Ships of the Milford to Waterford Mail Packet Service

An official mail packet service ran between Milford Haven and Waterford from 1787 to 1848.  The service often referred to at the time as the Southern Route, operated in competition with an earlier route between Holyhead and Dublin*.  Although the Southern route was shorter, it was never as popular.  This blog will concentrate on the ships that worked the service and share what little details I could find on those who crewed these vessels in the 61 years of the service.

Although there was packet communication between Waterford and the UK as early as 1600 this service was unofficial and sailings were irregular.  The only ship that I am aware of from this era was the Countess of Tyrone – a name we know from the writings of Arthur Young and specifically  “A Tour in Ireland 1776-1779”

The official service commenced on April 5th 1787 from Cheekpoint with one vessel.   But by June that year, the Post Office responded to the popularity of the route by asking the Packet Agent, Thomas Owen, to get sufficient vessels to allow for six days of sailing.[i]   

Cheekpoint 1799…called Chief Point in this engraving by J Storer from an original drawing by G Holmes. The village was then the base of the Royal Mail packet station to Southern Ireland. Interestingly, I found an old map reference from this era that suggests the village did not exist until the Mail Packet era – the quay was then called Faithlegg Slip – Cheekpoint as a name is listed, but it relates to where the Mount Tower stands.

One of the first vessels on the route was known as the Hopewell and in November 1787, this ship came to grief although the mail and passengers were saved. [ii] (This is the only loss associated with the service that I am aware of, which is an excellent record on what was considered by many a dangerous run).  The Hopewell was apparently lost off the Wexford coast under the command of Captain Morris.  No details of the saving of the crew, passengers, and mail are given[iii].  If I had to guess, I would imagine she ran ashore.  It would appear two new ships were secured in the summer of 1787, the Carteret and Walsingham.  Others who were on service included the Ponsonby, Clifden, and Tyrone.  In February 1795 another ship joined (perhaps another had ceased) called the Chesterfield.[iv]                      

The details of these vessels are scarce (I could find nothing on any of them in Lloyds List for example) but the description we have is of fast-paced cutters of 80-90 tons with a capacity for horse & carriage, packages, and parcels, accommodation, and even stewards to look after the guests.  The ships had to be fast, not just to fulfill the task assigned to them, but during the Napoleonic wars, they had the added excitement of trying to avoid French privateers who took every opportunity to disrupt trade.

an example of a cutter, a picture accessed from
https://southayrshirehistory.wordpress.com/tag/smuggling/

Sailing ships had one major disadvantage – they depended on favorable wind and tide and the location at Cheekpoint, ten miles upriver caused many complaints.  In 1813 the service was moved to Passage East in preparation for another move to Dunmore East where a new harbour would open to facilitate the Packets in 1818.  But even at that point, a new complaint was emerging – steam-powered vessels were developing and their value to the service was apparent to all.

In 1822 it was argued in a newspaper column that Dunmore required steam to give the service the same advantage then being offered on the Dublin route.  The positives of steam were laid out and a recommendation included the design of the ships – Stoutly built, 200 tons, two engines to provide 80HP and accommodation for at least 40 passengers.[v]     It would appear that the last sailing cutters employed on the route sailed on April 15th 1824 at which point four paddle steamers came into service.[vi]        

In May 1824 one vessel the Harlequin under captain Grey completed her journey to Dunmore in 8 hrs and made the return in 7.5hrs, the ships are described as very comfortable and commodious and the only noted difference to their rivals on the Dublin route was that the horses and carriages are accommodated below decks on the Dunmore run[vii] Private email correspondence with Roger Antell informed me that the Steam packets Meteor and Royal Sovereign operated from Dunmore around this time too – these ships had worked on the Dublin route but were replaced with faster and more powerful ships.

Paddle steam packets Meteor (on left) and Royal Sovereign which operated on the Milford Waterford route for a time circa 1824. Artist: William John Huggins.  Maritime Museum Greenwich, via Roger Antell. The scene depicted is the departure of George IV from Holyhead to Dublin in 1822. Interestingly, the Royal Sovereign, or to give her the full title Royal Sovereign George the Fourth, was called the Lightning up to this point but was renamed as the King traveled aboard to Ireland.

Of course, it’s an ill wind that blows no good!  In November 1824 Mr. Pim and Mrs. Mowlds of Dublin fled to Waterford and getting horses in town arrived in Dunmore to elope abroad.  Unfortunately for the lovebirds, the packet was delayed, and whilst staying at Mr. Cherry’s Hotel a certain Mr. Mowlds arrived and “…An unpleasant and rather violent rencontre took place between the parties…” The family Mowlds later returned to Dublin, Mr. Pim to court, and apparently, the packet limped into Dunmore not long after oblivious of its vital role in a love triangle.[viii]

A furious Waterford Mail article of August 1827 excoriated the Post Office due to the inability of the Meteor to sail during the week which caused a delay in information for the previous edition.  Although Meteor sailed, she had to put back into Milford where the newly arrived paddle steamer Vixen had to turn around to return to Waterford.  A new ship was expected on the route, but the Mail asks when, and very reasonably, why, a relief boat was not secured.[ix]

To get an insight into the pressures these packet captains were under the following article is instructive.  On the 8th April 1828, the steam packet Crocodile went to the assistance of the sailing vessel Fairfield close to the Saltee Islands en route from St Johns NB to Liverpool fully laden with timber.  The sailing ship had lost her rudder in a storm and was unmanageable.   The Crocodile took the vessel in tow and from 3 pm to 6 pm managed to reach a position about 7 miles off the Hook.  Because Captain Nuttall of the Crocodile needed to reach Dunmore, he then signaled the Fairfield that he was cutting the tow rope but would send assistance, and she dropped anchor.  At Dunmore Captain Hunt, the pilot master, sent the pilot boat Scott to assist. However, the anchor chains parted on the Fairfield and she was reported a total wreck on the Wexford shore.[x] A later edition of the paper confirmed that all aboard were saved.  (The Fairfield had left port on the 1st March, and lost her rudder on the 26th)

Dunmore’s East Pier and lighthouse Circa 1900 – originally built for the Mail Packets. Courtesy of Vinnie O’Brien

In November 1832 there was an announcement of the death, at Dunmore East, of Captain Charles Nuttall, commander of the Milford to Waterford packet Crocodile.  It also mentions that Nuttall was captain of the first vessel to land mail at Cheekpoint in 1787 and had served the station loyally in the intervening years.[xi] 

In 1835 the four steam packets were listed in a newspaper article.  Three vessels were of 80HP highlighting that despite the speed in advancement, the Dunmore route was not keeping pace.  These were the Sybil, Crocodile, and the Vixen.  A fourth vessel the Aladdin was 100HP.  The least powerful vessel on the Dublin route at the time was 140HP.[xii]

The article went on to give some valuable insights into the route – The Dunmore route was constantly being attacked as slow and of poor value.  This impacted mail delivery times, passenger comfort, and the major point with all travel to this day – speed.  However, the article pointed out that the distance from Milford to Dunmore was 81 nautical miles.  Dublin to Liverpool was 125.  Although the Dunmore ships were vastly underpowered in comparison, the speed of the journey despite the negative coverage was favorable.  For example in looking at the month of April; the fastest journey was April 21 – 8 hrs 30mins, whilst the slowest was April 1st at 12hrs 25 mins.  The fastest journey that month from Liverpool to Kingstown was 10hrs 39mins.[xiii]

Earlier in 1833, the Waterford Chronicle had boasted that the local Waterford Steamship Company which sailed from Bristol to Waterford was wiping the eye of the Royal service.  A new steamship the Waterwitch had taken 24hrs to reach Waterford in a storm but had still beaten the Crocodile by 10 hrs notwithstanding the greater distance she had covered.  The article also mentions an older sister ship Norah Creina a firm favourite with passengers.  It concludes with a very fair question 

“But why, again, let us enquire is not the post office, which surely, has ample funds at its disposal, able to compete with private a company? This is a subject which, claims the prompt attention of all mercantile and commercial men, not only of this city, but also of Cork, Clonmel, Dungarvan, and Youghal. Strong and pressing representations of the miserably official condition of the mail-packets should be made without delay, and if these remonstrances are not duly attended to, the subject should be early brought under the notice of Parliament”[xiv]

In September 1836 Edward Rose, commander of the Aladdin was moved to write a rebuttal to the Waterford Chronicle after an article appeared criticising his vessel.  At issue was a recent sailing, which Rose pointed out was very misleading both in the time taken for the trip but also in describing the sea conditions as “smooth as oil” when in fact there was a “strong, treble reefed topsail breeze from the NE which occasioned the sort of short choppy seas most unfavourable to [paddle] steamers” [xv]

A Waterford postmark from October 1837. Source: Roger Antell.

A comparison between the two routes is very informative.  For example in 1835 on the Milford to Dunmore route – 2,199 passengers were accommodated but over 11,000 traveled from Holyhead to Dublin, 21 carriages arrived at Dunmore – 563 to Dublin, 8 horses to Dunmore against 214 and 46 dogs to Dunmore against 270 to Dublin.[xvi]

There were major changes to the service in early 1837 when the management was taken over by the Admiralty and the base was moved from Dunmore East to the Adelphi Wharf in Waterford City.  The earliest mention of this was an article in June, although the article expresses strong reservations about the move – suggesting that it may not meet the concerns of the Post Office[xvii]   According to Roger Antell the first vessel to use the Adelphi Wharf was the steamer Pigmy and another vessel Jasper is mentioned.  An interesting point that I found (but can’t be sure of) stated that when the Admiralty took over, they did not employ new ships but simply renamed the older vessels that were on the route.  Whatever the situation the Post Office continued to favour the Dublin route and when rail finally made its way to Holyhead the speed and efficiency of that route were obvious to all.  On the 2nd August 1848, the Milford to Waterford Packet ceased, bringing to a close what can only be described as a controversial route from outset.[xviii]

At the time it ceased there were five vessels employed.  Pigmy commanded by Lieut. Darby RN, Advice under Lieut. Petch RN, Jasper under Mr Edward Rose RN, Adder under Mr John Hammond Acting Master RN, Prospero under Acting Master Rundle RN. [xix]

The SS Great Western the Adelphi Wharf in WWI

Some years back the late Brian Goggins, who occasionally corresponded with me on blog topics, wrote to me that he was of the opinion that the major reason the route failed was that the public was not prepared to travel on the poor roads to Milford once they got to Bristol.  He believed that the public at that time felt it was so much easier to take a steamship from Bristol to Waterford, despite the greater distance by sea.  It’s a reasonable theory because within less than ten years of the route ceasing the Great Western Railway Company would have built a rail line to Milford and reinstated the Waterford connection at Adelphi Wharf, something that would continue up to the 1960s. 

*Although I mention Holyhead to Dublin, there was much chopping and changing on this route too including Liverpool to Dublin and various locations around Dublin including Howth and Dun Laoghaire.


I drew on contemporary newspaper reports, my second book, and also the work of Roger Antell for this piece. Antell. R. 2011.  The Mails Between South Wales and Southern Ireland.  Welsh Philatelic Press.

Waterford Quay

The very existence of Waterford and the quays are linked to the coming of the Vikings, who arrived in the mid 9th Century to the area.  The harbour was first seen as a staging point, from where raids could be launched inland via the Three Sisters river network of the Barrow Nore and Suir and around the coastline west of the county.

It is believed that these “Ostmen”- men from the east, settled into a new permanent home that would become Ireland’s oldest city, ‘Veðrafjǫrðr’, Waterford circa 914.  From this location, trade flourished with other Viking settlements in the UK and the European mainland.

A replica of a Viking longboat at Reginalds Tower, Waterford

Strongbow breached the city walls in 1170 and the following year the Norman King, Henry II took control of the city and much of the country.  Waterford was recognised for its strategic importance and would become a vital seaport following the Noman conquest, developing in particular trading links with Bristol, the third-largest town in England.  Protected by Royal Charters and a growing influx of merchant classes from abroad Waterford became the leading importer of wine into Ireland – a vital beverage given how poor the quality of drinking water was at the time.  Exports included wool, hides, corn, and fish. I say fish here and underline it. Fish. It’s a topic that gets very little coverage in Irish history books and in Waterford we tend to stress the Newfoundland cod fishery, but the Three Sisters abounded in fish and it was an important element in our export trade.

Henry II arrives at Waterford Oct 1171

Bubonic plague and political strife saw a decline in fortunes in the 14th Century but by the mid 15th Century trade was again rising. In 1494 Waterford earned the motto “Urbs Intacta Manet “– the untaken city, having repulsed an attempted landing by the pretender to the English throne, Perkin Warbeck (and the earlier Simnel).  The arrival of the Huguenots in the 17th Century saw an increased trade in textiles and international links and of course gave us our Blaa!.  The provisioning of ships used in the Newfoundland cod fishery was another welcome boost, providing salt, provisions, and “green men” to work the fishery.  During this era, the city walls that had been built to protect the town were removed in part to facilitate the expansion of the port and the city quays.  A visitor in 1776, Arthur Young, described it as “the finest object in this city”

Cian Mannings Waterford City, A History Cian chose for the cover of his book Van der Hagen’s View of Waterford (1736) which shows the extent of the quay and the city open to the world in terms of trade. The original can be seen in the Bishops Palace Museum. Much of this story today draws on Cian’s wonderful work.

The 19th century would see some of the greatest changes to the port.  In 1816 Waterford harbour Commissioners were founded which would guide the developments of the port up to the present day. It took on the coordination of the port, ballast, dredging, piloting, and access – particularly the provision of faster and safer access to the city via the Ford channel.  The Commissioners needed to adapt and embrace the coming of steam power and the creation of much larger ships.  Perhaps the greatest expression of the change was the founding of the Malcomson family-controlled Waterford Steamship Company.  The family would go on to own or have an interest in, one of the largest fleets in the world.  Waterford was their base, and an expression of their confidence in the city was the creation of the Neptune Ironworks from where some of the largest and most technologically developed steamships were constructed and for which Waterford was renowned. Much of the iconic images of the city quays festooned with masts and steam funnels date from the later part of the century and is evidence of very healthy and diverse trade.

I took this photo recently in the Waterford Museum of Time – like all the Waterford museums our maritime heritage is on view, it just takes finding
The “illuminated fountain clock” so that passengers were aware of the time and the regularity of sailing times after the coming of steam power. It also provided drinking water to the horses that kept the land based activities moving.

There was more than 100 locally-owned merchant sailing ships and many others from foreign and Irish ports involved in the import and export of goods.  Almost anything made in industrial Britain could be found in the city and there were large quantities of goods such as tea, sugar, wine, spice, salt, coal, and Welsh slate arriving into port.  The exports were vast, totaling millions of pounds, much of it agriculture-based including barrels of beef and pork, sides of bacon, firkins of butter, lard, wheat, oats, and barley and flour.  Live exports were also taking place; pigs, cows, sheep, donkeys, and horses.  People of course left too; emigration was rife.

Bustling trade in the late 19th Century

The quays were festooned with ships and a myriad of work roles were evident in the city.  Ships’ captains, mates, and crewmen, more than 30 pilots to guide the ships, a small army of revenue, and customs officials to thwart smuggling and to try to ensure proper taxes were levied.  Horses and carts were required to move goods and people, drovers to lead livestock.  Ropewalks were in evidence, coppersmiths, blacksmiths, sailmakers, and shipwrights to maintain the vessels.   On the river, hobblers worked to manage the mooring of vessels, while hundreds of lightermen operated their cargo boats loading and unloading, and transhipping along with the river network to inland towns. Ships’ chandlers and provisioning stores lined the quay and streets off it and of course public houses where all could slake their thirst.

The 20th Century would witness some of the largest ever ships to grace the quays, our worst maritime tragedy in the loss of the Clyde shipping’s SS Coningbeg and SS Formby.  As the century progressed and shipping trends changed the port relocated 8km downstream to the deepwater base with onshore industrial space at Belview where the port continues to trade. 

The once-thriving quay is now a car park in every sense of the word, and let’s be honest those of us who don’t depend on a car are in the minority. But perhaps the day of the car is in the decline, or at least our pandering to it over the needs of humanity. Reclaiming the quay as a boulevard has been gaining traction and I for one would be delighted to see this happen. I would also love to see the river embraced again, for too long Waterford has turned its back on its reason to exist at all. I will borrow from Cian Mannings’s wonderful book to conclude where he quotes Luke Gernon from 1620. “Waterford is situated upon the best harbour and her beauty is in the Quay”

Arrival of the new Port Láirge

On the 18th of November, a significant piece of local maritime history was created when the new pilot launch Port Láirge was received by Port of Waterford at Dunmore East.

‘Port Láirge’ is a name well known in the maritime heritage in Waterford. The previous namesake Portlairge was the much-loved steam dredger that served on the Suir from her arrival on the 10th September 1907 until she broke down in late 1982.

The Portlairge, in her heyday, was so identifiable with Waterford that I chose it for my recent books cover from an original image by Jonathan Allen. Press on the photo if you would like a signed copy for a present this Christmas 🙂

The origin of the place name of course is contested. According to one of our foremost young historians Cian Manning, Port Láirge translates in English as ‘Port of a Thigh’ with one origin story attributing the name to the tragic fate of a young prince named Rot. He was attracted to sea by sirens, the winged mythical female creatures, perhaps seeking an intellectual conversation when he is then torn limb from limb with his thigh bone washing ashore at Port Láirge. I have also read that Láirge may have been a person, or indeed that looked down on from Mount Misery, the shape of the Suir at the city may suggest the shape of a thigh. Think I prefer Cian’s theory 🙂

Pictured at the Dunmore East pontoon taking receipt of the new Port of Waterford Pilot Boat,‘Port Láirge’, are from left: Captain Darren Doyle Port of Waterford, Joefy Murphy from Dunmore East, John Glody from Dunmore East, and Sean Whitty from Passage East. Photo: Mary Browne

Back to the boat. The €1m all-weather 15-meter interceptor was built by Safehaven Marine in Youghal Co Cork which was established in 1998 and employs 30 people. They have built over 110 vessels in that time including 48 pilot boats from all over the world. Their latest will be based at Dunmore East and will provide safer working conditions for pilotage personnel. The vessel is self-righting and capable of recovering if capsized by a large breaking wave. The vessel also offers a reduction in fuel emissions and is a more efficient pilot launch vessel for the Port of Waterford. More info on the design of Port Láirge here.

On Sea Trials. Courtesy of Safehaven Marine
Cockpit with all the mod cons. Courtesy of Safehaven Marine
Plenty of room and comfort for pilots. Courtesy of Safehaven Marine

On the Port of Waterford website Capt Darren Doyle, Harbourmaster, said, “We along with the maritime community here in Waterford are delighted with the new addition to the fleet of Port vessels. The work of the pilot crew is highly skilled and it requires a state-of-the-art vessel to ensure that this work can be carried out year-round in all weather conditions.”

As the ‘Port Láirge’ arrived off Dunmore East she shadowed the pilot launch she will replace ‘Tom Brennan‘. A pilot had just been boarded to the bulk carrier Minneapolis Miyo IMO 9875721 inbound to Port of Waterford from Taranto in Italy. Photo: Safehaven Marine

I think it’s important to mark the arrival of Port Láirge. For not alone is it an important event in the harbour, it’s also a vote of confidence in the ongoing running of the Port of Waterford and indeed to a lesser extent New Ross.

But in its own way, this event will one day be history too. From bitter personal experience, I know that such events will at some point in the future elude researchers. Time and again I endure the frustration of searching the internet and written sources to piece together the events of relevance to our maritime community.

David Carroll is currently helping me to try to track down the first pilot boats to work in the harbour via the National Archives. To date, we can say that following the establishment of the Harbour Board in 1816 the first such vessel that we could name was the pilot cutter Scott in 1824. We have managed to piece together many other vessels that served the pilots since. Post-publication fellow blogger Pete Goulding of Pete’s Irish Lighthouses fame contacted me with details of the pilot cutter Caroline in operation in January 1818.

Dunmore as it would have looked in the era of the Gannet and the arrival of the Betty Breen

And we know that although the majority of pilot vessels were bought second-hand and repurposed from fishing boats and pleasure craft, a small number were purpose-built for the pilot service. For example in  1856 the Gannet,  described as a pilot cutter 58ft x 16ft x 9ft and 40tons burden, was built and launched from Whites shipyard in Ferrybank, Waterford. It later came to a sticky end in December 1863 off Creaden Head. And in October 1951 the Betty Breen was launched from Tyrell’s boatyard in Arklow, operating from Dunmore East until 1993.

If you want a sense of what this new vessel can do, check out this video of her rough weather sea trials of punching through breakers in force 10 winds

So in marking the arrival of a new, Irish-made, purpose-built, vessel for the piloting service we are not just acknowledging a new boat. We are celebrating a long and proud tradition in seamanship, seafaring, and commercial activity that has enhanced and grown not just Waterford and New Ross, but the region itself. A major milestone, and for me anyway, a vote of confidence in the harbour for many more years to come.

Dauntless Courage – public lecture

The lecture was recorded and is available to view here

Our good friend and regular guest contributor, David Carroll will do a public zoom lecture on the History of the Dunmore East RNLI Lifeboats, crews, and the maritime heritage of Dunmore East, on Thursday 25th November at 20.00 hrs. I’m sure the talk will appeal to many of the blog regulars.

David on the right, seen with another good friend and ally to the blog Brendan Dunne. I’m open to correction, but I think Brendan might presently be the longest-serving voluntary member of the current lifeboat crew.

Organised by Dublin Bay Old Gaffers Association participants are invited to “Dauntless Courage: The History of the RNLI Lifeboats, their crews and the Maritime Heritage of the Dunmore East Community,” delivered by David on Thursday 25th November at 20.00 hrs.

David is s a member of the DBOGA, author of the best-selling Dauntless Courage, and of course a regular guest blogger here with TnT. David was brought up in Dunmore East, where his father Captain Desmond Carroll was the Harbour Master from 1947 until 1969.

His passion for lifeboats stems from that time. His father operated the shore radio transmitter located in the old pilot station whenever the Annie Blanche Smith lifeboat put to sea. Meanwhile, David’s mother, Freda, always volunteered with a collection box for the RNLI on Regatta Day, and made sure that the support of all visiting yachts to the harbour was called upon.

Annie Blanche Smith at Dunmore East in the late 1950s. John Aylward collection

Although David has lived in Dublin for many years now, he has never forgotten his roots, retaining a deep interest in the maritime life of Dunmore East. In 2020 Dauntless Courage was published as a fundraising project for the Lifeboats, and sales of this book have generated over €31,000 for the RNLI to date.

DBOGA Fundraising for HOWTH RNLI: Pre-Covid, we listened to talks together at Poolbeg while passing the Yellow Welly around for your €5 donation. In Zoom Land we cant do that, but the RNLI still urgently needs funds.

Please click on:  www.justgiving.com/fundraising/DBOGAHowthLifeboat to dob your €5 in. Thank you!

And don’t forget that the RNLI Lifeboat shop is now re-opened in Dunmore East and you can pick up lots of very affordable Christmas gifts including cards.

The details of this Zoom meeting are:
• Topic: David Carroll Talk
• Time: November 25th 2021, at 20.00hrs
• Link to join the meeting: hKps://us02web.zoom.us/j/89681992382?pwd=STZXcXArN3pKZ1cvcU1Cc1VaeURLZz09
• Meeting ID: 896 8199 2382
• Passcode: 390434

Charlie McGuinness and the Freida gun run to Waterford November 1921

A Guest post by Conor Donegan.           

Two weeks ago, Dr Pat McCarthy, the foremost expert on the Irish revolutionary period (1912 – 1923) in Waterford, gave a very well attended lecture on the landing of a significant shipment of arms at Cheekpoint by the IRA, the centenary of which occurs this week. The talk, hosted by the Barony of Gaultier Historical Society, has stoked a renewed interest in the events which occurred locally during what was a turbulent and dramatic time. The arrival of the Frieda in Waterford Harbour in November 1921 was perhaps the most important and consequential moment in East Waterford’s experience of the War of Independence, apart from the Pickardstown ambush at Tramore, and yet up until now it has remained largely obscure and unknown to most local people. Though I could never hope to tell the story as eloquently or in such a detailed manner as Dr McCarthy, I hope to at least make what is a fascinating tale of heroism and adventure, more accessible and understood.

  The War of Independence officially came to an end with a ceasefire between the IRA and Crown forces on 11th July 1921, with the Anglo-Irish Treaty being signed five months later on 6th December. The ‘truce period’, as it came to be known, was a time of great uncertainty for both sides of the conflict. The peace was fragile and the fear of a sudden resumption of war was constant. The ceasefire had come as a blessing to the republicans who had been running severely short of arms and ammunition in the weeks and months beforehand. Thus, one of Michael Collins’ top priorities was the smuggling into Ireland of large quantities of such arms from abroad, even though such a scheme would violate the terms of the truce and lead to a violent backlash from the British if discovered.

            A number of failed gun-running operations ensued, including attempted shipments from Italy and New York.[i] In late 1920 Robert Briscoe was dispatched by Collins to Germany to purchase arms, which were in plentiful supply in the aftermath of the First World War. Briscoe would later serve as a Fianna Fáil TD and become the first Jewish Lord Mayor of Dublin. Storing his purchases in a warehouse in Hamburg, Briscoe travelled to Waterford in June 1921 to consult with Pax Whelan, O/C of the Déise Brigade of the IRA, to arrange for a landing at Helvick. The visit almost ended fatally for Briscoe; on his arrival at the brigade HQ at Cappagh, he was at first mistaken for a spy and was very nearly executed, until his true purpose was revealed via interrogation.[ii] Briscoe reported that the main problem would be the transport of arms to Ireland. Originally it was proposed to ship them via submarine, but the man Michael Collins chose to be skipper, Charlie McGuinness, ridiculed the idea and instead suggested that a very ordinary-looking vessel be employed so as to avoid suspicion. Collins agreed and gave him £30,000 to buy such a boat.

Robert Briscoe. Source: https://www.revolutionaryirishamerica.com/bob-briscoe

McGuinness was perhaps one of the most exotic characters to have played a role in this whole period, his life worthy of an epic biographical film. Widely known to be an excessive drinker and also fond of exaggeration, he was a Derry-man who fought with an IRA flying column in neighbouring Donegal, and enjoyed the reputation of being a ‘daredevil sea captain’.[iii] His 1934 memoir Nomad described him as ‘an Irish Sailor, Soldier, Pearl-fisher, Pirate, Gun-runner, Rum-runner, Rebel and Antarctic Explorer’, though he was also at various times a set-maker in Hollywood, a construction worker on Long Island, an author of children’s books, a jailbreaker, a bush-fighter and a Volunteer with the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War (1936-39).[iv] He would be lost at sea in 1947, his body never recovered. Some later summarised that he had been selected by Collins to go to Germany merely ‘to get him out of the way’. Nonetheless, McGuinness was recognised as an able skipper, and as someone with quite a bit of luck. Travelling back to Hamburg with Briscoe in September, he purchased a leaky trawler called the Anita, and after several weeks of repairing her, he attempted to sail Briscoe’s purchases out of the port but was quickly detained by local police. Having discovered McGuinness’ motive, the police were bitterly disappointed at having foiled a plot against their recent British enemies, and at his subsequent trial, the renegade skipper was fined a paltry 2,000 Deutschmarks, with the German judge privately wishing him better luck next time![v]

The intriguing and mysterious Charlie McGuinness, captain of the Frieda. Source: Irish Independent, 30 August 2020

            The discovery of the Anita caused uproar in the British cabinet and at the peace talks in London, Prime Minister David Lloyd George warned Collins and Arthur Griffith that the government would take decisive action to punish any threat to the terms of the truce. Though Collins feigned ignorance, Royal Navy patrols on the southern coast were ramped up. Undeterred, McGuinness and Briscoe purchased a small tug, the Frieda, and a 3,000-ton tramp steamer called the Karl Marx. On 28 October, the Frieda towed the Karl Marx out of Hamburg under the pretense of sea trials. The steamer was cast off and sailed up and down the coast for a few days in order to draw the attention of the Royal Navy, whilst the plucky tug set a course for the south coast of Ireland. She was laden with 20,000 rounds of ammunition and 300 guns, mostly consisting of Mauser rifles and C96 pistols, more commonly known ‘Peter the Painters’.[vi] Briscoe stayed behind in Germany and sent word of the successful departure to Liam Mellows, director of purchases for the IRA. McGuinness and his crew endured rough weather throughout the entire voyage (being forced to take shelter in the Frisian Islands at one point), so much so that they ended up being several days late for their rendezvous with local Volunteers of the West Waterford IRA who had assembled at Helvick to offload the cargo. By the time the Frieda approached the west Waterford coast a heavy fog had set in, and a British cruiser sat anchored in Dungarvan Bay. Writing in the Waterford News in 1937, McGuinness explained the reason for the failure to land at Helvick:

‘Off Mine Head we opened up the light at Ballinacourty Point and edged in towards the steep promontory of Helvick. I signalled, as pre-arranged, with an electric torch, but there was no response. We cruised slowly up and down all night, flashing signals at intervals, but no welcoming flash replied. I learned afterwards that this misunderstanding originated in Dublin, where we had been given up for lost or captured. Owing to the exceptionally bad weather, we were nine days overdue, and after leaving Hamburg, had been cut off from all communication’.[vii]

Mauser C96 pistol, aka a ‘Peter the Painter’

            McGuinness made the bold decision to run for shelter in Waterford Harbour, barely making it in time before the Frieda’s coal ran out. He described the daredevil journey in Nomad:

            ‘Sunday morning. We head up for the Hook off entrance to Waterford River. Reach that point about nine o’clock. We pass Dunmore and its coastguard station, but we hoist no signals past Duncannon Fort on up to Passage. Here all vessels must signal or report, but we keep steadily on, paying no heed to signals flying there. Above Passage we ran on bank, and, after manoeuvring, manage to get Frieda off… We keep steaming on, and where the river divided in two at the island we take the old channel to port, and, out of sight in a sheltered anchorage, we let go anchor at noon’.[viii]

The Frieda had made it to the safety of King’s Channel, The Island, just downstream from Waterford City. There is some debate over the precise date on which the tug came to Waterford, with the 9th and 10th of November being the most frequently cited. However, both McGuinness is his diary and Dr Vincent White, the Sinn Féin Mayor of Waterford, in his Bureau of Military History Witness Statement, claim that the landing took place on a Sunday, which would point to the 13th of November as the most credible answer.

McGuinness rowed ashore and made his way into the city in search of the local IRA. He was directed to the house of Dr White, and the two of them rowed back down the river to the vessel, White having organised Volunteers under the command of Jeremiah Cronin to offload her. Aboard the Frieda McGuinness and his German crew drank a toast to White, though the doctor himself was quite unimpressed: ‘I lifted the glass to my lips and took a draught. My breath practically stopped – I had not been in the habit of drinking schnapps. When the toast had been duly honoured, I so manipulated my glass so as to ensure that the remainder of its contents spilled on the deck’.[ix]

Dr Vincent White, the Sinn Féin Mayor of Waterford. Source: National Library of Ireland

            The precise location at which the arms were taken off the Frieda is also a topic of debate. Vincent White’s BMH Statement gives the impression that she stayed where she was and was unloaded at The Island. McGuinness’ diary states that ‘as there was not sufficient coal to raise steam (our last shovelful went into the boiler when we drifted to an anchor), we warped the Frieda alongside the little jetty at Cheekpoint’.[x] However, Andrew Doherty and Pat McCarthy have also pointed to the possibility that she was brought downriver to a point between Faithlegg and Cheekpoint known as the ‘Jetty Sleepers’ and her cargo discharged there. The area is accessible, but secluded, and motor vehicles could get there with ease. Wherever the landing actually occurred, IRA Volunteers quickly got to work passing the precious guns and ammunition along a human chain to two five-ton lorries and four motor cars. They were then transported to an arms dump at the Keating family home at Comeragh, one of the staunchest republican families in the county (Pat Keating was killed at the Burgery ambush outside Dungarvan in March 1921. His brother Thomas fought for the republican side in the Civil War and was killed by the Free State army in April 1923). Over a period of time these arms were distributed to IRA units throughout the country, mostly in the midlands and the north. Though a welcome boost at the time for the IRA, the arms from the Frieda never fired a shot against the British, as the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed less than a month later. Tragically, they would instead be used by Irishman against Irishman in the cruel Civil War which would erupt in June 1922.

King’s Channel looking east or downriver towards Faithlegg, The Island is on the left, Waterford City is upriver. The Frieda anchored here on Sunday 13th November.
The Jetty Sleepers between Faithlegg and Cheekpoint, the location favoured by Andrew and Pat McCarthy.

            As for the Frieda, she only barely avoided capture by a Royal Navy patrol as she left Waterford Harbour, making it to the safety of Boatstrand where McGuinness sold her to a Captain Jeremiah Collins of Cork. What happened to the flagship of the nascent ‘republican navy’ subsequently is a mystery. In his memoir, McGuinness stated that Captain Collins employed the vessel to ferry stores for the Royal Navy in Cork Harbour and renamed her Warrior, and then, ironically, was actually commandeered by the IRA in March 1922 and used to intercept the British admiralty tug Upnor at Ballycotton, taking her cargo of munitions. However, Eoin Neeson claims that the Warrior was a tug owned by Lloyd’s, based in Cobh, and was not a reconfigured Frieda.[xi] Perhaps this was an example of McGuinness’ renowned exaggeration in action, though one can appreciate the irony and farce of the tale had it been true! The dynamic duo of McGuinness and Briscoe organised another successful gun-running operation in Waterford in April 1922 when the schooner Hanna landed at Helvick. Her cargo would be used, at the behest of Michael Collins, to arm the IRA in the north in their campaign to kill the six-county state at birth.

            Ernie O’Malley, one of the most famed guerrilla rebels during the War of Independence, disparaged Waterford’s role in the war, saying that the county ‘had not done much’. Certainly, in comparison to more active neighbouring counties such as Cork and Tipperary, Waterford, in particular the East, appears to stand as one of the weaker counties in terms of revolutionary activity. Yet as Dr Emmet O’Connor has pointed out, Waterford was the only county to have played host to a successful IRA arms landing during the 1917-1923 period. The disaster of the Aud shipment in County Kerry on the eve of the 1916 Rising was not repeated in the Déise. Mayor White rightly described it as a ‘great adventure’ and was still recalling the brilliant escapade with pride over thirty years later: ‘As I watched the last lorry climb up the hill with its precious load, destined for the Comeragh hide-outs, I was a satisfied and happy man. The gun-running had been carried out by our men without a hitch’.[xii] One hundred years on from the landing of the Frieda, it is right to pause and remember a momentous event in Waterford’s local revolutionary history.

Monument at Ballinagoul pier, Helvick commemorating the attempted landing of the Frieda in November 1921, and the arrival of the Hanna in April 1922. Hopefully a similar physical marker can be erected at Cheekpoint in the not-too-distant future.

I’d like to thank Conor for taking the time to write this article to commemorate the Freida gun run to Waterford. Conor was a great support to Niamh Hassett and I over the past few months as we tried to piece together the various elements to this story with a view to marking the event. We were also thrilled that Michael Farrell and the Barony of Gaultier Historical Society agreed to support an application for funding to the Waterford City and County Council sub committee which in association with the Decade of Centenaries Programme of the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media provided funds towards a programme of community projects to mark the Decade of Centenaries in 2021. This funding enabled the Dr Pat McCarthy lecture recently in the Woodlands Hotel. We will continue to try to flesh out this story more over the coming weeks and months. If time allows I will try to give a more detailed rationale for the choice of the Jetty Sleepers as the landing point in a subsequent blog post. Andrew Doherty


[i] O’Connor, Emmet, ‘Waterford and IRA Gun-Running, 1917-22’, Decies, No. 57, (2001), pp. 184 – 186

[ii] Ibid, p. 187

[iii] Ibid

[iv] MacSuibhne, Breandán, ‘On the extraordinary memoirs of an Old IRA gunrunner and adventurer’, Irish Independent, 30 August 2020

[v] O’Connor, Emmet, ‘Waterford and IRA Gun-Running, 1917-22’, Decies, No. 57, (2001), p. 188

[vi] McCarthy, Pat, The Irish Revolution 1912-23: Waterford, (Four Courts Press, Dublin, 2015), p. 93

[vii] Waterford News, 23 April 1937

[viii] McGuinness, Charles, Nomad: Memoirs of an Irish Sailor, Soldier, Pearl-Fisher, Pirate, Gun-runner, Rum-runner, Rebel and Antarctic Explorer, (Methuen, London, 1934), p. 176

[ix] White, Dr Vincent, Bureau of Military History, Witness Statement No. 1764, p. 27

[x] McGuinness, Charles, Nomad: Memoirs of an Irish Sailor, Soldier, Pearl-Fisher, Pirate, Gun-runner, Rum-runner, Rebel and Antarctic Explorer, (Methuen, London, 1934)

[xi] Neeson, Eoin, The Civil War 1922-23, (Poolbeg Press Ltd, Dublin, 1989), p. 98

[xii] White, Dr Vincent, Bureau of Military History, Witness Statement No. 1764, p. 28