Water Heritage Day 2022 – Building a Traditional Fishing Weir

For Heritage Week 2022, I am running an interactive course for 12 people on how to “sink” a typical local fishing weir based on my experiences as a child and young adult. We will also have a trip courtesy of Tomás Sullivan to an existing weir to appreciate the scale and positioning of the structure. Tomás will also do a short input on the issue of marine litter as part of this. The course will take place at Moran’s Poles from 11am – 1pm on Sunday August 21st as part of Water Heritage Day and supported by Local Authority Waters Programme . Prebooking is essential here, and participants can expect to learn about the history of the weirs, how they were sited, the methods employed in construction & repair and how they were operated by local fishermen. (I will also give a talk at Reginald’s Tower on Thursday 18th about the Portlairge dredger -but more details to come). To whet the appetite, or at least give you a sense of what’s involved, here’s a chapter from my first book entitled “Sinking a Weir”.

That first season on the eels opened my eyes to the working of the weirs and I quickly learned to respect and admire the creators of these structures.  When the tides ran at full strength and the waters rushing through hummed with the force, you got a true sense of their durability. 

I was reared on the lore of sinking weirs.  ‘Big Patsy’ Doherty told me one time of sinking the family weir on the Coolya mud.  They were working away when they spotted the Moran’s pushing off from Moran’s Poles.  He expressed his relief at the sight of them rowing across the river, knowing their skill and strength was going to make light of the job.  Big Patsy had been a fisherman all his life and worked for many years in the Harbour Board on the Port Lairge.  In my late teens he was retired and unwell, being cared for by his wife, the ‘Madonna’ and his two daughters Agnes and Ann Marie.  They waited on him ‘hand and foot’ as the saying goes. He had been unwell for some years but each spring, he miraculously raised himself up once the salmon started the run.  Then he and Walter Whitty would fish for as he put it, “one last season”.  He had a few last seasons yet to come however, before his final sailing.

The first job I ever worked on was the weir known as Mahon’s weir at the Rookery, owned by John Heffernan.  Any repair works on weirs tended to be done with the neap tides, when the river ran at its slowest or most gentle. Weir poles, pine trees of between twenty-five to forty feet in length, were prepared on the shoreline, trimmed, pointed and tied together and towed out by punt to the weir.

Mahon’s Weir at Sunset. Photo Credit – William Doherty

Alongside the weir were two boats, one an old-style yawl, now a motorised half-decker, called the Maid of the West, the other Paddy Moran’s punt called the Judy.  They were each positioned on either side of the outside wing.  Across the gunwale of each boat was tied a strong plank, which was our working platform, where the men could stand, and the poles could be hoisted up to.

Around the Maid of the West the various tools for the job were in place.  It was a basic tool chest, the mare, lump and sledge hammers, hatchet, spanners, a coil of rope and dozens of homemade metal pins, the largest being almost a foot long.

My crewmates were known to me and all very experienced.  John Heffernan as owner was in charge.  But my grand uncle Paddy Moran was there, and he was the oldest man present.  Matt ‘Spoogy’ Doherty was present.  Matt had his own weir further down known as the Sheag weir now gone after being struck by a ship in the 1990s. Gerry Boland and Pat Moran were there. This was their way of giving thanks for the access to bait from the weir for Eel fishing.  Anthony Fortune was also present, as he fished with John.  The brothers Paddy and Mickey Duffin made up the team.  Paddy was one of the strongest men in the village, with a pair of hands that looked like shovels.  Mickey was a river pilot, and a great man for the yarns.  It was a mixed and motley crew all under the direction of John, who was a man of unbelievable strength and who always led from the front.

The real work started once a pole was chosen for driving.  I was sent down in another punt to untie and bring up a pole, this was the young man’s job.  The poles were upper end towards the weir, all the pointed ends which would be driven into the riverbed, were facing downriver.  Although they may have all looked alike, John had his eye on certain ones, and I was verbally jostled from one to another until my hand clasped the preferred pole. 

Untied, I pushed it up against the outflowing tide and as the tip of it came up to the working plank.  Pat Moran knelt down and brought an end of a rope under it, and passing the end up between them they hauled on each end of the rope and the upper end on the pole rose up to meet them.  The end of the pole was placed on the plank and then it was grasped by powerful hands and heaved along, raising it out of the river water and into the air.  Once it started to balance across the plank, the job became a bit trickier, and I was told to stand on the part of the pole that remained in the river.  As the men lifted, I kept my weight on the pole in the river, and slowly it started to straighten into a more vertical position.  The aim, as I quickly figured out, was to get the pole upright which when combined with the suction of the mud on the riverbed made the movement and positioning of the pole much easier, something that would have been impossible on land.

Within moments the pole was vertical and then the job of getting it into position began. This was an altogether slower job. The pole could now be manhandled by two men, because its weight was supported by the river and the muddy river bottom.  The men worked to align it with the line of the weir wing.  But with short abrupt movements, too high and the end might float up to the surface and the whole operation would need to start again.

Once a position was agreed on, the pole was lifted by hand and dropped to secure it.  This was a temporary holding position and it would be then held in place by hand.  A second plank was laid between the two boats and this was tied into place, offering a more secure working platform.

Then the Mare came into play.  The Mare was a two-piece metal implement.  Each part had a long handle at the end of which was a semi-circular cup with holes at either side. These cups fitted into each other and as each end was offered up to the pole, large bolts were put through the holes and then washers and nuts were hand tightened into place to bring the two semi-circular cups together around the pole.  Spanners were used to tighten the nuts and bolts, securely fastening the Mare around the pole, so much so, that it made a solid bar of the two halves.  This then was the leaver to be used in driving the pole.  No one knows the origin of the name, but many thought it was French.

The Mare was positioned as high as they could get it on the first drive, perhaps seven feet.  The drive started with everyone taking a position on either side of the pole and as evenly as possible along the shafts of the mare.  We began by lifting the pole out of the mud once more then dropping it back. Then it was done again, but not as high and dropped once more, with force.  This motion of lifting up and dropping down would continue with increasing force, but always with perfect care to keep the pole vertical and straight. The drive would continue with much grunting and verbal encouragement until the Mare hit the platform planks.

Then the Mare was opened and repositioned further up the pole.  On the second drive, it would not go so high, because it would take a lot of strength to re-lift it once stopped for any length of time.  The deeper the pole went, the harder it was to lift out of the suction effect of the river bed. Speed was required, because the more the mud settled around the pole, the more difficult, if not to say impossible, it would be to rise. Having driven the pole a second time, and perhaps in total twelve feet into the river bed, you would be forgiven for thinking that you had gone far enough.  But the operation would continue for as long as the riverbed gave way.  Not until the pole was refusing to budge another inch would John be satisfied. As we got towards the end, I was ordered up the pole to give extra weight on the drive. As the men lifted, I would transfer my weight onto previously driven poles, and then as it was dropped I would jump with all my force onto the descending mare, careful to avoid hands and fingers. 

A sketch of a pole driving crew in action – Niall O’Driscoll

As the day wore on and more and more poles were offered up and manoeuvred into position I began to realise that this was close to being a ritual.   Any deviation was considered unacceptable and you could be forgiven for thinking sometimes that it was all a bit of a show.  It was anything but.  A practiced hand could tell a lot from just holding the pole, and as they manoeuvred it into position, whether the end was touching off previous weir pole butts or other fouls.  The intention of getting the pole into the right position would sometimes lead to discussions, history lessons, or arguments.  The sole concern was to get it right.  I noticed that Matt and John had a lot of old knowledge, but the other men weren’t shy to express opinions.  Where no agreement could be found, it tended to revert to Paddy, because as the oldest, and with a lifetime of fishing behind him, his word carried weight. 

After seven or eight hours, we might have the same number of poles driven, or if lucky, double that.  And not a part of your body would be free from pain.  As we worked the vertically driven poles needed to be strengthened with horizontal poles which we called ‘Rubberies’.  Again, no one knew the origins of the name but these were always very long, but not as thick as the uprights.  It was rarely possible to get a pole that long so the poles were joined, and fixed in place with the previously mentioned metal pins. The rubberies were positioned every few feet, and made like a ladder, albeit a very slippery, treacherous ladder, up the weir wings.

Heffernan’s Weir, Cheekpoint. Photo AJWent

I went on more weir-building trips after that. There was always something new to learn.   Some were easy jobs, some comedic, while others were pure grief.  I recall one event when the entire wing of a newly driven weir popped up and floated away on an incoming tide.  Or another, when a chap helping out but with no experience left his leg in a spot where the entire weight of a descending Mare struck.  The team that John Heffernan put together that first trip was hard to beat.  It had strength, energy, experience, and a bit of light relief, essential ingredients for such a task. 

Helen Keller visits Waterford

Recently Cian Manning featured a story in Irelands Own about the visit of disability rights campaigner Helen Keller to Ireland. Her entry point to the country was via Waterford City by ship and here Cian reprises the article with a specific focus on the local element. Helen’s visit occurred this week in 1930. Take it away Cian.

American author and disability rights advocate Helen Keller toured Britain and Ireland for 6 months during the year 1930. The Alabama-native made the trip with her mentor Anne Sullivan (whose parents were from Limerick) and Polly Thompson. After staying in a bungalow in the coastal town of Looe in Cornwall, they decided that their next port of call was to Ireland with their destination being the city of Waterford.

Photograph of Helen Keller at age 8 with her tutor Anne Sullivan on vacation in Brewster, Cape Cod, Massachusetts.  New England Historic Genealogical Society. Public Domain

     On 13th June 1930, they left Plymouth aboard the SS Ballycotton making their way along the coast of Cornwall, with Keller writing that passengers got ‘a good view of its rugged cliffs and bold headlands’, the vessel traversed the Celtic Sea making its way towards the mouth of Waterford Harbour. The ancient name of the natural harbour at the mouth of the Three Sisters (the River Nore, the River Suir and the River Barrow) was known as Loch Dá Chaoch meaning ‘the lake of the two blind people’. As you can imagine it is one of several interpretations of the name with many utilizing folklore and mythology.

     DA CAOCH?: THE LEGEND BEHIND WATERFORD HARBOUR

     Often places are named with allusions to geographical traits or after deities or heroic warriors but one interpretation of Loch Dá Chaoch is derived from the name of a woman who endured among much suffering. She’s a heroic figure but not in the traditional masculine portrayal of violence and virtue in Celtic or Norse mythology. From Prof. Gwynn’s translation of the Metrical Dinniseanchus we know from a poem about the place name as:

Loch Da Caoch – Hither came strangers from afar with a mighty warrior band. With the king went his gentle mother…Loth Luaimneach, swift as a lion. He brought with him his wife to the feast, on the night of the host, Fuata Ba Fail. She advanced into the conflict, into the encounter of vengeance. Thus went she over the sea – (pregnant) – to the noble harbour of famous Da Chaoch. One daughter she bore. Blemished her offspring, the blind, misshapen daughter, feeble of health Da Caoch was her name at all times and places, designation of suffering. [Caoch is the Irish for blind.] Hence is given from the woman’s name this title unto Loch Da Caoch; an ill occasion had this noble nomenclature.

There’s a poignancy to the harbour being named after a woman with a disability and the area being the location of where Keller first set foot in Ireland. One imagines that Keller and her companions could relate to the legend and strength of Da Caoch to overcome adversity. Keller was just 19 months old when she contracted what doctors described as ‘an acute congestion of the stomach and the brain’. Today we believe that the illness might have been meningitis or Haemophilus influenzae. The effects of which left Keller both blind and deaf which she described as living ‘at sea in a dense fog’.

     Whereas Da Caoch suffered, Keller with the help and guidance of Anne Sullivan would thrive by using finger spelling. Those who have read Keller’s autobiography or remember the film The Miracle Worker starring Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke will recall the remarkable sequence when Keller realizes the motions that Sullivan is making on her hand symbolizes water. Keller described this moment as ‘The living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, set it free!’ It illustrates the famous refrain of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s ‘The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.’ It gave her a code from which she could explore and express beliefs from her innermost thoughts to the world around her.

SS Ballycotton, departing Waterford from a postcard image. Courtesy of Michael O’Sullivan Waterford Maritime History Facebook page.

SS BALLYCOTTON (later SS City of LIMERICK): FROM DUNDEE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA, 1911-1940

     From their journey aboard the freight boat, Keller ‘pleasantly’ recalled her talks with the crew and ‘especially one who bestowed such tender care on the animals aboard.’ The Ballycotton was built in Dundee at the Caledon Shipbuilding & Engineering Co. Ltd and was operated by the Clyde Shipping Company from 1911 till 1936. It then came into the ownership of the Saorstát & Continental Co. in Dublin and later renamed the SS City of Limerick. The vessel carried general cargo from London, Plymouth, Southampton and Waterford. We know that she also serviced the Glasgow to Waterford line in the early ‘20s. From the Munster Express (dated 15th November) in 1924 we learn that the SS Ballycotton towed the Ulster Steamship Company’s Orlock Head to Passage East after the vessel ‘had her rudder carried away at sea’. From Passage, she was brought to Waterford by the dredger and discharged her general cargo. The Waterford Harbour Board decided to charge the Orlock Head £60 for the tow and for attendance at Waterford.

     Over Christmas 1925, the Ballycotton which was serving Glasgow to Waterford via Belfast, was caught in a storm, though no damage was reported, it did arrive to anchor at the city by the River Suir four hours later than scheduled. We know that on the vessel’s voyage from Plymouth to Waterford on Friday 13th June 1930 that she carried 34 tourists as it stopped in Waterford before voyaging to Glasgow. Hardly a figure that would get the Tourism Board’s heart a flutter in the 21st century.  Bearing her new name, the City of Limerick first reached Waterford the weekend of 20-22 November 1936 carrying general cargo from Antwerp in Belgium. She was bombed and sunk in the Bay of Biscay just a few years later on 15th July 1940 with the loss of two crew members.

     …the Cavaliers called it “Urbs Intacta”: KELLER ON WATERFORD’S QUAY

     Landing in Waterford that early morning in June 1930, Keller with her companions had to wait for their car to arrive meaning they stayed on the ship till late in the afternoon. Keller recorded in her letter to Nella Braddy Henney that:

…I sat on deck “listening” to the great derricks as they lifted barrels of Devonshire cider on to the pier and replaced them with barrels of Guinness’s stout and Irish bacon. O, how good they both smelt.

Waterford city and quays some years before Helen’s visit. AH Poole

Anchored in the River Suir, adjacent to Waterford’s main thoroughfare the Quay, the group noted that the traffic was primarily made up of ‘jaunting-cars and little donkey-carts. The donkeys brought the bacon to the ship, and the stout came in great trucks.’

     Of Waterford city, Keller noted that:

It was the only place in all Ireland which successfully resisted Oliver Cromwell’s victorious forces, and for that reason the Cavaliers called it “Urbs Intacta.”

Now many local history connoisseurs will be raging and deploring the mix up in facts here surrounding the city’s Latin motto. However, this fails to recognise that Keller, a woman who was both deaf and blind was able to obtain such information in the first place. Even today on trips abroad our minds can get information jumbled and this is with the benefit of having all information available to us at the touch of a button. All the information of Ireland held be Keller was conveyed to her by Anne Sullivan and Polly Thompson through finger spelling. The city clearly made enough of an impression to warrant such notable mentions in her letters.

     ‘That is the King’s car…’: TRAVELLING FROM WATERFORD TO LISMORE

     Eventually, their rented chauffeur-driven Daimler did arrive, with Keller writing to Lenore Smith of the luxury, ‘That is the King’s car, I would have you know.’ Though not all among the travelling party were as comfortable such as Anne Sullivan who was not as at ease with travelling in such extravagance. From Waterford, they made their way towards Killarney, a journey that was described by Keller as ‘for the most part depressing, in spite of the fact that it was a glorious day.’ They were horrified by donkeys who were ‘nothing but skin, bones and misery’ as they passed drab and silent towns populated by women in black shawls which ‘made the scene still more gloomy.’ Though the poverty witnessed along the countryside in County Waterford was broken by the impressive structure of Lismore Castle. Keller recorded that:

The estate of the Duke of Devonshire was in vivid contrast with the poverty stricken country surrounding it. For miles we followed his high walls. The rhododendrons and the hawthorn were in full bloom. They are wonderful from bud to flower. Every hawthorn-tree is as white as snow, or as pink as a blushing bride. It is not only hedges, but whole groves and hill-sides of hawthorn. The Irish will not cut down a hawthorn-tree, lest they disturb the fairy folk who inhabit its covert. Beside the hawthorn and the rhododendrons there were stretches where the horsechestnut-tree, pink and white, dominated. Over the walls tumbled golden laburnums and ivy and cascades of a blue flower resembling the forget-me-not. Then again there were fuchsia hedges higher than my head, their pendant blossoms twinkling in the breeze. We got out of the car to have a better view of the castle, an immense castle, beautifully situated above the Blackwater which rushes and tumbles in flashing leaps and bounds.

The architecture and surrounds of Lismore Castle were a fairy tale compared to the reality that engulfed a huge part of rural Ireland in the 1930s. After reaching Killarney, they travelled to Limerick to learn more about the ancestors of Anne Sullivan but sadly little further information was shed on the life of her parents before they travelled to the United States. Sullivan commented of her time in Ireland that she felt as if she was ‘held fast as if in a nightmare’. They crossed the border to County Clare and visited Cratloemoyle Castle before making their way to Dublin and later spending a week in the seaside town of Bray, Co. Wicklow. It was there that Keller would mark her 50th birthday which she said was ‘solemnized in Ireland by drinking a bottle of liquid sunshine.’

Helen Keller sitting, holding a magnolia flower, circa 1920. Image from the Los Angeles Times. Public Domain

     An interesting story of a remarkable individual celebrating their 50th birthday in Ireland that displayed wonderful ruins and beautiful landscapes but was tainted by the poverty and gloom that was widespread at the time. Only if that ‘bottle of liquid sunshine’ was felt by everyone in that summer in 1930. Nevertheless, the story of Helen Keller’s tour of Ireland starts in Waterford and her story and visit to Ireland’s oldest city deserves further recognition in Urbs Intacta.

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.