An Sí Gaoithe, the Fairy wind

I’m occasionally asked what I miss most about drift-netting for Salmon. When it stopped in 2006 I was fishing on a part time basis, but I refused to participate in the buy out of licences, preferring instead to hope for a return. So when I answer, I’m usually a bit off hand and probably say something straightforward and easy to understand, such as the thrill of landing a large fish. But if I was honest what I miss about fishing is complex. A way of life is hard to quantify and communicate in a few sentences.  It has elements of relationships, boat handling, fishing nous, traditions, and experiencing nature and weather on a ongoing basis that you just don’t appreciate to the same extent on land.  A great example of this is the Si Gaoithe, or the Fairy wind.
I think I was sixteen when I first encountered the Si Gaoithe.  I was the boy that season with Michael Barry of the High Street, which would have made this event occurring in the summer of 1982.  It was one of those beautiful sunny and still summer days, which are so rare when fishing.  So dry and calm, that you can forgo the oilskins and woolly jumpers, and controlling the punt was a lot less of a challenge, having only tidal conditions to contend with.
An Sidhe Gaoith Daniel McDonald 1841 NFC
It was nearing high water, and we had the nets out on “the mud”, the Shelburne Bank, on the Wexford side of the rivers.  We had opted to leave the nets where they were lying, virtually static at this point given the time of tide, and joined several other punts on the “bank wall” – the embankment constructed around the Marsh on Great Island.  There we lay out on the warm summer grass keeping a constant watch on the nets for signs of a fish and swapped stories.  Below us other punts were with their nets, whilst at Nook the Whitty’s were in their usual perch on the grassy bank overlooking their bay, monitoring the nets at the Big rock or the Knock.
Suddenly all hell broke loose.  One of the punts was rocking and a voice could be heard in high animation.  Despite the distance, it was clearly the punt of Christy Doherty (RIP) and there was some talk that Christy must have “lost it” or perhaps had landed a “pig of a salmon” our parlance for a very large fish.
Hauling the nets Photo via Tomás Sullivan
Anyway, I was old enough to realise whatever was going on Christy Doherty was not a man to either “loose it” or get over excited.  Christy and his brothers were highly regarded in our house.  One of the stories I heard of him fishing was one night in winter, he went to the Sheag Weir, an old ebb weir just below the quay of Cheekpoint.  The wind was northerly, and it was freshening all the time. Christy was emptying the net when a squall came on and the punt sunk beneath him.  If I recall right he couldn’t swim, and of course would not have had a lifejacket, so he pulled himself up the weir net and eventually managed to climb the weir poles to the head of the weir where he settled down to await daylight.  When several hours later he was found, despite the wet and stinging cold, his only complaint was that he hadn’t had a cigarette in hours!
It later emerged that what Christy was so excited about was the Si Gaoithe, which was falling all around his punt and he was letting other punts nearby know, so that they might see it.  I was never clear if he was upset or happy to see it.  For many you see the Si Gaoithe is a omen they prefer to avoid.  When I told my grandmother later, she blessed herself and said, “God protected ye from all harm”

The Si Gaoithe itself however is a natural phenomenon and is something that traditional people have their own names for worldwide. We also have our own local traditions about it here in Ireland, which vary from county to county.  I decided to borrow a definition rather than pretend I know the science. “A dustdevil is a whirlwind of air into which dust and debris gets caught up, making it visible. Dust devils form through a different mechanism than tornadoes, and are much smaller, usually only 10 to 50 feet in diameter, and usually not extending more than 100 feet into the air. They usually are seen during relatively dry conditions, when sunlight is providing strong heating of the surface, and when winds are generally light. The heated land surface produces convective rolls of air (as in the diagram above) since the wind is a little stronger at (say) 100 feet in altitude than near the ground. If these rolls get tilted upright, then a dust devil can form.
Joel and myself many years back out on the river
I experienced the magic that Christy described several times later.  My lasting memory was one I shared with our son, Joel.  He was only a boy of about eight and we were drifting on the ebb tide one beautiful calm summer evening.  Again not a liu of wind, and the river surface was like glass.  Joel was chatting away and searching the bottom of the boat for a crab whilst I kept a close eye on the nets. Suddenly around us little whisps of straw started to fall.  I jumped with joy to see it, and explained what we were experiencing to Joel.  Looking up into the sky, we could see hundreds of little pieces of straw cascading down upon our general direction, and as they fell Joel tried to capture some of them. The straws were falling from out of a clear blue evening sky, from about 100 feet up, although very hard to judge.  We followed the line of straw with our eyes, as it went horizontally from above our position in towards the Wexford shore.  We were passing Nook at the time, and we could clearly see the line of straw heading in over the land and then trace it back down to a field recently harvested with straw lined up waiting to be bailed.  Amongst this a mysterious wind was whipping up loose pieces of straw into mini whirlwinds, carrying it into the sky.
Witnessing such events is a privilege, one that I haven’t seen since we stopped fishing.  It may seem like I’m fooling myself, but I still believe today as I did in 2006, that I would one day be back on the river and I am not going to loose sight of that anytime soon.

Brooklands, the last sailing schooner and continuing a tradition of sailing “before the mast”

This morning, the Morgenster, a Dutch two masted, square rigged, sailing ship will enter Waterford Harbour with her crew and 30+ trainees aboard.  She is sailing under the auspices of Sail Training Ireland and on Saturday she will be open to the public to mark the 200 year anniversary of the Port and as a fundraiser for Waterford City River Rescue.  Tickets for a groups of four are available for €10.  Waterford In Your Pocket has all the details.

But apart from the magic of seeing a tall ship in the harbour, or a fundraiser for one of our favourite charities, what makes it so special is that our eldest daughter Hannah will be one of the trainee sailors aboard.  She shipped out last Sunday evening, from Cobh in Co Cork. I mentioned Cobh before on the blog, because it was a departure point for many of the family who never returned.  I’ve always found it a emotive location. It was all the more so to us as we walked towards the pier with our daughter.

Morgenster at Cobh

Hannah was fortunate of course.  An email from a singing buddy, Breda with the Waterford Women’s Centre had caused her much excitement. It spoke of an opportunity to have a bursary towards a sailing experience, with the assistance of Waterford Area Partnership, Waterford Port Authority and the Council.  She had the choice of applying for a five or sixteen day trip.  She ticked the latter and sent it off.  A week before we had heard nothing, and so following  a few calls and social media call messages, Alina from Sail Training Ireland came back and suddenly rather than speculation it was planning!

Hannah was a little unsure coming closer to last weekend.  Was it all a bit rushed, would she have the right equipment, how would she really get on.  Although unspoken, we both shared her fears and more. However, remaining quiet and trying to be supportive we gave what encouragement we could. It was after all her decision.  Coincidentally, or was it something more, a few weeks before my mother had passed on a family memento to me for safekeeping.  Taking it down, I passed it over to her.  She placed her hand into it and I explained what it was used for.  It instantly relaxed her, almost as if the physical action of connecting with the weathered leather, imbued with the blood, sweat and seawater of generations, eased her mind and grounded her.

Palm and needle, and an Aul for making holes
in canvas when required

For as long as I can recall my father had this Palm and Needle. The palm and needle was used by sailors in the past when sailing before the mast to make and repair sails. In fact it was so common to me growing up, I always presumed it was his. However, when my mother passed it on, I noticed his handwritten note to say it came from a sailor aboard a tall ship named Brooklands. The Brooklands, a three masted schooner was originally named the Susan Vittary.  She was built in 1859 by Kelly of Dartmouth and had plied a trade originally between England and the West Indies. She was sold to the Crenin family of Ballinacurra in Cork in 1923, renamed and continued to work until her timbers gave way and she sank off the Tuskar Rock in 1953.1    

Brooklands inbound to Waterford early 20th C, Minaun in the distance
photo accessed from WHG, posted by Andy Kelly. 2

What was so special about her, was that she was the last ship to ply the southern Irish coast without auxiliary power. Tom MacSweeney gives a great sense of what that means in this extract about her.  Unfortunately I never got to ask my father just what his connection to the Brooklands was, but I imagine there were Cheekpoint men sailing her from time to time.  Another possibility, is that whilst dropping a cargo of coal to Cheekpoint, or awaiting a favourable wind, my father was aboard hearing the yarns of the sailors that he would one day want to emulate.  I’m well aware of the numbers of such ships that entered and left the harbour.  Growing up in the forties my father had a front row seat to witnessing the dying tradition of sailing “before the mast”.  I asked him often if he would have liked to try it but I recall him always changing the subject or dismissing the suggestion. He told me the last man that he knew in Cheekpoint who had sailed such ships was Larry Cassin on the old road. Larry worked at the time in the Harbour Board, and to my eternal dismay I never made it my business to call to him and ask about it before he died.

Last Sunday evening in Cobh we got the chance to board with Hannah and meet her shipmates and see her thrilling home for the next sixteen days.  Alina was our guide and the ships captain Harry was very welcoming and we had a brief chat about our family tradition. “Well then Hannah” he said, “I can promise you an experience that your forefathers missed”

As we turned to leave Hannah was in two minds. That uncertainty was back. Eventually she said “I’m scared, but I’d feel worse driving home not knowing what I missed”  How many others uttered the same words at Cobh through the generations I wondered.

Hannah on the left, enjoying some down time
photo via Sail Training Ireland Facebook page

1&2.  Irish. B & Kelly A.  Two Centuries of Tall Ships in Waterford. 2011. Rectory Press.  Portlaw.

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The Monks forgotten Tower house

Adults can sometimes be guilty, inadvertently in fairness, of causing deep confusion in youngsters. An example I can recall was the placename “Buttermilk Castle” or more common with the fishermen simply “the Castle”.  The Castle was formidable lump of rock and forestery that jutted out into the river directly across from the Russianside, just below Nuke in Co. Wexford.  The associated fishing weir shared the name. The rock gave a sense of a citadel but when I sought further information my youthful questions were usually brushed aside.  My confusion continued even after I started fishing, the Castle from which the name arose you see had crumbled into the cliff, and was swallowed up by the undergrowth.

My first introduction to the Castle, came when visiting a wonderful maritime museum that was located at Duncannon Fort, back in the 90’s.  Alas no more now, it had a photograph, below, of the Castle, taken by AH Poole in the late 19th C. It depicted the familar square shaped Norman Tower house. It was before the coming of social media and the wonderful books of Billy Colfer, and it was a joy to me to finally see what for years I could only try imagine.  It was well worth the £25 I paid!

Buttermilk Castle AH Pool

But where one question is answered, others very often arise.  And so it was with Buttermilk. Why a castle in such an out of the way spot and what was its purpose? Locally the accepted wisdom was that it was part of the elaborate farm and business of the Cistercian abbey at Dunbrody. The monks constructed it as a protection and comfort to their fishing monks, who were working the associated weir, and operating others, no doubt 24/7. Colfer states that it was built as a “headquarters for fishing activities in the harbour”.1

Via Colfer, RSAI 2

However in another publication he says that both the Towerhouse at Ballyhack and Buttermilk were constructed to “exploit the economic opportunities presented by Waterford harbour”3

I personally lean towards the broader position, although for years I had accepted the fishing monks abode without question. In the first instance, it’s an elaborate build to keep the rain off fishermen. Towerhouses, were usually built for defense.  The location would not protect it much from the land, but would certainly be formidably from the river.  Was it more of a secure location, a place where business could be transacted and valuables stored.

Its undoubtedly true that the weirs were a commercial success in the harbour and drove a lot of the trade from the area to the continent.  Rental to Dunbrody of three fishing weirs was equal in value to the rental of half a ploughland at 48s 4d.  4

Buttermilk castle and weir circa 1850 N.L.I.  5

Of course, foreign fleets were also working the harbour and off the coast.  Such fleets needed secure landing places to dry or salt their catch.  Is it possible that it was an administrative centre for such activities.  The monks certainly would have had the contacts.  I wonder was the fact that we have two towerhouses so closely located, a sign of hostility. The tower at Ballyhack is most probably of Templar build, was there competition between both groups at a time in the past, for such trade .

I also heard it described as a Toll House and indeed a Water Gate.  I find the notion of a toll house fascinating. In modern times, we might think Buttermilk is a bit out of the way, but in medieval times what ships needed was a safe anchorage and would have sought out such places whilst waiting a cargo or a position in port. There could have been a possibility of a connection with Dunbrody or New Ross.  An intriguing thought.  Even in modern times the site is still highly regarded as a safe anchorage.

Colfer says that the Tower was initially known as “Skeroirke Tower”, something that he speculates is a name of Norse origin, Skar being a word used for rock.6  Certainly appropriate given the outcropping,  The name Buttermilk is a newer origin.  I’ve never heard anyone speculate as to why a tower built to protect weirs, would be called after a dairy by-product.  According to my Grandmother, the name of the castle comes from the fact that it was used to transport point between Dunbrody and Faithlegg. She said that butter was made on the site from milk gathered from the Waterford side of the harbour on a Faithlegg farm under their control.

Whatever the truth of it, the reality is that over millennia, the chances are that Buttermilk Castle served several purposes, some of which we may never realise.  Its just another one of those rich and fascinating placenames and sites we have in the harbour, which we need to explore.

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1&2 Colfer B. Wexford Castles. 2013. Cork University Press
3,4,5&6 Colfer. B. The Hook Peninsula. 2004. Cork University Press

TF Meagher; A rebel students return to Waterford 1843

Thomas Francis Meagher was born in 1823 in
the building that is now the Granville Hotel on
Waterford’s busy quays. The family spent some years at Ballycanvan, hence the family tomb at Faithlegg.
Thomas got an expensive education which
culminated with Stoneyhurst College in England. In
Easter week 1843, when he was not yet twenty, he returned home, having been
away for a year.  In his Recollections of Waterford1 he includes a
very interesting account of this return including his journey up the harbour to
his native city.
“A bright sun was lighting up the dingy walls of Duncannon Fort as
we paddled under them.  There was Cheek point on the left, towering
grandly over the woods of Faithlegg.  Further on, at the confluence of the
Barrow and the Suir, were the ruins of Dunbrody  Abbey – an old servant,
with torn livery, at the gateway of the noble avenue.  Further on, the
grounds and stately mansion of Snow Hill, the birth place of Richard
Sheil.  Then the Little Island, with its fragments of Norman Castle and it’s
broad cornfields and kingly trees.  Beyond this, Gauls Rock, closing in
upon and overlooking the old city.  Last of all Reginalds Tower – a
massive hinge of stone connecting the two great outspread wings, the Quay and
the Mall, within which lay the body of the city – Broad Street, the cathedral,
the barracks, the great chapel, the jail, the Ballybricken hill, with its
circular stone steps and bull post.  The William Penn stopped
her paddles, let off her steam, hauled in close to the hulk, and made fast. 
I was home once more….”
PS Toward Castle, an example of an earlier paddle steamer, I’m taken
with the image however, of the person atop the paddle and imagine Meagher
in just such a position on entering the harbour. 2
Apart from the wonderful writing, I found it interesting not just in
what he sees around him, but also what he left out.  I think most accounts
of the harbour now, would start with the Hook light, yet for
Meagher its the “dingy walls of Duncannon Fort“, surely a hint of his
political and revolutionary outlook, and a conscious consideration to its
strategic and sometimes dark history.  Contrast it with his description of
the Cistercian abbey at Dunbrody “an old
servant, with torn livery” in ruins possibly not long after the
dissolution but yet a beacon still to the young Meagher.  Maybe this was
because it brought to mind a time when although ruled by foreigner, the country
had been free to practice the catholic religion. Or perhaps the prosperity
the Cistercians, Templers and Norman merchants brought to the harbour area.
Dunbrody Abbey, Co Wexford from the river
I can’t see why Passage or Ballyhack don’t get a mention, given their
commercial importance, although perhaps waning at the time due to steam power.
 And it would be wonderful to hear of the sailing ships, steamers, work
boats and fishing craft plying the river at the time. Its also interesting to
note what has come since, for example the Spider light at
Passage, Great Island Power Station and
the Barrow Bridge. 
Snow Hill House, Co Kilkenny. 3

Perhaps the most amazing thing I found in Meaghers account was his
confident style. not just the excerpt above, but also his account of walking
through his city streets and calling to the
Waterford Club
. His debates on the need for radical change and his vision of a
different Ireland were, I think, astonishing for someone so young. Its hard to
imagine that a few short months later he would make his first political speech
in Lismore at a rally organised by Daniel O’Connell, that he had yet to raise
the first tricolour, for which we now have an annual commemoration,   to
co-found the Young
, to participate in the failed rising of 1848, be transported to
Tasmania, escape to America where he would eventually found the Irish Brigade
to support the union cause in the American
Civil War
. Yet in his account all these things are suggested, or at least seems
possible, such is his certainty in himself.
TF Meagher in later years
Meagher has his detractors and I have read some harsh criticisms of the
man online.  But Meagher was a man of principal, a man of action and a man
like all humans, of no small measure of complexity. Looking out upon the
harbour as I write, I wish I could see a young idealist entering the harbour
with a vision of change for this blighted republic of 2016.  Yet I have no
doubt the same youthful visionaries are out there.  Working here at
present against a different foe, a bureaucratic monster, all pervasive and
cloying.  Working via peaceful means to create a different republic.
 Less for speeches than blogs perhaps.  Less
for insurrection than consciously and critically living their lives.
 Just as much for direct action but by different means.  Here’s an
example of two young women doing just that, one of whom hails from the
Russianside!, which I came across
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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1.  I accessed the account of Meaghers in Fewer.T.N. (ed) I was a day
in Waterford. An anthology of writing about Waterford from the 18th to the 20th
Century. 2001.  Ballylough Books.  I fear the book is now out of
print, but is available in the Waterford room of the city’s Central Library.
 Certainly would be good to see it reprinted.
2. Sketch of PS Toward Castle accessed from here.  Despite
numerous searches I could find no further information on the PS William Penn.
 Tommy Deegan and Frank Murphy were both helpful in providing some leads.
 Apart from Meaghers account, two other references to the ship exist.
 Bill Irish recorded that the Waterford Steam Navigation Company were
using the ship from 1837 in Decies #53 and via Frank Murphy she is mentioned in
Bill’s book on Ship Building in Waterford as being owned or part owned by the Malcomson’s of Waterford.
3. photo of Snow Hill copied from Jim Walsh’s  “Sliabh
Rua, A History of its People and Places” again out of print and available
in central library,