The first view of the Old Head jutting south into the sea occurs at Kilcolman. There is a tradition that the earliest light on the Old Head was positioned here not for the purpose of warning ships off the coast, but to indicate land for the followers of the early Celtic settlers who occupied the land from 100BC. There is the rather unworthy temptation of suggesting that the light may have been placed here subsequently, so that ships could be drawn on the rocks and pillaged by wreckers.
It is widely thought that an early Celtic group inhabited the Old Head. In particular, it is thought to be the location of the pre-historic fort of Dun Cearma and the ancient city of Ivernis. Archaeologists suggest that the Dun or fort was south of the de Courcey Castle. Other habitation areas lie to the south of this site on the wide section of the peninsula. These inhabitants were replaced by later invasions of Celts in the first and second centuries AD, as they fled the Roman Empire from Northern Spain and France.
The de Courcey family received de Cogan lands as a dowry, which had been granted to Milo de Cogan by Henry II for his help in plundering Dublin in 1170. To demonstrate his strength, Myles de Courcey had two castles built, one at Ringrone and the other on the Old Head. All that remains today of this castle is a tower, a wall and a fosse. Inside the gate on both sides of the path are earthworks, which may pre-date the building of the castle. The site on the left may have been where the pre-historic Dun Cearma was situated and so was a place of great importance as long ago as the first and second centuries.
On the high ground before you descend to where the castle is, you can see a signal tower, one of many built along the coast at the beginning of the 19th century following the attempted landing of the French in Bantry Bay in December 1796. Situated on the highest ground in the area, it provided an extensive view of any possible future invasions.
The Spaniards referred to the Old Head as Capo de Vel - Cape of light. As already indicated, a possible location for an early light on the Old Head was at Kilcolman. Further out on the peninsula, the road from the castle gently rises and swings left to where lights while not on the tip, gave adequate warning for many years. The old cottage lighthouse is a seventeenth century structure and probably operated using coal or other material. The hole in the roof contained a brazier, which was a pan or iron basket into which the coals were put. Close by are the remains of a circular 18th century structure, which would have used coal or candles. Copper dishes were used to give added reflected light. Near by are the ruins of the accommodation that was provided for the lighthouse-keepers and their families. In the 18th century the keeper was paid £12 per year. Together with supplied food, he kept cows and grew his own vegetables in the surrounding land, which left him reasonably well off. An added attraction was the daily ration of rum. From early Christian times monks tended the light. Following the withdrawal of the monks after the Reformation, the merchants of Kinsale and Cork maintained the light as a warning and observation post.
Finally, the present lighthouse was built in 1853 just so high that the light is visible all round. The original mechanism involved the winding up of a weight every forty minutes, which as it fell, turned the optic (light) at a constant speed. This manual operation changed to electric power in 1972. In 1987 the lighthouse became totally automatic thus terminating two thousand years of manned activity on the Old Head. As the lighthouse is approached, the 'characteristics' become evident. Each light has its own markings, which distinguish it from every other. At night, the light flashes twice every ten seconds. It transmits a radio signal in Morse, which may be picked up by ships up to twenty-five miles off the coast. With the help of a compass, the sailor can get a bearing. The black and white stripes on each lighthouse are unique and during the daytime they distinguish the particular light. During periods of fog a loud foghorn booms, three blasts in every forty-five seconds.