The Enduring Magic of the Foghorn

Nothing was moving. Not even a piece of paper. The trees were pretending to be dead and the foghorn kept saying the same word all the time.

‘Rooooooom…’ You could hear the word very clearly now. The same word all the time, as if it had only one word to say.

‘Rooooooom,’ we shouted back. ‘Room the rooooooom.’

We walked on towards the harbour and the foghorn kept getting louder and louder. We saw the lighthouse coming closer too, and the light coming around every few seconds to point the finger at us through the fog…We were like the last family in Ireland, listening to to the foghorn saying the same word over and over again until it was hoarse.”

– From The Speckled People by Hugo Hamilton

Dún Laoghaire has its own singular sounds. The wind rattling masts and flagpoles in the marina. The chiming of the Town Hall clock and the peeling of the bells of St. Michael’s in Samuel Beckett’s “little kindergarten of steeples”. Laughter and screams as swimmers plunge into the Forty Foot – into what James Joyce called “the snotgreen sea, the scrotumtightening sea.” Seagulls, starlings, and the honking of wintering geese.

But consider the sounds we don’t hear anymore. Ferries no longer loudly announce their arrival and departure in the harbour. A once vital link to Holyhead – and the wider world beyond before the era of aviation – was terminated by Stena Line in 2015, ending a service operational since 1835, and which had accelerated the town’s lightning-fast development during the 19th century, prompting Dublin Penny Journal to call Dún Laoghaire, then Kingstown, an infant city of the Steam Age.

The loudest sound of all was the foghorn at the end of the east pier, which was decommissioned in 2011. As a child, I could hear it gently booming from a few kilometres away. It soundtracked walking to school on wintry mornings. There was something indescribably comforting and bewitching about its sound.

As I read Jennifer Lucy Allan’s astonishing new book, The Foghorn’s Lament: The Disappearing Music of the Coast, which is published today by White Rabbit, I kept fixating on that unforgettable blast from the past, unleashing its insistent call every thirty seconds for four seconds.

Jennifer Lucy Allan traces the fascinating history of the foghorn. Until now, only one substantial book has been written about these mysterious navigational aids.

“Nothing speaks to the sea like a foghorn does,” Allan writes. “Nothing gives such comfort when it warns, and nothing else comes imbued with the colossal weight of life and death, memory and melancholy.”

Before foghorns, there were fog bells. There is still an intact fog bell perched within the battery at the end of the east pier, which I once took the liberty of sounding. Jennifer Lucy Allan mentions the heroics of the aptly named Juliet Fish Nichols in The Foghorn’s Lament, who was one of the world’s very few female lighthouse keepers stationed on the West Coast of the United States. During a very foggy summer in 1906, Fish Nichols once sounded the fog bell, by hand, for twenty hours straight.

The popular legend of the foghorn claims it was invented by a man named Robert Foulis in Canada in the 1850s. Apparently, while walking near his home on a foggy night, he heard his daughter playing piano in the distance. He noticed that the lower notes sounded much louder through the dense fog. It is said that this subsequently inspired him to invent a huge machine to warn ships away from the shore.

The first foghorn was installed at Partridge Island in 1859. Despite it being a success, Foulis failed to patent his invention. He is said to have died in poverty in 1866.

Patents in some shape or form had been around for centuries, but they were popularised by the invention of the patent slip, a type of marine railway developed by Scottish shipwright Thomas Morton in 1818. Morton couldn’t afford an expensive dry dock to maintain the hull of his craft in Leith docks, so he invented an effective method of dragging a boat out of the water.

The remnants of a disused patent slip can still be clearly seen at Dún Laoghaire harbour’s boat yard, near the old coal quay and Merchant’s wharf.

Cogent facts about the life and times of Thomas Morton and Robert Foulis remain shrouded in a mysterious fog. The fog of history also obscures any neat narrative for Dún Laoghaire, a town variously called Kingstown and Dunleary over the years. This tension brings its own special set of contradictions, which characterise Irish history in general, and Dún Laoghaire in particular.

The popular contention is that Dún Laoghaire/Kingstown was a West Brit stronghold, a reputation which still lingers. During royal visits, some town folk enthusiastically waved union jacks, contributing to inspiring the derogatory term “jackeen”, which is still used by people from the country to denote a Dubliner.

The truth is far more complicated and nuanced than any lazy assumptions about Kingstown and West Brits, as about one hundred people from the greater Dún Laoghaire area fought for Irish freedom in 1916.

If you stand at the Victoria Fountain, built to commemorate a Queen’s visit, directly opposite you there is a train station officially named after a 1916 Rising leader, Michael Mallin. This juxtaposition sums up Dún Laoghaire. An post-colonial identity conflict fogs its history. 

In the 20th century the diaphone foghorn arrived at the harbour. The only online recording of it I can source is from this wonderful website: A Soundmap of Dún Laoghaire.

Here are the credits for the recording, which make for fascinating reading.

  • Sound Title: Foghorn recording of the lighthouse at the end of the East Pier & the Kish lighthouse, January 1987
  • Duration: 6:37
  • Location: East Pier
  • Date/Time: January 1987
  • Equipment: Sony recording walkman with a stereo clip-on mic, recorded to a Sony type I C60 cassette
  • Weather: Fog, light wind
  • Description: Dún Laoghaire harbour foghorn, recorded on a bitterly cold day in January 1987. A unique soundmark of the locality I grew up in, now sadly gone. The foghorn would carry right across the landscape in a low mournful drone whose note would end as though it were reaching the end of its breath, like a large animal exhaling. A very evocative sound, which also gave a sense of the space that it reverberated within, a sense of the landscape as a sounding board. It got the hook in me from an early age – it sunk in like a depth charge, which now feels like a part of my DNA, rooted in the very marrow of my early memories. So glad I had the presence of mind to record it before it disappeared. Fergus Kelly, May 2015. Photo by Ciara Brehony (featured image of the lighthouse in fog above).

Global Positioning System (GPS) technology superseded these navigational aids, rendering them redundant, but we still hold dear memories of the enchanting east pier foghorn. An unmistakeable sound that will never be forgotten. A sound, which Jennifer Lucy Allan notes, is embedded in our minds. A sound that is embedded in the life and soul of Dún Laoghaire.

The Foghorn’s Lament: The Disappearing Music of the Coast is available now from White Rabbit. Read an extract here.

An interview with Jennifer Lucy Allan for The Irish Times.

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