Following the pilgrims footsteps

On Saturday 23rd July the Camino Society of Ireland came to our community to appreciate the role of the harbour in medieval pilgrimage. On a walk led by Damien McLellan, we met at Passage East, took the ferry to Ballyhack, and wandered the roads in search of pilgrims’ footsteps. Although long since passed, their echoes are still to be heard if you only take the time to listen. Medieval pilgrimage is now accepted as having been a tradition amongst Irish nobility and merchant classes. Through it, indulgences were earned, which many believed would shorten the soul’s time in purgatory. One of the best known perhaps is our own James Rice of Waterford who made the trip twice aboard ships from Waterford. Louise Nugent in her own blog recounts the journey of three of the Ó’Driceoil clan who did likewise. But little remains of how those of lesser means and position in society journeyed.

The first thing that struck me about Saturday’s Camino Society walk was the energy and enthusiasm of the group as Damien and I strolled into the community centre in Passage East. Gathered outside the Black Sheep Cafe for refreshments, it reminded me at once of those gatherings at cafes, refugios, or albergues along the Camino routes where walkers are collected, swapping stories with gusto with those of a like mind and shared experience.

Meeting us was our co-guide Breda Murphy and we were at once conscious of a well-oiled organisation that helped put us at our ease. The walk you see was originally to have a 25-30 person maximum, but such was the interest it had grown to almost 50. With crossings of roads and negotiating narrow footpaths, this was a matter of concern to us, but the obvious care and attention to booking in and managing the group from the committee of the Society gave a clear sense of shared responsibility.

At 11 am after a health and safety briefing and introductions by Joe, Damien took the floor to talk briefly about his theory and to place it in a historical context. Damien explained how Henry II had landed at Passage East in 1172 to cement the Norman invasion and had carved up the harbour area for various individuals and groups including the Knights Templars who gained the ferry rights to cross the estuary.

Damien sets the scene, photo courtesy of Jim McNichols

We then moved towards the strand, where I was to give an orientation of the area and some insight into maritime trade. The mist made my task a bit of a challenge as we couldn’t see as far as Duncannon, but I quickly explained the location, the direction of the sea, and the great highway that was the three sister rivers. I covered the importance of the strategic location of Passage, the spot where ships of old could easily sail to and find a refuge, and how because of this the area flourished and was even part of the city of Waterford, controlled directly by the corporation into the 19th century. I also touched on the relevance of the Norman invasion to this importance – how merchants settled in Waterford, exported animal and fish products across a network of alliances in the UK and the continent, and imported finished goods, wine, and salt. Such links and such regular sailings of course made it much easier for pilgrims to travel both away and home. I omitted to mention the Spanish Fort, however.

We then walked up the White Wall and Breda gave a sense of what life was like in Passage for ordinary people where men were often away at sea, or worse their widows were left to struggle alone to raise families with only their neighbours for support. Breda spoke of the work of the cockle women, how they foraged for cockles all around the harbour area as far as Tramore, how they harvested from Monday to Wednesday, boiled them up on a Thursday, and sold them on the streets of Waterford on a Friday. She introduced such characters as Nana, Masher, and Aunt Molloy and gave a true sense of their role in the community and also showed the group around the village where much of the evidence of the cockle pickers is still to be seen.

As we crossed on the ferry to Ballyhack we were relieved that the deck was not too busy, we had plenty of room as walkers. A lot more comfortable for us however compared to the lot of the medieval ferry, an open row boat, or perhaps a larger craft shared with farm animals and horses.

“Pilgrim landing” as we depart the Passage East Car Ferry. Photo courtesy of Jim McNichols

In Ballyhack we walked the footpath towards Arthurstown where we had a quick stop off for me to mention the emergency era minefield before turning up the Church Road to start making our way back towards Ballyhack. At the back entrance to the graveyard we were met by Liam Drought who was invited by Damien to give a local perspective on the area.

Liam first mentioned that where we were standing was a part of an old route that went up to the local Fair Green which was an area of great antiquity and which held a fair each July (25th – St James Day) that brought people from all over which he went on to describe. He highlighted the importance of agriculture and fisheries in the locality and the abundance of trade that had gone on in the past centered on the river. Living on Arthurstown Quay Liam had a number of very interesting points to make on how thriving the river once was. At this point Damien asked if I would recount another St James Day fair – a story of the locality and the Bristol fair in 1635 when a convoy of 50 ships departed under naval escort for protection from Barbary pirates.

A chart of Waterford Harbour by Francis Jobson 1591, showing the defences but also the day marks by which ships could safely navigate including Ballyhack church – named in the chart “Temple St James”
Trinity College Library. You can view the high definition here.
OSI historic series highlighting the church and the fair green
I think this is the only likeness I am aware of for the church, taken from a sketch of the area by Thomas Philips dated 1685. NLI

Next we entered the graveyard where Liam explained the location of St James Church, its fate, and how it was used as a day mark or landmark in ship navigation in the days of sail. The church was removed and used in the building of the protestant church at Blackhill, Duncannon.

Damien points to the location of the church alter
The Ilen entering harbour under engine power as we walked…co-incidental, but a very timely visitor

As we headed away again along the old road, Damien gave a short talk about the millstone quarry that once operated and then we joined with the main road, where a few of our party decided to head back to Ballyhack whilst the majority climbed the hill to our last stop. This was on a “Green Road” the extent of which was obvious from its width and fine retaining walls. We stopped a few hundred yards in where on a much sunnier day we could see Tory Hill and Mount Leinster away in the distance and Damien recounted the likely route a less well-off walking pilgrim would take to get back up the country and the very obvious stops. All of which was explaind in his article published by History Ireland – Reclaiming the Way of St James

On the Green Road

Damiens final remarks was to state that although the landowner had given us full permission to walk the green road that it only leads to the main road which is dangerous. In fact even though the historical footprint of the walk is very evident, Damien is adamant that having walked it once and cycled it twice from St James Gate in Dublin the only safe part of the walk for modern-day pilgrims is the Barrow Way, something he hopes the society may consider exploring.

Looking back on Byrnes from the ferry, as we head home

Returning to Ballyhack and having a lovely lunch in the comfortable surroundings of Byrnes of Ballyhack I could not help thinking of the rich maritime history we had showcased on the day. There’s much yet to be uncovered, or relearned of the areas past, and much that can be enjoyed by the modern walker. It just takes an eager spirit and perhaps some research and interpretation by others in authority. You could also get a sense of it from the water by boat tour with Bob and Walter on the Waterford Estuary Heritage Boat Tours.

Of course, we were also very much relieved that everyone had got around safely and we have the Camino Society committee to thank very much for that. And much more as it happens. The walk participants all paid a small fee towards the event and which the Society generously decided to top up towards our chosen charity, the Dunmore East RNLI. €500 – no small amount and we were thrilled to receive it.

This weekend the local lifeboat will be collecting, I’ll be helping out on the car ferry on Saturday so please give generously and if you see me please say hello

Buen Camino.

Grand opening of the Barrow Bridge 21st July 1906

Today marks the opening of the Barrow railway Bridge and the South West Wexford line. I wrote previously about the planning and construction of the Bridge which was started in 1902 by the firm of William Arrol & Co to a design by one of the foremost engineers of the time Sir Benjamin Barker. The purpose of the railway line was to open up the South West of Ireland to export with England in an efficient and quick manner and speed the crossing times to England and Wales for passengers.  The line’s specific distinction is that it was the last major railway line to be constructed in Ireland.  Barrow Bridge is 2131 feet in length and has an opening span to allow shipping through to the port of New Ross.

A postcard of the bridge not long after it opened

Both the bridge and the line, including the new pier at Rosslare, Co Wexford were officially opened on Saturday, July 21st, 1906.  Five hundred guests traveled on a special event train which started out in Dublin.  The train had twenty-one saloon carriages attached including the royal saloon in which was the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland Lord Aberdeen, who was to perform the inauguration.  It is said that it was the longest special event train ever seen in the country.  It stopped off at Carlow, Kilkenny, and finally Waterford station to collect further guests including the Marquis of Waterford, and then on to Rosslare via the new Barrow Bridge.  According to Susan Jacob, her grandmother Aggie Power (who lived in Daisybank house) was on that first train, a story handed down through the family. I do recall my father saying that there was some connection between the family and some of the engineers working on the project and Pat Murphy has told me in the past that he understood that some men stayed at Daisybank as lodgers during the construction.

Construction workers working on the opening span, April 1905

Apparently some of the guests fainted with the fear associated with crossing the Bridge.  Well, they might be in awe, for it was by far the longest rail bridge ever built in the country at the time and would retain that distinction (and possibly still should regarding the expanse of water crossed) until Belfast’s Dargan Bridge and related works were constructed in 1994. It might be hard now to imagine the fear that the travelers might have held in such a crossing, but it should be remembered that the designer and builder had only a few short years before completing a project to replace the largest rail bridge in the British Isles – The Tay Bridge, the predecessor of which had collapsed into the River Tay in 1879 while a train was crossing with the loss of all aboard.

A sketch I made (using a phone app) of the bridge recently looking towards the Kilkenny side

The opening span was also a concern no doubt, but passengers need have had no fear.  The opening span was operated from a control tower atop the opening, which was manned and operated via an electrical generator below on the protective pontoon.  (Mains electricity now powers the opening, but this is the only difference made to the operation that I am aware of) The operator couldn’t open the centre span unless and until signal men on both the Waterford and Campile sides acknowledged that there was nothing traveling on the line. 

A recent shot of the bridge looking towards the Wexford side. Note the black ball to the left of the control tower, I love to see such details preserved.

Indeed initially ships would not proceed through the opening until a signal was also raised from the control tower, a black ball.  This would later include a green light when the bridge opening was extended to nighttime.  Many the time I marveled at the nerves of these men sitting atop the span as ships passed through, and I’m sure their nerves were well tested as ships struck the bridge on at least two occasions.

Notwithstanding any guest’s concerns, the special event train proceeded onto the bridge and came to a halt halfway across to give everyone a view of the meeting of the three sister rivers at Cheekpoint. It then continued on its way to Rosslare, where the three-masted schooner Czarina lay at anchor and the steamship Pembroke was at the pier, having sailed earlier from Fishguard with invited guests.  As it crossed into Rosslare a 21-gun salute was fired by the local coastguard.  The new service was inaugurated from the pier by the Lord Lieutenant and this was followed by a party where several toasts were made to the good fortune of the new company.  The freight rail service was the first to start running on the line thereafter, followed by a passenger service which came into operation on August 1st, 1906 and the first cross-channel ferry left Rosslare on Fri 24th August 1906, sailing on the SS St Patrick.

The Barrow Bridge gave over 100 years of loyal service before being closed in 2010.  An event we have also marked. I also wrote about a century of incidents associated with the bridge in my book Waterford Harbour Tides and Tales.

I would like to acknowledge the following sources:
Jack O’Neill, A Waterford Miscellany. 2004.  Rectory Press
Ernie Shepard – The South Wexford Line.  Journal of the Bannow Historical Society (2013)
John Power – A Maritime History of County Wexford Vol 1(2011)

Oxford rowers at the 1890 Waterford Regatta

I am delighted to have this guest blog entry from Cian Manning of a vivid account of just one of the many historic races that took place in the regattas of the past in Waterford City. In this case, it reveals the visit of the Oxford rowers in 1890 who came to compete against some of the best Irish rowers of the era. Over to Cian to set the scene, and let us know how Waterford got on.

 On Tuesday 15th July 1890 the renowned Oxford and Liverpool (Mersey Club) crews were scheduled to compete against All-Ireland with notice of numerous entries promised from Clonmel, Dublin, Limerick, and New Ross in a regatta on the River Suir. The events were going to be accompanied by music from the Band of the Manchester Regiment playing from the Grandstand of the Waterford Boat Club. All the action was to be followed by a dinner at City Hall on the Mall, with tickets costing 10s each. It was the most eagerly anticipated event in the history of Irish rowing, as the Waterford City Regatta was about to play host to several high calibre teams that would compete against one another in exciting races. Previewing the excitement, the Waterford Mirror & Tramore Visitor noted:

…some of the crews are famous. An unprecedent fact is that of two English crews having entered, viz: Oxford and Mersey (Liverpool). The former is, of course, world-famed as the cradle of rowing, and the crew which will compete at Waterford, will probably, be a carefully selected one.

Waterford Mirror & Tramore Visitor

It was considered the first occasion on which a crew from Oxford competed in Ireland. The best teams on the island of Ireland were to be equally well represented with Dublin University sending several crews. The eagerly anticipated race for the senior fours was described as ‘a ding-dong one’ on a day filled with many attractions. Nevertheless, there was pragmatism about how Waterford representatives would get on against high calibre opponents. This, however, didn’t rule out hope, the Waterford Chronicle concluding “However, on their own [Waterford rowers] water the blue with white hoop will make a great race, and it will take a ‘nailing’ crew to beat them.”

A later era (1930s) but highlights the interest from spectators of regatta day. Image courtesy of Brendan Grogan. The ship in the mid river is the Clyde boat SS Rockabil.

 “…an occurrence of peculiar moment…’: OXFORD UNIVERSITY BOAT CLUB IN WATERFORD CITY

The appearance of the Oxford crew led the Standard to pronounce of the Waterford Regatta:

Within modern times it was always an event of importance in the rounds of amusements of the season, but this year it was regarded as an occurrence of peculiar moment, in which the reputation of the oarsmen of Urbs Intacta was supposed to be at stake.

Waterford Standard

Hospitality was provided for the Oxford crew and several of the Boat Club men, who were entertained and housed at the residence of Mr. Richard Hassard at Rockenham. He was the son of Michael Dobbyn Hassard of Glenville, who had represented Waterford City in the Imperial Parliament at Westminster. Richard had previously crewed with several of the Dublin University clubs and lived just outside the city centre in Ferrybank. Richard practiced as a solicitor in Waterford but died at the young age of 33 in late 1892 as a result of contracting typhoid fever. The Waterford Standard reports that the Oxford men were the guests of Charles E. Denny at his residence in May Park. The rest of the crews stayed at the Adelphi Hotel, which overlooked the course on the Suir for the day’s races.

Regatta day at Waterford c. 1900. Note original Boat Club building and terraced seating for public which was similar to the setting in July 1890. Photo courtesy of Brendan Grogan. A new boathouse was constructed in 1902.

Such was the anticipation, that many watched the crews’ final exercises that Monday evening before the day’s competitive rowing when the number of spectators was surpassed due to trains (which the Standard evocatively described as ‘iron horses’) bringing many visitors to the city to witness the day’s events. Many businesses in the city decided to give employees an afternoon off, with the Standard reporting ‘from one to two o’clock there was a partial suspension of commercial transactions, thus letting free a considerable number whose energies for the rest of the day were directed to securing the best view of the races.’ Crowds lined the Quayside from the Milford hulks as far as past the Market House. For those few hours on that July day, the atmosphere would rival the crackling anticipation of the world’s great sporting arenas, from the Circus Maximus in Ancient Rome to the banks of the River Thames on boat race day.

    ‘…a rare combination…’: the River Suir, sunrays & soaking rain

And Waterford, as it appeared to me from the boat, which was floating me across from the ferry steps, under the welcome effulgence of that returned prodigal, the Sun, and on a magnificent tide which exhibited to striking advantage the splendid stretch of the Waterford Course, and as if inviting people to come forth and make the most of such a rare combination of the elements.

Waterford Chronicle

Though with such idyllic conditions it wasn’t long before the rain would arrive in flourishes and eventually a torrential downpour for the rest of the regatta which saw many of the women in attendance depart as they were dressed in ‘summer costumes’ which were not practical for the lashing precipitation that had engulfed that summer’s day. The Manchester Regiment’s band played at the Boat House as a precursor to a local Amateur Band playing at the Mall later that evening. The Waterford Boat Club’s Grandstand was decorated with many flags, which were matched by bunting on many vessels anchored at the port.

However, not everything was as serene as there was no rest for the ferry which was nearly brought to a point of complete exhaustion. This was partially due to the ferry boat not being fit to cater for such huge volumes, with one local paper suggesting it was of antediluvian origin. Thus, in evoking Genesis (from the Bible, not Phil Collins) it seemed appropriate that the day’s racing was drenched by such torrid rain and a West to South-Westerly wind blowing.

The Peoples Regatta of 1925 programme. Images courtesy of Brian Forristal. I think it gives a good sense of the popularity, the planning and the prestige associated with the river regattas

The evening banquet held in City Hall to honour the visit of the Oxford crew (you’ll note the lack of Mersey representation in the day’s events which would point to a change of plans) to Waterford saw many well-known local figures and competing oarsmen hosted by Alderman Mahony, High Sheriff of Waterford in the absence of the Mayor. Sadly, we lack descriptions of the day’s racing, as the local Regatta Committee did not provide the press with the adequate facilities to witness the action and provide suitable reportage in their subsequent publications. The big race of the day was the Waterford Challenge Cup, valued at £50, with presentation prizes valued at £20; for any class of four-oared boat with the course stretching to around 1 ½ mile. Nevertheless, with an absence of colour to the rowing proceedings (other than the Munster Express recording that the races were ‘fairly well contested’) we know the result was:

First place – Dublin University Boat Club (black and white)

N ‘Kaye’ (bow), A ‘Catesby’, R Bleasby, H.A. Elgee (stk), H.A. Cowper (cox)

Second – Waterford Boat Club (navy blue and white)

T.F. Sheedy (bow), C.W. Mosley, B.C. Manning, W.J. Manning (stk), A. Farrell (cox)

Third – Oxford University Boast Club (dark blue)

A.W. Mahaffy (bow), C. Parker, R.P.P. Rowe, J. MacLachlan (stk), A. Cowper (cox)

The Waterford Boat Club crew didn’t disgrace themselves in obtaining a runner-up position that was made even more illustrious by beating an in the form Oxford. The most notable member of the Oxford crew at that Waterford meet was R.P.P. Rowe, who competed in the famous Boat Race from 1889 to 1892, winning three of the four races over Cambridge. Rowe attended Clifton College in Bristol (where he would form connections with the Old Vic) and Magdalen College at Oxford University. He later became President of the Oxford University Boat Club in 1892. However, this fails to adequately convey what a generous and remarkable figure the Waterford Boat Club hosted that summer.

A Poole photo of the 1901 regatta, the originals are held by the NLI and this image was shared by Paul O’Farrell on Facebook previously, with a link to the photo on the NLI site where the image can be viewed including the boat house and crowd in higher definition.

SIR REGINALD PERCY PFEIFFER ROWE (1868-1945): OXFORD OARSMAN & PUBLISHED PHILANTHROPIST

His full name was Reginald Percy Pfeiffer Rowe and was born on 11th  April 1868 in West Derby, Liverpool. The Rowe family later moved to Paddington and after attending Clifton, Reginald obtained a Bachelor of Arts in 1891 having read history. Three years later, he completed a Master of Arts degree. In 1896, he applied for membership as a ‘Jobber’ in the London Stock Exchange and came to reside at Kensington in London. We know from the 1911 census that he then worked as Secretary of the New University Club at 57 St. James Street in Westminster. Upon the outbreak of the First World War, R.P.P. Rowe, at 46 years of age, joined the committee of the United Arts Volunteer Force and after two months of drilling he was gazetted as a Captain in the 6th Battalion, the Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment in December 1914. After finishing serving with the Military Intelligence Directorate, Rowe published a book titled the Concise Chronicle of Events of the Great War. For his military service, Reginald Rowe was awarded the 1914-15 Star, the British War Medal 1914-1918, and the Victory Medal.

Reginald Percy Pfeiffer Rowe (1882)

An eternal student, Rowe later qualified as a barrister and resided at 16 Old Square, Lincoln’s Inn, and served as Under Treasurer of Lincoln’s Inn at the New Hall. From 1900, Rowe served as Chairman of the Improved Tenements Association and was the Founder and Honorary Treasurer of the Sadler’s Wells Fund. A man of many talents, Rowe wrote two novels, a play titled ‘The Worst of Being William’ and many poems. Other publications included The Root of All Evil (printed by the Economic Reform Club, of which he served as President for a time) and a popular book on rowing produced by the Badminton Library. In the 1934 New Year’s Honours List, he was made a Knight Bachelor for his services in combating slum conditions in London and across England. Rowe died aged 76 on 21st January 1945 at Charing Cross Hospital in Westminster.

 EPILOGUE

One ponders what a loss to the city that the razzamatazz of the regatta at the Old Boat Club clubhouse to the prominence of the course on the River Suir that allowed spectators to form along the city’s Quayside which created a spectacle and an occasion that even saw businesses shuttering their shops to witness the day’s rowing and racing. We see how sport had increasingly become a huge part of the public and social life of Ireland’s oldest city, and is reflected in the important civic figures that supported and organised such events. Furthermore, in the figure of R.P.P. Rowe, we have one of the great figures of British sport who went on to become a hugely influential personality in a crusade to improve the living conditions of the poor. It seems more than appropriate that Sir Reginald competed in one race for Oxford in the shadow of the iconic Reginald’s Tower, you could say it illustrates the modern concept of ‘game recognises game’. If that fortified tower was built as a statement of power and defence then Reginald Rowe was certainly a worthy namesake in his crusade in housing and sporting endeavours.

Water Heritage Day 2022 – Building a Traditional Fishing Weir

For Heritage Week 2022, I am running an interactive course for 12 people on how to “sink” a typical local fishing weir based on my experiences as a child and young adult. We will also have a trip courtesy of Tomás Sullivan to an existing weir to appreciate the scale and positioning of the structure. Tomás will also do a short input on the issue of marine litter as part of this. The course will take place at Moran’s Poles from 11am – 1pm on Sunday August 21st as part of Water Heritage Day and supported by Local Authority Waters Programme . Prebooking is essential here, and participants can expect to learn about the history of the weirs, how they were sited, the methods employed in construction & repair and how they were operated by local fishermen. (I will also give a talk at Reginald’s Tower on Thursday 18th about the Portlairge dredger -but more details to come). To whet the appetite, or at least give you a sense of what’s involved, here’s a chapter from my first book entitled “Sinking a Weir”.

That first season on the eels opened my eyes to the working of the weirs and I quickly learned to respect and admire the creators of these structures.  When the tides ran at full strength and the waters rushing through hummed with the force, you got a true sense of their durability. 

I was reared on the lore of sinking weirs.  ‘Big Patsy’ Doherty told me one time of sinking the family weir on the Coolya mud.  They were working away when they spotted the Moran’s pushing off from Moran’s Poles.  He expressed his relief at the sight of them rowing across the river, knowing their skill and strength was going to make light of the job.  Big Patsy had been a fisherman all his life and worked for many years in the Harbour Board on the Port Lairge.  In my late teens he was retired and unwell, being cared for by his wife, the ‘Madonna’ and his two daughters Agnes and Ann Marie.  They waited on him ‘hand and foot’ as the saying goes. He had been unwell for some years but each spring, he miraculously raised himself up once the salmon started the run.  Then he and Walter Whitty would fish for as he put it, “one last season”.  He had a few last seasons yet to come however, before his final sailing.

The first job I ever worked on was the weir known as Mahon’s weir at the Rookery, owned by John Heffernan.  Any repair works on weirs tended to be done with the neap tides, when the river ran at its slowest or most gentle. Weir poles, pine trees of between twenty-five to forty feet in length, were prepared on the shoreline, trimmed, pointed and tied together and towed out by punt to the weir.

Mahon’s Weir at Sunset. Photo Credit – William Doherty

Alongside the weir were two boats, one an old-style yawl, now a motorised half-decker, called the Maid of the West, the other Paddy Moran’s punt called the Judy.  They were each positioned on either side of the outside wing.  Across the gunwale of each boat was tied a strong plank, which was our working platform, where the men could stand, and the poles could be hoisted up to.

Around the Maid of the West the various tools for the job were in place.  It was a basic tool chest, the mare, lump and sledge hammers, hatchet, spanners, a coil of rope and dozens of homemade metal pins, the largest being almost a foot long.

My crewmates were known to me and all very experienced.  John Heffernan as owner was in charge.  But my grand uncle Paddy Moran was there, and he was the oldest man present.  Matt ‘Spoogy’ Doherty was present.  Matt had his own weir further down known as the Sheag weir now gone after being struck by a ship in the 1990s. Gerry Boland and Pat Moran were there. This was their way of giving thanks for the access to bait from the weir for Eel fishing.  Anthony Fortune was also present, as he fished with John.  The brothers Paddy and Mickey Duffin made up the team.  Paddy was one of the strongest men in the village, with a pair of hands that looked like shovels.  Mickey was a river pilot, and a great man for the yarns.  It was a mixed and motley crew all under the direction of John, who was a man of unbelievable strength and who always led from the front.

The real work started once a pole was chosen for driving.  I was sent down in another punt to untie and bring up a pole, this was the young man’s job.  The poles were upper end towards the weir, all the pointed ends which would be driven into the riverbed, were facing downriver.  Although they may have all looked alike, John had his eye on certain ones, and I was verbally jostled from one to another until my hand clasped the preferred pole. 

Untied, I pushed it up against the outflowing tide and as the tip of it came up to the working plank.  Pat Moran knelt down and brought an end of a rope under it, and passing the end up between them they hauled on each end of the rope and the upper end on the pole rose up to meet them.  The end of the pole was placed on the plank and then it was grasped by powerful hands and heaved along, raising it out of the river water and into the air.  Once it started to balance across the plank, the job became a bit trickier, and I was told to stand on the part of the pole that remained in the river.  As the men lifted, I kept my weight on the pole in the river, and slowly it started to straighten into a more vertical position.  The aim, as I quickly figured out, was to get the pole upright which when combined with the suction of the mud on the riverbed made the movement and positioning of the pole much easier, something that would have been impossible on land.

Within moments the pole was vertical and then the job of getting it into position began. This was an altogether slower job. The pole could now be manhandled by two men, because its weight was supported by the river and the muddy river bottom.  The men worked to align it with the line of the weir wing.  But with short abrupt movements, too high and the end might float up to the surface and the whole operation would need to start again.

Once a position was agreed on, the pole was lifted by hand and dropped to secure it.  This was a temporary holding position and it would be then held in place by hand.  A second plank was laid between the two boats and this was tied into place, offering a more secure working platform.

Then the Mare came into play.  The Mare was a two-piece metal implement.  Each part had a long handle at the end of which was a semi-circular cup with holes at either side. These cups fitted into each other and as each end was offered up to the pole, large bolts were put through the holes and then washers and nuts were hand tightened into place to bring the two semi-circular cups together around the pole.  Spanners were used to tighten the nuts and bolts, securely fastening the Mare around the pole, so much so, that it made a solid bar of the two halves.  This then was the leaver to be used in driving the pole.  No one knows the origin of the name, but many thought it was French.

The Mare was positioned as high as they could get it on the first drive, perhaps seven feet.  The drive started with everyone taking a position on either side of the pole and as evenly as possible along the shafts of the mare.  We began by lifting the pole out of the mud once more then dropping it back. Then it was done again, but not as high and dropped once more, with force.  This motion of lifting up and dropping down would continue with increasing force, but always with perfect care to keep the pole vertical and straight. The drive would continue with much grunting and verbal encouragement until the Mare hit the platform planks.

Then the Mare was opened and repositioned further up the pole.  On the second drive, it would not go so high, because it would take a lot of strength to re-lift it once stopped for any length of time.  The deeper the pole went, the harder it was to lift out of the suction effect of the river bed. Speed was required, because the more the mud settled around the pole, the more difficult, if not to say impossible, it would be to rise. Having driven the pole a second time, and perhaps in total twelve feet into the river bed, you would be forgiven for thinking that you had gone far enough.  But the operation would continue for as long as the riverbed gave way.  Not until the pole was refusing to budge another inch would John be satisfied. As we got towards the end, I was ordered up the pole to give extra weight on the drive. As the men lifted, I would transfer my weight onto previously driven poles, and then as it was dropped I would jump with all my force onto the descending mare, careful to avoid hands and fingers. 

A sketch of a pole driving crew in action – Niall O’Driscoll

As the day wore on and more and more poles were offered up and manoeuvred into position I began to realise that this was close to being a ritual.   Any deviation was considered unacceptable and you could be forgiven for thinking sometimes that it was all a bit of a show.  It was anything but.  A practiced hand could tell a lot from just holding the pole, and as they manoeuvred it into position, whether the end was touching off previous weir pole butts or other fouls.  The intention of getting the pole into the right position would sometimes lead to discussions, history lessons, or arguments.  The sole concern was to get it right.  I noticed that Matt and John had a lot of old knowledge, but the other men weren’t shy to express opinions.  Where no agreement could be found, it tended to revert to Paddy, because as the oldest, and with a lifetime of fishing behind him, his word carried weight. 

After seven or eight hours, we might have the same number of poles driven, or if lucky, double that.  And not a part of your body would be free from pain.  As we worked the vertically driven poles needed to be strengthened with horizontal poles which we called ‘Rubberies’.  Again, no one knew the origins of the name but these were always very long, but not as thick as the uprights.  It was rarely possible to get a pole that long so the poles were joined, and fixed in place with the previously mentioned metal pins. The rubberies were positioned every few feet, and made like a ladder, albeit a very slippery, treacherous ladder, up the weir wings.

Heffernan’s Weir, Cheekpoint. Photo AJWent

I went on more weir-building trips after that. There was always something new to learn.   Some were easy jobs, some comedic, while others were pure grief.  I recall one event when the entire wing of a newly driven weir popped up and floated away on an incoming tide.  Or another, when a chap helping out but with no experience left his leg in a spot where the entire weight of a descending Mare struck.  The team that John Heffernan put together that first trip was hard to beat.  It had strength, energy, experience, and a bit of light relief, essential ingredients for such a task.