One of the most intriguing and enduring mysteries we have anywhere in Waterford harbour is the Forty Steps at Creaden Head. Carved into the cliff of this inhospitable headland the purpose and the creators of the stone steps have intrigued and perplexed many.
Creaden Head is located on the western side of Waterford harbour, 1 ½ mile NW of Dunmore East. The stone at the tip of the headland is from volcanic Old Red Sandstone, sometimes called puddingstone, a sand and pebble mixture that was forged in the furnace of the earth’s natural heat. It juts out into the harbour and stands as the most eastern tip of the county of Waterford and the province of Munster. Canon Power speculated that the name originated from a person, but someone unknown to us.[I] As the land is in private ownership, I have only ever seen the steps by water, the best way to my mind!
The steps were carved into the cliff face in a very steep area. It would have taken time, determination, and a lot of skill. It would also have had to be financed. Numerous theories have been put forward about the steps and I will share those that are known to me in no specific order.
I might start with a piece written by the column “Sean Suir” in the News & Star in 1949. “While camping in Woodstown my old pal and myself walked down those steps when the tide was very low. I often wondered who made them and why they were cut in such a point almost at, the steepest part of the cliff. If you have not seen them, do go and have a look at them. Seemingly no one in the locality could tell us anything about them. The first time I saw them was when brought by my parents for a cruise to Dunmore on the old ‘ Vandeleur,’ the once-famous river steamer.[ii] What I love about this is the notion that even in the era of the Paddle Steamers (1837-1905) the steps evoked speculation and intrigue.
One theory is that the steps were created when the Knights Templar operated a ferry between Creaden and their church at Templetown in Wexford, just over a mile across the harbour. The Templars were granted ferry and numerous other rights after the Norman conquest. According to Byrne[iii], they established a ferry crossing at the narrowest point (Passage East to Ballyhack). No mention is made of another crossing, and why they would want another crossing point a few miles away and in a wider and more dangerous location is beyond me.
A more incredible theory is that it was used as a means of taking African slaves ashore to be walked in chains (for exercise apparently) before being reloaded and sent to the America’s. The origin of this theory is that an old path close to the shore at Fornaght leading inland known as Bothar na mban Gorm , the road of the blue women. The name has created much speculation and wild theorising, but the notion of diverting northwards from off the customary slave route has no evidence that I am aware of. More importantly, It ignores the well-known practice of triangular trade that governed shipping at the time, and indeed the fundamentals of the theory are still in use to this day.
The late Noel McDonagh had a very interesting and to my mind plausible theory which linked this roadway with Creaden and the ancient burial site of the Giants Grave at Harristown. Noel’s research was unfortunately cut short by his untimely death but his theory, in brief, was that ancient people may have used the road and steps as part of a funeral rite as they placed the bones of their dead at the base of Creaden in a sea cave to enable their passage to the other world by water. Noel’s findings of flints and other evidence have turned the heads of everyone with an interest in the early settlement of Ireland.
One theory that I occasionally discussed with Noel was smuggling. Neither of us really thought smuggling at the location made any sense. Firstly it was within view of Duncannon which had a military presence since the medieval era. But it is also an inhospitable location. Tides can reach three knots on the Head during spring tides, and it is open to all wind directions except south-westerlies. To put it mildly, it is far from being an ideal location.
There is merit to the theory, however. Firstly smuggling was a well organised and lucrative trade in Ireland up to the mid 19th Century. My cousin James has guest blogged on it before. Creaden is out of the way, right beside the channel into the ports of Waterford and New Ross. More importantly, such steps have an established association with smuggling in other areas including west Cork.
My view of smuggling was that it would involve a ship coming into the head to unload. Not feasible on this site in my view. But what if it anchored above the head, and a number of smaller boats worked to bring the goods ashore, where willing hands passed the goods up onto the headland and distributed them inland. Not just feasible, but practical. It may have also served the purpose of offering a diversion to the revenue coastwatchers, another site amongst many to be watched and the spreading of resources. And it’s a theory supported by one of Ireland’s foremost archaeologists Connie Kelleher. Connie specialises in underwater archaeology for the National Monuments Service. She spoke about it in Waterford some years back in a talk organised by the cousin. Connie has a new book out called The Alliance of Pirates: Ireland and Atlantic piracy in the early seventeenth century, which I have promised myself for Christmas. I’m sure Creaden and Waterford will get a substantial mention.
Another theory about the steps was that they were used by pilots for boarding sailing vessels coming into the ports. See for example Michael Fewer’s account from Rambling Down the Suir[iv]. Most likely this was the era of the hobblers, prior to the formation of the harbour commissioners in Waterford (1816) who appointed their own official pilots and a pilot boat. However, it’s also known that the hobblers operated for many years after this and that they operated from the area. I would think it would be highly unlikely they went to the bother of cutting steps into the cliff, but very likely they used the steps when tide and weather allowed.
There is one idea I have myself that I have yet to properly research. That is the use of stone on Creaden by millstone makers and which has been researched by Niall Colfer (son of the renowned late Billy Colfer) Colfer estimated that almost 300 millstones were quarried from the site and he describes it as “…the most intense example of millstone quarrying located in Ireland as part of…[his]… research.”[v] Is it possible the workmen employed in such an operation used the steps as a point of access at certain times. They would certainly have had the skill. The quarry stands a long way from the steps and there is no evidence that I have seen of any millstone quarrying in their vicinity, but as I say more research is merited.
And of course, there’s likely to be other theories that I have not heard, or have yet to unearth. But that’s the joy of research. It’s an ever-evolving story.
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