The Gladiator Mystery

In April 1898 some of the people of New Ross were disturbed to see what they understood to be a Royal Navy gunship, moored in the town with an intention to suppress the commemoration of the 1798 uprising.  But was this the real purpose of this ship, and where had it come from?  That’s what I had hoped to uncover with this story.

After a sick house over Christmas it was early January before we could get out and about and our first trip was to New Ross.  My wife had a message to conclude with Forrestal’s Jewellers, and while Deena joined a large queue inside the door, in an effort to maintain the male stereotype, I chose to have a jaunt around the town.  Using Myles Courtney’s walking guide – New Ross Street Focus of course.

Gladiator at New Ross 1898. Cavanagh Collection, J Fitzgibbon

Although there is always something to catch the eye in the town, (indeed I caused a bit of a twitter sensation with a crows foot post from the Quay which I hope to blog about soon) this time I dwelled on an old photo on a wall in Quay Street. 

The photo showed a paddle steamer tied up to a landing stage on the quay, and came via Jimmy Fitzgibbon from his wonderful collection of plate glass negatives from the Cavanagh Collection. Named the Gladiator, and in obvious immaculate condition, I could not help but wonder at the purpose of the vessel and the year in which it was taken.

A search online yielded a puzzling story from April 1898.  The New Ross Standard reported that the town of New Ross (or certain sections) was in turmoil over the vessel Gladiator.  Here’s the account:

A Survey Boat causes a sensation

The arrival at New Ross on Saturday of the HMS Gladiator, for the purpose of surveying the harbour appeared to give rise to an interesting misconception. Indeed, a good many queer folk jumped to the conclusion that it was in an armed cruiser bent on an unfriendly mission that had entered the port and this view of the situation they endeavoured to force down other people’s throats. Furthermore, the queer folk went so far as to conjecture that the invasion was planned in order to overawe, and if necessary, supress the ’98 celebrations in the town. Well, the mists have been cleared by this time, and the unnecessary anxiety has passed away, for New Ross will not be shelled after all. The officers and men of the Gladiator number thirty-six all told. It is understood that the process of surveying the harbour in its entirety will take about three months

New Ross Standard – Saturday 23 April 1898; page 4
Another image of the vessel, the Gladiator at the Fish House New Ross 1898. Cavanagh Collection, J Fitzgibbon

I fully expected to find out more about the proposed survey, especially if it was to take 3 months, but alas I was to be disappointed.  For no other mention could I find in the local papers, and I had never come across the name before or covered it in a blog.  I did find that the HMS was incorrect, the Gladiator was listed as both a tug and a HMSV (Her Majesty’s Survey Vessel) at different times in accounts online.  The ship was built of iron by Brassey & Co of Birkenhead in 1874. At the time of the survey work she was owned by E Griffiths Brothers & Co of Wallsea, at the mouth of the River Mersey and she seems to have had been contracted out.

April 1905 as the work nears completion

Now my only real guess as to the survey work at the time in the Barrow was in connection with the building of the SW Wexford Railway Line.  In 1898 there were many mentions of disputes between the New Ross Harbour Commissioners and the Waterford Harbour Commissioners into the building of two bridges that would later be known as the Barrow Bridge and the Suir Bridge- topic of my next blog!

Around this time, the plan for the Barrow Bridge was to construct the railway line away from Drumdowney on the Kilkenny side, along by the riverfront, and to construct a bridge towards Kents Point on Great Island, and hence along the riverfront towards Campile where the Power Stations now lie.  Not long after the route was moved slightly inland and the crossing upriver, adding to the cost because of the tunneling of Drumdowney and cutting through part of Great Island.  All of this is just speculation, but the timing fits, and the area had to be surveyed, not just on land but on the river too.

If I come across any other details that will either confirm or clarify the intentions of the Gladiator, I will happily update the blog.  But at least the New Ross Standard confirmed over the summer that the commemorations took place and were widely attended – One event was helped considerably by the services of another paddle steamer, the PS Ida, which brought over 500 from the city and Glenmore for a hurling match in August.   

As is often the case, sometimes a blog post can shed some light on other queries, and so it was that post publication, marine artist Brian Cleare contacted me to say that the blog had helped to identify an unknown PS in Wexford – turns out the Gladiatior was alongside on the Wexford Town Quay around the same era! A conundrum that had Brian and Jack scratching their heads for some time, I had seen their queries myself but never made the connection

The Whaler’s last voyage – Boat Cove, Tramore     

I’m delighted to be able to introduce this guest blog from Eddy Deevy, a story of an old sail boat at Tramore, but also an insight into a social scene now but a memory. And yet what a great story to be preserved and retold. The story of the Seahound!

Let me tell you about her beginnings and the course of events that will lead us to embark on her last voyage. She was known as ‘the Whaler’, one of many such craft about our coast. These whaleboats were the Morris Minors of the Seven Seas, so to speak. Dating from the 17th century, these excellent seaboats were adopted by the Navy as workboats, landing craft, and also as lifeboats on larger ships.

The architect who ‘perfected’ the design was Admiral Montague. When Governor of Newfoundland he needed a coastal patrol boat to protect the fishing grounds from ‘privateers’ (pirates more or less). Many adventures were endured in these seaworthy crafts, among them Shackleton’s famous rescue voyage across the Southern Ocean to South Georgia with Tom Crean our great Antarctic survivor. At Tramore we were privileged to have had one in our harbour; Our bit of connectedness with the world of sail, which slipped away so quickly with the introduction of steam in the mid-19th century.

The Whaler

This small pier was built at what was then known as Lady Elizabeth’s Cove. The structure was intended for local needs, unsuitable for a French or Spanish landing. The fear of a foreign invasion (through the back door) caused many limitations to maritime development projects in Ireland. As a shallow onshore harbour, it endured the Atlantic swells for many years. But the storms of the 1880s had washed the walls to rubble.

Tramore Bay, on the south coast of Ireland, is open to the forces of the Atlantic Ocean across the Celtic seabed. Heaving seas have wreaked havoc and claimed many lives along this stretch of coast. Five great beacon towers were positioned on its headlands to warn away shipping after the tragic loss of 363 souls from the transport ship Sea Horse in 1816.
There were a further 55 shipwrecks in the Bay from 1816-1859 when a Lifeboat Station was built on the beach-head ; Later relocated to Long House Lane in 1899 for easier launch and recovery.

The new pier was built in 1907. This was a sturdier construction of grey limestone slabs with concrete capping. It had bollards and ladders, three sets of steps, and two slipways. Afterward, a north wall was added to block the backwash from the cliff face. Local fishermen earned a living from the bountiful sea and fed the town of Tramore through
the war years. Boating became an added attraction to those who kept ‘holiday-homes’ in this now fashionable seaside resort. A regatta was held each August which brought a large attendance from neighbouring counties. There were picnics, sports, and keenly contested swimming races, rowing, and yachting.

The popularity of local regattas in the 19th and early 20th Century is also but a memory now

Later, in our time, Tommy (‘Grumpy’ or ‘Smiles’) Murray’s boat, the Morning Star occupied the last steps, obstructing swimmers and mariners alike. There was good water here for most of the tide, protected by the storm wall against the force of the Atlantic rollers. However, the persistent gales wrecked many a craft as breakers poured over the sea wall swamping boats moored in the harbour. Smaller boats had to be “hauled up” and “chocked” beside the boathouse until the weather settled.

The Whaler was generally up here as she rarely went to sea now since misadventure had crossed her bows. Children played in her timbers and sand in the ribs told its own story. The masts had been removed since she pulled her moorings in the harbour. Yet she still looked like a formidable craft. The rounded rudder remained in place with a long baulk of a tiller and there were a couple of sturdy oars stowed inside the gunwales. Her hull was coated with thick white paint and tarry black on the inside. But the engine hadn’t been replaced after removal for winter maintenance some years previously. No one seemed to know who
owned her now since Dr. Ambrose had ‘crossed the bar’; Once a fine craft, she was registered with Lloyds of London as ‘The Seahound’.

Her story begins in Portsmouth in 1916, where she was clincher-built as a general-purpose service boat for HMRN. A full 27ft in length, with a 6ft beam. She had a dual rig, as a Gunter sloop with gaff main and jib: Or could be ketch rigged with mizzen mast, a loose-footed main, and a small jib. Well equipped from stem to stern, the Seahound had a fine anchor and chain locker. There even was a removable bracket for a Lewis machine gun!

In service, she patrolled the Waterford/Wexford Coast recording the comings and goings of shipping on the Celtic Sea. A keen watch was kept for German submarines which sank many a merchantman along these Western Approaches. After the Great War, she was presented to Dr. C. Ambrose Esq., LLD who lived at Crobally House, Tramore.

Then for many years, she sailed along the South East shores as Charles Ambrose, a keen oceanographer, carried out his own coast watch. In those days, the Seahound was generally moored in the boat-cove at Tramore and sometimes berthed in Dunmore East harbour. Always well cared-for she attracted the attention of many young men and stories are still told of voyages made out to sea and in waters beyond the home ground. At the Autumn equinox each year she would be sailed up the Rinnashark, through the Back-strand to the ‘Firs-field’ where she was taken out of the water onto rolling poles and a turn-table. Here she would rest, downside-up for wintering and maintenance. Years later her five thwarts had been reduced to four, making room for the engine, an Amanco 8 hp.

A contemporary postcard circa 1900

So it was for many years, she brought much pleasure and adventure to the locality until Dr. Ambrose’s demise. His daughter Bebe Cathleen didn’t pass the boat on to those who were caring for and maintaining it. Instead, it was her intention that the boat be used by a wider circle of young men. Sadly Danny Sage and Jack Whalley reluctantly moved on to other interests. Having been laid up for some time and then into the care of many, she suffered as most boats do. Now at 40 years old, she rested on the hard at the boat house, drying out and wasting away above the slip at Tramore pier.

The mid-1950s were quiet years. The only Celtic Tiger then was in the Esso Blue paraffin stove, yet a good time to be growing up. Boys made their own entertainment and long summer days brought their own bit of diversion. It might have been Jim Mac’s idea to take the Whaler out for a trip to the Strand and back. She was just lying there, an idle craft so to speak.

Few preparations were made as she appeared sea-worthy by her size and reputation. This expedition couldn’t be made on a fine sunny day with too many ‘visitors’ about. A darker day was chosen and the crew of six assembled on the slip at full tide. The Seahound was
heaved into position. Then down she came rolling like thunder on the running poles, a force unleashed. As an onlooker, I stood aghast in boyhood wonder as she plunged into the sea.

They all piled in and pushed off with a flaying of oars and confusion of instructions. Oliver J. soon got control of the call and brought the oar stroke into unison. The Whaler was underway leaving the North wall to port and then out through the harbour mouth. The rowers were in high spirits, as the wash from the storm wall slung her stern out to seaward. The helmsman leaned on the tiller and a course was set for the Strand. It was the intention to keep her close to the familiar cliff face in case of emergency, hugging the shoreline.

Conditions were fair with a following sea. The huge sky was puffed with clouds scuffing in from the ocean. The wind wasn’t a gale but it blew a few white horses onto their wake. Curious seagulls rode high above, watching the proceedings. Keen eyes kept a friendly look-out from the charred remains of the Coast Guard Battery on the Doneraile. Oars dug
deep as voices were low and senses alert. Tension in the air soon gave way to alarm on board as feet were getting wet. Who was meant to put the bung in? “ Has anyone got the plug? Put a sock in it quickly”. The order of the pull was lost and oar strokes became irregular. Oops, as a white horse came in over the side, more water on board. ‘Where did that come from? Progress was painfully slow now. The bailer was working full swing. The wind was backing into the southwest with a strong following sea.

The pier looking out towards Newtown Head, AH Poole – NLI

A swamped craft is an unmanageable thing at the mercy of the sea. Waves were breaking far out from the beach, much farther than anticipated. To turn her about now was unthinkable. Energy levels were draining into the bilge, awash with brine. Eyes and minds strayed to the shore.

Someone had alerted the Gardai, ( there’s always a squealer). On the strand, Guard Connolly and a group of men lined the water’s edge to encourage the whaler and crew ashore. Trousers rolled up to the knees and jackets off, they waved and called against the roar of the incoming sea. The scene was ominous as onlookers gathered. Progress depended on luck now, which ran out quickly as the whaler slung sideways to a comber, and all were thrown into the sea. The roar of the rollers drowned out all sounds of calling voices as the
the adventure turned to near disaster.

Time stood still as heads appeared and disappeared in the troughs. Thankfully, no life was lost as all were good swimmers in those days. One by one they appeared out of the surf, some wrestling with floating oars. The shore reception was angry but eased with relief
and compassion. Exhilarated with survival the crew were accompanied ashore with offers of towels before making their way homeward, exhausted and saturated yet alive to tell the tale.

It wasn’t the first time the ‘Whaler ‘had been beached at the Strand. In July 1953, there had been another misadventure in the surf, when lifeguards Malone and Molloy assisted with the rescue of a lady crew member. On that occasion, the craft had been under sail but the helmsman couldn’t gibe her about, so he ran her into the beach surf where she was rolled and capsized. After a week on the beach head, she was rowed back to the boat cove. Afterward, Reverend Wolfe censured this irresponsible outing.

Now a few years later the Whaler remained beached on the Strand for weeks afterward, her timbers so damaged she never went to sea again. Our crew, now fully recovered, were hailed as heroes and survivors of a ship-wreck, a much better outcome than the ill-fated
Seahorse of years ago. Punishment had been doled out behind closed doors and a warning read out from the pulpit by Fr. Power, sadly not enough to avert the canoe loss with all hands, just a few years later.

A tractor and trailer returned the Seahound to its place above the cove slipway where she was chocked and chained to a stanchion. There she remained a sorry-looking sight. People soon lost interest in her as she decayed into a forgotten hulk.

In modern times – Brendan Grogan collection

For the rest of us, it was back to rubber tubes and rafts in the safety of the harbour walls. Extra thrills were got by giant leaps off the storm wall down into the depths of ‘the hole’.

Ah, those were wonderful summer days in ‘Glorious Tramore’.

Addendum
A fuller history of the Seahound may yet be told. This story is a recollection of around 60 years afterward. Some names have been changed to protect the ‘innocent’. I hope those who sailed in her will excuse this composition and perhaps contribute some information to expand the story of this great boat. Where did she eventually shed her timbers? Was she left there to rot along with much of our maritime heritage, uphill of the rusting old capstan
and the remains of the Guiding Star.

My thanks to Eddy Deevy for sending this delightful account for inclusion on TidesandTales. Another nugget of our maritime heritage to be preserved, enjoyed, and hopefully enhanced by others. Thanks also to Brendan Grogan for assistance with photos.

Barrow Railway Bridge Pinned open Dec 2022

In late November 2022, disappointing news started to filter out that the Barrow Railway Bridge opening span was to be pinned open because of an operational issue. It came following an earlier threat to pin it open because of the cost of the operation- a decision that was postponed following negative community, media, and political reactions. But the rationale for the move seemed plausible to many (the timing close to Christmas was excellent I must say from the company perspective), and the opening span has been pinned open since December. But is this the end of the Barrow Bridge?

The Barrow Railway Bridge was opened as part of the works to connect the South of Ireland via Waterford to the new port of Rosslare in 1906. The last commercial train to use the line was in September 2010. The line’s viability is now being examined as part of an All Island Strategic Rail Review. The review might potentially reinstate the railway, but there were also plans to create a greenway along the route. The opening span allows ships to access and egress from the inland port of New Ross via the River Barrow.

A screengrab of the vessel (one of the Arklow Shipping craft) that collided with Pier 3 of the Barrow Bridge on February 26. Photo: Iarnród Éireann

On February 26th, 2022, a ship maneuvering inwards through the span struck the central protective dolphin. In November Iarnród Éireann (IÉ) put out a press release covered by the Waterford News & Star. The subsequent article explained that “the span will need to be held open for marine traffic as there’s an increased risk of it becoming inoperable, thus preventing vessels from traversing through it.”

Because of the collision, IÉ stated that there was a “… real risk that in the course of movements of the swing span, the span could move and strike a passing vessel” It sounds nasty, although a bit far-fetched surely! Other points were raised, although it made no more sense to me. But please read the New & Star article yourself to make your own decision.

A forelorn sight over Christmas of the bridge pinned open, the glowing lights to illuminate the channel and the red and green flashing navigation lights showing the access point. The new bridge at the Pink Rock is seen in the background.

According to IÉ the repairs could cost between €5 million and €10 million. The funds will need to be sought from the ship’s insurers…So that probably won’t be any time soon, given that almost 11 months have now passed? The South East on Track campaign group called on Iarnród Éireann to carry out the repairs in advance of monies it’s hoping to receive from insurers, but to date, this call has fallen on deaf ears.

From Cheekpoint this January 2023. A forlorn sight to see it

The opening span of the bridge was a crucial factor in alleviating the concerns of the New Ross Harbour commissioners when the bridge was originally constructed. It’s kind of ironic that the potential death knell of this magnificent piece of Edwardian industrial heritage should be sundered by IÉ on the pretext of maintaining access to the port.

To see the skill required in transiting the bridge here’s a short video I shot in 2021