Slí Sails – The Suir as a Social Entity

On Tuesday 30th April 2024 I was invited to speak at a gathering aboard the Cailin Deise river cruiser. My brief was to give a sense of the social aspect of the River Suir, and the people who resided upon it. Much of what others had to present was on the environmental degradation of the river, tributaries and coastline and initially, I feared my words may have been out of place. But here’s what I delivered.

The speakers and organisers on the day L-R Fran Igoe Local Authorities Water Programme, Maria Marra, Irish Ocean Literacy, Yours Truly, Jen Harriss CEO of Slí Waterford, Sarah of Slí and a long term supporter of the page, Eoin Nevins of the wonderful Friends of the St Johns River. Eoin gave a powerful summary on the work the lads have done for years, work I very much admire. Photo courtesy of Slí Waterford

Slí Sails address

Thanks for the invitation today. My name is Andrew Doherty and I am the project leader of Tides and Tales Maritime Community Project. Our mission statement is: To foster a deeper understanding, appreciation and value of the culture and economic opportunities of the Three Sisters River community through researching and promoting the stories of its people, places, trades and boats.

For centuries these rivers were seen as a connection, a conduit, a method of travel, commerce, trade, fishing and leisure populated by numerous people, trades and river craft. The rivers were not just the motorways of today, these were a superhighway that encompassed our modern infrastructure of plane, train and automobile.

Those times have been largely forgotten, or diminished.  But yet, how did the Vikings travel to Waterford, let alone Kings and pretenders? The choice of siting the new town beside the river and adjacent to what we now know as the St John’s Pill was strategically important in terms firstly of security and then trade.  The Three Sister rivers allowed trade to flow with the regularity of the tides.  Cuan ne Greinne,  the Harbour of the Sun was a strategic location to England, Wales and the continent and crucially a vital harbour of refuge in an era of sail.

In modern times, rivers such as the Barrow or Suir are generally perceived as boundaries, defining county lines or geographic jurisdictions. And there is a broader perspective too. 

The seas around our island nation have been largely ignored.  There’s a strong perception that these were handed away by the state in a favourable deal for the farming sector on joining the European Economic Community in 1973. (as a former fisherman in Cheekpoint I may have a personal position on this)  As a nation we had to scramble to create a state shipping line in WWII, that we might feed ourselves, only to let it collapse in the 1980s.  We have been embarrassed numerous times by our inability to protect our coast and seas.  There is seemingly no strategy or policy to embrace the resource, except for handing it over to private investors.

I don’t know the exact reason for this disregard to our waterways, lakes, rivers and seas. But I wonder is there something of the field ditch involved. The traditional boundary created from unwanted field stone that defined our patch of ground. The ditch was to keep people or animals in or out. The weeds were flung there, the slops from the kitchen, the broken delph, old cans and jars, the waste from the dry toilet. Perhaps the same mentality impacts our notion of our watery boundaries; out of sight, out of mind and of little consequence except as a means of waste disposal.

Waterford has a deep and proud history, but it tends to be told without a maritime perspective. Yet, rivers such as the Suir have an incredible story to tell.  We have an enviable reservoir of social history and folklore, hinted at by placenames, navigation lights, wrecks, pills, embankments, weirs, boats and old quays.

Although to some it may seem like a best-forgotten era of hard work, strife and incredible struggle, to others the river represents a remarkable rich history and heritage, an era to borrow a very apt phrase of “iron men and wooden boats”, of fishermen, sailors, cockle pickers, net makers, lighters and lightermen, of hobblers, pilots, watchmen, jarveys, porters and custom officials.

The work of our project seeks to connect the present society with the past so that we may value and appreciate what these people achieved.  But it is also about those that still continue these proud traditions, fishermen, boatmen and river families that know the stories of the past and practice the skills.  It only takes a generation to lose this heritage.  Although we do not underestimate the challenge of our project, we do believe with support and understanding, real progress to sustain these river communities is possible. 

I invite you if you have not already done so, to explore this past on Tides and Tales, and join our virtual community of river folk, a community of the tides. A community that seeks not to place administrative boundaries on a vital resource that can never be contained, but to unite and celebrate it as a collective good.

©Andrew Doherty 2024

Clodagh Walsh from the Ours to Protect series which is broadcast on WLR and podcast was aboard and did a short report on what was said. And yes I do sound nervous…I hate a microphone and paper, something I will have to work on.

Although it was a lovely opportunity to meet with new people, and reconnect with some others, I came away feeling dejected. I went to sleep that night remembering a letter I wrote to the then Minister for the Marine, Brendan Daly TD. I drafted and redrafted it with a biro, working hard to try make my thoughts clear. I finally picked up the courage to finish it off on foolscape paper, and posted it off. It never occurred to me to keep a copy. I don’t remember it even getting a response.

But in it, I pleaded with the minister to stop castigating salmon driftnet fishermen as the sole reason for the demise of salmon and the pressure on the stocks. It was probably childish in the extreme, but I pointed out pollution, evergreen tree plantations, and habitat destruction in the areas where salmon spawned. Why I asked did no one write in the national newspapers about these issues, or give some balance on the telly or radio when the matter of salmon stocks were discussed. Why was the salmon fisherman the one they all pointed at.

We now know however there were other pressures too such as salmon farm cages, global warming, deep sea trawling on migration routes amongst so much else. But a number of the inputs from the environmentalists present on the day, reinforced what I had stated to the Minister all those years ago. I wrote it in the late 1980s when I believed I would stay a fisherman in Cheekpoint for life, participating in a fishery that would help sustain me and my community.

Is it any wonder I would be sad, to think that almost 40 years later, people are still grappling to come to terms with the degradation of our rivers, and the salmon is still under pressure. And the Cheekpoint fishermen, like their counterparts up and down the river, after hundreds of years, are practically no more.

But as I write on reflection at least these people that I was with that day are trying. It’s easy to point the finger and say they are to blame, but the reality is more complex, its an uphill battle against powerful interests, none of which seem to have the rivers in their thoughts. And although I come at it with a different approach, perhaps I need to find a way to try to support them in what they are doing and hopefully get some support in return. It’s hard to trust, when your experience is to be dismissed. But I came across a quote about it recently that I have found to be true by Ralph Waldo Emerson “Our distrust is very expensive.” There are too many cynics in this world already!

Coincidentally, John O’Connor contacted me the same week to ask for an image to go with a piece he wanted to write about the money now being spent to address water pollution. The article appeared in the following weeks paper. John had been one of the few in journalism that had consistently written on the local small scale fishermens behalf when the government and its arms of agencies wanted to run through the salmon driftnet closures. I still have his articles in a folder from that time.

Ann – The Lady Smuggler of New Ross

In November 1842 the New Ross barque Ann, arrived at Passage East.  An obligatory inspection by customs officials passed without difficulty and the ship anchored at Cheekpoint to await pilotage to her home port.  However, once in New Ross another customs inspection voiced concern, the ship would be impounded, crew prosecuted and the name of the ships owner, Dr Howlett and his good lady wife impugned.  The case would become a cause celebre in the town, creating fractious debate and several days in court.  It would take more than a year before the matter was finally concluded in the eyes of the law, perhaps a lot longer in the minds of the townspeople of the inland port.    

On the 11th of November 1842, the large 3-masted barque Ann (sometimes spelt Anne in newspapers) on her homeward voyage from Quebec, laden with timber arrived at Passage East.  Registered with Lloyds, the ship had been built in Quebec in 1829, 313 tons and classed as AE1 – a fine ship, well found.

The crew of the Ann had been away from their native shore over 3 months, having sailed in late summer for Quebec where they arrived on September 15th with 26 emigrants.  This was their second journey of the year, she had arrived in May, with 178 emigrants – described as farmers, labourers & mechanics heading to West Canada. Two other vessels had arrived to Quebec from New Ross that month. A sister ship John Bell with 308 emigrants, and a rival, the Tottenham with 121.

At Passage East, she was boarded by George Parker, a customs official.  As was his duty, Parker requested a bill of return listing the goods the captain had on board, including the ship’s stores. The return contained the following articles:—15 gallons of rum, 4 gallons of brandy, 3 dozen of wine, 8 lbs of tea, 80 pounds of sugar, 42 pounds of tobacco, 2 boxes of cigars, and 1 box of raisins.

Satisfied, the customs man withdrew, leaving two colleagues Daniel Clarke and Alexander Moore to stay aboard the ship.  These men were known as Tide Waiters – and they stayed with the ship until the ship arrived in port maintaining a watch on the cargo and crew. The next morning the ship went ahead to Cheekpoint, dropping anchor across at Great Island at the mouth of the Ross River – River Barrow.  There pilot Doyle joined the vessel to guide her up the river.  

The mouth of the “Ross River” the R Barrow off Cheekpoint. Ships awaited a pilot here and favourable tides. The Barrow Railway Bridge would add another layer of challenge when constructed in 1906. Seen is the PS Ida at the main quay, which was often employed in towing sailing vessels along the rivers. AH Poole Photo NLI

Later that night there was a bit of action aboard.  Two boats belonging to the Ann were over the side.  The master, Captain John Black was rowed away in one, apparently to speak to the owners of the vessel and to arrange a tow by steamboat into the port. 

Daniel Clarke later deposed in court that he was one of two tide waiters aboard when the vessel anchored at Cheekpoint.  Either he or his colleague Moore was on deck all through the night.  He was aware of the captain going ashore, and he also heard that the second boat had slipped away as the mate and the captain had words about it being missing on his return.  Clarke had not seen or heard anything untoward himself.  It was generally presumed that the men had gone to Cheekpoint to wash the salt out of their throats after more than a month at sea.

When the Ann eventually settled against the quay at New Ross, Mr. Abbott the customs collector and a colleague went on board to make a ‘rummage search’, and the result was that they found 7 packages of tea over and above the 18lb allowed in the ship’s stores.  They stated that the tea was discovered concealed under some clothing. On questioning the captain, he explained that these were intended as part of the ship’s stores, an extra consignment, that would have been used had they run into bad weather. 

An image of New Ross quays in the mid 19th Century. The Customs men were based at one time in the building in the centre of the photo which was then the Globe Hotel. Image and information courtesy of Myles Courtney. New Ross Steet Focus
Custom House marked on this old map of the town – courtesy of Myles Courtney

The customs men were not satisfied however and a follow-up search yielded another 4 packages of tea, a package of snuff, and about 1½ lb of tobacco in a drawer of the cabin table. Some of the packages of tea were addressed to Mrs Howlett, wife of the principal owner of the ship.

Because it was then after 9 pm the customs house was closed, so the goods were locked into the captain’s cabin, Mr Abbott, keeping the key.  Customs officers maintained a watch on the vessel, but two days later it was found that two of the tea packages were missing. 

The following day a further search of the hold yielded a gap in the timber cargo in which they discovered some tobacco leaves and a strong smell of the product.  The customs officers at this point decided to put the vessel under seizure.

It was a major embarrassment for the Howlett firm.  Earlier that year, it seems the company had been involved in another incident which led to the ship’s master William Joyce, being temporarily relieved of duty.  Captain John Black was probably expected to run a tighter ship.  The fact that Mrs Howlett’s name was on some of the tea packages also made the newspapers – this even though Black had explained that the tea was just a gift for the lady.  Howletts could not afford the loss of the vessel and offered to provide financial security against their impounded ship – allowing them to trade.  This was refused. 

But it was also a major embarrassment for the customs officials.  If their suspicions were true, as much as ten bales of tobacco, having about 25 lbs in each, had been removed from the vessel while their officers were supposed to be on watch.  They could not accept that the incident happened in port, so the best theory was that the crew had managed to breach the ship’s hold and remove the materials at Cheekpoint.

Sailing ships at anchor off Cheekpoint towards the end of the 19th Century. Photo from AH Poole NLI

It would be April before the matter came to court in New Ross. In that time the crown had built a case against two crewmen, accusing them of smuggling the tobacco ashore at either Cheekpoint or Great Island in November 1842.  The main witness was a fellow crewman who claimed that while two men took the ship’s jolly boat, another managed to breach the hold, open the bow port and hand down the packages.  The case was held in New Ross before local magistrates Charles Tottenham and John Ussher.

It was found that John Brawders (sometimes reported as Brothers) – landed 275lb of tobacco at Kilmokea, Great Island and was aided by a cabin boy named Crow.  Brawders was found guilty and sentenced to 6 months jail.  Crow was acquitted as he was a minor.

Locally however, there was strong opinion in favour of Howlett’s and there was a feeling that the smuggling case was an act against nationalists and an attempt to do down the port of New Ross by the crown.  Howlett was stated as supporting the nationalist cause and paid above £10,000 in revenue per annum to the crown from his business, 1/3 of the then value of trade in the port. [As long term blog subscribers will know, this era saw heightened tensions with the Reapeal movement with New Ross and Duncannon being scenes of intense flashpoints, in particular around the very lucrative and popular river bourn paddle steamer trade which saw nationalist rivals brought onto both routes.]

Howlett had offered to provide financial security against his impounded ship in November which was refused until April when the very same surety was accepted. This had created a significant financial loss for the firm. 

In June a case was taken by the Howletts seeking the release of John Brawders, then serving his sentence in Wexford gaol. The case was taken arguing that the offence he was convicted of was legally questionable.  He was discharged, pending a further hearing into the matter.

It would be December 1843 before the matter came to a head, argued before the Court of Exchequer.  From the outset it was stated that there were some questionable legal interpretations taken by the crown in the prosecution of the case, and that these would be challanged.  There were also some curious issues with the evidence and some of the key witnesses on behalf of the crown. 

Effectively, the only hard evidence of the case was the quantities of tea and tobacco found on board the ship in New Ross.  It was argued that these quantities were legally allowable because of the circumstances involved and should never have been at issue. It was only the Customs officials interpretation of the law that created a problem.

Furthermore, it was shown that the main witness to the alleged event at Cheekpoint, Michael Dowling, was since the matter, in the indirect employ of the Customs – receiving a stipend of 25s per week. There was, in fact, no tangible evidence of tobacco smuggling, save a gap in the cargo and a claim of tobacco leaves being found therein.

Howletts store in John’s St. New Ross – courtesy of Myles Courtney

Heard over two days,  the Wexford Independent published a transcript of the hearing spread over five columns in two pages and editorialised on the result. 

In summing up the case, the judge raised several points of maritime law.  He expressed concern about the crown’s interpretation of the same.   A major point of contention was the decision to seize the Ann, and the harm this caused to the business interests of the Howlett family and the port of New Ross. He went on to state in closing that:

“It appears to me that the crown has been misled by various stories, and the evidence which the Solicitor General gave you to understand that witnesses would be produced on this point, which they have not only not supported but contradicted.  If you disbelieve Dowlings evidence, of course there remains nothing but a blind suspicion relative to the affair at Passage [I think he meant Cheekpoint here].  I cannot avoid saying, as far as the evidence goes, that the keeping away of witnesses, appears to be on the part of the crown, and not at all on the part of the defendants…”

Wexford Independent – Saturday 16 December 1843; page 2

With such a damning summing up, perhaps it is no surprise that the jury deliberated only 15 minutes before delivering their verdict for the defendants, Howlett and partners. The Wexford Independent did not mince words in their editorial.  –

“This day we publish a report taken specially for this paper, of trial in which the Queen was the ostensible Plaintiff—but virtually the Tories of Ross—and the eminent Firm of Messrs, Howlett & Co. Defendants …It will be seen that the latter were triumphantly victorious; but how will compensation be made them for the annoyance and petty persecutions to which they have been subjected the miserable faction behind the scene who were the real instigators of the prosecution? We are in possession of facts connected with this case, that will bring the blush of shame on certain parties whose position in society should teach them act a different part; and which shall be laid before the public in due season. In the meantime, every good and unbiased mind in the United Kingdom will rejoice with us on the issue which is this day recorded. The inhabitants of Ross, the intelligence reaching that town, illuminated their houses; and every vessel in port, (with exception of the Tottenham) hoisted their colors”.

Wexford Independent – Saturday 16 December 1843; page 2

The Ann was registered with Lloyds up to 1844 but it 1845 she seems to have been replaced on the Quebec run by the Abeona, built in Nova Scotia in 1842. A newer vessel for a very busy and regular route. Her master was listed as Black. But I can’t say this was John. I can’t find any ship named in 1843 that replaced the Ann during the period. However, perhaps one was leased by the firm. The number of ships and emigrants landed at Quebec in 1843/44 are not listed on the Ship Lists site already linked above. So I can’t say that the Tottenham profited by the loss of the Ann for those few months. However, as Brian Cleare and Jack O’Leary mention in their book on Sailing Ships of Wexford the Tottenham had her own issues too!

Just for the record, the ships listed as operating from New Ross in Lloyds Register in 1843 apart from the Ann were – Enterprise, schooner, Captain Williams, owner A Lynn, route – coasting trade; Margaret, ship, Captain Joyce, owner Howlett, route – London East India trade, John Bell, Schooner, Captain W Black, owner Howlett, route Waterford Quebec, Emma, schooner, Captain Thomas, owner Hartrick, route Liverpool to Constantinople, Rose Macroom, brig, Captain E Evans, owner Artrick (Hartrick?) , route Waterford to Newfoundland, Tottenham, barque, Captain J Brown, route – Waterford Quebec

For many more details on the ships mentioned – see Sailing Ships of Wexford by Brian and Jack. See for example Ann p303, John Bell p325, Tottenham p281. The lads are speaking at Whites Hotel in Wexford on Wednesday 1st May 2024 at 8pm for the Wexford Historical Society. Topic is the Wexford Grain Race – Sailing to Galatz and back. Anyone who has read this wonderful book will know the extremes faced by the crews in getting to that inland port on the Danube.

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This months blog is a composite of numerous news articles from the 1842-43 era and the only one that I can in anyway reference is done so above. It is also informed by previous blogs, particularly on the rival services on the paddle steamer routes that I have researched and written some articles on previously. There’s a book in these incidents alone. Kathleen Moore Walsh has covered some of this activism in her own work on the Glenmore history blog.

Flanagans Fish Shop Closure -end of an era

Last week Flanagans closed after a remarkable history of almost 116 years. In fact, a week shy of that, for Martin J Flanagan opened on Friday 28th February 1908. Ironically that was a leap year too.

Waterford Standard – Wednesday 26 February 1908; page 2
The original advert for the company – opened in a leap year of 1908 – on Friday 28th of February

One of many fish shops when I was a child in Waterford, only Doherty’s in Patrick St and Billy Burkes in Ballybricken now remain. Flanagans had vacated the city center of course, moving to the Northern extension and for a time they had a small outlet at Ardkeen.

Flanagans in Broad Street Waterford, Check the original on NLI

The new business advertised heavily to get the word out, including the use of a bicycle.

Our readers will be glad to learn the Mr Martin J Flanagan has opened his new Fish Shop at No. 18 Broad-Street, Waterford.  The house and shop have undergone extensive alterations to meet the requirements necessary for this class of business, and the proprietor hopes to merit a share of public support.  For the quick delivery of his customers Mr Flanagan has purchased a Rudge-Whitworth bicycle, specially designed with a suitable basket arranged over front wheel, capable of carrying 56lb, so that there will be no delay in conveying the good purchased at his establishment.  

Waterford Chronicle – Saturday 29 February 1908; page 2

As a child, however, I knew of Flanagans because of their van which travelled around the harbour fishing villages, buying fish directly from the quays and local homes. My father always sold to Flanagans and as a signal to stop, my mother would put a conch shell on the gate pier.

The van would stop, the arm on a weighing scale would be hoisted, and we would carry out the fish for the official weighing. I say official because we had already weighed the fish on a handheld ouncel, but it was what the buyer’s measure stated that determined the final payment. Weighed by the pound and paid by it, even a 1/4 lb made a difference to cash-strapped families but there was no point in arguing.

An ouncel that saw a lot of fish down the years

Several small peal would be weighed together, but a “fine salmon” would get its own treatment and always attracted more interest. Big fish meant a higher rate of pay per pound. Of course many had already gone to McAlpins, Mr Mac always paid the best prices around for large fish.

Once weighed, the tarpaulin would be lifted off the back of the van, releasing a black wave of flies and blue bottles off the fish already stored there, and as our father’s fish were sorted into boxes we took a careful measure of what was there. Then a docket was written up calculating the weight, price per pound and the all-important calculation of what the catch realised.

A docket of mine from 1989. Note the price difference between a 9 lb salmon and a 7lb (jack as we would call it) and the two peal weighed together.

Hard-pressed fishermen would sometimes have to get the price of the annual licence from a fish buyer. And sometimes that included some new nets and oilskins etc. In this case, the docket would also include a deduction as the loan cost was taken off in a percentage.

When I was fishing in the 1980s the fishbuyer’s practice of coming around started to slow, but I think it was the 1990s before it died out. Most of the lads had cars or vans at that stage and I regularly went to town with Pat Moran in his rusty green Ford van which smelled to high heavens of fish. We would pull up in Arundel Sq at the back of the premises and carry the fish through in a box to the lads. There the filleters were employed, and fish were sorted, weighed, and prepped for the shop floor.

In those days most of the salmon were being sorted and iced in styrofoam boxes, to be dispatched that same day worldwide. But it was the era before the salmon farms. would eat into the market. It was also the era of salmon fishing on the high seas, and small operators like us were starting to become irrelevant.

Russ Parsons had a feature in last weeks Irish Times on Woodstown Oysters – having travelled the world he raved about the quality of the product but pointed out that although some locals stock them including Elaine Power in East Pier Dunmore, we as a nation don’t appreciate or support such products. This attitude may have had nothing to do with the closure of Flanagans, but perhaps our relationship is worth considering. If only to think of how and why we should support our fishermen and fishing industry.

The Millstone Era in Waterford Harbour


Over the centuries people have harnessed the power of water via ponds, streams and rivers to drive wheels which created the power to grind wheat, corn and other grains.  The fertile valley and hinterland along the Three Sister rivers had many advantages to this practice, an industry that had its peak between the mid 17th and 19th Century. 

These advantages included fertile land, the flourishing of religious abbeys and the manorial estate system post-Norman conquest, and a long and navigable river network with bustling ports connected to England and the European mainland. But another advantage, and perhaps less well known, was a ready supply of accessible Old Red Sandstone, that provided perfect material for the creation of millstones.  

The Quarries

Quarrying operations took place in areas with suitable stone and also, crucially, proximity to waterways for transportation.  The main locations in this area included Creaden Bay, Templetown and Great Graigue on the Hook Peninsula, Ballyhack Hill, Minaun and Drumdowney close to Ballinlaw in Kilkenny.  I wonder are there other areas that they tried to quarry that we have yet to discover? I’m guessing there are.

Millstones at the New Quay, Templetown, Hook Peninsula, note Creaden Head in the distance. Photo courtesy of Liam Ryan.
New Quay at Templetown at low water. Photo courtesy of Liam Ryan.

I described previously our childhood visits to the Minaun above Cheekpoint.  One of our picnic spots was a rounded rock, and our mother said the Knights of the Round table gathered there. It turned out later that it was an attempt to quarry a millstone from out the bedrock on the hill, but that still doesn’t spoil the memory for me.  I have no recollection of seeing others, or locations where they were harvested on the Minaun.  I’m also gutted to say I have no images. I think the stone may have been bulldozed when the round tower was built there in the late 1980s.    

Ballyhack was another location, and although the area is now overgrown and not a very obvious commercial millstone quarry.  However, it was once a hive of activity and was written about as early as 1684.  Rober Leigh gave the following description: 

“About two miles from Dunbrody to the sewarde upon the river of Waterford there is a creeke and an old Key at the bottom of a steepe rocke, called Ballihack: it is a sad place to looke upon, and has not above halfe a dozen houses and an old pile of a castle besides a fue cabins, but is is a place much frequented by passengers that ferry over there into Munster to a place on that syde called Passagem as alsoe by seamen and the like, for ships often lye thereabouts in the River.

There are two considerable fairs kept at Ballihak, (for black cattle and hogs) in the yeare, the one at Michaelmas, the other upon St James’ day.

In summer and out of the rock that hangs above ye village and Key is wrought a number of very good Milstones, which with noe small skill nor less danger are rowled downe a very high precipice to the aforesaid Key and soe carried by water as the occasion requires”

Source: Hore.P.H History of the Town & County of Wexford. Dunbrody Abbey, The Great Island, Ballyhack etc. 1901
Ava exploring part of the millstone quarry (and frogspawn) on Ballyhack Hill about 15 years ago. Photo Courtesy of Maria Doyle
A discarded millstone at Ballyhack…imagine the hours of work it took only to find that it was no use perhaps because of a flaw? Photo Courtesy of Maria Doyle

Dates of the process 

Although the quarrying of millstones in ancient, the need for millstones was driven by the process of local milling which was popular between 1550 & 1850.  Niall Colfer speculates that the local quarrying seems to have been at its height between the mid 17th to mid 19th Century.  He also speculates that the Creaden quarry could in fact have started sometime in the medieval era, because of some of the extraction methods employed.   

The traditional lighter in the foreground here in Waterford. They were used in navigating from the quarries to the mills on many of the local Pills including Ballycanvan, St John’s and the Blackwater (Kilmacow Pill etc). Image courtesy of the Andy Kelly Collection.

Extraction Methods

Various methods were employed depending on the location of the stone being cut. But in all cases the use of hand tools seems to have been the preferred method in the harbour. 

The Otter Hole on the Hook – the initials of some of the workmen that extracted the stone from the quarry’s nearby are still to be seen. Photo courtesy of Walter Foley.

Jim Walsh describes the work as perhaps taking a week to cut out one stone of 5 to 6 feet in diameter,  a foot thick and weighing a ton.  Quoting from William Tighe (1800-1801), he states that the stones from Drumdowney Hill were sent as far as England, and after tariffs were placed on the imports, the local stones were sent coastwards to Cork and Dublin and elsewhere around Ireland.  The workmen received 6 guineas for a pair of stone, but they can sell for up to 12 guineas.  The work is arduous and sometimes the quarrymen only discover a flaw in a stone after extracting it from the rock

At Creaden Colfer has calculated that perhaps 300 millstones were extracted from the site over the years.  Such coastal sites had a number of advantages, including transport and extraction

Part of the expansive remains of the quarrying at Creaden Bay. Photo – Andrew Doherty
Remains at Herrylock on the Hook, photo courtesy of Walter Foley

The extraction method employed using the tides was as follows:  A circular trench was hewn from the rock, chiselled down to twice the width of the required millstone.  Triangular wedge shapes were then carved and into these timber wedges were inserted.  Once completed, the tide washed into the hole, and as the wedges absorbed the water, the swelling wedges expanded, the force of which naturally cracked the millstone from the bedrock.


Once extracted, the millstones had to be transported to their final destinations. I was raised on stories of the millstones being rolled down the hill of Ballyhack to be transhipped.  The method was as follows, the stone was lifted vertically, a beam was placed through the central core, ropes were secured to the ends of the beam (but were free to turn) and then the stone was rolled carefully, the ropes being employed as a break in case the stone took off down the hill. 

A broken millstone at Ballinlaw, Co Kilkenny. Can you imagine after hand chiselling a stone for at least a week if not longer, how crushed you would be to see it broken just at the point it was to board a lighter or a ship? Photo Courtesy of Paul Grant.

Waterways, like the Waterford Harbour and the Three Sister Rivers were a natural highway for the movement of such stone.  They could be loaded onto boats (I’d imagine Lighters were the craft of choice for accessibility both to the coastal site and as far up areas such as the Ballycanvan Pill, Johns Pill or the Blackwater).  Of course they could also be loaded onto ships for transport around the coast. It is certainly possible that the proliferation of quarrying at Waterford harbour indicates a thriving trade to England, and perhaps even the continent.

A nasty spot for the paintwork even on a calm day! Despite the danger, I fancied this as a very natural working point for the lightermen in Creaden Bay. They could have only got in her on specific tides and in favourable weather. Photo – Andrew Doherty

The site at Creaden has a naturally occurring landing site and must have been useful in the rolling of Millstones onto the lighters.  Colfer states that water transport was common practice in Ireland.  At Templetown on the Hook there is a natural landing area for boats which is called the “oul Key”. See Liam Ryans photo above.

Belfast Commercial Chronicle – Monday 25 November 1805; Page 3 Niall Colfer speculated that the use of the phrase Ballyhack Millstones could have been employed as a type of branding for all the local millstones.

Following publication I received a message (May 2024) from a pal that there was mention of a wreck found in Dublin Bay which had millstones aboard originating from Waterford harbour aboard. An email to David Carroll prompted quick responses from Dr Eddie Bourke and Cormac Lowth with suggestions for follow up. Cormac also provided an introduction to Niall Brady of the Archaeological Diving Company Ltd. Niall was very generous in his time and supplied me with the following image and information. (Niall was also part of the team that discovered the Duncannon wrecks which we have blogged about previously)

Image (above) Plan of shipwreck discovered on the approach channel into Dublin that carried a series of millstones which would have originated in the Waterford Harbour quarries. Drawn for Dublin Port Company Ltd by Rex Bangerter, the Archaeological Diving Company Ltd (ADCO) (
Niall went on to explain that this image is “of the wreck we investigated in Dublin that carried some of the millstones, the association of which lends its name to how we now refer to the wreck site, the ‘Millstone Wreck’. We discovered the site while monitoring the capital dredging campaign for Dublin Port Company in 2017. A millstone was dredged up and further monitoring, survey and then underwater investigation led to the discovery of the wreck. The dive work was led by my co-director, Rex Bangerter, who drew the site plan. The wreck lies on the toe of the navigation channel into Dublin, at a location that would have been on the Dublin Bar – the naturally-occurring sand bar that forms across the mouth of the Liffey delta and poses a barrier to shipping; hence the dredging campaigns. We suggest that the wreck occurred while trying to cross the bar, perhaps in the eighteenth century, when only limited progress had been made to improve navigation into the city. We do not know the vessel’s name or the story around its wrecking but it is one of some 300 recorded wrecking events on the approaches to Dublin. The millstones were most likely cargo that would have been destined to support the milling industries along the east coast; perhaps this one was meant to serve a mill along the Liffey but never quite arrived there”


The 19th century saw significant changes in milling technology. Better stones were imported from France which saw the older local stones being used to a lesser extent. The advent of steel roller mills in the late 19th and early 20th centuries saw a decline too. Roller mills offered more efficiency and consistency in grain milling.

Today, the remnants of old millstone quarries offer us a glimpse of these historical landmarks of a once-thriving industry. I’d imagine there may be other sites out there too. Hard work, hard lives but again the harbour and rivers played their part.


Just to conclude, here’s a quick overview of the water milling operations that I am aware of. I’m bundling together here mills fed by streams, by the tides etc and some of these did not grind corn, but it gives a sense of the extent of them. I’m also not including windmills.

  • Kilmokea horizontal mill at Great Island– 5th Century
  • Two tidal water mills at Dunbrody Abbey
  • Five mills utilising streams in Slieverue – Ballyrouragh, Ballinlaw, Rathpatrick and 2 in Gorteens. (ref Jim Walsh p215-219)
  • Foley’s Mill at Gyles Quay (ref Jim Walsh p215)
  • Historically one is mentioned on the Faithlegg/Woodlands Pill.
  • 2 on the Ballycanvan Pill that I have written about previously
  • 3 on St Johns Pill, the last of which operated to the 1950s
  • 9 mills on the Maudlin Stream near New Ross (ref Jim Walsh p212)
  • Kathleen Laffen listed 14 water mills on the River Blackwater in South Kilkenny (not all for milling grain however, and there may have been older mills there too)
  • And of course the mills of Carrick & Clonmel

Thank you for extra information to Olivia Murray, David Carroll and Pat Bracken and to photo archives of Andy Kelly, Maria Doyle, Paul Grant and Liam Ryan.

Update: Keen eyes may have noticed that the site has a new name. Tides and Tales Maritime Community Project. Other changes may be coming, and I wanted to give a quick explanation. For the last year I have been working to try offset the cost of running this blog, which I have self financed from the outset. Before Christmas I had a health scare, and I am not yet back to work. Some long term supporters gathered around me, and together we decided that it was time for a complete change of approach; the notion of leading walks or providing talks that would cover the costs is just not feasible. We have set up a working committee to develop a plan to make the project of Tides and Tales sustainable. The project will take time and a lot of commitment but unless the work starts now, the long-term sustainability of Tides and Tales can not be guaranteed. This is just intended as an update, and a brief explanation, not a call for any action. Other changes may occur in the coming months. But I will maintain the work if at all possible. I already have the schedule of blog posts for 2024 laid out to Christmas and plans for Heritage Week are in train. I also have some terrific guest blogs to come. May will be our ten year anniversary of the blog! Many thanks for all your continued support, whether it’s by supporting comments, offers of information, sources of photos etc, it all plays a role in keeping the show on the road. It is very much appreciated. Andrew

Sources used:

Niall Colfer (2019) Turning Stone into Bread: The Millstone Quarries
of Medieval and Post-medieval Ireland, Industrial Archaeology Review, 41:1, 65-72, DOI:

Laffan. Kathleen. The History of Kilmacow – A South Kilkenny Parish. 2nd Ed.2005. GK Print, Grannagh, Kilkenny

Walsh. Jim.  Sliabh Rua, A History of its People and Places.  2001.  Slieverue Parish Pastoral Council.

An Irish record in cargo handling

Earlier this week Dave O’Hallorahan contacted me via Twitter – yes I know it’s got a new name, but it’s bad enough to use the platform knowing the new owner, without embracing the change- to say that an interesting ship was off Dunmore. A quick search on Vessel Finder piqued my interest, and later that afternoon I noticed a post from Philip Doherty on the Waterford Maritime History Facebook Group page with an image of the vessel and cargo. It was the BBC Citrine 153m ship which came from the port of Izmir inTurkey.

In the comments section of Philips’s post, Mike Kiely of Celtic Shipping gave more detail. Mike who was handling the freight explained that the cargo of windmill blades was 80 meters long, and as such this cargo was the longest ever imported into Ireland. Anyone passing along the roadway by Belview, Port of Waterford will have noticed the roundabouts being widened, and it is loads such as these that are being facilitated.

I kept an eye on Marine Traffic and close to high water on Tuesday 20th Feb the ship started its run into the port. Thankfully I was around and the rain held off long enough to get a short video.

From the comments online, I got the following details on their destination – a bog in Co Offaly, the Cushaling Wind Farm. I also read that there will be a second ship later this week with tower sections for the same project.

MV Celtic inbound from the Port of Marin in NW Spain on a more pleasant afternoon – 22/2/24

Whatever the merits of wind energy, there is no denying the climate emergency we face.

Waterford has been earmarked as one of the service ports for the planned offshore wind farms which have been in the planning for several years now. So I guess we will see a lot more of such cargo in the future. When these offshore wind farms go ahead, such equipment will be considered small!

Coincidentally Tom MacSweeney covered the issue of what is being called the marine spacial squeeze in his March podcast. It’s the first item discussed and makes for sobering listening…or course so too does one of the final segments which covers water temperature rises and how this is impacting negatively on fish farming and oyster growing. No easy answers to the predicament we are in.

I just hope our own bitter experience of how the government and its agencies ruined our traditional fishing communities in the harbour with zero consideration will not be replicated now for the inshore fleet off Dunmore…ironically where those who stayed in fishing after the salmon ban in the villages migrated to.

Here’s an illustration of just one of the possibly 7 companies that have plans off the Waterford coast.