Joe Walsh of Passage East

Catherine Foley, the author, has kindly submitted a second guest blog feature to the page.  It follows a hugely successful initial guest blog some months back, entitled Beyond the Breakwater which brought us back to the Passage East of her youth and Waterford city.  For this blog, Catherine remembers with a loving fondness her uncle, Joe Walsh.  

My uncle Joe was often with us when we came together at important family occasions in our aunts’ sitting room in Helvick. He was an integral part of family life, spending every holiday with us. He’d lock up, leave his home in Passage East for a couple of weeks, get the bus to Waterford, catch the outgoing one to Dungarvan and we’d drive in from Ring to collect him at the terminal.

He was a merchant seaman who went to sea as a young man. He spent many years working on ocean liners and oil rigs. In later years he fished out of Passage East.  He was a gravedigger in Crooke for a while too.

He was my mother’s brother and he was my godfather so there was a special link between us, not that I appreciated him when I was a young scamp with no time to listen to the cautionary voice of Joe.

Yet, I always knew he was my greatest ally, and as I got older I came to realise that we were alike in many ways.

In his downtime with us, I remember him working with rope. Even in the end when his mind was gone and he lay in a hospital bed, his hands working, tying imaginary ropes, repeated the same actions in the same sequence over and over until one of us caught and held them still.

Joe in later years

Once he arrived, Joe would take on all washing-up duties, and being a sailor through and through, he was far better than any of us girls: when he’d be finished the place would be gleaming, ship-shape and clean as a whistle, everything tied down and shining like a galley.

He often gave us money too, he’d bring us presents and he had all the local news for my mother, Ena, who had grown up in Passage and loved to hear stories about her home place.

And so on Christmas morning we’d all set off for our aunts’ house, which overlooked the fishing pier of Helvick in west Co Waterford, where us young ones would get presents, we’d get to listen to the adults talking about old times and to top it all off, we’d have a singsong.

My aunts always had Barley’s Lime Cordial as a treat for us, Cherry Brandy liqueur for my mother and Guinness and whiskey for the men. My aunts only drank tea.

Joe was usually called on to sing first because he loved to and because his voice was rich and melodious. He relished singing and he had a store of favourite songs that he’d learned from listening to artists like Johnny Cash and Jim Reeves.

He used to sing Roger Whittager’s The Last Farewell as well. After a swallow of Guinness to slake his throat, he’d put his glass down carefully on the coffee table and compose himself. His face would take on a dreamy, serious expression. Then he’d lift his head and begin: his deep, rich voice filling the room with the music and the story: “There’s a ship lying rigged and ready in the harbour, tomorrow for old England she sails.”

From the start we’d be hooked by the song. “Though death and darkness gather all around me… and the taste of war I know so very well,” he’d sing, his shoulders rising philosophically on the crescendo.

We loved this one because it told a story and we all knew the chorus with its lilting, easy melody: “for you are beaut-i-ful, and I have loved you dearly, more dearly than the spoken word can tell.”  We‘d join in at that point and sing along with Joe.

Walsh children 1930’s

His own life at sea seemed to give the song an added pathos. He had never married, and I always felt that those songs of lost love were heart-felt in some way. I had a sense that there was some hidden trauma but I could only guess at what that might be.

A ring of stout around his mouth was a sign that Joe was truly in the moment. The sadness in Joe that us young people could never miss but never understand seemed to add to the piquancy of the words.
As he sang, he’d lift his head up at certain parts almost in sympathy with the fate of the tragic sailor and time would slow down as his voice filled the room.

He had a head of rich black hair, a strong jaw-line and a fine profile. He was a very handsome man. He smoked Major cigarettes – the tops of the fingers on his left hand were brown from years of holding the stubs in the cup of his hand. His masculinity and strength coupled with an incongruous vulnerability could leave me feeling slightly embarrassed. The angelic quality of his voice and his open trusting eyes seemed to pose a question that I could not fathom.

Joe had thick black eyebrows and his dark brown eyes would hold your gaze with a look of honest appraisal while speaking to you.

He walked with a limp: one shoe was always built up by the cobbler to compensate for the shorter leg that had shrivelled as a result of excessive cycling and hurling as a young man. Because of this, he sat in the armchair in his own characteristic way, almost in a kneeling position as if genuflecting, the shorter leg folded underneath him, his knee nearly touching the floor.

Catherine’s dad Joe left and her uncle Joe

Those times remain clear in my memory now, of Joe singing with emotion of other worlds and times. Looking out the window in Helvick, I remember the grey-green sea stretching off down the coastline to the east, towards Hook Head in the distance with the town of Dungarvan visible to the west.

He always favoured songs about loneliness, about drinking and about disappointment. I remember him singing about the man sitting in a honky in Chicago when he sang Little Old Wine Drinker Me. “I asked the man,” he’d sing, “behind the bar, to play the juke-box, and the music takes me back to Tennessee”. He used to lift his shoulders in a semi-shrug as he sang the last line: “When they ask, who’s the man in the cor-ner cry-ing, I say little old wine drinking me.” Unhurried, he’d pause like any singer if a long breath was required. He’d often close his eyes but sometimes, he’d look into the near distance as he put his heart into the words. Now the words and the music of those songs merge like a collage of melodies: the notes unfolding slowly in my head, Joe’s voice rising effortlessly.

He died in his late sixties in the hospital in Dungarvan. We buried him on an icy cold, wet day in Crooke in January 2004 alongside his parents,  Joe and Mary Ellen Walsh (née Martel). There were hailstones and freezing rain on the day and it seemed fitting. As the coffin was lowered into the ground; it was as if whatever he’d endured was blanched away and his life was purified by the freezing downpour.

I’d like to thanks Catherine for providing this tweaked extract from Beyond the Breakwater, Memories of Home. If you follow the previous link you can buy it online, or as a kindle.  Its published by Mercier Press and is available as they say in all good bookshops, including the Book Centre, Waterford.  If you need any more convincing about this wonderful book Manchán Magan gave it a “rave” review in the Irish Times. 

A tweaked extract from Beyond the Breakwater Memories of Home
By Catherine Foley (c) Published by Mercier Press 2018.

“Warping” the Barrow Bridge

Before ever the Barrow Railway bridge was constructed to allow the trains run from Waterford to Rosslare, New Ross Harbour Board had concerns for its positioning.  The Bridge would block access to the port and to get around this an opening span wasintroduced.  Procedures were also agreed to facilitate safe opening and closing procedures in an attempt to avert accidents(In this they can be proud as there was never a rail incident with the opening).  Another procedure which I was
unaware of until recently was a procedure called “Warping” which was aimed at facilitating a smooth passage for sailing vessels.  The procedures value was underlined, even before the bridge was officially opened.

The bridge with the opening span under construction only two months after the incident.  Note the buoy below the bridge and possibly two another above close to the cylinder stanshion
The Barrow Bridge officially opened on the 12th July 1906 facilitating a connection between Waterford and Rosslare by fording the River Barrow between Drumdowney in Co. Kilkenny and Great Island in Co. Wexford. But of course it did much more than that, as it allowed a passenger board a train in Tralee and in relative comfort get to a ferry boat for a short crossing of the Irish Sea and hence to London.  For those with an aversion to sea journeys it sure beat boarding a steamer at Limerick or Cork.
But the port of New Ross lay above the bridge and it required safe access and egress for ships serving the port. The designers facilitated this by a swing opening span.  This
presented its own problems to the ships that passed through a narrow, tidal passage.  A warping procedure was developed circa 1904, aimed specifically at sailing vessels[i] as they were at the mercy of the winds and tides. Sailing ships were required to heave to on reaching the bridge and to run a rope through two buoys, each with an eye atop.  A rope was passed through each eye by a hobbler crew and retaken aboard, effectively doubling the rope and as one was tied off the slack was released by the crew.  Then using the tide, they drifted through the opening span, controlling their speed with the rope, which because of the loop could be easily retrieved once the operation was completed.
On Monday the 13th of February 1905 however two sailing ships struck the opening span in the one tide, both apparently because they failed to employ the warping procedure.  Each had a New Ross pilot officer aboard. The Schooner Conniston of
Barrow was sailing down on an ebb tide under pilot Whelan (sometimes referred
to as Phelan) when she struck a glancing blow at a gangway which was being used
in the construction.  Following her was the schooner Ethel of Preston under pilot
Kearne.  She however struck the opening span twice.  Both incidents were reported
by the builders, William Arrol & Co., who although describing the incidents as “trifling” also expressed concerns that it could be potentially more serious.[ii]

Although the Conniston incident seems to have passed off without repercussions, the Ethel was another matter.  Her Captain, McGuirk, through the ships brokerage firm of Betson & Co of Dublin wrote to the New Ross Harbour Board to seek damages.  His position was that his ship was in the “charge of the pilot” when considerable damage was done.  One stanchion was broken and parts of the main and top gallant rails were broken too.
Pilot Kearne did not lie down under the matter however.  He submitted a written report to the harbour master, Captain Farady, confirming the incident and the damage to some extent, but argued that he was not “in charge”. Kearns explained that while coming down on the ebb tide at the White Horse Reach he told Captain McGuirk that they needed to warp through the bridge. The Captain refused however, stating that
the wind was favourable, his ship was answering her helm and he had confidence
in the wind carrying them through.
However on approaching the opening span, the wind dropped away, and the schooner no longer “answered the helm”[iii]  The Captain order the Mate to drop anchor and
as she swung on this against the tide, first the stern hit the pier head, and subsequently the bow struck one of the bridge piles.

Whether Captain McGuirk ever got compensation is not clear, certainly he got little sympathy from the Board.  At this meeting and at a subsequent one[iv], it was
considered that he had not “properly stated the case” to the ships brokers and
that the Captain was really responsible.  The pilots (four are said to be then employed) were to be warned to use the procedure whatever ships captains might say.

Needless to say that would not be an end to the incidents that befell the tight opening span of the Barrow Bridge.  I’ve written about a century of them before.
The blog will move to a new address in the coming weeks.  Stay tuned for further details. If you want to ensure you do not miss one please email me at

Want to see the majestic structure that is the Barrow Bridge as it is today? Check it out here from Waterford Epic Locations;

Following publication John Aylward mentioned in a comment that a similar procedure was used at Timber toes in the city.  Presumably similar took place at Redmond bridge and at the Red Iron Bridge.

I’m open to correction on this point but I’ve not read of the procedure being
required for steamers
New Ross Standard 3/3/1905. P.7 (much of the subsequent detail is taken from
the report of the harbour Board Meeting)
A nautical term used to describe a situation when a ship cannot be steered
New Ross Standard 4/8/1905. P.2

Remembering the Schooner Lapwing

On the 9th of November* 1917 a small schooner slipped her moorings at Waterford Quays and sailed out of the harbour and towards the Irish Sea.  Her destination was Cardiff Wales. But she never arrived.  At the centenary of the end of the First World War, I thought it fitting to remember a small incident in the context of the war, but no less significant for the families left behind. What was the fate of the Schooner Lapwing?
The schooner Lapwing was registered in the port of Arbroath, where she had been built.
She was of 110 gross tons and 95 net and measured 84.0’ length x 21.4’  beam x 10.5’ depth. She was owned at the time by several people from Arklow in Co Wicklow, but largely by members of the Kearon family.
SV Lapwing. Photo credit Arklow Maritime Museum
Schooners had originated in America but had quickly spread to Europe as their size and sailing capacity made them a favourite for the shorter coastal trade and the difficulties associated with navigating smaller harbours and estuaries.  I could only find a few mentions of her coming into local ports, two in particular are worth recalling.  In 1909 a young sailor boy named Patrick Hogan was recorded as having taken his own life while in port at New Ross.[i]  Another account from 1912 describes a collision between her and the Dublin steam pilot boat as she entered port, resulting in severe damage to the schooner.[ii]

On that fateful day in 1917, she departed the city with a cargo of pit props.  My understanding of this trade is that it was normally associated with freshly cut timber from
local estates which was drawn to the port and exported. The Lapwing most probably had arrived previously with a load of coal.

The Lapwing that day was sailing into treacherous waters.  We’ve previously examined the
ferocious naval campaigns being waged off the Irish coast, sometimes referred
to as the “killing lanes” where U Boats and mines were a constant threat.  From February 1917 the German Navy had initiated their unrestricted U Boat Campaign, meaning that ships would be sunk on sight with no warnings.  It was a response to the desperation they felt at home and the near starvation of her citizens.
Families of course could not be sure of when they might hear from loved ones, so it was probably a matter of weeks before they would even begin to have concerns.  And even then
how could they know for sure.  Were they weather bound? Had they struck a mine? Had they succumbed to U Boat attack?
Of the five man crew three were of the one family. Four were from Arklow including the skipper and part owner Joseph Kearon(65), his sons Edward(19 and George(17), George Tyrrell(18). The fifth crewman was from New Ross, Patrick Merrigan, Age 23 from Old Post Office Lane, New Ross, Co. Wexford**
The only other reference I can find to the boat or her crew dates from a court action in Arklow in 1918.[iii]  Mary Tyrell (sister of George) has taken an action on behalf of her mother against the owners of the Lapwing.  We are told only that since she left Waterford “…no tale or tidings have been heard since.” George Tyrell had only been aboard for two weeks and was employed as a cook.  Although there was some dispute about whether she was lost or not, this appears to have been accepted on the basis that the owners had received a settlement under the war risks. The court found in his mother’s favour.
I’m sure it was probably many years after the war before the families would know their loved ones fate for certain.  As it happens one account is that she struck a mine, and it has often been repeated. (A steamer SS Lapwing was struck by a mine a day later, and if you look at the link you may spot an error confirming that confusion still may exist as Kearon is listed as her master too!) However the true facts are that the ship was sunk by shellfire as she sailed towards Wales after being spotted by U-95.  Her last resting place here.
Perhaps for me one of the most frustrating things about the loss of the schooner was her obvious vulnerability.  In the following weeks the Coningbeg and Formby would be blasted from the Irish Sea too, but in their cases the U Boat had reason to be cautious.  They were steam driven and could have outrun the U boat, they could also have rammed her or they could also have fired on her, being armed and with naval gunners aboard.  But the Lapwing had nothing.  Five men on a timber ship at the mercy of the wind and tide.  A hard target to justify, except perhaps, she was unarguably an aid to the allied war effort. That perhaps and the fear that if they gave a warning to abandon the craft, she may have turned out a Q ship.

Tower Hill Memorial, London via

I’d imagine that as the media acknowledge the end of the First World War this weekend, most of the commentary will be about the guns falling silent and the troops leaving the trenches.  But for thousands of men and many women, it was just a different day as they struggled against the elements to keep lines of trade open.  Gone was the menace of U Boats, but mines would persist for many more years to come.  The majority of those who died at sea had no grave of course, but their names are recorded on the memorial to the merchant marine at London’s Tower Hill memorial

* From her position when sunk on the 10th  I’m assuming she left Waterford on this date**Patrick Merrigan of the Lapwing was a son of Patrick Merrigan River Pilot in New Ross. One of 9 children. He was 15 years and 3 months and described as a Labourer in the 1911 Census. Via Mark Minihan

I’d like to acknowledge the help of Arklow Maritime Museum and Brian Cleare in help with this piece.

Irish Times. September 25th 1909. P14
Irish Times. February 16th 1912.
Wicklow Newsletter and County Advertiser. October 26th 1918. P2.
I also can be found on you tube

Waterford Harbour Press Gangs

The Royal Navy Press gangs were licenced kidnappers who operated with official sanction up to the early 19th Century.  Their role was to remove sailors from shore or ship and impress them into the service of the Royal Navy. It was a recruitment policy that was particularly prevalent during times of war.  Needless to say their activities were a reality in the harbour area too. 
A pamphlet titled The Liberty of the Subject
accessed from
The painting was by James Gillray and is dated 1779

The practice of Impressment is old, being mentioned in the Magna Carta. It was more common in times of war as competing interests vied for crew. During the Napoleonic wars it became widespread when the navy was stretched and simply didn’t have enough men to operate their ships. Apparently the practice had initially started in London but over time and as the needs for crew grew, so did its scope. Waterford was only one of many areas favored by them given the quantity of trade, and particularly, it seems the Newfoundland cod fishery. Crews for the fishery were drawn from farms, villages and towns across the south east and they flocked to the harbour area to join ships for the cod fishing season on the Grand banks. These were young, healthy and energetic. Perfect for the hungry Press-gangers.

The Press Gang had a number of strategies for engaging sailors.  These included going ashore to take men from quays, pubs or homes, raiding ships at anchor or at quaysides or attacking ships on the high seas.  I’ve found examples of all three in our own area.

Accessed from:

Going ashore was one method and this clipping from Waterford of 1777 gives a good example of the practice:  

“The press for seamen still continues here, to the great injury of the trade of this city and the fishery of Newfoundland; several have been picked up lately. Last Wednesday evening the press gang was very roughly treated on the quay, in consequence of their endeavoring to press a man who frequents the fishery of Newfoundland: he (assisted by some female auxiliaries) defended himself with a stick against the attack of the gang, armed with swords, and not withstanding their utmost efforts he got off. By this time a party of resolute fellows assembled, and by pelting of stones soon made the gang disappear. But their resentment did not stop here, for they done considerable damage to the house of Mr Shanahan, publican, on the Quay, where the press gang rendezvous; and had not a party of the army been ordered out to disperse them and prevent further mischief it is probable some fatal consequences would have happened.” [1]

The major disadvantage of the shoreside press was that citizens did not take kindly to the practice and were want to show their displeasure
So if a shoreside press was injurious to your health, a relatively more safe approach was to board vessels at anchor, under cover of darkness.  At Cheekpoint on what was described as a “dark and tempestuous” night in October 1779 HMS Licorne was at anchor and in need of crew. Conditions were favourable to a stealth attack and so under the command of Lieutenant Rudsdale a party set off in the ships pinnace.  They immediately drew alongside a punt, and in case the men aboard reported the Navy’s activities they “pressed the lot”. He returned to his vessel and dropped his captives and set off again towards Passage and Ballyhack. They boarded the anchored brig Triton and finding the crew asleep, pressed as many crew as he could fit. Dropping them back to the Lincorne, he again returned to the Triton, but this time instead of finding the remaining crew asleep, they were confronted with a barrage of spikes, hatchets and crowbars. He withdrew, and the piece goes on to say that the racket having raised the harbour he was forced to return to his ship. Rudsdale was apparently satisfied with his nights work however, he had secured a score of men to add to the Lincorne’s crew.[2]

Community Notice:  Book Fair this coming Sunday November 4th at Copper Coast Geopark, Bunmahon.  1-5pm.  Lots of new, used and collectible books on sale.  I’ll be there to sell my own book…details here

More information on my book click here

The other approach was to attack ships at sea, and in many cases merchant men were stripped of their capable crew and very often such men were swapped with either injured or incapable sailors, deemed unfit for the Navy. Even in circumstances where armed Naval vessels were employed however, successful outcomes were not guaranteed.  For example an unnamed Newfoundland vessel sailing to Waterford on the 5th November 1770 was challenged by a “press boat” off Cork harbour.  The crew and passengers gave a fight however and following an exchange of gunfire the press boat thought it best to sheer off.  Five aboard the Newfoundlander were wounded, who put in to Youghal where one of the injured died.  The Press boat put into Dungarvan where her wounded crew were treated. [3]

Several other accounts of the press gangs have come to my attention including a shore based captain who organised the press of sailors from an office at Passage East, a press in Waterford city that resulted in 140 men pressed on the quay and the landing of the press gangs on the Hook peninsula and their working along the coast to Duncannon. 

The press gang diminished after the Napoleonic wars. A peace time navy required less men, naval reforms and pay helped recruitment, but social reformers also helped in fighting the hated practice. The next great naval dispute against Russia in the Crimea in 1853 is said to be the first in which impressed sailors did not serve.

My thanks to Maurice Power and Myles Courtney for help with this piece

[1] The Waterford Chronicle, Tuesday April 1st 1777.

[2] Accessed from google books, The account is contained in Rule Britannia, The press gang afloat and ashore.  J.R. Hutchinson. 2010. Fireship Press.  Available from

[3] Cork Examiner. September 1st 1883 P5 (a piece looking back on newspaper reports from 1770)

I publish a blog about Waterford Harbours maritime heritage each Friday.  
To subscribe for free to get it to your inbox email 
which will generate an offer email asking you to subscribe, 
Subscription is free, and you can unsubscribe at any time
I also can be found on you tube