Freighting the Suir: Clonmel to Carrick 1906

In 1906 the River Suir was vibrant if weakening commercial thoroughfare transporting goods up and down from Clonmel to the sea on a daily basis, just like our motorways today. The boats used were flat-bottomed lighters (also called yawls above Carrick and barges) and they worked with the tides using poles, oars (sweeps), rudimentary sail or in the case of one company a steam tug. All used the tow-path above Carrick. This article explores the era, teetering as it was on the edge of fundamental change. 

Introduction and context

This article is drawn from a Royal Commission report on canals and waterways and it gives a very clear if a biased picture of the river of this era.  The evidence presented by J Ernest Grubb and James Phelan is from a river-centric perspective and there are two points I would like to make 1.) Both men were part of the fabric of the river trade and no doubt their evidence was slanted towards making the case to preserve their business and a fast-eroding way of life.  2.) This is based on my reading of their evidence and I homed in on points that interested me.  As regulars will know I am fundamentally biased when it comes to river matters.    

Lighters at Carrick on Suir, Robert French photo courtesy of Maurice Power. These are located on the northern bank on the lower side of what was then the Dillon or Red Bridge, the present road bridge

Royal Commission

In 1907 a Royal Commission reported on the canals and waterways of the British Isles – which obviously included Ireland at the time.  The purpose of the Commission was to travel around the country and take evidence from interested parties.  However, rather than just a bitching and moaning session, the Commission also challenged evidence and put the onus on the parties to be solution focused.  A number gave evidence about the River Suir, particularly above the City with a specific focus on the towns of Carrick On Suir and Clonmel.  This blog will explore the evidence of just two of these; J Ernest Grubb of Carrick and James Phelan of Clonmel, both of whom operated lighters on the route.

J Ernest Grubb (1843-1927) in 1925 sourced from J Ernest Grubb of Carrick on Suir (1928) by Isabel Grubb. Image courtesy of Maurice Power

J Ernest Grubb was managing owner of the Suir Steam Navigation Co (Est 1877) and director of John Grubb & Son Corn Merchant of Carrick & Clonmel.  He was also a member of the Tipperary SR Council.  James Phelan was from William Phelan & Sons Clonmel (New Quay & Parnell St) and he stated that they owned 8 boats working on the river and operated to Waterford.  Phelans employed about 16 horses to drag the boats up from Carrick, normally 12 sufficed for the one run but more horses were required if the river was in flood.  Phelan stated that 2/3 of the transported goods were inwards to Clonmel.

The Phelans on Clonmel from Slaters Commercial Directory of 1894. I can’t say they are all the one family of course.
The current view of what Phelans of 25 Parnel St, and the lane (Dowd’s Lane) leading down to the quays

River Suir Navigation Co

Grubb clarified early on that Suir Steam Navigation Co (SSNCo) was a separate entity to the River Suir Navigation Co (RSNCo) which was established as an incorporated company in 1836 by an act of parliament. This company was charged with “improving and maintaining the navigation of the River Suir…” and for the construction of a “ship canal” at Carrick On Suir.  It was funded from a levy of 1d per ton on seagoing craft above Grannagh.  This canal was made by cutting a channel through limestone rock on the south side of the river just below Carrick On Suir allowing “ocean-going craft drawing 10 or 11 feet of water” to reach the town (Only possible on spring high tides it seems and in another section of evidence Grubb stated that to that date the largest vessel seen in Carrick was 300 ton).  The extent of influence was from Grannagh Ferry upriver to Carrick Old Bridge.  The RSNCo had no influence above Carrick – this fell to the council and it seems only to Tipperary (because of the tow path) and the river was left to the rivermen and boatowners to maintain. 

Carrick to Clonmel towpath

Above Carrick, a towpath was constructed many years since (1750-ish it seems with further work in 1793 including the path, walls, and quays) and repaired occasionally along which lighters were towed upriver by horses against the flowing river.  Previous to the construction of the towpath men and women had physically dragged the boats against the tide by hand along the riverbank, stumbling and falling over rocks, ditches, and stumps no doubt. 

The lighters (or more accurately called yawls on this stretch – but I can see no discernible difference in design and build, except the loads carried were less) could drop down with the tides, but needed to use a breaking system of chains and other means to slow the run.  Clonmel to Carrick was a distance of 14 miles and could take 5 to 6 hours upwards, but much longer if the river was in flood. Here the river falls all the time, only becoming tidal at Carrick.  It was a further 16 miles to Waterford.  In evidence, Grubb stated that apart from the Tipperary council maintaining the towpath, no one took responsibility for the river, only the rivermen. The council also maintained the quays in Carrick, but the Clonmel Corporation took charge of the town quays or “river quay”. 

Grubb was of the opinion that barges (or lighters – the phrase was interchangeable but I will use the latter from here on) could carry up to 60 tons between Carrick and Waterford or beyond.  45 was the average.  The lighters transhipped at Carrick to go on to Clonmel.  This involved breaking the loads down between two or three craft depending on the level of water on the route.  They also navigated the smaller rivers or pills such as Pilltown, Portlaw Pill (R Clodiagh), the Pouldrew Mill Pill, Kilmacow Pill (named Black River by Grubb – but generally known on maps today as the Blackwater). Grubb considered 35 tons to be the maximum limit on these.


The main freight downriver included oats, condensed milk, wool, eggs, fruit, honey, willows, and native timber.  Freight inland included coal, grain, flour, feedstuffs, foreign timber, shop goods, agricultural implements, and machinery.  Grubb estimated that 19 out of every 20 tons carried to Carrick was by water at the time – however, we might say at this remove, he would!  Once the goods landed along the riverside quays, they penetrated inland by up to 20 miles, and they covered an area that included the counties of Waterford, Kilkenny, Tipperary, and Limerick.

Timber export from Clonmel as photographed from off the Gashouse Bridge. (The gas works which would have depended on significant coal imports by yawl were on the right hand side of the road that led off the bridge (on the town side)
How it looks today


They competed with the railway for some freight – particularly perishables like butter, poultry, and milk.  Also, some English firms had contracts with the railways which included carriage in Ireland as part of the overall cost which worked against the rivermen. 

Phelan was of the opinion that the river helped to keep the railway freight charges in check.  He gave a specific example of corn costing 4s 10d per ton to ship by rail from Waterford to Kilkenny.  Yet the same distance to Clonmel was costing 2s 6d because the railway had to compete with the river.  In another saving, he explained that the rivermen allowed freight to avoid the toll on Waterford City’s only bridge at the time (Timbertoes).

Number of Boats

As regards the craft employed Mr. Grubb stated that 14 persons in Waterford were working lighters employing about 32 barges at the time. All these boats were carrying at least 40-45 tons per trip and generally work within a 10-mile radius of the city.      There was also craft from all the villages and rivers on the river including as far as New Ross. The Grand Canal Co was also involved and linked the area to Dublin and Limerick via the canals and the Shannon.  6 parties owned lighters between Carrick and Waterford City, there were then 26 barges owned at Carrick by 10 individuals or firms.  14 businesses traded from Waterford to Clonmel, and 12 operate only between Waterford and Carrick.  He estimated that a total of 70 craft were then employed on the river.  He estimated that at the time there were 19 boats operating between Carrick and Clonmel – in contrast, he claimed that in 1835 there were 93.

An image of the Fr Matthew steam tug with two lighters in tow (and it seems a third is being poled either in or out into the tidal stream) at Carrick they are proceeding downriver from what is now the road bridge – a Sonny Cash image. Courtesy of Maurice Power

Grubb employed the steam tug Fr Matthew to tow up to four lighters on the Waterford to Carrick route, although many operators still used the tides, oars, poles, and sail.  It seems Phelans preferred the traditional methods below Carrick, but as mentioned previously transhipped and broke the loads down at Carrick to be towed on by horses to Clonmel.  Many issues were presented however, floods in winter, shallow in the summer during drought, and the ongoing deterioration of the towpath – which was washed away or undermined during floods.  The cost of maintaining the horses was a drain on the viability of the Phelan enterprise and was the cause, he claimed, of others leaving the business.


Grubb submitted the following example of one week’s freight in the Spring of 1903:

  • 108 cargos of 2,695 tons
  • To and from places east of Carrick 33 cargos = 920 tons
  • To and from Carrick 25 cargos = 1,125 tons
  • To and from Clonmel 50 cargos = 650 tons
A faint photo of the yawls working the Clonmel run, note the horses inside on the towpath – from LM McCraiths The Suir: From its source to the sea (1912) p.60. McCraith says nothing about the photo just captions it thus: “Like a long sabre at a warriors hip” a bit too flouncy a description for my liking
Although now part of the blueway, the towpath (seen here at Kilsheelan) is still there for all to see

Solutions to the rivermen’s woes

As regards solutions, three major points were raised.  The first two were a canal to link the Suir with the Shannon via Cahir to enhance trade and viability.  The second was a mechanical towage system along the towpath – (I will elaborate below, but just to clarify – neither came to pass. The third point was the need to enhance the weirs in the river to avoid shallows and deepen the river in parts.  These solutions were based on pre-existing reports one by John Killaly on behalf of the directors of Inland Navigation, and another, more recent report, by Mr. Oliver in 1902. 

The canal was seen as a possible solution to the distance that had to be negotiated between Clonmel and Limerick.  The proposal might be costly but it would benefit trade because it would act as a deterrent to the railways from charging what they wanted in the absence of competition. Killaly suggested a canal via Cahir and Tipperary onto the Shannon which would include 5 lock gates.  However, the concern was the cost associated which would have to be recouped from the rivermen through tariffs.  

The mechanical towing system was more plausible and was wholeheartedly supported by both men.  Two options were considered feasible a steam-driven chain system or a similar concept using ropes).  This system was employed in Europe on both the Elbe and the Seine and it was seen as a plausible and cost-effective means of tackling the issues on the Suir between Carrick and Clonmel: the eroding towpath and associated maintenance costs, the cost of horses and the fast flowing nature of the river, particularly in floods. There was a drop of 51 feet between the towns along the 14 miles of river. 

Another issue was the changing water levels. Weirs had previously been constructed and were maintained to some extent by boat owners.  This would require resolve and investment from central funds through the council.  I’m unclear if this happened or if the boatmen continued to maintain them for the next few years.

The weir above Carrick old bridge and the navigation cut can be seen here on the left, although looking in need to repair at this point.
A distant view of the old bridge – the boatmens navigation arch is on the left of the bridge

According to a previous guest blog by Leslie Dowley by the end of the nineteenth century, the route to Waterford was dominated by J. Ernest Grubb with the steam tug the Fr. Matthew while the others using the route included Thomas Butler, the Healy’s, T. G. Howell & Co., Richard Walsh of New St. and Edward Dowley of New St. In 1912 J. Ernest Grubb retired and his grain business was sold to Edward Dowley & Sons Ltd. while the Suir Steam Navigation Company was sold to Richard Walsh of New St, Carrick On Suir. In the same year, Dowleys bought a tug of their own, the Knocknagow I, for service between Carrick and Waterford. The Knocknagow II was added soon afterward and both were used to tow lighters also. Elsewhere it is noted that by 1919 nothing remained of the Carrick to Clonmel route, although there may have been a short revival during the Civil War period.


In reading the evidence of these men it is not difficult for me to imagine how deeply committed they were to a dying way of life.  The railways were competing for all the same freight, and in a few short years, trucks would make an inroad, pardon the pun, into the business too.  The calls of the boatmen are now silent, and evidence of their trade is scarce.  But they existed, thrived, and survived for generations on the Suir, a noble breed of hardy individuals, who worked with, rather than against, the river.

My thanks to Maurice Power who passed this report on to me last year and for assistance with details since including many of the photos.  You can browse the report yourself here. This should provide you with the relevant evidence and you can navigate between the pages. The membership and Terms of Reference are on page 3. Other related evidence can be found on pp 349-352

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