Tides and Tales Heritage Week 2023 events

It’s been a hectic Heritage Week 2023, in fact, my busiest yet with three seperate events.

We kicked off on Sunday 13th August with a presentation in Byrnes of Ballyhack, Co Wexford which focused on the history of Salmon fishing here in the harbour area, the boats, nets and what the fishery meant to the communities. I was invited to provide this on behalf of the Ballyhack & Arthurstown Residents Association.

A busy Arthurstown during the Salmon fishing season, photo courtesy of Liam Ryan. While below some images of Passage and Ballyhack via Brian and Eoghan Cleare

My second event was in the county library in Dungarvan on Thursday 17th August at 6.30pm. The evening was in memory of the late John Young. John was a hero of mine, one of these passionate local history champions who did so much to promote the maritime history of Dungarvan and my 40-minute talk concentrated on the book that he wrote on the subject. This was the largest audience I ever had, estimated at over 100, with standing room only.

I knew that the audience was not there to hear me as such, but rather to support the family of Johns. However, somehow I managed to rise above the nerves that threatened to choke me and, from the feedback I received after, managed to connect with the crowd. Johns’s family had decided to donate a large number of Johns books to the library to support others’ research, and among them are many titles that are now collectibles and crucial to the maritime history of Waterford including titles by the late Bill Irish, Niall O’Brien’s book on the Blackwater, the works of Eddie Bourke etc. A terrific collection, now freely available.

Me, trying to look confident, I did warm to the task though, photo courtesy of Damien Geoghegan

My final event was on home turf – a really personal project of mine – Time and Tide wait for no one. This event focused on the role of the tides in Cheekpoint in the days of the commercial fishery. I thought this fitted nicely into Water Heritage Day. A wonderful group of very enthusiastic and questioning participants came along and it made for a terrific engagement. We explored the tides and how they work, spring and neaps and how you can read the signs of these on the strand, the various fishing practices and how these harnessed the tides, the salmon drifts and how these were governed by state laws, but also laws that were more important – rules handed down within the community. Tomás Sullivan came along with his boat and took groups of four away to experience the tides from the river, and we were fortunate to have not one, but two ships pass up. Time for a well earned break now

Explaining the workings of a fishing weir – thanks to Deena for the photo
Talking neap tides but I needed to stop and discuss the roles of shipping and pilots as the MV Eemslift Ellen came up. Something I take for granted was a real wow factor for the group. An Arklow ship came up later. Photo via Alison
Tomás provided a very popular element to the talk, we’re hoping to do more like this if the weather improves, stay tuned for more info
Fish sales and my father’s conch shell, used to signal the fish buyer to stop.

Thanks to all who came along to the events this year, looking forward to next years already

Cheekpoint Quay

The oldest map I have seen of the area (1764) indicates Cheekpoint at what we know locally as the Sheag Rock close to the Mount Avenue. The present village and a quay are indicated but called Faithlegg Slip! We know that a quay was here for the Mail Packet ships from 1787.

However, in the early 1870s, a campaign was being run locally to have the quay refurbished. The reportage takes a number of angles to highlight the plight of the quay. One is that the contemporary quay is in a state of dilapidation – making the point that it was hurriedly erected at the time of the packets, that it was built on a small budget, and that it is neither safe nor fit for purpose.

The local landlord (Patrick Power at this stage) was also vocal, explaining that a refurbished and extended quay would facilitate paddle steamer connections between the village and the city, and this would be beneficial to trade, particularly from his Faithlegg estate.

It was 1883 before I found anything further. At this stage a Harbour and Piers Commissioners were sitting and looking at the needs of coastal and river villages, Cheekpoint among them. The next few paragraphs shaded blue are taken from an article in the Waterford Standard – Wednesday 14 November 1883; page 3

THE CHEEKPOINT PIER. Yesterday, eleven o’clock, Mr Blake, M.P, Major Hayes, Mr Johnston, and Major Brady sat in the County Courthouse, Waterford, to hear an application to extend the present pier at Checkpoint.

Evidence was given that there were 30 boats fishing from the village. The men fished salmon, cod and hake, extending down as far as Creaden Head using nets and long lines. They felt that the remains of the old pier were more of a hindrance to fishermen than assistance.  There was a strong suggestion that this be used as a breakwater.  There is also a “present quay” up from the old quay and this it was the preference of the witnesses that this be updated and extended.  Various locals gave testimony including Nicholas Power, John Barry, William Doherty, Ed Power (Master of Pat Powers steam yacht, James Heffernan, and Thomas Dunphy of Bellisle – which is a new name on me but he came across to Cheekpoint, so either a KK or WEX placename! 

Mr J. Wilson Downey also spoke in his capacity as a manager of the Waterford Steamship Company. He regarded the want of a suitable pier Cheekpoint—one that the paddle steamer could call at—as a very great inconvenience not only to the fisherman but the inhabitants of the district. There was great difficulty and much danger in getting goods on board the steamer which was done by means of boats going out to meet her. The steamer took animals, goods, fish, and passengers to Waterford.

The landlord Pat Power also spoke in support of the views expressed by the fishermen .  He also stated that if the commissioners recommended an expenditure of £2,500 towards the repair and extension of the pier, he would contribute £7OO, or a fourth of the amount. The evidence must have been convincing and it was recommended that the work be surveyed.

Wexford and Kilkenny Express – Saturday 24 May 1884; page 4
Wexford and Kilkenny Express – Saturday 26 March 1887; page 4
the fees associated with shipping from Cheekpoint in 1892 – image courtesy of Waterford County Archive
I believe this image of the quay is circa 1900, its very similar to how it looked in my youth, except for the concrete surface that was later added.
A wet February morning in the 1930s for the blessing of the boats…the surface here is hard to determine, but I am guessing cobbled stone with some filling added
An image from the early 70s before the concrete was poured. Photo was given to me by Tomás Sullivan originally but I don’t recall the source. Shows Bill dips Doherty in his Sunday best on the quay, I think its my uncle John is behind him on the boat

As a child in the 1970s, I remember the new look of the surface of the quay, which had been concreted and had tar poured between the concrete sections to allow it to expand and contract.

A few years back the end of the quay was shuttered and strengthened as there was a risk it would collapse. One theory was that dredging work may have undermined whatever foundation it was built on. It was also raised by at least a foot at that time, but the remainder of the quay was left as was.

Last year – 2022 perhaps the most significant addition to the structure was made when a new pontoon was added.

Tommy Sullivan cuts the ribbon on the new pontoon. Photo Tomás Sullivan

In May of 2023, a notice went up explaining that the quay would now be closed and asked that boats be removed from beside it in the dock to allow works to proceed. Below are some early morning images I took of the work as it proceeded. Essentially the inside wall was pointed, the quay drilled and thousands of tonnes of concrete poured in to make the structure solid, and then the surface was raised. New railings were added, the storm wall was raised, and new ladders and mooring bollards were added. Photos below.

Cheekpoint gets a new river access Pontoon

After four long years of a hard slog, Cheekpoint finally got a new pontoon access to the water, bringing the village into the 21st Century. A small local committee with a very healthy membership of local boat owners was behind the project and from the outset, the focus was on making it accessible and providing modern conveniences.

Cheekpoint Quay, historically, has gone through a number of changes. The earliest map I have seen refers to a short quay in the area as Faithlegg Slip. In 1787 a new mail packet service commenced from the village which led to enhancements presumably and when this moved downriver the quays were left to local users – fishermen, shipping, pilotage, and leisure. In the 1870s the present main quay was rebuilt and enhanced. Disaster struck when the Port of Waterford added river groynes to assist shipping over the Cheekpoint bar in the 1990s and the quay became almost surrounded by mud. The loss of the principal fisheries of the Salmon in 2006 and the Eel in 2007 further impacted the quays.

Very fittingly, Tommy Sullivan cuts the ribbon. Watched on by Grace O’Sullivan MEP, Our new PP Fr Breen, Victor Whitty, Tom Cronin, Deputy Mayor of Waterford City & County, Johnny Shea, Tommy, John Ferguson and Michael Murphy. Victor, Johnny, John and Michael are the committee stalwarts that made the project possible. Photo courtesy of Tomás Sullivan

The Friends of Cheekpoint Quay did significant work a few years back on enhancing the eastern breakwater – the Lower Quay, and also did some work on the main quay, however more substantial work was required on the main quay which was completed by Waterford City & Co Council last year. However the issue still remained – that access when the tide went out was limited, and some might call it dangerous and archaic.

In 2018 a large gathering of local boat users came together in the village hall to try to come up with some means of increasing access and facilities for locals. Although the committee could probably never foresee the obstacles that were to be put in their way (including Covid and a War in Ukraine), they persevered, and finally, on Saturday 17th September 2022 the pontoon was officially opened, and the ribbon was cut by our very own Tommy Sullivan.

Tommy cuts the ribbon to widespread cheers

The group has provided a 63-meter pontoon with 15-20 berths for CBOA members, including a 9-meter visitor berth, subject to availability. It has gated access for security along with CCTV cameras, lighting, onshore power and water supply, and a non-slip, wheelchair-accessible gangway.

Although none of us know what the future holds, this facility gives me hope that it will be a bit brighter for Cheekpoint. I would imagine it will encourage a new generation to use the river. For the next gen, it might be mostly for leisure, but they are as deserving of access as any other resident of the area. For me it affords a real opportunity to now seriously explore the possibility of maritime heritage from the village – the significant hurdle of insurance now practically addressed by this new facility.

You can find out more about the pontoon from a website created by our young neighbour Erinn at Cheekpoint Boat Owners Association.

Post publication an insight into the project from Victor Whitty

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. 

Halfway House and Jack Meades Pub

Halfway House

For this year’s Heritage Week event, and specifically Water Heritage Day I wanted to showcase a unique water-related site at the popular bar and restaurant known now as Jack Meades, but previously it was more commonly called Halfway House.  Over the next few Fridays, I will focus on some of the aspects of the site in the context of the historic role of the stream, Ballycanvan Pill, and the River Suir.  In this post I want to look at the location and the pub. 

Introduction

Water plays a crucial role in all our lives.  However, in previous generations, it had an added importance related to transport. Ships plied the ocean waves carrying freight and passengers around the globe, the rivers were a vital infrastructure allowing goods to be carried from and to inland locations that could take many days and significant expense to journey by poor and limited roadway.  I believe it was in this era that the placename “Halfway House” was born and the location originated; a halfway point from Waterford City to the busy shipping stop-off point that was Passage East and later Cheekpoint. 

Geography of the site

Halfway House is situated at a crossing point of Ballycanvan stream and Pill.  A Pill is a common enough word locally, originating in Norman times I understand and generally referring to a tidal stream.  The Pill is tidal (ie the river rises and falls to that point) up to the bridge, a fresh water stream lies above this and it must have been an ancient fording point of the stream. 

A sense of the location – OSI Historic Maps

The main road between Cheekpoint and Waterford comes through the site, but in the past it was also a roadway from Passage and Crooke to the city, joining the main road at Carraiglea and what we locally call Strongbows Bridge.  The current Passage and Crooke Road crosses over the bridge now at the site but that’s a more recent development,

Boundary sign from 1980 on the city side of the bridge. Authors Photo.

The site also marks three distinctive administrative boundaries.    As you cross the stream towards the city you leave the county boundary and enter the city.  It also marks the meeting of three District Electoral Divisions (DED’s) Faithlegg, Ballymaclode and Woodstown.  Within this it is also subdivided into six townlands, all of which converge at the crossing; Ballycanvan, Ballynaboola, Ballyvoreen, Ballymaclode, Ballygunnertemple, and Cross.  It was/is also surrounded by several large houses including Ballycanvan, Woodlands, Brooke Lodge, Mount Druid, and Blenheim.

Interestingly, the area was once commonly referred to as Alwyardstown, Baile an Adhlar Taigh – a historic reference to the first Norman-era landlord who ruled from Faithlegg an area of about 6000 acres that stretched from Cheekpoint and Passage to Ballytruckle in the city. Authors Photo

Irelands only Flyover Pub!

Before we leave the geographic description, it is worth explaining the bridge that currently stands as a means of travelling towards Passage East. You see the bridge is a relatively new construct (circa 1860) and it was apparently built at a time when a local business family, the Malcomsons (of Portlaw milling and Waterford ship owning and shipbuilding fame), were trying to gather investors to build a railway line to Passage East to take time off the journey from the city to Milford Haven. The plan failed, although the bridge was built, although the use of rail was later successfully implemented when in 1906 the SW Wexford rail line was built to connect the city with Rosslare and via ferry to Fishguard.

Passage East – Days of Sail and Cheekpoint and the Mail Packet

The place name of Halfway House is a common enough one.  According to my Oxford Dictionary, the term Halfway House has four meanings in the modern sense but perhaps the oldest and more historical based is a midpoint between two towns.  In this case, it’s a mid-point between Waterford city and initially the busy stop off point for shipping at Passage East and later Cheekpoint. 

A busy scene at Passage East in the late 18th century via BGHS http://gaultierhistoricalsociety.blogspot.com/2014/

Passage East was historically and administratively part of Waterford city, primarily in my opinion, because it was central to shipping.  Passage was the point where ships could relatively easily sail to; beyond Passage the river narrows, sailing was more difficult and so before the coming of steam power Passage was a much more accessible spot to anchor. 

Ships entering port could anchor relatively safely between Passage and Ballyhack.  There the customs could check on cargo and ensure the appropriate rates were applied.  Ships could be emptied by the Lighters and a myriad number of trades could be employed in looking after the ship’s needs.  Horse-drawn traffic would have abounded including carriages, carts, joulters, jarveys and so many other horse-driven transports. Passengers and goods would have been transported both to and from the area.  At a later point when the official Mail Packet Service was established at Cheekpoint in 1787, trade would have flourished to the village. 

As a consequence, these horse-drawn transports would have required a stop-off point.  The freshwater stream would have looked after the horses needs.  The pub would have catered for the men! On Redmond’s Hill, a forge operated by a family of the same name operated within living memory and it must have had a good market given the level of trade that would have passed the door. The site also had a shop, a post office and there were a great number of homes for those employed either in the big houses, the farms or in the businesses around the area.

Jack Meades Pub/ Halfway House

Over the door, on the way into the old bar at Jack Meades it states that the pub was founded in 1705.  It was recorded in November 1710, that one Jenkin Richards leased the Inn from William Harrison who lived at the time at Ballycanvan House. Richards was said to lease “the house commonly called or known by the name of “Halfway House”

The door to the old pub. Authors Photo.
Jack Meades Pub or Halfway House. Andrew Doherty

James Guest, (how’s that for a landlords name) and his son John were running the pub in 1721 and the family lived on the premises. The last of the family recorded were the brothers Robert and James Guest who dropped their lease in the 1770’s.  In the mid 19th Century,  1857 to be exact, the landlord of the pub was John Curtain.  When Curtain died, his daughter Elizabeth Meade took over.  Her son Thomas Meade was next to inherit, passing it on in turn to his son John, commonly called Jack. Jack ran it up to the 1970s at which point it passed to his own daughter Carmel. Carmel and her husband Willie Hartley run it still, although it has grown in size in the intervening period, and their son Liam runs the busy food part of the business.

It’s had a difficult time over the last two years as they have tried to survive financially during the Covid 19 pandemic, but it’s interesting to think that it survived the earlier Cholera outbreaks, the famine, and the Spanish flu. 

The site of course has many other water related features, and these I will explore over the new few weeks in the run into National Heritage Week 2021 and specifically Water Heritage Day on Sunday 22nd August 2021.  My original plan was to do a booklet of these pieces of information to be available for a guided walk on the site. However, due to my Covid concerns, this is still not a certainty. I might opt for an online presentation instead. This work will be supported by the Local Authority Waters Programme.

Next week – the two agricultural water-powered corn mills on the site, their design, operation, and the relevance of the stream and the tidal Pill in their operation.