When a fish barrel, was much more

I’ve often mentioned that the Cheekpoint of my childhood was a very different place to what it is today.  One of those major differences was an active Herring fishery which was not just water based, but also provided land based employment.

Back then the herring trawlers often docked at Cheekpoint quay.  The trawlers usually pair trawled for the shoals of herring at the mouth of the harbour or further along the Wexford Shore. The fish when caught was emptied into the hold of the trawlers and then they steamed to Cheekpoint, Passage or Dunmore East to unload. A video here gives some sense of the scene.

Denis Doherty RIP, Seamus Barry & Keith Elliott, Cheekpoint mid 1970’s
photo via Tomás Sullivan from Cheekpoint & Faithlegg through the ages

Once in harbour the herring was “dug out” of the holds and removed by the “Cran” a measure of fish by basket.  It was lifted off by trawler winch.  Some of the crew did the dirty job, digging out, a luckier man, but a colder job, worked the winch.  I guess the skipper had it handier than most, he could relax in the wheelhouse and tick off the cran as they emerged out of the hold.

Onshore at Cheekpoint the place as all action.  The Herring were spilled into a stainless steel chute where salt was added and then they were stirred about to ensure an even coating.  Once completed they were pushed towards a circular hole at the far end, at the bottom of which was a plastic fish barrel.  The barrel had to be completely filled before it was rolled away and then a lid put on top. Once secured it would be turned on its edge and then kicked up the quay in a rolling action and stood once more to await collection.

Between all those actions, we as children, flitted about, watching the action, trying to be helpful, and cautious not to get in the way. We picked up the herring that fell out of the basket adding them to the chute, tried to see into the trawler hold to measure the progress of the offloading, helped to bring down empty barrels to be filled and ran any errand that was required.  Hanging round the quay was a great way of getting a few bob for sweets!

The Green Cheekpoint, barrels awaiting a catch
photo via Tomás Sullivan from Cheekpoint & Faithlegg through the ages

Those barrels were also of great use around our homes.  Many was the one that blew off the quay and was retrieved from the river or Ryan’s shore.  Then they would make a perfect water butt, as many still believed that washing your face in rainwater was much more natural, than washing from a tap.  They would be used to store nets, firewood, animal feed, basically anything you could think of.

On one particular occasion I recall a frenzy of activity on Ryan’s shore.  The previous night a storm had washed several hundred barrels off Passage East quay and into the river.  They had drifted with a flood tide to Cheekpoint and were placed all along the shore at the high water mark, like a blackened necklace of seaweed and tacky plastic beads.  Ned Heffernan (RIP) was going round the Mount Avenue promising all the young lads 50p per barrel delivered to his front garden.  There were fellas bursting themselves in trying to carry as many as possible up to Ned’s and it went on for a good part of the day.  I don’t recall how many I actually brought back, but I’m still awaiting payment.

But I think my lasting memory of the barrels was the fun they gave us.  In those days there were hundreds of empty barrels in Cheekpoint.  They were stored at the back of Jim or Denis Doherty’s (RIP) houses, or along the green. And we got hours of fun from playing on them.  They were our horses for cowboys and indians, a shaky obstacle course, goal posts, castles and forts and a great place for hide and seek, once you didn’t get stuck inside.  On one occasion I was in a barrel at the top of the Green and got rolled to the bottom. I wondered was it ever going to stop or would I end up in the river,  It eventually stopped an I emerged out triumphant, only to stagger all over the green with my head swimming.

when is a fish barrel, more than a fish barrel?
Photo by William Doherty

The sad part about such a recollection is the lack of commercial fishing activity now in our village. The herring, salmon and eel fisheries brought a dynamism and an economic spinoff.  The shop was busy, post office, pub, even Pat O’Leary the local farmer was busy, he used to come down in his tractor to lift the filled herring barrels onto a truck.  If you wanted to work in those days you could, and it meant an extra few bob in everyone’s pocket.  But perhaps even sadder still, because it speaks to childhood, something we all deserve to get the most from, is the loss of innocence.   I don’t remember anyone ever telling us to be careful.  I don’t remember any adults ever being cross. I don’t recall ever really thinking we were in any danger, whether on the head of the quay watching the work, or on the green rolling in barrels.  I doubt we would get away as lightly today!

I have to thank William Doherty for inspiring the blog post this week.  He sent me on a photo of an old fish barrel (above) with a memory of how we played with them as children, which prompted this piece.

my first season of Eel fishing at Cheekpoint

I first began fishing eels commercially in the spring of 1984.  Pat Moran asked me to join himself and Gerry Boland as the previous year had been so hectic.  I jumped at the chance and in the next few days there was a lot of hustle and bustle in preparing for the season.  But there was something in the way Gerry talked about the work that made me wary.  Not sure if it was the glint in his eye or the throwaway remark about the season ahead, but either way it began to dawn on me that maybe the job was not as simple as I imagined.

The initial trip was to secure a few places on the river that were considered prime fishing spots.  That first morning there was a wind from the north west that stung like a nettle, t’was so cold.  We battled up against the outgoing tide, while aboard the we had coils of rope, bricks in fishboxes which would act as sinkers, and 5ft stakes.  We were travelling in an open 18ft punt with a 8 hp kerosene outboard engine that made a fearsome racket, smelled horrible but had some power.

eel net of Ffyke net which we used

At various locations, starting at Little Island,  we slid up onto a mud bank or grassy patch, took turns to hop put with a stake and a sledgehammer and then drive the stake securely into the bank.  One end of the rope coil had been tied to the stake end and once secure we then played out the rope and drifted off the bank.  A separate piece of rope was tied on which was long enough to float at high water mark and which had a buoy attached.  This allowed us to retrieve the string of pots at any time of tide.  We then steamed across to the other bank, playing out the coil of rope as we went, and once we reached it another stake was driven to make the rope secure.  Where the banks were too wide, an anchor was deployed.

Next stage was to haul back on the coil, and tie on the bricks.  The bricks were tied on at probably ten fathom distances and allowed the rope to sink to the bottom of the river.  That particular day we played out about 8 different trains of rope,  Starting in the Kings Channel, on up as far as the Cove and on returning the last around the Ford.  
The weather would have to warm up before we would start to fish the eels as when the weather was cold they slept in the river mud or hid away in the fields and streams.  While we waited for the heat to come, we returned to Salmon fishing and in any spare time went off to gather hazel branches which we used to stretch the eel pots.  These would have to be straight and strong and they were sunk in the river so that they would be heavy enough to sink to the bottom once finally set in the river.
Pots were deployed when the heat came into the days, and to set them we loaded up the punt and headed back up the river.  Again we would haul up on the marker buoy covering the coil of rope.  Then the rope was placed over the bow of the boat and you would haul out towards the centre of the river.  As the bricks approached the gunwale they had to be lifted over.  If you were lucky the rope would not be fouled in the bottom.  Weed’s, litter and sometimes worse came up.  It was always in my mind that when the rope got stuck and finally came away that a body might float out of the water.  As we went out along the rope that eel pots were tied on in certain places, generally where Pat knew from experience where the deep water was, whether a channel or a hole.
Initially the pots were  left barren, it was a phase of just getting them ready for fishing.  Over time they would get heavy and would settle perfectly on the river bed.  Only then would it be time to bait the pots.  The bait was with sprat taken from the river weirs.  The weir was an ebb weir which would be hauled at low water.  Two of us went to haul the pots while the other hauled the weir.  Each pot was opened off the train, the neck opened, and the bait placed inside, spilled out of a measure, usually the boats bailer, an old plastic oil can or such reused for the purpose.

pot breaking the surface with Eels inside
photo via Sean Doherty

You never knew what to expect when hauling up on the pots.  River crabs were a given.  They would crawl all over the boat as the pots were taken aboard.  Some pots were barren, meaning it had to be inspected for a hole initially and repaired, if there wasn’t a hole in the pot then it meant it was probably best to be moved.  In some cases there might be a handful of eels, the next pot might be choc-a-bloc and difficult to get aboard.

Each pot was hauled aboard, opened, emptied re-baited re-tied and re-set.  Then you hauled onto the next pot.  One person hauled the rope and looked after the pot.  The other person looked after the bait, and also graded the catch.  Only eels of an acceptable size could be kept for sale.  You might be inclined to keep a few small eels as the sale of them went on the collective weight.  But t’wud be a fools errand,  Eels wouldn’t take that long to grow and de-stocking small eels would mean less in the future in any case.  Generally I would imagine 9/10ths of the catch would be thrown back in the water, only the best would be kept, kept alive in a holding bag, and eventually sold to an eel buyer who would export them directly to the continent.
I hated having to grade the eels.  Not because it was hard to get the size right.  After a few times it became second nature.  No it was trying to catch them, covered in slime, driving around the box like a demon, maybe a hundred of them coiling around each other.  That and my fear of snakes!
There again hauling the rope was no picnic either.  Effectively you were hauling up to a half mile of rope per fishing trip I would imagine, Coarse rope, all manner of dirt, sometimes up to several stone of eels coming up in pots, sometimes the rope caught under some foul under water such as a tree stump or perhaps buried in mud.  Your back was sore almost from the start, but it was your hands that really knew the pain.  Skinned almost to the bone from the constant hauling, burned from friction, you got no relief,   If you put them in water there was a moment of ease followed by stinging, when you took them out the sun and the wind scalded them with the salt and if you put them in your pockets they burned in the heat. Gloves were for wimps!
Initially we would fish them one tide in the twenty four hours, but as more and more eels emerged to feed in the summer heat, we would ramp it up to two tides and finally to all four.  So every six hours we would haul them.  High water and low water, and the travelling in between.  It wouldn’t have been so bad if the weekends were off like at Salmon.  But there was no close for the eels.  Once you started you kept at it, because the reality was that come July the eels would suddenly and mysteriously slacken off again and with weeks have completely disappeared.

In the weeks that followed I would look forward to the pillow like it was heavenly cloud.  I’d be asleep as soon as I hit it, and slapping the alarm off in what felt like minutes.  Dragging myself over to the Mount Quay we would either go out to empty the weir or depart to empty the pots.  And over the next few weeks I would begin to loose all track of what day I had and what time I had except to know the time of tide; High Water or Low Water.  It finally dawned on my why Gerry was so amused at my initial enthusiasm for the work.

Eel fishing was suspended in Europe in 2007 including Ireland.  Combined with the Salmon fishing ban in 2006, effectively fishermen in Cheekpoint have no summer work since then, apart from going downriver and operating in deeper water off Dunmore East.   No State supports were put in place and no alternative options were offered to fishermen.  

Waterford, a harbour fit for a King

On a recent walk, an American visitor asked me if any royalty sailed up the harbour, rather smugly I listed off several, though I said, these were only the ones I knew about.  Probably several others had done so, and countless ordinary souls making the city and the country what it is today.

The royals included Henry II who landed at Passage in 1171 following the successful invasion of Strongbow the year before from the same point.  Henry came to assert his authority over the newly won territory and arrived with 400 knights and horses with 4000 men at arms and attendants on what was estimated on 400 ships.  Such a sight that must have been in the harbour.  History books claim he was the first foreign king to set foot on Irish soil, although I’m sure there must have been plenty of Celt and Viking that might disagree.

sourced from https://www.thetapestryhouse.com/tapestries

Of course the Norman conquest was just the beginning of such displays.  Henry’s youngest son and eventual heir, King John landed in the harbour in June 1210.  He had already visited as a prince of the realm in 1185.  On that visit it was said the young prince nearly died, apparently from his taste for too much Salmon. Returning as King, he seems to have been more restrained, though it did see the extension of the city walls and fortifications and the granting of the first royal charter to the city. Mind you he is probably best known as the baddy in Robin Hood films.  John’s fleet was said to number 700 ships!

Richard II arrived in the harbour on the 2nd October in 1394.  His intention was to bring to heal the rebelling Irish chieftains. To impress them one chronicler estimated that he had 30,000 archers amongst his troop! and 4000 men at arms.  Whatever the truth of the matter, it was most probably another very large flotilla to be seen at anchor or beached in the harbour area.  If it was even twice the size of John’s flotilla, it must have been possible to walk from Passage to Ballyhack across the decks.

sourced from http://graceelliot-author.blogspot.ie/2014/11/

Two kings departed from the harbour in 1690, but under very different circumstances.  Following the battle of the Boyne, King James II fled to France and exile while King William III returned to the English court as victor.  We’ve told their story previously.

When a young Queen Victoria visited during the summer of 1849 it was by accident rather than design.  Parliament were of the opinion that a royal visit was just the ticket to clam the starving Irish, post famine! so not only today’s politicians can be out of step with the public mood. Enroute to Dun Laoghaire from Cobh, the royal yacht encountered heavy seas and to spare the queen and her children further sickness they arrived into the harbour and anchored above Passage to weather the storm.  Victoria didn’t set foot on land however, she stayed aboard whilst her husband and two sons took the royal tender “Fairy” on a trip upriver to take in the sights.

A sketch of Passage, from the hand of Victoria
With thanks to Joe Falvey

 “HMY Victoria & Albert” sourced from

One of those sons would return as King Edward VII in 1904.  Maybe the seasickness had put him off, but Edward arrived and departed from the city by train, perhaps a signal of things to come.  The Barrow bridge was being built at the time and in two years would be carrying a lot of the business that had departed Waterford harbour for well over 1000 years, to Rosslare in Wexford.

HMY Fairy which Edward first saw the city from in 1849
sourced from:

Of course these are just the great and the good who history saw fit to record.  How many viking, celt and ordinary citizen arrived and departed through our great harbour that were never recorded.  Indeed how many others of royal blood or not who came through and later went on to rule is also worth speculating on.

Todays piece was written with direct reference to Julian Walton’s On This Day. Vol 1.
For more details on these visits in Julian’s book see Henry II pp28/9, King John pp34/5, Richard II pp50/1, Queen Victoria pp 186/7 , Edward VII pp 216/17

Walton. J.  On this day.  Vol 1. 2013. self published

Delahunty’s Mill, Halfway House

For some reason, I have had, for as long as I can remember, this idyllic notion of the workings of a watermill. It includes a gushing stream of water, the clanking of gears turning in a fine stone building, the dust escaping from corn sacks as they are spilled into a hopper and the coming and going of horse drawn carts in country lanes.
Delahunty’s Mill
That idyll was fueled by passing Delahunty’s mill at Halfway House. The rushing stream, especially in times of flood. The network of roads thereabouts, leading off towards even smaller country lanes. Fine solid gate posts on the left hand side of the road, marking the mill site as you come under the bridge on the way towards town. All in all it’s location is a classic in terms of mill sites.
“Tailrace” from the mill wheel, note stream on left. 
Today however its a crumbling ruin, but the old mill and the many outbuildings are still in evidence, Gone is the busy coming and goings of carts, farm labourers and workers, replaced now by motorists hurrying along the roads.  The mill is slowly fading back into the earth, being swallowed by trees and ivy, nature reclaiming her wealth.
Nature has every reason to flex her might.  As the mill itself required a legion of men at some point in the past to tame nature and through sheer might and engineering skills to create the mill in the location it’s in.  The stream that flows past the mill, didn’t actually power the mill you see.
Although the mill wheel was driven from the stream, it was actually impounded by a dam about 300 yards upstream in a man made pond on the Brook Lodge estate.  To get the water to the mill, which is located on ground above the natural stream, a “leat” or “headrace” was constructed by embanking stone and clay in a winding channel. Builders preferred to cut into an existing incline which automatically created one boundary, the other constructed out of the clay and stone that was excavated.  The present stream is fed by a spillway of the dam, to release the excess water.

“Brook Lodge” mill with man made pond
and headrace marked in blue
dam on the stream and pond
The much overgrown headrace, easily mistaken as a country path
Once a head of water was built up, it was released into the headrace and it coursed down to the mill and was directed over the wheel to drive the gears and belts that milled the corn.  Wheels which were fed by water from atop (overshot), were much more economical to run, perhaps 3 times more efficient than undershot wheels.  Another particular feature of the mill was that the mill wheel was actually contained within the Mill, not on the side. The water then ebbed away down the tailrace and rejoined the stream close by the bridge.
how the water was guided onto the wheel, walls about 4ft high
the entrance and where the wheel once turned
Unlike Ballycanavan tidal Mill with it’s many negative running features, Delahunty’s mill had a longer spell of life. Some months back I called to Eddie Delahunty in Kilcullen Lower to see if he had any memories of the mill.  I had mistakenly assumed that it was Eddie’s family who had last owned the mill, but was corrected on this. However Eddie did recall as a youngster being at the mill and remembered the clanking of the machinery and the hauling away of bags of milled corn by horse and cart. Eddie was of the opinion that the mill had ceased working in the 1930s but reopened for a short time during the “emergency” or second world war.
Liam Hartley of Jack Meades could tell me that as youngsters he remembered the wheel still in place but in a poor state of repair.  He also reminded me that it was only part of a very industrious location in the past that included the pub, shop, post, blacksmith and the mill.  His understanding was that it was all part of the Ballycanavan estate at one time, another feature of the Bolton legacy.

Although the mill still stands, it is crumbling and in a poor state of repair.  It wont be long I fear before photographs, some written accounts and old maps will be all that we have of much of  our early industrial and engineering past.

Thanks to Eddie Delahunty and Liam Hartley for information in writing this piece.

Watts. M.  Watermills.  2012.  Shire Publications. Oxford.