I was born and raised in the traditional fishing community of Cheekpoint, Co Waterford on the banks of the three sister river network. I fished commercially before going to college and training as a community worker.
My blog is my hobby,
The long-awaited and much-anticipated new book from Cian Manning has hit the shelves for Christmas and it’s a cracker.
Cian is renowned for his fresh look at Waterford history, his unique style of writing, and his ability to extract the nuggets from the mire of times past. But Blaatherings is very different.
Waterford City – A History, gave a sense of his approach. Very much in the style of a traditional history book, Cian still dragged us off on tangents to the story, teasing out related narratives and adding context to what some might have considered a well-worn path of history.
Blaatherings goes much further, he’s thrown off the history book mantle entirely. 16 short historical biographical essays, the majority of which I had never even heard of, revealing the wonderous, awe-inspiring, and downright scandalous of the County’s past residents. And as befits a writer, trying to break new ground, this His-Story tries to bring Her-Story to the reader too – with at least five of his biographies, from the amazing, the bizarre to the profound. One of Cian’s attributes of course is the gentleness with which he reveals his characters and the attempts he makes to place them in their historical context.
I think this book will be well received in Waterford this Christmas 2023. I’m also relieved to see that it is Vol 1! Suggesting he has more to come…I certainly hope so. Our history belongs to us all, and we need new writers, young writers, and writers from various and diverse backgrounds to add to the story. Cian Manning is one of our finest.
His work can also be enjoyed in a variety of outlets including the Irelands Own – where a recent story of his on Mount Congreve made the front cover.
Blaatherings is currently on sale in the Book Centre Waterford and retails at €10 its also available online
I was delighted to recently present to the Éigse Sliabh Rua on the topic of 19th Century lives along the local South Kilkenny riverbank. One of the themes I touched on was women’s work. Women played a vital role in the local fishery and seafaring communities traditionally, and it was a theme that my grandmother regularly mentioned as I grew up in Cheekpoint.
The reference to women’s work at the Éigse talk was prompted by a piece of folklore captured by the late Sean Malone in his article on local fishing in Jim Walsh’s fine book Sliabh Rua – A history of its people and places. In his section Fishing and Fisheries of Slieverue (pp253-256) he mentions that although they could sell their catch in Waterford or New Ross “Local tradition tells that Mrs Mary Ann Shalloe (nee Lannon) was known to have walked with a fish catch on her back from Great Island, took the ferry to Ballinlaw and then off to Carrick and returned by foot having sold her produce”
Traditional role of women in fishing homes
I made the point on the night that my grandmother told of similar stories, accompanying her mother to Waterford with a salmon in a bag on her back. Although the buyers did come to the village by horse and cart in the era, there were times that this was missed and because money was tight they would take to the road, hoping for a better price with a fresh fish. I never heard of a journey to Carrick, but if fish were scarce upriver, it could make financial sense to walk, what I would estimate was a 60 mile round trip and according to Google maps would take 14 hrs to walk.
My grandmother (nanny) was Maura Moran, born in 1919, the youngest of 7 and the only girl. She often told the story of how her mother, Catherine, had once sold a fish on the Dunmore Road, around the present Powerscourt housing estate. Herself and nanny had walked almost 5 miles at that stage, and Catherine was delighted as she got a good price and saved her the walk to the city. However when she got home her husband Michael was furious, fearful that the regular buyer would find out. The next time Catherine went to town with a fish the buyer cautioned her, and told her if she ever sold one of his fish on the road, he would blacken the Moran family name to all the buyers in Waterford.
I later realised that it was sometimes the case that fishermen would get a loan at the start of a fishing season to buy the salmon license or occasionally to replace nets, ropes, corks etc. Families were obligated to sell to the specific merchant until the debt was repaid. A percentage of each sale was recouped to repay the advance. This may have been the case in this situation, but Nanny wasn’t sure. Either way, I know from our own time, that no family ever stuck to selling 100% of their catch to the one buyer.
Nanny said that Catherine was a net maker and net mender at home, and she was regularly at the fire at night working. They also had a twine-making machine that hung over the fireplace. She called it a “nooseline maker” (I have no idea how it was spelled but it made string, some of which was used to make longlines). Catherine’s mother was Mary Lynch and I recently discovered that her own parents may have come to Cheekpoint to work the rope walk in the village from the Carrick on Suir area. If so Catherine didn’t lick it off the stones so to speak.
Catherine and nanny also kept the home fires burning, the lads fed and she often recalled Catherine at the fireside all through the night turning the lads clothes so that they would have something dry to wear for the next tides.
Many years back the late Water Whitty told me he remembered his mother and other women in the High Street, Cheekpoint with lines of calico clothing hanging out to dry. The calico had been cut and stitched and then tarred with a linseed oil mix so as to water proof it, as a form of oilskin for the fishermen.
Elsewhere, the women of Passage and beyond picked the cockles. Collectively known today as the Cockle Women, in an effort to support their families, these women picked cockles from the west banks of Passage to Tramore from Monday to Thursday, working to the times of the tides, then boiled them, shelled them and bagged them on a Thursday before transporting them by ass and cart or on foot to Waterford city for selling on a Friday. Many of the women were widowed and this was their only source of income, many others were supporting their families as their husbands were at sea and would not get paid off until their trips were over.
An important recognition for us here in Waterford in 2019
Another group were known as the Herring Lassies (elsewhere Lasses). Women (initially Scottish) who followed the herring boats to cut and preserve the fish for transport and sale. A hard job in all weathers, these women followed the fleet and set to work onshore in areas like Passage East and Dunmore East where their skill and dexterity was prized. Many local women participated too. I remember the fishing sheds at Dunmore in my youth filled with women, working to process the fish.
Photograph taken at the Fish House in Passage in 1936. Molly Murphy, on the left, and Nellie Connors nee Robinson on the right. Molly, daughter of cockle woman Ellie Murphy was herself a cockle woman. Nellie was daughter of cockle woman Ellen Robinson (Nana). Both women were in their early 20s here and lived side by side in the Brookside, Passage East throughout their lives and were lifelong friends. The women worked with great skill and speed using long sharp wooden handled knives. They wore long rubber aprons and rubber boots as it was wet work, particularly hard in the colder weather. The fish scales can be seen glistening on their aprons from gutting the herrings before they were salted and smoked as kippers. Passage had a vibrant Fish House and produced Kippers, Red herring, bloaters and cured salted herring for export to England, Europe and sold throughout Ireland. Information via Breda Murphy with details taken from The Fish House by Arthur E. Neiland
It wasn’t all work thankfully. There are records of women participating in the regattas locally. In some cases these were female only in other cases it was a pairing, male and female. One such account which I published was the Cheekpoint regatta of 1909 which describes a third option.
Mary Fleming, Mary Sherlock and another unidentified lady from Great Island with a medal they won in 1913 for rowing in a local regatta. Photo courtesy of Mary’s grandson Liam Fleming,
Ladies’ Pair Oared Punt Race (one gentleman allowed to either row or steer) Prize value £3.
1st, Invicta – The Misses Fleming, Great Island and Heffernan (Cox)
2nd, Lily – Mrs Hennebry, Ballinlaw (Stroke) Miss Hennebry, do, (Bow) P. Hennebry (Cox)
3rd, Eily – Mr T.W.Brewer, Waterford (Stroke) Miss McCarthy, do (Bow) AN Other (Cox)
Johnny Moran with Sheila Doyle rowing off Ryan’s Shore – the 1950s.
In relatively more recent times, in yachting circles, Daphne French, a famous yachtswoman, lived at Dunmore East in the 1950s and 60s. A topic that David Carroll may guest blog on in the future.
Although women did go to sea, think for example of the pirate queen Grace O’Malley, according to legend she went to sea at eleven years old, forging a career in seafaring and piracy where she was considered a fierce leader.
As times moved on, women’s role on the high seas may have diminished but it was common enough for sea captains’ wives to accompany them on their travels, and on more than one occasion a sinking ship in the harbour here witnessed the captain’s family being rescued.
Somewhere in my files, I have the details of at least one captain’s wife who helped to avert disaster. From memory, they had endured a rough Atlantic crossing, the Captain had been on deck for many days, and entering Waterford harbour for refuge he passed the bar above Creaden and made his way for Duncannon. There he seems to have misjudged the lights, but his wife who was at his side, correctly identified the course and countermanded his orders. The crew obviously paused, looking to their Captain for guidance, who wisely yielded to his wife’s advice. They later safely anchored at Passage and awaited more favourable conditions. (I will add the specific details when I retrieve the newspaper clipping)
A sad death at Passage East – Evening News (Waterford) – Saturday 10 August 1901, page 3
Then there was the legendary Kate Tyrrell of Arklow who went to sea as a child with her father and took on many of the admin tasks associated with the running of a vessel. But Kate wasn’t only a bookkeeper, she also had the sea in her blood and she rose through the ranks to become a ship’s captain in 1886.
Of course, I can’t not mention Rosa Udvardy, who nursed her ailing husband aboard the Honved off Cheekpoint in the 1930s. After he died, he was laid to rest in Faithlegg and now a palm tree marks his grave.
Rosa supported by the crew and the villagers of Cheekpoint at Faithlegg Graveyard in 1932
Women and families also travelled aboard ships in my younger days. Well I remember the beautiful young Dutch girl aboard her father’s coaster at anchor at Cheekpoint in the 1980s and how I stared at her mesmerised as we sold a small salmon to the cook after he called us alongside.
Lighthouse Female Assistant
Oh and although the wives and daughters of lighthouse keepers often did the work to maintain the burning lights that kept the sea lanes safe in the past, I wasn’t aware until Pete Gouldings latest blog that on the 15th April 1866, twenty-one woman took their rightful place in the pantheon of lightkeepers, all in the new role of Female Assistant with the Ballast Board.
Much has changed in the attitude towards women, and opportunities that were in my childhood seen as the preserve of men, are now as likely to be carried out by women. Of course even then things were changing. My late sister Eileen was as happy drifting for salmon as any of us. Julie Ann Doherty and Marcella Duffin fished with their dads as hard as any of us. Josie Whitty of Nuke fished for years as did many of her daughters.
My generation had women like Grace O’Sullivan who went to sea with Greenpeace. Grace was aboard the Rainbow Warrior when the French sunk the vessel in an effort to stop the awareness raising of the country’s nuclear testing in the Pacifics. Frances Glody of Dunmore also broke new ground, working with the Harbour Board to assist with piloting communication at Dunmore East. In 1981, Frances became the first female all-weather lifeboat crew member at Dunmore East Lifeboat Station, taking over from her retiring father. Numerous women now volunteer with the RNLI in Ireland including at Dunmore.
Now women can assume any position they aspire to at sea and in our Navy too. Even our local Harbour Master at Dunmore East, is now a lady, the very capable and no-nonsense Deirdre Lane. There’s even a list of the top 100 women in shipping. Although it’s a very unequal world, in an Irish context, it’s a far cry from the era of my grandmother, and the struggle to survive.
The following story comes from the newspapers of February 1892 and concerns the haunting of an ex-RIC man who had taken up residence in the home of an evicted family. Make of it what you will!
In February 1892 a family by the man of Kingworth (Kingsworth but some accounts) had a fearful experience. Mr Kingworth, his wife, and his young family had moved into a farmhouse in Carraiglea, Faithlegg. An ex-Royal Irish Constabulary man, he took on the role of an Emergency Man, protecting the house for the Marquis of Waterford estate after a long-standing tenant had faced eviction.
Not long after, the Kingworth family had their nighttime peace shattered by a horrendous experience. As they doused the candles one winter’s night and settled down to sleep, the furniture flew across the floor, wall hangings fell, dishes smashed and the very house seemed to quake. A high-pitched scream of agony and torment filled the house and the family crouched down, huddled in sheer terror. They eventually ran finding shelter in an outhouse and fitfully dozed until morning, ever fearful of any sound lest the torment fall upon them again.
Next morning, at first light, Kingworth ran to Passage East, and there he reported the happenings to Sargent Murphy at the local RIC barracks. Murphy, who was no believer in ghosts, took his ex-colleague’s word with a pinch of salt no doubt, but he left immediately to investigate the scene, and so concerned was he, that when darkness came that evening, Sargent Murphy commanded an escort party at the house, the approaches of which were barricaded off and a RIC man stationed inside. But once again, when the Kingworths tried to sleep the unearthly sounds returned, and they were witnessed by the RIC men too.
An eviction scene of the 1890s
The man on duty inside saw furniture dashed about by an “invisible agency”. Sergeant Murphy reported the result of his experience to his superior officer in Waterford, and Head-Constable Waters was sent out to investigate the allegation that ghosts were haunting Kingworth’s house. Despite all their support, caretaker Kingworth and his family left in a state of terror. They secured accommodation in Ballybricken in the city, at Costello’s Lane.
There they lived in peace for about two weeks, but then one Saturday night, they doused the candles and lay down to rest and the sound of the screaming returned. Not just that, but the furniture moved, the pictures on the walls fell, the crockery smashed and they huddled in terror once more lamenting that the ghost had followed them. This time those residing in the close-knit neighbourhood heard. And rushing to the Kingworths door they tried to burst in to offer help. Try as they might the screaming increased, their entreaties to those inside only being answered by other neighbours who emerged into the street to assist. All could hear the sounds from inside, including a voice quite audibly moaning and shrieking. The RIC were summoned, and when they eventually gained entry they found the Kingworths huddled insensible and terrorised on the floor and the inside of the cottage in ruins.
Image from La Vie Mysterieuse in 1911. Artist unknown. Wikipedia public domain
On Sunday the RIC were stationed inside out outside the home. Several clergymen visited and numerous prayers were said, both by the family, and also their neighbours in the street outside, and what was reported as hundreds of curious onlookers. Again on Sunday night, the approaches to the Kingworth home were sealed off by the constabulary and hundreds of citizens came out to witness the scene. Despite this, the poltergeist reappeared.
The next morning Kingworth sold what furniture he still had unbroken to a furniture dealer in Patrick St, called Mrs Fahy, and under police escort, they withdrew to an undisclosed location in the county. Mr. Kingworth expressed the hope to a local journalist that the charitable people of Waterford would pay their passage for the boat to America…confident, he claimed, that the ghosts would not follow him there.
There is no Kingworth family to be found in Waterford in the 1901 census. Maybe the ghosts got them, or maybe the charitable people of Waterford bailed them out. Where ever they got to, I’d imagine Kingworth steered clear of evicted homes thereafter.
I merged a number of contemporary news reports from several sources including the Munster Express of February 1892
No ghosts on my next walk, but plenty of river based yarns of the lightermen that operated on John’s River. You can book on Eventbrite or come along on the day, but please let me know you are coming by email in case I need to cancel with this weather.
On last month’s blog which gave the sailing directions to Waterford City in 1790, I mentioned that I was surprised to see the Ford Channel given as an option. This area was previously a crossing point to Little Island from the Kilkenny shore and this month I want to explore the channel, seen as crucial to the development of the port in the modern era.
Although the sailing directions to Waterford City in 1790 mention the Ford, it also stated its limitations. The preferred deep water access was via the King’s Channel. Although longer, winding and with dangerous stretches, it was at least navigable on most tides. The Ford was accessible only occasionally, and I would imagine probably only really useful to the Lighters and lightermen for several centuries of our maritime history.
A video description I shot of the Ford this year.
Ford Channel is on the northern side of Little Island, separated from Co Kilkenny by the fast-flowing River Suir. Almost certainly the Suir originally flowed around what is now the Island, when the land was part of the county of Kilkenny. At some point, the river, as is its wont, breached the land, finding a faster route to the sea, as water always does. The name suggests that it originates with the practice of “fording” the river or a crossing point.
Although modern charts refer to the area as the Queen’s Channel, we never, ever used this term at home. I will come back to this.
A personal favourite image of the Ford of mine is the Guide Bank Lighthouse with the Ford on the right, Kings Channel on the left.
When the Waterford Harbour Commissioners were established in 1816 one of their key tasks was to widen and deepen the Ford Channel. Mary Breen in her wonderful nugget of a book[i] on the establishment of the commissioners, quotes from an 1806 report of earlier work on the Ford costing £1,500 to deepen it by removing soil, mud, and sunken rocks. However, the channel had filled with silt again. The Board of Inland Navigation stated at the time that the King’s Channel was longer, but with much deeper water, however “…its winding course made passage difficult, and at times impossible”[ii]
After the Commissioners were formed, a loan of £10,000 was sought to develop the facilities at Waterford including the approach. No time was lost it seems and on the 19th December 1816, a contract was signed with John Hughes of London to excavate the Ford. The works were set to commence on May 1st the following year and to cost £14,500. It seems the final cost was £24,588.[iii]
In 1838 the Commissioners sought a report on issues pertaining to navigation and siltation in the port and harbour from an engineer named William Cubitt. His detailed report is outlined in the Waterford Chronicle at the time.
An ariel image of the Island and both channels, Kings to the left and the Ford or Queens Channel to the right, Waterford city is at the top of the photo, the house to the bottom left is Woodlands, Ballycanvan Pill is to the upper left and Woodlands/Faithegg Pill to the bottom right. I think this may be from the Britain from above series of the early 1930s
Cubitt states that the Ford is essential to the Port and that it needs to be deepened by at least another three feet to make it open to the largest class of ship of the era. He also states that it might render the use of the King’s Channel almost redundant.[iv] I find this fascinating, as it highlights that the King’s Channel was still essential to Waterford Port, and was for at least another 20 years, arguably longer.
The Munster Express of 1863 contained a large article expressing the importance of improving the Ford including the width of the channel, and that port dues should be increased to meet the cost. Two approaches to the work are suggested, damming the upper and lower Ford and excavating by hand, or using a dredger.[v] A further article in the paper gives some specifications of what the work would look like including that the spoil should be used to create two guide banks at the lower end and reclaim almost 250 acres of land with the spoil deposited on the Kilkenny side [vi]
In Autumn 1864 newspaper advertisements were posted alerting contractors that the plans could be viewed for the Ford works in the WHC offices, and in December that year, it was secured by Patrick Moore of Limerick for the dredging of the riverbed at a cost of £15,700.[vii]
The late Anthony Brophy gave an insight into the administrative difficulties associated with the work in February 1865, when it seems despite 6 applicants for the post of superintendent engineer to work under the consulting engineer, John Coode of London, difficulties were encountered.[viii]
In January 1867 the contractors were looking for an extension of four months on the works. Three reasons were communicated by Mr Coode as to why the extension should be granted. Firstly the bottom was harder than appreciated, secondly, the weather was bad and finally, as steamers continued to use the channel, work had to be interrupted at times. The Commissioners were less than pleased and no decision was reached at the meeting[ix]
There must have been many further twists and turns because it was May 1871 before the next phase of the Ford was completed. The Waterford Standard[x] reported that the “…Commissioners as a body, accompanied by the members of the Corporation and the Chamber Commerce, proceeded down the river on Wednesday Iast to formally open the works. The river steamer Tintern was chartered for the purpose.”
An image from the 1890s highlighting the proposed works and what was completed. Accessed from Waterford History Group Facebook Page and posted originally by Vinny O’Brien
The piece reported on a portion of the work completed by Messrs Jameson and McCormack (i think this was most likely the guide bank). The works cost £12,000, which was to be repaid with interest in annual installments spread over forty years to the treasury. The works were supposed to take three years but had met with unexplained difficulties. Mr Coode (Consulting Engineer), certified that the new works had created a depth of 13 feet low water spring tides. This will give a total depth of 20 feet at high water neap tides, and 24 feet at spring tides. The dignitaries viewed the works, then proceeded downriver on the Tintern to Duncannon and had an open-air lunch at Ballyhack supplied by the Imperial Hotel.
At the opening ceremony, the Mayor made reference to naming the new opening. Having considered the “Golden Gates” – it seems the consensus was the call it the “Queen’s Channel” – after Queen Victoria I guess! Although this name appears on navigation charts thereafter, we only ever knew it as the Ford, and this was used by the Harbour Board too – including in their Bye-Laws.
Interestingly the same paper had a number of letters expressing concern about the Ford works, with one anonymous letter writer stating that while on the Tintern he spotted the Waterford Steamship Company vessel Lara, using Kings Channel, and referring to a previous letter to the paper from none other than William Malcomson, expressing concern that the Ford was unfinished.
After this phase of development, there was much discussion about the need for a lighthouse to mark the Lower Ford, on what we call the Guide bank – a man-made wall that helps contain the river as it meets the King’s Channel off Faithlegg. My good blogging buddy Pete Goulding has dated the erection of the light to 1878 and he gives a detailed description of the process in his blog of the same name.[xi]
In November 1929 the Harbour Board heard a plea from their chairman on the need to enhance the Ford further. The position was outlined as follows: “. Thirty years ago overseas steamers with maize for the port were 2,500 tons of cargo; today 5,000 tons is a small cargo, and the average size is about 7,000 tons. Coastwise tramp steamers were 200 to 500 tons of cargo: today 400 tons is a small steamer, and many coastwise steamers constantly trading with the ports are 700 tons, while some of the Clyde Shipping Company’s steamers are about 1,800 tons capacity.” [xii]
Making use of a company already on hand to deepen the North Wharf, particularly at Halls, the time was considered perfect for offering a tender for the work. “The Committee considers this golden opportunity to carry out this essential work the Tilbury Contracting and Dredging Co. have their rock breaker, bucket- dredger, hopper, and floating workshop in Waterford, and who have given the Commissioners an enticing offer to do the work for a lump sum price of £20,500, which, they assure us, could not be done for less than £25,500 if it was not for the fact that this work if undertaken will follow immediately their other contract with the Commissioners.”[xiii]
The proposal was accepted and although I don’t know when the work commenced, it was proceeding at a pace in April but by June there was an issue. In the Upper Ford area, Tilbury workers had found 2,400 cubic yards of rock, that an extensive survey that they completed found previously to be mud!…, it slowed the work down, and added cost. Meanwhile, more work was required in the Lower Ford, which was not part of the original tender apparently. It was estimated by Captain Grover that they would need to dredge 12,000 cubic yards of material to provide 17 feet of water to shipping.[xiv]
The Tilbury vessel Queens Channel – no, I’m not making it up…Working on the Upper Ford 1930- Poole image originally posted to the Waterford Maritime History Facebook page by Michael Butch Power . You can view the original at the NLI here. The vessel above is the rock breaker Thor W6. A third vessel, the bucket dredger Beaufort was also employed on the works.
By the end of June, there was an extensive account of the works, when a large deputation went down to the Ford to inspect the rock-breaking spear and the ongoing dredging. Speeches were made, toasts were toasted and the progress of the Port was generally felt to be secured because of the developments.[xv] The works were completed by the end of 1930.
SS Rathlin (#2 of that name 1905-1933) of Clyde Shipping after steering failure grounded her at the Guide Bank. The incident happened on Monday 14th July 1913 when leaving port for Glasgow. A news report states that she was undamaged and expected to float on the next high tide. AH Poole photo, posted originally by Tomás Sullivan. WMH page
Speaking on the deck of the harbour launch that June the Chairman of the Harbour Board, M Cassin, expressed his thanks to the Tilbury dredging Co for the works, and also explained how such developments were essential to meet the growth and sophistication of modern shipping. He gave credit to the Commissioners who had come before and for their foresight in opening the Ford and keeping it a pace with the shipping of their era. He expressed a desire that bodies such as theirs look ahead 50 or 60 years to anticipate the needs and make plans accordingly.[xvi]
I guess in that sense, his words rang true. The works gave access to the city for shipping up until the decision to move from the historic port in the city to the present site at Belview (Bellevue – the beautiful view). Whether the people who made that decision were looking far enough ahead is still to be seen.
Interested in talk of rivers and rivermen, join me on Nov 4th to explore the Lightmen’s trade on the St Johns River. You can book on Eventbrite or email me to say you are coming please – in case of cancellation. I’m speaking at the annual Booze, Blaas n Banter gig in Jordans on Saturday 28th Oct
My thanks to David Carroll for providing assistance with this article.
[i] Breen. Mary. Waterford Port and Harbour 1815-42. 2019. Four Courts Press. Dublin
A guest Blog by Pete Goulding. Last month I mentioned in the story about 1790 navigation into Waterford that my good blogging buddy Pete was working on a story of the lighthouses at Duncannon. It’s one of those stories I always wanted to tell, but let’s face it, when it comes to lighthouses Pete’s the man, certainly in an Irish context. So over to Mr Irish Lightouses!
Reposing in the shadow of Hook Head (not literally, except during very peculiar astronomical events), the lights of Duncannon Fort might not enjoy the limelight of its illustrious neighbour but it has an interesting history nonetheless.
The Lighthouse at Duncannon Fort. Commissioners of Irish Lights
The problem for shipping bound for Waterford in the 1700s was that, having breathed a huge sigh of relief on rounding Hook Head, they then got caught out by a nasty bar just south of Duncannon Fort. Not the sort that sells frothy pints and stale pies, but a sand bar, lying from one shore of the Suir to the other. A French visitor in 1784 wrote that it was the only natural obstacle to the harbour, with a draft of only 13 feet at low tide. Sayer’s Sailing Directions (1790) – the full title is the length of a short story in itself – clarifies this by saying that the thirteen feet only applies to low tides when accompanied by a northerly wind. The only feasible crossing place for this bar was on the Wexford side of the river at a place only 600 feet (a cable length) wide.
The narrow channel off Duncannon Fort is clearly shown here from Sayers Chart (1787)
The above-mentioned publication also gives two methods of crossing the bar in 1790. One was to line up Newtown’s Trees and Hogan’s House, which must have had many a foreign sea-captain scratching his head. The other was to keep the two lights in line.
The Lighthouse Digest suggests a date of 1774 for the foundation of a light station in the fort, as does a handwritten note in a 1930s Commissioners of Irish Lights ledger. Certainly, the lights were there by 1790, as per Sayer’s above. However, a Notice to Mariners for 1791 states that “a new lighthouse” would be established on 29th September of that year. The two lights, one above the other, would shine like “two stars of full magnitude” and, when the fort was passed, only one light would show.
This would seem to indicate that the 1791 lighthouse, with its two lights, one above the other, superseded an older arrangement, maybe a light from a fort window or flat roof lined up to a perch on the coast, probably coal fires. The 1791 light was, almost definitely, the first of its kind in Ireland, with its two lights in one tower. The lights incidentally were white and fixed and powered by three Argand lamps. They could be seen for 8¼ miles. The tower was 25 feet tall and the top light sat 53 feet above high water.
Duncannon Fort Light – Pete Goulding Collection
The notion of having a lighthouse in a military installation was not new, however. The first light at what became the site of Charlesfort on the approach to Kinsale was at Barry Og’s castle in 1665. When the castle was destroyed, the light shone from a window in the newly built Charles Fort. Similarly, Rosslare Fort at the entrance to Wexford harbour also had a lighthouse. Not only did this move safeguard the lighthouse from vandalism by forces who saw the harvest of shipwrecks as a God-given right, but the Commissioners of Barracks were made responsible for lighting Ireland’s shores from 1767 to 1796. As such, they killed two seagulls with one cannonball.
Funding for the light was not straightforward. An allowance was given to the Lighthouse Superintendent Samuel Newport but he had to convene a hurried meeting with the Waterford merchants and shipowners in 1793 as the money was practically gone!
Duncannon Fort was one of fourteen coastal lights that were handed over to the Ballast Board (the precursor of Irish Lights) when that body was charged with lighting our shores in 1810. According to Engineer John Swan Sloane (writing in 1880) the cost of repairing, converting and upgrading the light at the time was £845 10s 6d.
By 1832, the lights were paying their own way, costing £83 for maintenance and salary per year, and taking in £308 in light dues, out-performing all other harbour lights, except Poolbeg, and indeed many sea lights such as Loop Head and Clare Island.
Duncannon North Lighthouse. Commissioners of Irish Lights
In the 1830s, a new light was erected at Duncannon North (Blackhead), though one suspects this had more to do with the situation at Roches Point at the mouth of Cork Harbour. Basically, it was decided the small light there was too insignificant for such an important headland, so they decided to build a new one and move the old lighthouse somewhere else. Duncannon North came to mind and so the new light, half a mile to the north of the Fort, was established on 1st June 1838., after being transported from Cork in two boats.
North Light – Pete Goulding collection
Because of this, the top light at the Fort became the front leading light, with Duncannon North as the rear leading light. The lower light at the Fort became a tide light, only showing at half-tide or less.
In 1859, the light was classed as a 3rd order catoptric lens, using prisms to concentrate the light. A red light was added in 1882.
Unfortunately, none of the names of any of those early keepers, who came to light the light, have come to light. During a Trinity House inspection cruise in 1859, though, it was reported that the keeper at the time succeeded his father in the job. As he was not required during the hours of daylight, his pay was only £21 per year, compared to his counterpart at Duncannon North, who raked in £46 per year.
The first name I could find for a lightkeeper at Duncannon Fort was one John Redmond who served there as Attendant Keeper in 1871. Through the years, the two Duncannon lights, with others such as Donaghadee, Dungarvan and Broadhaven, were regarded as handy numbers. Not for them the isolation of the rock stations, the relief in mountainous seas and the life without medicine or religion. As such, it was often regarded as a nice, pre-pension station, a reward for those who had spent their years battling the elements of inhospitable cliff faces.
North Light upclose. Pete Goulding collection
The further complication of having two keepers in Duncannon, each managing one of the lights, means that very often we do not know who was at the Fort and who was at the North light. Maybe when, or should I say if, Irish Lights ever get around to publishing their archives, we should get a better idea. But until then, there’s a lot of either / ors. (Post Publication edit: see comment from Attendant keeper Martin Kennedy below)
For example, George Brownell, 58-year-old keeper at Balbriggan, county Dublin, states on the 1901 census that he was born at Duncannon, county Wexford. His father, Michael, was a keeper and so was likely the keeper at one of the two lights when George was born in 1841.
Similarly, a newspaper report from 1881 reports that one of the keepers, Hugh Duggan, fell down the stairs of his house and was killed. The other keeper in town, Timothy O’Leary, was called as a witness.
My sincere thanks to Pete Goulding for this excellent reprise of the navigation around Duncannon. Pete is the lighthouse blogger at Pete’s Irish Lighthouses. And author of When the Lights Go Out – a detailed history of deaths associated with Irish lightkeepers and their families.
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