Enduring Mystery of Creaden’s Forty Steps

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!

Creaden Head is marked by the +

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.

The steps as seen this summer from our punt. We are looking upriver.

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. 

New Book Out Now
Templetown, Co Wexford

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.

The steps and the cave beneath to the left

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.

a virtual tour via Mark Power

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. 

Any feedback can be added to the comments on the blog or by email to tidesntales@gmail.com


Book Launch of ‘Dauntless Courage’: Celebrating the History of Dunmore East RNLI

As any blog regular will know, the lifeboats and their actions are a feature of so many of the stories on Tides and Tales. So it is with great anticipation that we look forward to the forthcoming Dauntless Courage, a history of the Dunmore East Lifeboat Station in the coming weeks. And even more so, as it is one of our own, a regular guest blogger on the page, David Carroll who is the author. Some further details below.

Radio presenter Damien Tiernan will lead an online panel discussion (Wednesday 25 November at 8 pm) with ‘Dauntless Courage’ author David Carroll and Dunmore East RNLI volunteer crew members.

WLR FM radio presenter, former South East correspondent for RTE and author of ‘Souls of the Sea’ Damien Tiernan will lead the panel discussion with the author of ‘Dauntless Courage’ David Carroll who will also be joined by Dunmore East RNLI volunteer crew members Brendan Dunne and Neville Murphy. The launch is coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the Glenmalure Tragedy which is featured in the book.

Dauntless Courage’: Celebrating the History of the Dunmore East RNLI, their crews and the Maritime Heritage of the Local Community. All proceeds from the book will be going to the local Dunmore East Lifeboat Fundraising Branch to support the saving of lives on our seas.

After several years researching and writing of the book, the public unveiling will take place online with an in-depth panel discussion of the research involved in writing the book, the characters behind the lifejackets, the many acts of courage that took place far from shore, and a look at the local community that was so often the backbone of every crew that took to sea to save those whose lives were in peril.

L-R Damien Tiernan, David Carroll, Brendan Dunne and Neville Murphy

The online event will take place on Wednesday 25 November at 8 pm for approximately forty minutes, with a live Q&A session for attendees afterwards. Registration for the event can be made by clicking here

David Carroll, author of Dauntless Courage said: ‘What has really struck me about writing this book has been the amazing goodwill and generosity of so many people who have helped to make this book possible, especially all the interesting and historic photographs and paintings that we have been given access to for inclusion in the book’.

David in company with Brendan Dunne on a research trip (pre covid) to Poole

Damian Tiernan, WLR FM radio presenter said: ‘I am honoured and delighted to be hosting this discussion, I have a long association with members of the RNLI in Dunmore and I worked closely with them over the years. The publication is a wonderful record of all that has happened complete with superb pen portraits and descriptions of events and superbly written and produced’.

Here’s what Dr Pat McCarthy has to say about the book

I must admit I am really looking forward to the book. I’m hoping that if time allows David may do a guest blog featuring one of the rescues that the lifeboat and her crew were involved with in the coming weeks. You can preorder the book now. All proceeds go to the local Dunmore East Lifeboat Fundraising Branch to support the saving of lives on our seas. If you have any questions or need further information on the book you can email dunmorelifeboatbook@gmail.com

My father to the rescue

On Saturday night, 12th Nov 1955 a collision in the River Mersey involving three ships saw one ship sink, 9 crewmen struggle for an hour without lifejackets in freezing water and a dramatic rescue which included three young seamen from the village of Cheekpoint Co Waterford.

The Cheekpoint men were my father, Bob Doherty, my uncle John and Jimmy (O’Dea) Doherty. They 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.

My father Bob on right with unidentified shipmates

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 father’s 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.

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. Like the Ocean Coast, the Bannprince had served with a volunteer crew during the war, helping to evacuate some of the 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. The first the crew knew of difficulties was when the ship’s horn sounded three shrill blasts moments before there was an almighty crash and the ship heeled 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.

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.  My fathers lifeboat 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.

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.  

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 shipmates???”  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.

The new book cover which includes the blending of two images, the building of Dunmore East pier and the city dredger, Portlairge from an original image by Jonathan Allen.

This excerpt from the story is only one along with 22 others which feature in my new book about the life and times of so many ships, seafarers, and their families connected to Waterford harbour which is available now from bookshops, online, or directly. More details by email to tidesntales@gmail.com or at this link

New Book Out Now