Anyone walking or driving in Cheekpoint village, or indeed anyone entering the village park via the main gates will pass a very plain and unassuming piece of limestone. Plain as it is, it is a remarkable piece of Irish maritime history, for it is one of the last remaining milestones which marked the route to southern Irelands official Mail Packet Station that commenced in Cheekpoint in the spring of 1787.
The milestone at Cheekpoint is rather unique, as the lettering is still visible when the sun is low. The side marking the village shows up better at sunset, the marking for Waterford city best at sunrise.
At one time a series of milestones marked this route, a story I have told before and if you would like the story of the Mailpacket its in chapter 3 of my book.
But if you want the sketchy outline – The Mail Packet opened at Cheekpoint on April 5th 1787 with one vessel making one trip a week. However the success of the route was underscored by the fact that by August of the same year, five vessels were running and the service was provided six days a week.
The service carried mail, obvious from the name, but also freight and passengers. As a consequence of the bustling trade the road was improved and realigned and road markings or milestones ran the length of it. When the Packet station was moved to Passage East in 1813 I’m sure markers must have lined that route too…It moved to Dunmore in 1818 and there is at least one similar marker from that route extant – at the entrance to Fr Brian Powers residence in Killea.
Anyway, it pays to be curious, as Moslih Eddin Saadi says “A traveller without observation, is a bird without wings”
I was thrilled to be asked onto Tom MacSweeneys Maritime Ireland Radio Show to talk about my new book and to specifically talk about the Spider Light at the Spit bank, Passage East. Tom’s show is published online, but it also goes out on 18 community radio stations around the country. You can subscribe by email so that you never miss an episode by emailing Tom at email@example.com
Regulars will know that Tom has long been a voice in the wilderness in focusing attention on Irelands Marine sphere, and has been a great support to me on a number of occasions. Perhaps most significantly he wrote the foreword to my first book Before the Tide Went Out.
The Long Legged Spider Light makes up Chapter 11 and I was so fortunate to get an image of it in its Victorian era splendour from John O’Connor. Tom was curious to know the origins, the build technique and the work that it did. I was also delighted to call on the help of Pete Goulding of Pete’s Irish Lighthouses fame to help inform the discussion.
In recent weeks Naomi Foley completed a Heritage audit of the harbour and acknowledged the importance of the Spider. I heard the CEO of the Port of Waterford on WLR FM this week speak about it too. In the past local individuals and groups including the Barony of Gaultier Historical Society have expressed an interest in seeing it preserved. Maybe the tide is shifting in its favour.
Sunday 30th May 2021 dawned bright and breezy, a perfect day for my rescheduled fundraising walk to Dunmore East on behalf of the local RNLI lifeboat. The plan was simple enough in principle, to walk from Cheekpoint to Dunmore East, but as near to the water as possible. To make it more enjoyable I planned a few stops along the way with friends and acquaintances to learn something of the rich heritage of the area. And so, paying heed to the tides, I departed at a very late hour (for me) of 11.30am. Six hours later we walked into Dunmore East. Here’s a flavour of the trip.
My wife Deena was to provide the vehicle support and she also had some tips for fundraising including a bucket into which people who were minded could deposit a few quid. And although I had my doubts I thought it at least worth a go. Funds had already come in online, as I had planned to go the previous Sunday, but rain had put paid to that idea. At the Crossroads at Cheekpoint a nice surprise awaited as my younger , bigger, brother Robert had decided he was going to join me. And lo and behold we had only started out and someone (Mrs Jacqui Power) stopped in a car and gave us €10 and then some walkers gave what cash they carried, and some man who follows me on twitter popped €50 into the bucket. Deena was right again!
Deena and her Dad and Mam were waiting at Faithlegg School to step a bit of the road with us, and soon after we met Damien McLellan who was my first organised guest of the day as we walked the Coolbunnia Rd and over the Hurthill/Hurtle/Whortle.
Several others made contributions as we wandered over the Hurthill, which was beautiful under foot and lovely and cool under the trees. As we walked down towards Passage a chap on a bicycle passed and doubled back to give a donation too. We turned off the road to head up over the Hill of Passage, from where we could look across to Ballyhack, where the Church of St James was on the hill. Medieval pilgrimage was an important aspect of local life and to know more check out Damien’s fine blog in History Ireland.
The views were spectacular in the sunshine off the hill, and visibe to the right in the photo below is St. Anne’s (Church of Ireland) Passage East. It was built in 1740’s on the site of an older church founded by the Knights Templar I believe. It was deconsecrated and sold in 1970’s. Now a private residence. I would have loved to have gone down the steps here to Passage and along the strand. But we were keen to go through Crooke.
Next stop was the ruins of Crooke Church and associated castle which has had an amazing history, built by the Knights Templars initially, taken over by the Hospitaller’s and I’m guessing wrecked after the arrival of Cromwell. Its reputedly the burial place of the Croppy boy – Geneva Barracks is only a field or two away. The iconic lancet windows still give a sense of its previous importance.
It was all sand and beach for the next few miles. And it was pleasent walking, as Breda managed to put the dispute about Henry to one side and regale us with stories of the Cockle Pickers, her parents and what it was like growing up in such a beautiful area and also raising her own children on the strand. Almost everyone on the Crooke Road and along the Barrack Strand gave us a donation and the walking was just grand under foot. A mile along we bumped into my sister Kate and her husband Ber and the way was lightened a bit more.
Woodstown Beach was very busy on the day and I’m sure we must have looked a strange bunch to all those children running around and parents cooking BBQs. According to Canon Power from his famous Placenames of the Deises says: Woodstown in Irish is “Tráig Mhílis – “Myles’s Strand” He elsewhere refers to Myles as an unknown but important man, possibly legendary (what I take to mean located in some of the old works like the legends of the four masters etc) As we approached the 12 KM mark, and the heat intensified, I’m not sure anyone was listening to me about Myles. But they were online, because as I went along and posted to Facebook and Twitter people kept on donating. A gentleman out walking the beach stopped us to put money in the bucket and to explain that he always supports the RNLI as they saved his life in the English Channel in 1978. As we approached Knockaveelish or Cnoc Mhílis – Myles’ Hill related to the man we mentioned previously, I was relieved to see Deena approaching, with a cheery wave and a flask of tea. And she also had some extra motivation as the teens and twenty-somethings decided to join in.
At Killea I kneel in the shade of the wall as I try to text ahead to let the troops in Dunmore know that we are nearly there. (The biggest challenge was actually trying to see the phone screen all day with the blinding sun) Apologies and many thanks to the kind lady who came over and asked about my health. I must have looked disheveled 🙂 The poor woman must have thought I was for the graveyard. A few steps down towards the village and Deena again approached us…cheery wave but no tea this time. But at least I knew we had a lift home.
Although the plan was now to meet Conor Donegan in the village to hear about the activities off the coast of Waterford in WWI, the crowds were such that we just had to keep on moving. Although by a lucky chance we happened to bump into the infamous Bob Desmond who told us all about what a wonderful place Cork is. We were delighted to get some shade and a break in the park while Aine Whelan gave us a short talk about the Great Auk, caught off the local coast in 1834. The bird is now preserved in Trinity College and represents the last recorded sighting of this flightless bird in Ireland. The species became extinct when the last known individuals were killed on a small island off Iceland in 1844.
And so into Dunmore and the lifeboat station. Due to Covid we needed to stay outside but it was with a real satisfaction and I must admit a fair bit of relief that we made it. 22 KM over 6 hours, although that included a lot of stops. The bucket had over €400 in it when counted, and online the figure was almost €900 and with the many others that made up Team Dunmore had managed to raise a really impressive €5,800
You can check out the team here. And if you enjoyed this virtual tour you can still contibute for another few hours. May is not over for a few hours yet. Many thanks to everyone who contributed to make the walk such a success, many thanks to all who made donations, who chatted to us along the way, and well done to all my team mates in Team Dunmore East. But ultimately many thanks to the fundraising committee of the Dunmore East RNLI and to the crew who do the real hard work. A walk on a sunny sunday is a meer walk in the park in comparison.
The Irish newspapers of Christmas 1831 were alight with speculation after a ship sailed onto the sand banks of Bannow, Co Wexford with no crew. Aboard was a full cargo, some blood-stained clothing, a box of silver dollars and a dog. The ship was the La Bonne Julie of France and here’s what I could find of her story.
The morning of Thursday 15th December 1831 dawned dry and bright on the SW Wexford coast after a storm that blew the previous day had passed off. Off Baginbun the people of Bannow Bay observed a three-masted (barque from most accounts) sailing vessel, sails set and apparently on an eastern course. But there was something in the direction of the vessel that caused concern and as the morning wore on, the people onshore became increasingly worried. They waved clothing and raised their voices in warning, for it seemed the crew of the ship were unaware of their proximity to shore.
Speculation must have been rife. Was the crew asleep, drunk or was it something more sinister? As the day went on the ship came closer and yet no answer was given from the ship. Eventually, she grounded on soft sand on a bar at a location that is not exactly specified. Bannow Bay is mentioned in one report, Bannow Island in another. The map above may give a sense of the location, but I’m open to correction.
A crew of the local coastguard (I’m guessing her that it was Fethard as again it is not made clear) (Additional info post publication. Mick Byrne was of the opinion that it was most likely the “Bar O the Lough” coastguard unit at Cullenstown, they had a boathouse nearby) set out by boat to investigate the grounding, and boarding they were greeted with a mysterious scene. The only living thing aboard was a brown coloured pointer dog. The ship had a full cargo of fish and fish oil and it was speculated initially that it had sailed from Newfoundland, but the ship’s log later proved this to be incorrect. The ship was the La Bonne Julie (most newspapers called her Le Belle Julie) of Bordeaux. She had sailed from her home port some weeks previous en route to Dunkirk with a 13 man crew.
Of her crew there was now no sign. A box of dollars was discovered along with the ship’s log and papers. Some bloodstained clothing was found in a sailors bunk. But otherwise everything seemed as it should be aboard. News of the mystery spread and speculation was widespread. The fact that earlier reports stated the ship was in perfect order only added to the confusion.
However, later reports mentioned some damage to the vessel. One report had the following to say “the main sheet had been carried away, and was lying over her side in the water. The iron stay or traveller had snapt [sic], it is supposed, and she got a dreadful lurch so that a sea-washed the entire crew overboard…”[i] The conclusion about the crew was highly unlikely I would think.
The same report carried the news that the Coastguard had removed all clothing, bedding etc from the ship and had burned it on the beach, despite the “… entreaties of the many poor who came from all parts to get what they could…” The inference here was the tradition of locals taking what materials they found from shipwrecks as rightful salvage for their own use. The authority’s concern however seems to have been a fear of Cholera which was then rife.
The report continues to describe how the cargo had been removed and put into bonded stores in Wexford. The Coastguard were doing this on the basis of The Crown and the Lord of the Soil, a rule of salvage giving the legal owners of the ships manifest a claim to their goods. If none came forward the salvors could claim, or the landlord of the land on which the ship had grounded. Although it would appear that such matters were never that simple.
As I mentioned at the outset theories into the ship and its missing crew were vividly described in the newspaper reportage of the time. Such Ghost Ships during the days of sail were a common enough occurrence, and in many circumstances a crew abandoned the ship, oftentimes in a hurry, leaving all their belongings behind. The weather had been bad the day and night before the ship was discovered. Perhaps her crew did abandon the ship and were in turn lost themselves? I found no reports of bodies being washed up at the time or in the subsequent weeks, however.
Cholera was also considered. Having left Bordeaux where the illness was then widespread, did some of the crew bring it aboard. Did they perish, one by one, to be buried at sea until no one remained? But who would have thrown the last man to die overboard? The illness was rapid and a feature was the weakened condition of the ill.
An attack was also speculated. Some wondered had the ship carried some treasure, like the locally fabled Earl of Sandwich when four of the crew turned pirate, murdered their shipmates, and left with a treasure. It’s a story featured in my latest book. One report, which was widely reprinted in numerous newspapers, told of an incident at a pub in the Faythe in Wexford Town. The “respectable and intelligent publican” noticed two foreign sailors entering his bar in the early hours and observed that one was armed with a bayonet, seemingly of French origin. Challenging the sailors, they hurriedly withdrew.[ii] If the sailors had turned on their crewmates, however, why would they have left the box of dollars behind?
The wreck of the La Bonne Julie was later auctioned as a derelict, suggesting that she never moved from the sand bar in the shallow waters of Bannow Bay. A report in the Waterford Mail stated that “A survey has been held on the hull, which was found in such a bad state to be pronounced not seaworthy”[iii] This description is at variance to the following advert however.
The cargo and value of the ship and what was sold all wound up in the Admiralty court. And over many weeks and months in the following year various hearings took place to decide on the vexatious matter of salvage rights and who was entitled to it. I can’t pretend to have followed it. There seems to have been some doubt into the legal owners of the ship in the court and these “alleged owners” were not willing to pay salvage over to the Coastguard men who had boarded the ship that day in Bannow. Two are mentioned in the reports I saw, Nobel and Doyle*. At issue was that the “alleged owners” felt that the Coastguard were paid for their work and as such this should preclude them from any claim. This was hotly contested. There was also mention of a merchant named George Beale who felt entitled to a share. In this situation, it was again argued that no payment be made. At court it was stated that “…owners must be satisfied of the name of every man engaged, the time employed, and the price per day paid…”[iv] There were some further pieces in the papers, but I could not find a conclusion.
I could find no further information as yet about the La Bonne Julie and as such I will have to leave it as just another one of those perplexing mysteries of the sea. My own opinion is that her crew abandoned ship and that their decision was the wrong one. It’s ironic that the crew in their haste left what was supposed to be man’s best friend behind. Ultimately the one living creature that stayed aboard had better luck. The pointer dog was taken in by the local landlord, Boyce. Hopefully he had a long and happy life thereafter.
Next Months blog brings me to Dunmore East, and a story of the Italian salvage operators from the 1930s.
[i] Newry Telegraph – Tuesday 27 December 1831; page 4
[ii] Dublin Evening Packet and Correspondent – Saturday 31 December 1831; page 4
[iii] Waterford Mail – Wednesday 28 December 1831; page 4
[iv] Dublin Observer – Sunday 04 March 1832; page 3
*Olivia Murrey left me a note on facebook to sat that Edward Nobel was Chief Officer at the Bar of Lough coastguard unti from 1829-1835. However there was no Doyle on the station or any adjacent station
Due to the poor weather of late, I have decided to reschedule my fundraising walk to Sunday 30th May. Its disappointing after all the support and the meet ups I had planned, but I am hopeful that the following week will be just as good. Many thanks for all the sponsorship both for me personally and for the team. Its wonderful to see.
I decided to take part in a fundraiser for the RNLI this year and I have joined with the Dunmore East crew. Fundraising has been difficult for all manner of charitable/sporting bodies with the Covid restrictions so this is my way of trying to contribute.
People are making all kinds of efforts in an effort to raise some badly needed funds. To contribute is very easy, you can donate online to any of the Dunmore East team here.
My own idea is to walk from Cheekpoint to Dunmore East on Sunday 23rd 30th May. Now of course I will be trying to stay off-road, so my plan is to stick as close to the river and the old coastal paths as possible, so as such I will be following in the steps of the earliest people to live in the area.
And I am also looking forward to meeting some friends along the way to tell me something about the harbour’s rich history as I go. So far Damien McLellan will meet me at the Hurthill and walk with me to Passage East to talk about medieval pilgrimage. Breda Murphy will meet me in Crooke and walk along the Barrack Strand to talk about the cockle pickers. Michael Farrell will meet me in Killea and tell me some of the political struggles to do with the Land League, Aine Whelan will meet me in Dunmore East Park where I will learn more of her research into the finding of an Auk on the coast. Conor Donegan will tell me about his research into the WWI rea in the village and Brendan Dunne will meet me at the end and hopefully have a basin of ice for my feet. I’m hoping a few more might be added to that list before Sunday 🙂
These stories will be posted online that morning on my Twitter and Facebook accounts in the hopes that followers can enjoy the experience and perhaps be encouraged to contribute themselves. Hopefully we will get some fine weather, and I can get a few class landscape photos too.
So check out my progress next Sunday 23rd 30th, join me to learn something of the harbour’s rich history, and perhaps consider making a contribution to the Dunmore East RNLI team, or to my own fundraising page. Thanks to the many contributions I have received so far, it’s very much appreciated.
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