Following the Seahorse tragedy
in Tramore bay in January 1816 an initiative was started to create a warning system about the dangers of confusing Tramore Bay with the entrance to Waterford Harbour(1).
The system commenced with the placing of three towers on the western entrance to Tramore at Great Newtown Head. Standing on the middle tower is what is known as the Metal Man, a Jack Tar who points away to sea towards the Hook, and who on wild nights was said to cry “Keep out, keep out, good ships from me, for I am the rock of misery.” On the eastern headland lie two towers, known as the Brownstown pillars. They have no dramatic figures, but I don’t think it diminishes them in any way. And then further to the east marking the entrance to Waterford harbour lies the Hook tower, a lighthouse which as stood for hundreds of years and a very obvious beacon to seafarers.
Although Hook as I said is ancient, the other towers were constructed by Lloyds of London
, the maritime insurance company, and they were responsible for it for over a hundred years.(2) It was subsequently taken over by the Irish Lights
, who I presume are still the owners.
I remember as a child visiting the Metal man on a Sunday afternoon drive with my uncle, pat O’Leary. Pat and my aunt Margaret had five children and he drove a VW Beetle, so how he managed to fit others into the car I can’t even imagine now. But fit me he did, and probably my brother Robert too and we walked out and laughed as the girls hopped around the metal man
– apparently a certainty for getting a husband.
It was years later when I fished off the bay when I first heard of the count down system. It was the late winter early spring of 1984 and I was aboard the MV Reaper with Jim ‘dips’ Doherty and Denis Doherty gillnetting. Chats were always had as we worked on deck clearing fish out of the nets and cursing every time it came to clearing dog fish that had curled themselves into a súgan.
One day they started to tell me about the towers and their purpose, claiming that it was all thanks to a fisherman from Cheekpoint. Apparently in the mid 18th C a hydrographic surveyor was aboard a Dunmore fishing boat known as the Nymph which was operating out of Passage East and with a harbour based crew. They were taking coastal markings and mapping fishing grounds. The Hydrographer was an English man named William Doyle
, and he is credited with discovering the Nymph bank
. On one of the trips out the weather became dirty and Doyle indicated that they should return to shore. But the direction he pointed in was Tramore bay, and he was corrected on this and told that it was a sure fire way of being wrecked in dirty weather. The crewmen had their own markings for getting back to Passage East and this, apparently, was what Doyle referred to as the Waterford Harbour Countdown system; a three, two one of headlands with a safe haven at the end.
|William Doyles chart of the harbour first published in 1738
Follow this link for a chart which you can magnify
Now I’ve never read about the system, but according to my fishing companions that day when Lloyds came to mark headlands it was the written words of William Doyle that was used. If anyone could point me in the direction of same I would appreciate it.
(1) The Seahorse was driven by bad weather into Tramore, she did not mistake it as the entrance. See for example Julian Waltons book On This Day Vol II
(2) According to Ivan Fitzgerald, on the Waterford History Group facebook page, the actual construction was carried out by the Ballast Board