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.

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