. Emma wasn’t a big fan of the idea as the drive up was a wee bit too steep and foggy. We decided to head to another location and again try for a break in the fog. I had lost count of hours we spent driving around the coast but I hadn’t forgotten about Sheep’s Head. As much as I love coastal flying there was something about Sheep’s Head that made me nervous. We decided to head back up and see if the fog had cleared and it did only to be replaced by wind! I had visions of Horn Head all over again. Horn Head in Co.Donegal had been a difficult location, it had taken me 3 separate attempts to capture. The weather just closes in so quick that it makes it impossible to do anything.
So off we went down to where the marker was located. It’s a bit of a hike and very popular with hill walkers due to it’s very scenic location. One thing I did notice while walking down the trail was an eerie whistling sound of the wind cutting through the power lines, it almost sounded like some strange sound from a horror film scene! In the back of my mind I knew a flight wasn’t going to happen, but I was willing to give it try, maybe I’d touch lucky and the wind would die away for 15mins. I checked the map and saw that the marker was just below me on the cliff face, I peered over the edge just to be sure and there it was. How they put it there I’ll never know. Slap bang on a cliff face and pretty impressive I thought… I found a flat area for take off. I’ll just have a look I thought and take from there. I stood for a few minutes gauging the wind and weighing up my options. I noticed two elderly men gazing at me with a puzzled look on their face, they didn’t have to say anything, i knew what they were thinking, probably along the lines of “is this guy wise” and to be honest I was thinking the same thing! So off I went slowly and upwards. Straight away I was being hit with wind warnings. I moved slowly forward and could see the marker coming into view. My screen was filling with constant wind warnings, but I kept moving slowly forward. I could see the maker but couldn’t get the angle I wanted; I needed more distance and it was just too risky. By this stage the drone was already struggling and sitting at too much of a tilt, it was time to abort and admit defeat. Sheep’s Head had beaten me. I remember the slow hike back up the hill being one of exhaustion and broke spirits, I had lost the spring in my step and enthusiasm. We were due to head home the following morning empty handed. Cork was either going to make me or break me!
Over the next few weeks I couldn’t get the Sheep’s Head episode out of my mind. How should I approach it next time? Will the weather play ball and give me a decent chance? I live in Co.Antrim and West Cork is a fair distance away, i had the mindset that I’d only get one shot at it and that defeat was not an option! Over the following weeks I had scrolled through google trying to find some aerial images of the area, I suppose I was planning ahead, trying to get a head start, planning and scanning…
So the next trip was booked and we were back on the road again to face Cork & Kerry. I was hopeful and had constantly checked the weather (as I did with the previous trip but the fog seemed to come out of no where) but in the back of my mind I know it could be a waste of time again. After a 6hr drive we arrived in Killarney at midnight, checked in to our hotel and tried to get some sleep. My mind was racing. Sheep’s Head was first on the list and a two hour drive. Sunrise was 5:30am. I was raring to go there and then! Emma wasn’t too keen on heading out so early but the way I was thinking was… 2 hours to get there, 45mins hike, half an hour to get setup and allow some time for unforeseen circumstances. It had to be an early start! Off we set back to face my nemesis. As we got closer to the area my nerves began to kick in. There was no fog which was great but the wind was still a worry, I’ll wait it out if I have too, even if it means all day I thought. It was still dark when we reached the car park. Emma had wanted to stay in the car and sleep for a while and to be fair I didn’t blame her. So I had lost my wing woman and spotter, but I was ready for it, mixed emotions of excitement and nerves. What happens down there is anyone’s guess. I started off alone in the dark, back down the trail, there was complete silence. There was no eerie whistling sound from the power lines which was a promising sign… no whistle… no wind, I thought. I wandered further down the trail and came to the hill that led down to where the marker was positioned. Still seems calm I thought. As I walked up and over the hill I was met with strong wall of Atlantic wind! Coming in bursts. Ah no! Not again! Where did this come from?! Anyway I wasn’t giving up just yet. I’ll get set up and see what happens. The sun was slowly coming up behind me, the rocks were shining red as the light struck, seagulls where starting to circle… it’s now or never! My mind was racing again, I had remembered an encounter I had with Gareth Wray Photography at Ballyness Pier in Co.Donegal in November. We had stood chatting about drones, distances, capabilities and near misses when he turned and said… “I am a firm believer lad, if she goes down, she goes down doing her job!” Right I thought; If she goes down… she goes down doing her job! Let’s go for it! Take off and straight out! Full throttle! Again the screen was filling with wind warnings. STRONG WIND. FLY WITH CAUTION. LAND ASAP! I just kept going. In order to get the shot I wanted I needed distance. The bigger the headland the more distance needed. Just keep going full throttle. I swung the drone around to check the perspective… I still needed more distance and the greater the risk of loosing the drone was slowly dawning on me. I just kept telling myself more distance more distance. The wind warnings where still flashing, the screen was beginning to shake so I knew the drone was taking a battering out there. I couldn’t hear the motors any longer so I knew it was a brave bit out, but I still didn’t have the perspective and needed more distance. My hands where glued to the controller, this was a white knuckle ride! Finally I had the scene I wanted, I could see the seagulls circling below like little white dots. Just a few snaps and I am done. The screen was still shaking and the battery level had dropped fast! I should have enough to get back in again I thought… time to bring her back! The risk was still there, it’s not over yet. Full throttle again and descend. It felt like forever, I could hear the motors in the distance, still wind warnings and camera shake, but here it comes and with a fair tilt as the drone tries to stabilise in the wind. I can breathe again and relax a little as it comes into view and over land. Only 23% battery left but I’ll make it and the job is done! Once I had it back on the ground I remember saying “Gotcha” and feeling a great sense of relief and excitement! I had a spring in my step again, the enthusiasm was back, the goal was in sight! It’s was then onto Dursey Island for a 4.5km hike to the next one!

End of the journey thus far.

In total we’ve captured what we believe to be, the remaining markers in Ireland. There are 41 in total. You can reference the maps made for the project below: One showing the original locations for Look Out Posts and the other indicating The Éire Signs that we’ve found. While we feel that this project has drawn to a close, it’s probably far from finished: Since we’ve started the project, signs have been revealed (8 Éire, Bray Head, Co.Wicklow) restored (7 Éire, Dalkey, Dublin) and are currently in the process of being restored (75 Éire, Arranmore Island Donegal) and there are also talks about restoring 6 Éire, Howth in Co. Dublin. These are all individual projects by locals, so who knows what the future holds. Maybe one day they’ll all be found/restored and we will have to undertake our adventure all over again.
© All images are copyrighted to Photographer Conor Corbett
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