Lighters and Lightermen

On a recent boating trip in the Suir, I spotted the rotting timbers of what appeared to be an old boat jutting out from under the low hanging branches of a sycamore tree. Further investigation revealed, what for me at least was, an amazing discovery. A once common workboat on the river, which numbered in the hundreds, but now totally extinct.

Definition of a lighter

A lighter was a workboat employed in Waterford harbour and up the rivers Barrow and Suir. The function of this craft was as the name suggests, to lighten the load of incoming vessels, thereby allowing them to float over the sand and mud bars as they journeyed to New Ross or Waterford city. They functioned in much the same way the modern truck does.

A lighter underway at New Ross

According to the Dictionary of the World’s Watercraft the lighter can be described as “any small vessel employed in lightening goods. Describing it as a “…strongly built rectangular craft, open and flat-bottomed; used for short-haul work, especially for transferring cargo to and from a ship lying at anchor.” As to the origins it “…dates at least from the late 15th Century” In an Irish context it only names them in the SW of the country….”The River Shannon in the late 17th and early 18th Century was propelled by 4 men with 2 oars. Steered by a sweep. 12-16 ft long”

Design and build

The local design seems to have been very uniform in general, but size-wise there seems to have been local distinctions. 40-ton loads are regularly referred to in newspaper accounts and elsewhere, but 20, 25, and 30 were also mentioned. I imagine local conditions and purposes may have had an important role.

Patrick C Power in an article titled “The Lower Suir – boats and boatmen long ago” for the Tipperary Historical Journal (1991) gives this description from Carrick On Suir. “The lighters were built of pitch pine with a frame of oak. They were constructed on oaken frames each set about 3ft in the boat…The lighter was 70ft long and 16ft in the beam, but with a square stern and pointed prow. The sides could be as much as 4ft high…flat bottomed…without a keel. The rudder was 16ft long. Forward there was a well-room for bailing and on deck a caboose…where a fire was kept lighting in a cast iron box-stove supplied by Graham’s of Waterford…[there was] 36ft of useful cargo room…known to carry as much as 40 tons…distributed in two parts of the hold. There was no cargo in the centre of the lighter”

I would imagine that given the design was so basic these boats were built widely and locally in much the same way that punts and prongs were built at home in Cheekpoint. A local handyman or craftsman with a good eye would be supplied with the materials and the boat would emerge. Bill Irish lists five lighters coming out of Whites shipyard in Ferrybank but only one is given her size at 35-40 tons. No name was given for the boat. According to Pat Power, the Carrick lighters were made in Carrick Beg at the graving dock of the Kehoes. There was also a man named O’Brien who despite being illiterate could gauge the materials required for a build without ever having to measure, draw, or write.

Lighters above Redmond Bridge in Waterford

As regards the cost of building a lighter, there was a discussion at the Harbour Commissioners in March 1874 of the need for four new lighters to assist with port duties. These were estimated to cost £100. The article does not make clear, but I expect that is each. The cheapest of the five built at Whites shipyard cost £126-6-5

Propulsion

The lighters were sometimes referred to as dumb boats. They had no propulsion and depended on the tides and currents to get from A-B. I’m not sure dumb gives an accurate sense of their navigation, however. Anyone who has ever had to navigate the rivers knows that the vagaries of the tide, current, wind, rain, and moon play a huge role in the task. No day, indeed no hour is often the same and to simply push away from a riverbank and presume your destination would be both foolish and dumb.

The lighters had a rudder to help keep on course. According to Power it was operated by the skipper from his space in the well, it was used sparingly. The photograph above shows the rudder being operated from the stern. There was also an anchor that could be deployed in emergencies or when awaiting a favorable tide or weather. Two deckhands were also employed(I have read accounts with three men also in newspapers). Each operated a long oar (a sweep) which could be used to row the boat at specific times. They also used a pole to push along the river bed or bank. This was driven into the riverbed from the stern and then the crewman would have to clamber forward as he pushed the boat ahead. But mostly I would imaging the crew worked with the tides, with a lifetime of river knowledge, drawing the most from each knot of an ebbing or flooding current to make their way.

Cargo

The lighters carried anything and everything that came into port. Unshipping, transhipping, and loading ships at anchor in the harbour up as far as Cheekpoint I’m sure. They delivered as far as New Ross or Carrick and delivered into the villages, between the villages and from the villages to flour mills, coal stores, and lime kilns. The lighters seem to have been loaded and unloaded by their crew which must have been a back-breaking operation, but it also ensured that tight margins and any profit were kept onboard. An interesting example of the operation is a name associated with a quay on the Wexford side above Ballyhack. Tom Poor’s quay is the local name, but another associated with it according to Tomas Sullivan is Lighterman’s Quay. The quay has an old roadway leading away from it back towards Ballyhack. A similar track can be found almost directly opposite at Lambert’s cove on the Waterford side.

An interesting anecdote from the newspapers of 1908 tells of “…two little boys named Patrick Kirby and James Grant who was charged with the larceny of a quantity of coal, the property of Messrs Wallace and McCullagh…Constable Thomas Ryan deposed that on the evening of the 21st November he found the defendants taking a quantity of coal from the lighter…” Having admitted to the constable that they were going to sell it, they were discharged under the First Offender’s Act.

They were also employed in providing ballast to sailing vessels. In 1842 I came across a tender presented to the Harbour Commissioners from R and W. Hayes for shipping ballast for five years. They agreed to deliver the ballast via their lighters to vessels in port at 8s per ton, and discharge ballast from vessels at 6s per ton.

Advert from Waterford Chronicle – Saturday 27th December 1831; page3

Lighters were also employed in river works such as dredging and I will share most of this interesting report from 1869 as there are some very telling details in it.

“ A report was read from Mr. Stephens, stating that little progress had been made at the ford works during the past month and that only 11 tons of rock had been raised since the last report. He further reported that he had taken up the four lighters belonging to the board from the contractors; that they were damaged state, and he repaired them. The board now had five lighters and eight punts capable of taking daily 350 tons of mud from the dredge…He further reported, in reference to the application from the sanitary committee of the corporation to clear John’s Pill…The nuisance arose from loading lighters of manure from dung yards adjacent to the pill, and the obstruction was caused stones and shingle…being dropped by these lighters in the vicinity…” Waterford Chronicle – Friday 15 October 1869; page 3

The Lightermen

But who were these Lightermen and how did they operate. Well, it appears that many companies and businesses had their own lighters and crews employed to act on their behalf. We have also seen that they were employed by the Harbour Commissioners on various duties though dredging seems to have been a major task. An interesting court case suggests however that even these men employed by the harbour board had certain freedom.

The case arose at a special jury hearing in the County Court by James O’Neill, of Arthurstown, against the Waterford Harbour Commissioners to recover £99, the value of a quantity of 105 barrels of oats and I07 sacks of barley containing 20 stone each lost by the stranding of a lighter on the Kilmanock Embankment in October the previous year, 1898.
The lighter, skippered by a man named Connolly, had arrived at Arthurstown on Monday evening 17th October 1898. They were obviously on the lookout for work and Connolly approached O’Neill and e asked him for the cargo at a price for transport at 2d. per barrel. This was stated to be the ordinary freight for corn. The deal was struck and the lighter was loaded on Friday 21st departing that evening as darkness settled. Later she was caught in a gale and grounded, causing the cargo to be damaged by water.

In evidence, Mr. John Ailingham, Secretary of the Harbour Board, explained that the Commissioners crew could take on other work when available to do so. This dated to a resolution passed in March. 1894. Two-fifths of the profits were generally paid into the Harbour Commissioners office. Since the accident happened a new rule was passed restraining their movements to not go below Cromwell’s Rock, or further up the river than Kilmacow Pill.

As regards the wages, one mention from a newspaper report in 1891 gave this insight: “THE LIGHTER SKIPPERS. The Quay Committee a recommendation to allow the lighter skippers 2s 6d a week, provided there were no complaints.” Whether there were complaints or not, I don’t know, but it gave no information as to the crew.

Many merchants probably had their own vessels employing their own crew as suggested by this advert in the Waterford Chronicle – Saturday 01 May 1841; page 3

It’s also likely that individuals or indeed families or crew invested in the trade. For example, there was a report in the Munster Express from December 1863 about a Carrick lighter which was lost in a gale in Waterford carrying freight for a man named Walsh. The crew survived but the paper concluded: “…It is hoped a subscription will be opened for the relief of the unfortunate men whose all may be said to have been invested in the lighter.”

Some of the characters of these men will be evident from what we have already learned, hard-working, resilient, impervious to the weather, and determined. Some other pieces from the newspapers of the time might put more meat on the bones.

In 1838 Morgan Doyle and William Nash were in court after a bare-knuckle fight aboard a lighter on Waterford Quays. A large crowd had gathered to watch the match and when the constabulary arrived, the men forgot their quarrel and working together let go the lighter, and shoved away from the quay to avoid the lawmen. They were subsequently apprehended, however, and found guilty of a breach of the peace.

In another situation, they were law-abiding. In February 1829 the crew of a Clonmel lighter observed bags being removed from a newly arrived schooner from St John’s, Newfoundland in suspicious circumstances. They raised the alarm with a Quay watchman, who instantly aroused the Tidewaiter (a member of the customs) from his bed. The bags were discovered to contain tobacco. A follow-up search discovered that the contraband had been hidden among a cargo of oil, and was that morning taken and put into bags, for transport. The mate and three of the crew were committed to gaol, but the Master was not with the ship at the time of the arrest.

Others were unfortunate, and there are many accounts of the crew falling over the side of their vessels and being drowned. For example on a cold wet Saturday night in November of 1864 a lighterman named Michael Meyler, was lost at Strangman’s Wharf. He was about 70 years of age and was in the habit of sleeping onboard lighter belonging to his brother. He slipped when boarding via the gangplank and despite efforts to save him, he was lost.

And then again others were just tough out. In May 1875 a case that was taken against James Doherty, a lighterman who cut a tow rope of the barque Constant that was being winched off the graving bank in Ferrybank. In court, the Captain of the barque was claiming damages of £20 against Doherty. It transpired that Doherty was coming up the quays just as the tide was starting to turn. In a hurry to make his berth he found the way blocked by the tow rope. Words were exchanged and tempers flared. As the barque would not release the tow rope, Doherty grabbed an axe and cut the hawser that blocked his path, before proceeding upriver. In a lengthy proceeding, it was found that the lighter had reacted hastily and the court found against Doherty for a much-reduced sum of £1. Doherty let it be known that he disagreed and would appeal.

End of the era

When the lighter’s reign in the harbour ended is not very clear. But the improvements in navigation including the opening of the Ford and the deepening of the river after the Harbour Commissioners came into existence must have been a crucial factor. The arrival of steam-driven vessels must have also played a part. Further upriver, the coming of the railways and improvements in road transport would have contributed to the undermining of transport by water.

Triton, the marine correspondant with the Munster Express had a lovely article in 1973 which drew on the memories of a previous marine correspondant Jimmy Hartery. It highlights that lighters were still in use in the first world war.

Munster Express. Friday 28th December 1973; Page 12
a lone lighter above Redmond Bridge circa 1950s via Brendan Grogan. Might this be the last of a proud tradition? It would appear that it is being used by workmen, perhaps on some maintenance duties with the harbour commissioners.

The wreck that I found that afternoon on the river, is to the best of my knowledge the only remains of a lighter that worked the river for centuries. In a way, it’s a shame that such a vessel would be left to rot away into the mud. And yet ironically, if it had not been abandoned where it was, it must certainly have rotted completely away. If anyone knows anyone in maritime archaeological circles that might have an interest in taking measurements and recording the vessel, tell them to get in touch. As such it might be the only such measurements to exist? I would also appreciate any further written details on the Lighter, particularly on the build or the propulsion.

For more detail on the trade of the lighters between Waterford, Carrick On Suir and Clonmel, here’s a previous guest blog Leslie Dowley
For more on the New Ross and River Barrow trade, a story of mine from 2018

A-Z Placenames of the Three Sisters

My wife Deena and I have participated and/or coordinated an event for every year of Heritage week since 2005. For this year’s event we initiated an online project exploring the placenames along the Three Sister River network of the Barrow, Nore and Suir. The event ran from Saturday 15th August with twice daily storys from guest authors and concluded on Sunday 23rd August, Water Heritage Day with a new webpage; An A-Z of Placenames of the Three Sisters. You can view it at the link below.

Carrick Beg, Carrick On Suir

Jerry McCarthy

I got my first glimpse of Carrick Beg in Nov 1974 when my then girlfriend invited me up for the weekend. It didn’t take me long to get to know the neighbours as I began to spend more and more time up here after that.

Straight away it became very apparent how important the river was to so many locals with salmon fishing being a great provider of a few bob when the season was in. Families by the names of Norris, Power, Doherty, Fitzgerald, Brett, Tobin and many more fished the Suir in what became known to me as their Cots.

Each family would have their own distinctive way of making their own boat as I found out when I was told who owned such a cot by a man named Tom Brett. His fishing days were all but a memory as he was a retired man when I got to know him. In his day the cots he built were sought by many as they were so well made. What a storyteller he was too. You’d always meet him on one of the bridges with all his butties reminiscing of the days and nights they fished and with every story those salmon grew bigger.

The three rogues on the Old Bridge at Carrick On Suir; Jeff Wells, Tom Brett and Mansell Ryan

Sadly all of these men are gone now and the fishing traditions that have lasted centuries are but a shadow of the past with very few from these families using the river now except to walk what is called The Blueway. Those that still fish the river are mainly confined to Treacy Park with the Power family continuing the tradition of casting their rods from their Carrick Cots.

The Power family with their late dad Bob, before the River Rescue this family retrieved many lost souls from the river from Clonmel to Waterford
A man and his cot. Paddy Doherty RIP, who only passed away recently

Submitted by Jerry for ourThree Sisters Placenames project – Heritage Week 2020

Kilmokea

John Flynn

When I was in my early teens my friends and I would cycle miles to pick strawberries. In the evenings if we were passing an old graveyard on our way home we would go in and look for the oldest dated headstone or an unusual inscription. One evening one of the lads said that he had heard that there was a pirates grave in the graveyard in Great Island. Of course, we had to go to look for it.

After a short search we found it, an old headstone dated 1789 with a skull and crossbones on the back. That was my first visit to Kilmokea cemetery, little did I know that years later I would be passing it every day in my job as a postman. As it happens it is not a pirates grave but a frequently used depiction inscribed on headstones to remind us of our mortality.

The “pirates” grave. Photo courtesy of John Flynn

Between 2012 and 2016, as a member of the Sliabh Coillte Heritage Group, I took part in a series of geophysical surveys in the Kilmokea Enclosure which surrounds the cemetery. It is recorded as an Ecclesiastical Enclosure dating from the Early Medieval Period. If anybody called to see our progress while we were conducting the surveys I would enjoy bringing them into the cemetery to show them the various historical artefacts that can be seen there. In particular, it has the smallest high cross in Ireland at just 56cm high. Also there are Bullan stones/Holy water fonts, the base of a standard high cross, some cut and dressed stones from old buildings along with the base of a small medieval church. There is one grave marker that is very interesting. It is shaped like the lid of a coffin with the widest part turned down.  The edges are chamfered and apart from that, there is no inscription or carvings on it. I sometimes wonder where did it come from or who decided to place it there.

Irelands smallest High Cross. Photo courtesy of John Flynn
The unusual grave marker. Photo courtesy of John Flynn

During Heritage Week in 2019, I met geologist Dr. Bill Sheppard who has a particular interest in relating local rock to the building stone used in National Monuments.  Subsequently I showed him around the area of Great Island including a visit to the Kilmokea Graveyard.  While we were looking around the cemetery Bill noted the range of rock used in the gravestones and artefacts.  These included granite, various limestones some with trace fossil trails, local shale rock and, of particular interest, two eighteenth century-dated headstones of rock not found in southeast Ireland.  These two were of metamorphic schist rock with a characteristic shiny texture.  One of these contained a mineral thought likely to be kyanite.  The year of interment on this stone was 1784 in the family name of Foley and on the other stone were engraved the years 1794, 1841 and 1855 with the family name of Kent.  The source of such rock is very limited in Ireland and restricted to Co Mayo, the Ox Mountains or close to the main Donegal granite, for example near Cresslough.  Further afield, no such rock is known to occur in England or Wales, however, they do occur in Scotland.

The Kent and Foley headstones. Photo courtesy of John Flynn

 I think that it’s remarkable that around 250 years ago there was a such trade in headstones that they would be transported hundreds of miles and end up in a small country graveyard like Kilmokea. It is certainly possible, if not probable that they journeyed here via the Three Sisters. To me that fortunate meeting with Bill is a typical example of no matter how familiar you are with a place something really interesting and exciting can be in full view and you won’t see it until the right person comes along and points it out to you.

I would like to acknowledge the assistance of Dr Bill Sheppard in the writing of this piece.

Submitted by John as part of our Three Sister Placenames project for Heritage Week 2020

KEYSER’S STREET

Cian Manning

Edmund Spenser, the 16th century English poet penned the words ‘the gentle Shure that making way. By sweet Clonmel, adorns rich Waterford’. As we follow the river Suir we reach Ireland’s oldest city founded by the Vikings and are presented with a majestic Quayside. The British architectural historian Mark Girouard (grandson of Henry Beresford, 6th Marquess of Waterford) remarked that it was ‘the noblest quay in Europe.’ The Quay is a mile in length with the Dublin Penny Journal of December 1832 recording ‘and presents a continued line with scarcely any interruption throughout its entire extent’. Surrounded by natural beauty, the city which thrived along a river that afforded a depth of water from twenty to sixty-five feet at low water which could accommodate vessels of up to 800 tons mirroring mansion pieces on a Monopoly board.

the quays loooking from the Ardree Hotel. Courtesy of Brian Walsh

As one enters Waterford city by crossing Rice Bridge and turning left the half-way point of the Quay is marked by the Clock Tower. The renowned 19th century Gothic style landmark also illustrates the previous industriousness of the city’s docks with water troughs for horses. Continuing along the Quay you will pass four laneways on the right with the last of the quartet being Keyser’s Street. The city derives its name from the Norse Veðrafjǫrðr meaning ‘Winter Haven’.

The name originates from the Norse era in Waterford. Courtesy of Cian Manning.

However, it is not the only name that Waterford bares of it’s Viking past. The aforementioned Keyser’s Street is a name of Norse origin while the street dates to the medieval period. ‘Keyser’ meaning way of the ship wharf or path to pier head. The former Publicity Officer of South East Tourism, Patrick Mackey noted that this is where the ship wharves were situated. The street runs southwards of Custom House Quay and reaches the junction of High Street and Olaf Street. As part of the Viking fortifications, there stood a Keyser’s Castle and by 1707 these walls from John Aikenhead’s Coffee House (the first coffee house in Waterford city and listed in the corporation minutes of 1695) to William Jones’s new house by Goose Gate (named after the 17th century Searcher of Customs Thomas Goose) were pulled down. It was ordered that the stones from the battlements would be used in the construction of a Corn Market where the old Custom House stood.

The iconic Clyde Shipping Office building now stands at the entrance from the Quay to Keyser’s St

Down through the centuries this street has been referred to by a couple of different names. A deed of lease between William Bolton and a clothier, Samuel Pearn records the name Kimpsha Lane. In the Civil Survey map of 1764 the street is referred to as Kempson’s Lane.
Now the street captures the hustle and bustle of modern life from the trade union movement to the workings of the General Post Office. It’s best to finish with the words of a 19th century poem evoking Waterford’s Viking connections with the story of Keyser Street in mind:


Like golden-belted bees about a hive
Which come forever and forever go
Going and coming with the ebb and flow,
From year to year, the strenuous Ostman strive.

Close in their billow-battling galleys prest,
Backhands and forwards with the trusty tide
They sweep and wheel around the ocean wide,
Like eagles swooping from their cliff-built nests.

And great their joy, returning where they left
Their tricorned stronghold by the Suirshore
‘Mid song and feast, to tell their exploits o’er –
Of all the helm-like glibs their swords had cleft,
The black-haired damsels seized, the towers attacked.
The still monastic cities they had sucked.

Submitted by Cian for our Placenames of the Three Sisters project for Heritage Week 2020