Freighting the Suir: Clonmel to Carrick 1906

In 1906 the River Suir was vibrant if weakening commercial thoroughfare transporting goods up and down from Clonmel to the sea on a daily basis, just like our motorways today. The boats used were flat-bottomed lighters (also called yawls above Carrick and barges) and they worked with the tides using poles, oars (sweeps), rudimentary sail or in the case of one company a steam tug. All used the tow-path above Carrick. This article explores the era, teetering as it was on the edge of fundamental change. 

Introduction and context

This article is drawn from a Royal Commission report on canals and waterways and it gives a very clear if a biased picture of the river of this era.  The evidence presented by J Ernest Grubb and James Phelan is from a river-centric perspective and there are two points I would like to make 1.) Both men were part of the fabric of the river trade and no doubt their evidence was slanted towards making the case to preserve their business and a fast-eroding way of life.  2.) This is based on my reading of their evidence and I homed in on points that interested me.  As regulars will know I am fundamentally biased when it comes to river matters.    

Lighters at Carrick on Suir, Robert French photo courtesy of Maurice Power. These are located on the northern bank on the lower side of what was then the Dillon or Red Bridge, the present road bridge

Royal Commission

In 1907 a Royal Commission reported on the canals and waterways of the British Isles – which obviously included Ireland at the time.  The purpose of the Commission was to travel around the country and take evidence from interested parties.  However, rather than just a bitching and moaning session, the Commission also challenged evidence and put the onus on the parties to be solution focused.  A number gave evidence about the River Suir, particularly above the City with a specific focus on the towns of Carrick On Suir and Clonmel.  This blog will explore the evidence of just two of these; J Ernest Grubb of Carrick and James Phelan of Clonmel, both of whom operated lighters on the route.

J Ernest Grubb (1843-1927) in 1925 sourced from J Ernest Grubb of Carrick on Suir (1928) by Isabel Grubb. Image courtesy of Maurice Power

J Ernest Grubb was managing owner of the Suir Steam Navigation Co (Est 1877) and director of John Grubb & Son Corn Merchant of Carrick & Clonmel.  He was also a member of the Tipperary SR Council.  James Phelan was from William Phelan & Sons Clonmel (New Quay & Parnell St) and he stated that they owned 8 boats working on the river and operated to Waterford.  Phelans employed about 16 horses to drag the boats up from Carrick, normally 12 sufficed for the one run but more horses were required if the river was in flood.  Phelan stated that 2/3 of the transported goods were inwards to Clonmel.

The Phelans on Clonmel from Slaters Commercial Directory of 1894. I can’t say they are all the one family of course.
The current view of what Phelans of 25 Parnel St, and the lane (Dowd’s Lane) leading down to the quays

River Suir Navigation Co

Grubb clarified early on that Suir Steam Navigation Co (SSNCo) was a separate entity to the River Suir Navigation Co (RSNCo) which was established as an incorporated company in 1836 by an act of parliament. This company was charged with “improving and maintaining the navigation of the River Suir…” and for the construction of a “ship canal” at Carrick On Suir.  It was funded from a levy of 1d per ton on seagoing craft above Grannagh.  This canal was made by cutting a channel through limestone rock on the south side of the river just below Carrick On Suir allowing “ocean-going craft drawing 10 or 11 feet of water” to reach the town (Only possible on spring high tides it seems and in another section of evidence Grubb stated that to that date the largest vessel seen in Carrick was 300 ton).  The extent of influence was from Grannagh Ferry upriver to Carrick Old Bridge.  The RSNCo had no influence above Carrick – this fell to the council and it seems only to Tipperary (because of the tow path) and the river was left to the rivermen and boatowners to maintain. 

Carrick to Clonmel towpath

Above Carrick, a towpath was constructed many years since (1750-ish it seems with further work in 1793 including the path, walls, and quays) and repaired occasionally along which lighters were towed upriver by horses against the flowing river.  Previous to the construction of the towpath men and women had physically dragged the boats against the tide by hand along the riverbank, stumbling and falling over rocks, ditches, and stumps no doubt. 

The lighters (or more accurately called yawls on this stretch – but I can see no discernible difference in design and build, except the loads carried were less) could drop down with the tides, but needed to use a breaking system of chains and other means to slow the run.  Clonmel to Carrick was a distance of 14 miles and could take 5 to 6 hours upwards, but much longer if the river was in flood. Here the river falls all the time, only becoming tidal at Carrick.  It was a further 16 miles to Waterford.  In evidence, Grubb stated that apart from the Tipperary council maintaining the towpath, no one took responsibility for the river, only the rivermen. The council also maintained the quays in Carrick, but the Clonmel Corporation took charge of the town quays or “river quay”. 

Grubb was of the opinion that barges (or lighters – the phrase was interchangeable but I will use the latter from here on) could carry up to 60 tons between Carrick and Waterford or beyond.  45 was the average.  The lighters transhipped at Carrick to go on to Clonmel.  This involved breaking the loads down between two or three craft depending on the level of water on the route.  They also navigated the smaller rivers or pills such as Pilltown, Portlaw Pill (R Clodiagh), the Pouldrew Mill Pill, Kilmacow Pill (named Black River by Grubb – but generally known on maps today as the Blackwater). Grubb considered 35 tons to be the maximum limit on these.


The main freight downriver included oats, condensed milk, wool, eggs, fruit, honey, willows, and native timber.  Freight inland included coal, grain, flour, feedstuffs, foreign timber, shop goods, agricultural implements, and machinery.  Grubb estimated that 19 out of every 20 tons carried to Carrick was by water at the time – however, we might say at this remove, he would!  Once the goods landed along the riverside quays, they penetrated inland by up to 20 miles, and they covered an area that included the counties of Waterford, Kilkenny, Tipperary, and Limerick.

Timber export from Clonmel as photographed from off the Gashouse Bridge. (The gas works which would have depended on significant coal imports by yawl were on the right hand side of the road that led off the bridge (on the town side)
How it looks today


They competed with the railway for some freight – particularly perishables like butter, poultry, and milk.  Also, some English firms had contracts with the railways which included carriage in Ireland as part of the overall cost which worked against the rivermen. 

Phelan was of the opinion that the river helped to keep the railway freight charges in check.  He gave a specific example of corn costing 4s 10d per ton to ship by rail from Waterford to Kilkenny.  Yet the same distance to Clonmel was costing 2s 6d because the railway had to compete with the river.  In another saving, he explained that the rivermen allowed freight to avoid the toll on Waterford City’s only bridge at the time (Timbertoes).

Number of Boats

As regards the craft employed Mr. Grubb stated that 14 persons in Waterford were working lighters employing about 32 barges at the time. All these boats were carrying at least 40-45 tons per trip and generally work within a 10-mile radius of the city.      There was also craft from all the villages and rivers on the river including as far as New Ross. The Grand Canal Co was also involved and linked the area to Dublin and Limerick via the canals and the Shannon.  6 parties owned lighters between Carrick and Waterford City, there were then 26 barges owned at Carrick by 10 individuals or firms.  14 businesses traded from Waterford to Clonmel, and 12 operate only between Waterford and Carrick.  He estimated that a total of 70 craft were then employed on the river.  He estimated that at the time there were 19 boats operating between Carrick and Clonmel – in contrast, he claimed that in 1835 there were 93.

An image of the Fr Matthew steam tug with two lighters in tow (and it seems a third is being poled either in or out into the tidal stream) at Carrick they are proceeding downriver from what is now the road bridge – a Sonny Cash image. Courtesy of Maurice Power

Grubb employed the steam tug Fr Matthew to tow up to four lighters on the Waterford to Carrick route, although many operators still used the tides, oars, poles, and sail.  It seems Phelans preferred the traditional methods below Carrick, but as mentioned previously transhipped and broke the loads down at Carrick to be towed on by horses to Clonmel.  Many issues were presented however, floods in winter, shallow in the summer during drought, and the ongoing deterioration of the towpath – which was washed away or undermined during floods.  The cost of maintaining the horses was a drain on the viability of the Phelan enterprise and was the cause, he claimed, of others leaving the business.


Grubb submitted the following example of one week’s freight in the Spring of 1903:

  • 108 cargos of 2,695 tons
  • To and from places east of Carrick 33 cargos = 920 tons
  • To and from Carrick 25 cargos = 1,125 tons
  • To and from Clonmel 50 cargos = 650 tons
A faint photo of the yawls working the Clonmel run, note the horses inside on the towpath – from LM McCraiths The Suir: From its source to the sea (1912) p.60. McCraith says nothing about the photo just captions it thus: “Like a long sabre at a warriors hip” a bit too flouncy a description for my liking
Although now part of the blueway, the towpath (seen here at Kilsheelan) is still there for all to see

Solutions to the rivermen’s woes

As regards solutions, three major points were raised.  The first two were a canal to link the Suir with the Shannon via Cahir to enhance trade and viability.  The second was a mechanical towage system along the towpath – (I will elaborate below, but just to clarify – neither came to pass. The third point was the need to enhance the weirs in the river to avoid shallows and deepen the river in parts.  These solutions were based on pre-existing reports one by John Killaly on behalf of the directors of Inland Navigation, and another, more recent report, by Mr. Oliver in 1902. 

The canal was seen as a possible solution to the distance that had to be negotiated between Clonmel and Limerick.  The proposal might be costly but it would benefit trade because it would act as a deterrent to the railways from charging what they wanted in the absence of competition. Killaly suggested a canal via Cahir and Tipperary onto the Shannon which would include 5 lock gates.  However, the concern was the cost associated which would have to be recouped from the rivermen through tariffs.  

The mechanical towing system was more plausible and was wholeheartedly supported by both men.  Two options were considered feasible a steam-driven chain system or a similar concept using ropes).  This system was employed in Europe on both the Elbe and the Seine and it was seen as a plausible and cost-effective means of tackling the issues on the Suir between Carrick and Clonmel: the eroding towpath and associated maintenance costs, the cost of horses and the fast flowing nature of the river, particularly in floods. There was a drop of 51 feet between the towns along the 14 miles of river. 

Another issue was the changing water levels. Weirs had previously been constructed and were maintained to some extent by boat owners.  This would require resolve and investment from central funds through the council.  I’m unclear if this happened or if the boatmen continued to maintain them for the next few years.

The weir above Carrick old bridge and the navigation cut can be seen here on the left, although looking in need to repair at this point.
A distant view of the old bridge – the boatmens navigation arch is on the left of the bridge

According to a previous guest blog by Leslie Dowley by the end of the nineteenth century, the route to Waterford was dominated by J. Ernest Grubb with the steam tug the Fr. Matthew while the others using the route included Thomas Butler, the Healy’s, T. G. Howell & Co., Richard Walsh of New St. and Edward Dowley of New St. In 1912 J. Ernest Grubb retired and his grain business was sold to Edward Dowley & Sons Ltd. while the Suir Steam Navigation Company was sold to Richard Walsh of New St, Carrick On Suir. In the same year, Dowleys bought a tug of their own, the Knocknagow I, for service between Carrick and Waterford. The Knocknagow II was added soon afterward and both were used to tow lighters also. Elsewhere it is noted that by 1919 nothing remained of the Carrick to Clonmel route, although there may have been a short revival during the Civil War period.


In reading the evidence of these men it is not difficult for me to imagine how deeply committed they were to a dying way of life.  The railways were competing for all the same freight, and in a few short years, trucks would make an inroad, pardon the pun, into the business too.  The calls of the boatmen are now silent, and evidence of their trade is scarce.  But they existed, thrived, and survived for generations on the Suir, a noble breed of hardy individuals, who worked with, rather than against, the river.

My thanks to Maurice Power who passed this report on to me last year and for assistance with details since including many of the photos.  You can browse the report yourself here. This should provide you with the relevant evidence and you can navigate between the pages. The membership and Terms of Reference are on page 3. Other related evidence can be found on pp 349-352

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Broken down Container Ship towed into Waterford  Harbour

The Cyprian container vessel CT Rotterdam (Ex BG Rotterdam I believe) encountered engine problems whilst off the Tuskar Rock on the southeast coast of Wexford yesterday afternoon (October 19th). The vessel had been en route to Port of Rotterdam, having sailed from Dublin Port laden with a cargo of containers.

Yesterday evening the ship which was drifting towards the Wexford coast was intercepted and taken in tow by the Irish (Cork-owned I think) tug  Ocean Challenger and by early morning on the 20th was off Dunmore East.

Route of the Ocean Challanger – note she was heading out almost immediately that the tow job was complete
Details on the tug
A familiar location, if an uncommon view

A pilot was put aboard and with the assistance of a local tug, the Tramontane, operated by South East Tug Services, the vessel was guided up river to the Port of Waterford’s Belview Port Container Terminal facility. 

From speaking to some of the dockmen it seems that there were concerns that the ship might prove a nuisance if the repairs took too long, but she finally returned to sea on Thursday 27th October, sailing in the darkness on an evening tide. I managed to track her in the English Channel the next morning

Friday 28/10/2022 – 11.55am

The river placename Pill – a context

I grew up with the placename Pill.  And I suppose as is often the case, something so familiar goes without questioning. It was as much part of my vocabulary as Bight, Tailstone, Stroke, Taught, Backlash, Scooneen, Slob, and so on.  Over time I came to realise that traditional villages like Cheekpoint held their own words and vocabulary that really only made sense to the locals.  Some translate or were more widely used, and I guess Pill is one such word. 

Now to clarify the word Pill.  Many accounts accept that it is an imported word to Ireland – almost certainly from the Normans and used very commonly in Waterford and along the banks of the Three Sister Rivers; Barrow, Nore, and Suir, but apparently not as common elsewhere in Ireland. Others have said it is an old Irish word for Pool, but if that’s the case, why is it not more widespread in the country?

A lighter in operation in New Ross
A lighter in operation in New Ross being rowed by two men while the skipper steers, These flat-bottomed barges were the boats that most commonly used the Pills – the bulk freight carriers of their day

Pill was a word I really associated with the River Suir as a younger man.  Campile was just across from the village, and although we would call the river The Suir, it is more accurately described as the estuary of the Three Sisters – R Barrow, Nore & Suir.  We also had a fishing placename “The Corner of the Pill” – which was basically the junction of the Campile Pill with the Embankment and the Suir. Above this we also referred to a small stream that wound its way through the mud after coming out of the sluice gates on the Kilmannock embankment – The Pill

Above Cheekpoint as we journey the Suir to Waterford, the first we meet is the Faithlegg Pill (Or Woodlands Pill – which is on the opposite bank but a much younger placename name), close to the hotel and which some refer to as a stream.  Next, is the Ballycanvan Pill, which is probably more commonly called Jack Meades Pill today.  Closer to the city is St Johns River – but some still use the St Johns Pill, Johns Pill. (I have read it as called St Catherines Pill – but this is a much older name perhaps – related to a previous Abbey of St Catherine on the present courthouse site) 

I hope this gives a sense of the magic of these watercourses -Faithlegg Pill

At a recent talk by Joe Falvey in the People’s Park, he mentioned a new pill placename to me – Newtown Pill, which was located apparently between the present Waterpark College and the playing fields of the De La Salle.

Ballycanvan Pill looking down towards the Kings Channel on the River Suir. From a sketch by Charles Newport Bolton courtesy of Liam Hartley

Above the city we have of course Pilltown in Co Kilkenny – on the River Pil.    According to the Loganim placename site, this is one of three nationally including one in Co Meath – although I can see no association with this and water on the maps.  The site has two Pill Roads nationally – one is in Carrick On Suir close to Ormond Castle, while the other is in Kilkenny City.  There is also Pillmore – The Great Pill perhaps, a townland west of Youghal, also based at the mouth of a river, the Dissour, (thanks to Frank O’Neill for clarifying this detail by email). And finally, from what I could find anyway, Pillpark (Páirc an Phoill) – on the River Blackwater at Clashmore. 

As regards Pill Road in Carrick – while out walking the area recently three older gents told us this is the Pill Road but they had no notion why, perhaps it led to the river previously as there are a number of routes away from it at the bottom of the road where we are standing including one boreen which they had no name for which brings you past Ormond Castle to the river
apropo PIll Road in Carrick – Pill House? from the OSI Historic Maps. The three lads also mentioned a small steam close to Carrick old bridge that they call Pill

And of course the final one that I would be relatively familiar with is Pilltown (which is included in the Loganim link above) on the River Barrow. The older maps show a small tidal inlet there, but it seems to be now just an overgrown and marshy area. Pilltown of course was well known in boating terms as the old paddle steamers used to call here on the New Ross – Waterford runs – the Pilltown Stage. Incidentally, another on the Barrow that Brian Forristal told me of previously is the Glenmore Pill, on the Kilkenny side below the Pink Rock.

The blue line on the Kilkenny shore is the Pil River, passing close by to Piltown – which I understand is also the townland

Very recently I put out an appeal for information on my Twitter account.  I was surprised, and more than a little overwhelmed by the kindness of strangers…obviously river lovers might be scarce, but there are a few of us out there.

For example, Yvonne Cooney informed me that her dad – Lenny O’Neill Snr aka Hobbler Neill called the River Blackwater above Waterford City that flows up to Kilmacow – the Pill…interestingly this was confirmed by Andy Long who also mentioned that the area at the lower street in Kilmacow village is known locally as The Pill.

Not my greatest shot, but the entrance to the R Blackwater that flows to Grannagh and Kilmacow is sited on the Kilkenny bank between the TF Meagher road bridge and the old Railway bridge in thus shot. A once important route for lightermen and craft, is now largely a backwater
Amazing what you can find when someone tells you where to look

CK Heritage Group told me that “another good e.g. is Piltown in West Waterford (Baile an Phoill). For sure it is always a tidal inlet, but I always thought it hinted at the word Poll/Hole, and looking at ‘Poill’ on Teanglann it also seems to have connotations to the idea of ‘ins and outs’…”  This of course is located in the estuary of the River Blackwater on the Waterford Cork county border.

@DanHKilkenny told me of Coole Pill on the River Nore just above the meetings of the waters (Nore and Barrow).  Dan says it’s “not as big as Campile pill and tidal too”. 

Grace Fitzpatrick told me of a Pill at Charlefield, The Rower, Co. Kilkenny,” It’s on River Barrow and we always called it the pill. It’s an inlet from the river and we swam there all our childhood”

Kevin O’Hanlon tells us of “One in the very south of Carlow joining Wexford and across the Barrow from Kilkenny it’s Poulmounty Pill

Meanwhile in Wexford Padraig Breen mentioned that there are “Quite a lot of pills on the Slaney or at least a lot of use of the word”  Tom Martin tells us that the word is used in Fethard on Sea.  At the bridge on dock road. Halfway to Quay.

As I had already mentioned the SW of England – here’s what my Twitter pals had to share

Adrian Fulcher mentioned that on the River Fowey in Cornwall we have the Pont Pill, Mixtow Pill, Bodmin Pill, and Cliff Pill all on the Fowey.   Also in Cornwall, the placename Pill Creek is located on the River Fal.

Paul Montgomery gave me a link to a placename and an archaeological treasure – The Magor Pill Boat

Severn Piscator who sounds like he’s a man after my own heart when it comes to fishing heritage had this to say about his beloved River Severn.  “The word Pill or Pil is very common for tidal inlets throughout the Bristol Channel and Severn Estuary. it’s used as far up the river as Westbury on Severn on the great horseshoe bend of the river, above this point the word Lode is used.” He also shared a link to info on a famous Severn chart from 1595. He tells us “it was thought to have been produced due to the threat of a Spanish invasion using the Bristol Channel. It’s a great illustration of the Pills (Pilles) of the Severn…”

Find the original here Accessed from the UK Web Archive

We also got a link to the placename of Pill in Somerset. And a link to placenames in Wales associated with the word Pill via Dr. Rita Singer.

As regards the etymology of the word a lot of ideas were shared – some thinking it was Irish, Welsh, or Celtic while many seemed to think it is old English.  Here’s what wiktionary had to say about Pill. And I clipped out the relevant piece here for emphasis – From Middle English *pill, *pyll, from Old English pyll (“a pool, pill”), from Proto-Germanic *pullijaz (“small pool, ditch, creek”), diminutive of Proto-Germanic *pullaz (“pool, stream”), from Proto-Indo-European *bl̥nos (“bog, marsh”). Cognate with Old English pull (“pool, creek”), Scots poll (“slow moving stream, creek, inlet”), Icelandic pollur (“pond, pool, puddle”). More at pool.

This via James Hogg – an interesting reference at the end which I have not tracked down as yet – I can’t accept that there is no connection. For me the best theory to explain it in Ireland is the Norman invasion and the vast number of Bristol merchants that settled and traded with the Three Sisters at that time.

I think this exercise proved to me that this word and placename is old and worth preserving here in Ireland. If only on backwaters such as heritage blogs like mine. I can’t help but think that many have been lost down the years as the role of the waterways diminished and the mud and silt built up on our once national primary routes of economic trade. I’m also not so arrogant to think that I have captured the whole story here in these few weeks of hobby investigation. But hopefully, it’s a contribution to keeping the word alive. My thanks to all those Twitter people who helped me with this, my apologies if I missed you but hopefully I didn’t misrepresent anything anyone was kind enough to contribute to the exercise.

Needless to say, if you want to let me know of others, do so in the comments – or via email to


I found this wonderful piece again just after I completed this account about Johns Pill in Waterford. It’s by the late Brian J Goggins on his Irish waterways history page. A treasure trove and a man I so admired.

Post publication John O Leary told me this nugget via Facebook – “We have a creek known as the Pill just beside me here in Courcey Country/Parish just to the west of Kinsale Harbour which is also known as Sandycove Creek just inside Sandycove (Knochrush on charts) Island” Meanwhile Frank Cheevers told me of another pill “but this time on the outskirts of the lovely Forest of Dean in England

I’m also working on a story about the navigation between Carrick and Clonmel but one piece I have written is evidence from J Ernest Grubb about the extent of the traffic on the Pills between Carrick and Waterford – . “They also navigated the smaller rivers or pills such as Pilltown, Portlaw Pill (R Clodiagh), the Pouldrew Mill Pill, Kilmacow Pill (named Black River by Grubb – but generally known on maps today as the Blackwater)”

David Carroll kindly sent me on some information following the launch of Cormac Lowth’s new book – Ringsend Sailing Trawlers – Cormac mentions a Pill Lane in Dublin a street that is now called Chancery Street.

Clodagh Willams via Facebook sent me the following link about Dunkitt and it includes a snippet from A Topographical Dictionary of Ireland (1837) “”Dunkitt”, a parish, in the barony of Ida, county of Kilkenny, and province of Leinster, 4 miles (N. by W.) from Waterford, on the road to Thomastown…The parish is situated near the river Suir, with which it communicates by the Dunkitt pill...The land is generally good, and is based on a substratum of limestone, of which great quantities are quarried chiefly for exportation to the county of Wexford by the river Suir, from which the pill is navigable to the quarries….” I think this underscores how stretches of water were claimed for the locality and also how widespread the word was used in the past to denote a stretch of (navigable?) water. I guess it also risks confusion!

Mick Walsh on facebook added these extra details: “…As you mentioned it is a common term on the Slaney and I have heard it applied to both a small river (such as Poulnass Pill in Glynn) and to marshy areas around streams. “Peg it out in the pill” was my father’s threat to any object he considered frustratingly useless. Pilltown in west Waterford might be a more unusual one because the Blackwater once flowed through there out to Whiting Bay. A storm in the late 800s opened the current channel past Ferrypoint and changed the course of the river. This area is a recent addition geographically speaking, so might have Viking or Norman roots rather than Gaelic Irish.