Rowing to the dance

If any one thread runs between my weekly blogs, it’s the rivers. Being at the meeting place of the three sisters, the Rivers Barrow, Nore and Suir, that’s probably not a surprise.  But in all those blogs, one I think has been missing, the social element of the rivers, the connections between its riverside communities and the activities it brought.

One of my earliest memories of this interconnection was as a nipper going in the punt with my Father, Bob and Uncle Sonny to a wake in Great Island, directly across the river in Co Wexford.  On reaching the quayside, I recall the fear of walking on the timber slated jetty, expecting I’d trip or fall down between the gaps. Next along the old road and under the Barrow Bridge, towering above me and worrying a train might come along.  All new and wondrous.  Then a concreted driveway, and a sweep down to an old two storey house, the driveway of which was lined with groups, predominately of men, and we stopped and talked to all. Into the house then and I have a memory of being wrapped up in female hospitality, ushered into a kitchen and a huge fuss being made, while the men went elsewhere.  Although only snatches of memory, the overall feeling was of acceptance and welcome.

My grandmother often talked about boating trips on the river and visiting “neighbours”.  In her glass case she kept her mementos amongst which for years was a carefully folded piece of newspaper, upon which was a poem. Occasionally she’d take it out as she reminisced about these trips, and at some point would include her reciting these lines called Dunbrody by Kathy Leach, a contemporary of hers, who lived in the High Street, Cheekpoint.

In the springtime and in the summer, autumn
and winter too.
I can see Dunbrody Abbey, nestling close
beside the Suir;
I can see Dunbrody Abbey standing there so
quiet and still,
sorrounded by the green fields, and the
banks of Campile Pill.
How we loved the Sunday evenings in the
summer long ago;
We urged the boys to get a boat, we coaxed
them for to row.
They were great navigators, we never had a
But sure we were delighted when we got
through Campile Pill.
Then we went to see the Abbey, it looked so
peaceful there.
It is a sacred place, where holy monks did
We thought it part of heaven as we went on
our way.
Up to Horeswood Chapel, where the bell rings
every day.
When I hear the angelus bell ring, now
calling all to pray,
it brings back golden memories of bygone
happy days;
The old friends are all scattered now, some
are dead and gone.
But rememberance of Dunbrody will forever
linger on.
And of course there were events such as the regattas which I covered recently and the dances in the village.  Not just in the Reading Room, but also at the cross roads and on the village green and on the strand road.  I haven’t a notion how they were organised, but have no doubt but that was as easy to promote and we would find it now.  Passed by boat to boat, person to person, or maybe prearranged and agreed in a cyclical fashion. Apparently they would try to match the prevailing tides and would travel the rivers to Glass house, Ballinlaw, Great Island, Campile, Ballyhack and beyond. My father told me he could recall the stage being brought from the Reading Room to the Green. Apparently a great fuss was made to have the village looking at its best. And then via the river they came, in punt prong and sailing yawl and pleasure craft and an evening of song, music and dancing was enjoyed long into the summer nights. I’ve never seen a photo of it, but below is one I came across in a book called Lismore by Eugene F Dennis, which might give a sense.

As a consequence of the fishing, the travel and the social outings the communities of the river were much closer in the past.  Marriage between the villages was more common and those ties strengthened the bonds between us.  My Grandmother (her Grandfather was a Malone of Clearystown below New Ross) was often to be heard commenting on the happenings over in Nuke(directly across from the Russianside, in Co Wexford).  Maybe it was the Whitty’s and whether the boats were moored off, or fishing.  Or compliment Mrs Murphy having the smoke out early in the morning, or maybe that there was a light on overnight in Shalloes and wondering if anyone was sick. I can often recall Josie Whitty of Nuke, who died earlier this year herself, attending local funerals in Faithlegg.
But this last generation has seen a dramatic shift in this connection to the rivers.  The loss of the fishing has certainly played a decisive role, but already the old traditional ways were under threat. Perhaps even more so its being faced with so many options and activities, that the simpler pleasures have been lost.  Odd when you think that we have never had such great opportunities to communicate, that those that are a little more than a half mile away now feel so distant. 
I publish a blog each Friday.  If you like this piece or have an interest in the local history or maritime heritage of Waterford harbour and environs you can email me at to receive the blog every week.
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Celebrating Clean coasts week in Waterford harbour- a heritage event!

My normal blog generally follows a predictable theme of heritage or history concerning Waterford Harbour.  However, although this post concerns heritage, which will become clear at the end, it also celebrates volunteers, our youth and decries the condition of our environment.

The Strand in all its glory, at Ryans Quay

On Saturday 21st May, the Cheekpoint & Faithlegg Development Group organised a clean up of our local strand. I had been asked to fill out the forms and in our own limited way with Russianside Tours, assist to promote it. It was done in conjunction with National Clean Coasts Week, an event hosted by An Taisce’s Clean Coast team, to bring attention and activity to the litter problem in our rivers, seas and oceans.

Cheekpoint is in a stunning location.  But in a way it is a double edged sword. One the one hand we stand overlooking the meeting place of the three sister river network, the Barrow, Nore and Suir, and we steer the rivers on their final journey out of Waterford harbour to the sea,  Stunning as I say.  But our location means that the waste of the major towns on those waters, and to a lesser extent our fishing industry, washes up on our strand with each new high water.  Not alone is this bad for us, but we have so much wildlife to think of, over-winterers such as Brent Geese or Godwit or locals such seal, porpoise, eel etc. And of course our particular favourites a family of Otter that seem to breed on the Strand and where we have seen their young on so many occasions these last few years.

“Youthful” enthusiasm 

The feedback to the event was pretty disheartening.  Not a lot of likes, comments or shares on social media. One person said to me, why bother, shur they’re throwing bag fulls of rubbish off the quays at night.  Another, indirectly, ridiculed the idea saying that whatever we picked up, with be back on the next incoming tide! And to be frank, although I realise both points to be true, can we just throw up our hands and ignore it.

Fiona “caught the train”

On Saturday, the day dawned bright and breezy.  Met Eireann warned of the risk of thunder showers. Several hardened campaigners who have cut rights of way and removed builders waste in all kinds of weather had to bow out.  May is a busy month, but which one isn’t.  People have family commitments, had to work, had something more important to do.  I understand that, I’ve been in the same place myself. So at the allotted time it came as a relief to see people starting to gather, and in all we had 19 souls along.  We had planned to clean from the Mark to the Point Light, but eventually managed to reach Ryan’s Quay and collect 38 bags of rubbish.  In completing the survey of litter found, the most frequent was food packaging, followed by plastic bottles and fishing/boating waste such as netting, ropes, twines.

Oddest find perhaps, thanks Anna

Of our volunteers, 9 adults, 6 female, 3 male, and 9 young people, 7 female, 2 male.  To be honest I found the spirit, joy and sheer fun of our younger volunteers so refreshing.  The work was turned into a game. there was lots of joyful laughter, some very interesting conversations, opportunities to explain about the placenames and just a bit more fun.  When we finished, our daughter Ellen provided some home baked treats and sweets to a willing audience and I think it was with regret that our younger members turned for home.

39 bags and 19 volunteers (minus a shy John O’Sullivan ;))

And the heritage value; well it was Sunday night before I could get back down to the Strand.  Three high waters had passed, and there was little more than a handful of plastic wrapping washed in. Walking along, it suddenly struck me that this is how the Strand had looked for thousands of years. All those centuries where what man made was from natural fibers and would simply rot away.  It was also an era when what washed up, was eagerly beachcombed and brought home. For generations we grew our own food, or took our salmon from the river, not plastic packaged, chemically fed, and Chilean grown. Even the fishermen of old were working with bio degradable materials.  Netting and ropes made from hemp, then cotton.  Ropes and twines of hemp, and floats made from cork.  But then in the late 50’s early 60’s nylon became fashionable, followed by gut net, followed by Monofiliment. Great improvements for fishermen, but materials that will still be around many generations after we have stopped being remembered.

As nature intended, last night

So could I invite you down to walk on the strand at the moment.  In doing so you are actively participating in a heritage experience.  How our rivers, seas and oceans looked before an oil saturated, commercially driven and wholly unsustainable era took hold.  A clean and litter free strand, at least to Ryans Quay.  One I would be proud to share with anyone at the moment, especially our friends the otters.

You can get involved in Clean Coasts in many ways, check out their website for more

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River Mersey rescue – SS Bannprince

It’s two years this month since I started to write my weekly blog about Cheekpoint and the Waterford harbour area. In that time I’ve written many varied accounts of growing up, the fishing, the sea and the history and heritage we have in abundance. Most of my favourite pieces are stories that took months to research and write and today I wanted to republish one that didn’t get a large audience but which was special to me. On Saturday night, 12th Nov 1955 my Father, Bob Doherty and two others from Cheekpoint, my Uncle John and Jimmy (O’Dea) Doherty, were departing Liverpool as seamen aboard the MV Ocean Coast in dense fog.  The ship was carrying general cargo and bound for Falmouth.  The three were just out of their teens, but already seasoned sailors.
The first official communication on the night was at 22:10 when the Ocean Coast sent out the following message “Queens Channel, Q15 Buoy, River Mersey. There has been a collision between two unknown ships. I am anchored and sending a lifeboat over. Strong ebb tide running. One of the ships in the collision has sunk”
My fathers ship, MV Ocean Coast, was a twin screw motor cargo vessel 250 ft in length and a 38ft beam and 1,790 tons dead weight. She was built for short sea route trips by Leith shipyard for the Coast Lines shipping company and was launched on 31st July 1935.  During the war years she had served as a supply vessel to Gibraltar and North Africa.  She also played her part in the D Day landings servicing Omaha beach carrying petrol. My father was in short pants at that stage, snaring rabbits to supplement the meager supplies at home in the village, and dreaming of going to sea like his father.
MV Ocean Coast

The collision, it would subsequently emerge, was between a fully laden Swedish motor oil tanker SS Juno and the SS Bannprince which was operated by S William Coe of Liverpool.  The Bannprince was crewed by Northern Ireland men and had been built in 1933 in Glasgow.  She was 165ft 5″ long with a beam of 27ft 2″ and a deadweight of 716 tons.

SS Bannprince

Like the Ocean Coast, the Bannprince had served with a volunteer crew during the war.  She helped to evacuate 337,130 Allied troops from Dunkirk between May and June 1940, following this she was taken over for “Unspecified special government services” and was one of the first ships to land at Sword beach during the D Day landings with much needed medical supplies.

The Bannprince was outward bound that fateful night, fully laden with coal for Colerain in NI. The first the crew knew of difficulties was when the ships horn sounded three shrill blasts moments before there was an almighty crash and the ship healed over.  She would sink in ten minutes and most of the crew of 9 had no time to get a life jacket.  Her lifeboats were submerged. In the freezing Mersey the crew did what they could to stay together and help those that couldn’t swim into life jackets found floating or other debris that would sustain them. The Juno was entering the Mersey and heading for the Liverpool docks.
Motor Tanker WWII era

It was almost an hour between collision and the calls from the lifeboat of the Ocean Coast were heard in the water.  At this point most of the sailors were close to exhaustion and had drifted apart.  The boat my father and Jimmy O Dea was in rescued six and a lifeboat from a sister ship Southern Coast picked up the remaining 3 men including the captain and the only crew man to lose his life, second engineer James Ferris of Limavady, Derry.

The Certificate my father received in 1957
They put the six survivors aboard the New Brighton lifeboat and returned to the Ocean Coast to continue their voyage.  On the 3rd April 1957 my father along with 5 other crew men (including Jimmy) received a certificate from the Liverpool Shipwreck and Humane Society in recognition of their efforts.  The Captain received a silver cigarette box and the chief officer a parchment.
The Ocean Coast continued to give service into the 1960’s when she seems to have been sold for scrap,  The Bannprince was risen from the Mersey as she was a hazard to shipping and was sold for scrap to a Dutch shipyard.  The Juno, which was only lightly damaged, returned to work. but I couldn’t source any further information about her.
My father went to sea as a teenager like so many other men of his generation.  Himself, Jimmy and Uncle John are now gone to their rest, and with them their best stories.  He never actually spoke at home of this rescue and it took a bit of time to actually research it. But then again, it was just after the horrors of the second world war, and events like this were trivial in comparison. Jimmy O’Dea did have a yarn about it however.
According to his telling when they approached the men in the water my father, who was an excellent swimmer, had to jump overboard to help some of the weakened men out of the water. Jimmy O Dea and the other rescuers were returning to their ship, when they noticed my father wasn’t aboard. They turned back, rowing now with a vengeance only to find my father swinging off a buoy shouting “where the hell were ye then ship mates???”  Fact or fiction we’ll never know, but my Father would have loved it, the bigger the laugh the better, even at his own expense.
This is an excerpt from my new Book. The cover includes the blending of two images, the building of Dunmore East pier and the city dredger, Portlairge from an original image by Jonathan Allen.
New Book Out Now

The Waterford man who sailed with Captain James Cook

Captain James Cook is a renowned explorer who led three separate expeditions into the largely unknown Pacific in the late 1700’s and claimed much of it for his country. But he had the help of at least one Waterford man, a certain William Doyle, who has a headstone dedicated to him at Faithlegg graveyard.  Unlike the commissioned officers, sailors like Doyle who were the backbone of the navy, have remained largely hidden and unknown, surely an injustice.

The actual stone (pictured above) records that; This stone was erected by | MARY DINN of Passage | as a mark of her burial ground and in memory | of her father NICHOLAS, her mother HONORA, her | brother MARTIN, her sisters and | particularly of her brother WILLIAM DINN | alias DOYLE, who sailed round the Globe | with Captr COOK, and was present at the death | of that great circumnavigator at Owhyhee. | and who died respected and regretted at Stoke | near Devonport in England, in June 1840 |having spent a long life as a Warrant Officer | in the Services of his Country. | “May they Rest in Peace. Amen”.
The man William sailed under James Cook, was born in 1728 to a farm hand and apprenticed himself to a coal merchant in Whitby to learn his trade as a mariner.  In 1755, after nine years at Whitby, he left and joined the Royal Navy and within two years was appointed Ships Master, in charge of navigation.  He excelled at this and also developed a particular skill in map making, something of immense value to the navy and the empire builders at the time.
Captain Cook
In 1769 Cook departed for his first and arguably his most successful voyage on HMS Endevour to chart the southern seas and it was a voyage that would see him “discover” New Zealand and Australia and claim them for Great Britain.  Discover is of course a disputed term now, after all Polynesian explores had previously settled New Zealand, and the Aboriginal peoples of Australia had lived happily for thousands of years before.
He returned home in 1771 and received a heroes welcome.  At that stage he had remapped almost 1/3 of the known world.  (Worth remembering however he had the assistance of a Tahitian priest and navigator). He was justly celebrated as he had not lost a single man to the affliction of scurvy – caused from poor diet and lack of vitamin C – which was more common a reason for sailors to die on long voyages than accidents, drownings or other misadventures including strict disciplining such as keelhauling!
Such was his success, and enthusiasm, he was dispatched in 1772 to the south seas again, this time to try discover the great southern continent – which to the seekers of new lands and opportunities for expansion turned out to be a great disappointment – Antarctica.

Sketch of the three voyage routes

His final voyage departed in 1776 with two ships; HMS Resolution and HMS Discovery.  One of the other officers on the trip was a chap named William Bligh, infamous now for the Mutiny on the Bounty. This voyage was to discover the North West Passage, a fabled route to the China tea plantations over North America and Canada.  The trip seems to have been a disaster from he outset, with Cook becoming more erratic and less tolerant which probably led to his death. Arriving in the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) in 1779 they were initially treated as guests.  Once provisioned they departed but returned a few days later to repair a broken mast.  This time the islanders were less hospitable.  Apparently the cause of his death is subject to intense academic debate, but he was hacked to death after he and a party of ships marines went ashore with guns to take a king of the tribe hostage.

Michael O Sullivan of the Waterford History Group has previously sent me on information about Faithlegg Graveyard amongst which is a mention of Doyle.  He is listed on theResolution muster on Cook’s Third Voyage”, William. who was born in Waterford in 1756, joined HMS Resolution on 16 May 1776 and served as AB Boatswain’s Mate from 28 May 1776.

His position was one of some responsibility and this rank, piece here on the ranking system within the Royal Navy, could be seen as a minor or junior officer role, one for up and coming men with sea going experience.

Although Cook enjoyed great respect from crew, and many continued to sail with him on more than one journey, Doyle is not listed on any of the previous voyages.  His position however, suggests that he had sailed for a period of years prior to joining the Resolution.

His epitaph tells us that he died having spent a “long life as a Warrant Officer”. The Warrant officer role was a position of some respect and authority, and was the highest that a non commissioned crewman could rise.  It was granted by a certification board within the Navy and the holder had almost the same rights and respect as afforded to commissioned officers. The Warrant Officer had access to the quarterdeck and wardroom, were seen as specialist seamen and also had to have literacy and numeracy skills.

The third great voyage of Cook may have ended in death and failure for the man, but both ships returned to Britain in 1780 and sailor Doyle continued his career and enjoyed a long life.  He must have witnessed many remarkable events in his life. However, being a non commissioned officer, his name and role is not as prominent as the commissioned ranks, or as easy to find.  Doubtless the same can be said for countless others who sailed from Waterford and made valuable contributions to the development of the Royal Navy.  

I publish a blog each Friday.  If you like this piece or have an interest in the local history or maritime heritage of Waterford harbour and environs you can email me at to receive the blog every week.
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Many thanks to Michael O Sullivan of the Waterford History Group for assistance with this piece.


The unique but crumbling “Spider Light”

Let us honour if we can, the vertical man
Though we value none, but the horizontal one

These lines from Auden often come to mind when someone dies, particularly when I realise just how much I used to rely on them or value them.  I’ve mentioned this about my deceased father on more than one occasion. He was renowned for his tall tales and good company. But what many dismissed as yarns I’ve proven several times as based on fact, most recently the story of Press Gangs.

I’m afraid I took my Father for granted when he was alive, how many times have I wished I could chat to him since he died? But if we can feel a loss at human presence is it not also possible to miss a feature of our lives, such as a building too? This came to mind recently when a friend of mine John O’Sullivan made a plea on Facebook concerning, what we locals would know as the “Spider light” at Passage East.  You see the Spider Light, which is more officially known as the Passage East Spit Light, is slowly falling asunder and unless some remedial action is taken will crumble away into the harbour currents and fade from our lives altogether.

The “Spider light” from Passage East
the structure up close, via Barony of Gaultier Historical Society
According to the Lighthouse Directory, the Spider Light dates to 1867 and was one of four built in the country. The man who designed it, and who won a worldwide patent for the technology used, was a Dublin-born engineer named Alexander Mitchell. His patent was known as the “Mitchell Screw Pile Mooring System” or in modern parlance the “Helical Pile” and has been used in the building of lighthouses, bridges, piers, etc. It was specifically for use in strong tidal conditions where shifting sands were a threat to foundations. His technology was said to be inspired by the use of a corkscrew.
Brute force and sea shanties

The system itself though basic, took a number of weeks to complete.  First, a working platform was positioned on the chosen site.  Each pile was then individually screwed into place by a team of men working a capstan winch.  As they worked, they sang sea shanties.  And Mitchell, although completely blind, since the age of 22, was generally in the thick of it.  Once the piles were driven on the corners of the site a central pile was driven to complete it and then the light platform was constructed from there.

Mitchell died in 1868, a year after the Spider Light was completed.  I can’t find any mention of his working on it, however, he was active up to his death, and several of his sons were engaged in the trade, so if not he, then probably his sons overlooked the work at Passage. Unfortunately, I could find nothing in a brief search of the newspaper archives. I’m sure some account is there, and certainly, the minute book of the Harbour Commissioners would be informative.
Alexander Mitchell 1780 -1868
Next year the Spider light will reach is 150th year of operation.  In that time it has effectively marked the entrance to the inner harbour and ports of Waterford and New Ross.  It has seen a legion of merchant ships, naval vessels, pleasure craft and fishing boats safely upriver.  It has also welcomed many a tall ship.  One of the old “buoy gang” of the harbour told me that he recalled it being refurbished last in the late 60’s, but this blog piece highlights that the fabric of the light have been slowly eroded over time. I believe that the current plan is that the Spider Light be decommissioned and I guess either allowed crumble, or be removed. A replacement pole! with a light atop is now positioned to mark the spit.
Now John’s plea was driven by a sense of outrage I think. A pal of his had shared a photograph (below) of a similar lighthouse in Cork harbour close to Cobh. The comparisons are clear for anyone to see. The Spider is clearly un-cared for, whilst the cork lighthouse has recently been refurbished and offers a practical stylish use and historical link to times past in the Cork harbour area.
Via Derrick O’Neill Skinner 23/4/16
I know that the Port of Waterford (having replaced the Commissioners), which is tasked to maintain the beacon, has struggled financially in recent years. And it’s pointless to compare the two ports. (And in their defense, I understand that the Cork lighthouse was damaged by a ship strike some years back and insurance may have provided the much needed restoration work there.)  All that being said however, I do believe that if the port was to seek support from the harbour area and the mariners who ply its waters, that the necessary funds and expertise could be leveraged to maintain this heritage landmark.
Too often we lament those that are gone, and wish we had done something about it.  The Port Lairge comes to mind.  Are we to lose yet another feature of our maritime heritage?  One hopes not.

Many thanks to John O’Sullivan and his friends who gathered a lot of information about the topic. Thanks also to the Barony of Gaultier Historical Society  who have promoted the cause of the lighthouse.

Extra information -,1402,en.html

A piece on Alexander Mitchell.

Blog piece by Pete

County Waterford Lighthouses link incl Spider and Dunmore East