Growing up amongst the nets

Growing up in a fishing village like Cheekpoint in the early 1970s, nets were part of the everyday scene in the community. They lay around in the same way tractors and machinery hang round a farmyard.  Nets for fishing the weirs, trawl nets including beam and otter, drift nets for Herring and Salmon and Eel pots.  Old fishermen like Andy Joe Doherty come to mind, sitting amongst the maze of meshes of a weir net, a section slung across his knees as he worked to repair some hole by the ‘Red Shed’ on the village ‘Green’.
I suppose because it was summer, and we had more time being on holidays, I remember the salmon nets most of all.  The salmon season stretched in those days from Feb 1st to August 15th.  It opened each Monday morning at 6am and concluded the following Saturday at 6am. Sundays were a day of rest, mass, the Reading Room for cards, a match or the pub.  But Saturday was for boat and net repair, and the quay was generally buzzing with activity.
Buddy McDermott and Tom Sullivan hauling out the nets
Photo courtesy of Tomás Sullivan
The nets in those days were nylon.  They comprised of a head rope which had corks each about a fathom apart keeping the net afloat, and a lead rope which kept the net down in the water. Between both ropes was suspended a curtain of netting which once set in the river drifted on the tides. Because of the position of Cheekpoint and the strong currents in the area, drifts would normally last from between fifteen minutes to an hour.  
Another feature of the drifts was the countless fouls and obstacles to be negotiated. The meshes got ripped due to snagging rocks, weir poles, old fouls, the bottom, getting caught in the jetty, wrapping them up in the outboard engine propeller.  As we were below the ports of New Ross and Waterford we also had the risk of being cut by one of the many ships in and out of the ports.
A mending needle
Although the general perception of drifting was that salmon swam blindly into nets, the local reality was that we predominantly ‘jammed’ fish. Jamming fish was an expression used in trying to outfox the salmon, catching them in ‘the bag of the nets’ or trapping them as nets ‘fell ashore’ when drifts ended with the nets gathering in clumps close to the shoreline. The local practice had actually more in common with draft netting and snap netting, both techniques happened above us in narrower waters, than the common perception of drift netting on the high seas.
drift net
As a consequence the repair of nets was a constant necessity.  Saturdays then, would see fishermen at work, hauling out the nets from the boat and ‘ranging them over’ again on the shore, quayside, or the green. Some fishermen preferred to stay in the boat, a more boring job again as at least if you were on the quay there was more banter. Some skippers could overlook only the largest gap, but for many as much as a damaged “half mesh” was a no no. These were the skippers you didn’t want to get stuck with, as you could spend the day standing in the one spot without a break.
a typical break
The process was always the same. One person on the cork rope the other on the lead. As you ranged them along you looked carefully for a gap or a tear. Once found the skipper would use a penknife to trim off and tidy the hole and with a mending needle, set about re-meshing the hole. In some cases it could take a minute, in others a heck of a lot longer. In all cases our job was to hold the net in a particular way. As a consequence we were often referred to as ‘human nails’ as if we were not around the fisherman would hang the net on a nail or other fixing.  As he worked we got no more than a grunt, when it was time for us to shift, or pull tighter, or move a fraction to enable the skipper to see what he was doing. Once done, he would snip the end of the mending twine, returning the knife and mending needle to his pocket.  Then we would stretch out of the repair job and you would hear either a grunt of satisfaction or disgust, depending on how the job was perceived. Then it was back to the careful ranging and on to the next hole.
repaired and time to range on
Some Saturdays could be spent entirely in this way, and after a while you learned to avoid the quays when such activities were taking place. It would be a few years yet before I had to learn the craft, and many more (if ever) before I could say I could repair a net in any kind of satisfactory way.  Of course in the 1990’s the nylon nets started to change and before it was out, mono-filament netting was legalised. Because these were practically invisible to the fish anyway, repairing holes became virtually a thing of the past.  It was easier to pull sections of a hole together with string, or cut out a section and replace it.  Net repair started to become a thing of the past, and with it, what might have seemed like a chore to a child, but a very difficult skill nonetheless.
For this years Heritage week I am leading a walk highlighting Cheekpoint’s Maritime past including the nets of the village.  It takes place this Saturday evening 19th August at 5.30 pm.  It commences from McAlpins Suir Inn and is free of charge.  
I will also co-host a walk on Sunday 20th August on the Geohistory of the area with local geologist Bill Sheppard.  It commences at 2.30pm and departs from Faithlegg National School. Also free of Charge.
This excerpt this morning is from a forthcoming book I have written on the Cheekpoint fishery which will be published in the autumn entitled “Before the Tide Went Out” 
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A Crooke childhood

Today is the last Friday of the month and so it’s guest blog day.  I always love to share others thoughts and as the summer holidays officially start in our local national school, this reflection on school holidays from the 1960’s is a real counterpoint to the activities of children today.  I’d like to thank Breda Murphy of Crooke for sharing it with us, and hope you enjoy it as much as I.

Recently I met a local woman on one of my regular walks on the strand below Crooke and we exchanged the usual, ‘isn’t it a lovely day, great spell of weather, it’s lovely down here’. She said ‘it’s a little bit of heaven’ and that’s exactly what it is ‘a little bit of heaven’. I am so grateful for living so close to it all my life. 

I was born and grew up in Crooke Co Waterford, opposite Duncannon Church on the Wexford side of the harbour. Every morning when I opened the curtains there is was, the river. My mother could predict the weather by looking at the river; what colour it was, its texture and how close Duncannon looked, don’t ask me how that worked but I wish I had listened to her more instead of dismissing it as ‘mad stuff’!! 
The rhythm of the river with its constant in and out led to my first realisation of my own insignificance; it went in and out whether or not I showed up. My father made his living from the river as a fisherman and later as a seaman. We waved him good bye as he sailed past the house heading to Liverpool on the mail boat the Great Western. The river and the strand played and still plays a significant role in my life. 
The Great Western in war time colour

Primary school summer holidays were spent on the Barrack Strand between the Carrig Rock, dividing Woodstown and Passage and ‘Johnnies Lane’ or the ‘Chapel Lane’ under Crooke Church. We picked cockles when the tide was out and ate them raw by twisting the back of two cockles together to open them, swallowing from the shells like oysters, although in my mind a sweeter tastier option. Or we lit a fire and cooked them in a discarded bean tin in water from the stream. 

Chapel or Johnnies lane

We had unlimited lands and seascape as our playground to facilitate the unbounded fantasy of a herd of children let lose for the summer. We swam, walked and rolled in the mud, we picked shells to use as money, we spent days picking the best shaped stones for ‘nucks’ or flat stones, a ‘bed bone’, for beds, like hopscotch or the best stones for skimming. I still come home from a walk with a pocket full of ‘best’ stones. We climbed the cliff, made ranches, saloons, houses, castles, forts, villages, cars and buses in the sand. We dammed and redirected streams, made pools and lakes. 

A modern scene from the barrack Strand, still a playful place!

We learned what we didn’t learn in school; how to light fires, how to occupy ourselves, use everything available; nothing was rubbish, tins, glass, old rope, even plastic took on a new dimension after being washed up in the tide and became a blank canvas. We learned to cooperate, be in teams, compete, lose, take care of others, back each other, be taken care of, learned to drink water from a steam by cupping our hands, learned to take risks and be brave, to ‘get in’ and swim in cold water, to undress and dress under a towel and dry ourselves without our mammy’s, with teeth chattering. We learned all this unsupervised by adults. We made mistakes and recovered and mostly adults didn’t know anything about them. 

When we came up off the strand, Mrs Hegarty and Mrs Barry, who lived near the lane down to the Barrack Strand, often had a plate of bread and butter waiting for us hungry children, glorious. We learned gratitude, bravery, the comfort of clothes on your body after being cold and wet. We laughed, at things only children find funny, we cried, we fought, we made up, we got hurt (physically and emotionally) we recovered, we learned resilience and compassion. 
Another familiar sight from Passage Hill, Duncannon on the opposite shore

The older children (12 or 13) learned leadership, being responsible for minding the younger ones. We learned the pecking order, obedience and disobedience, loyalty and friendship, possibility, hunger as a sweet sauce (our tea never tasted so good) generosity, kindness, what peace felt like. 

Later in my teenage years and beyond I spent time alone by the river, time to think and dream and unfortunately it’s where I learned to smoke. I walk by the river now whenever I can. It brings me back to when; my time was unlimited, I was never in a hurry, I lived in the now and laughed a lot. I need a summer on the strand!!

And don’t we all. What lovely memories this brought up for me.  The only addition I could think of was our love of crab fishing here in the village of Cheekpoint, otherwise this account was so familiar and so affirming. Any wonder I love being beside, on and taking photos of the river and all its comings and goings.  Thank you Breda.  

Our next guest blog will be Friday 28th July, and I’m hopeful it will be another memory, this time of a summer holiday in Duncannon from a fellow blogger from Carlow. If you would be interested in submitting a piece I’d be delighted to hear from you at  The only criteria is that the piece needs to be about our maritime heritage, about 1200 words and I can help in editing if required, source photos and add in links etc.  I’d also welcome any contributions from younger readers including students

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By Hook or by Crooke

Any walk we ever do that includes the Minaun and its stunning views, invariable leads to a mention of Oliver Cromwell and his vow to take Ireland by Hook or by Crooke.  Looking out the harbour we have the Hook peninsula in Co Wexford on the left and Crooke below Passage East Co Waterford on our right.  I’m regularly challenged by well informed walkers who opine that of course Cromwell was not the originator of the phrase at all. The fact is there are many different origin accounts, but not much agreement.

The popular view from the Minaun, from a point that some call Cromwells Rock

For example during the week I had a half hour to kill in Dungarvan and whilst in the local studies section read(1) that it was the invasion of Stronbow that created it.  The story, which is accurate in geographical terms, states that when he came to invade in August of 1170 he had to choose from meeting his pals already encamped at Baginbun, on the Hook Peninsula, or to actually land (which he did of course) at Crooke.  Yet another say it was a phrase coined by the Normans to illustrate that the two most acceptable landing points were via the land mark of the Hook or Crookhaven in Cork harbour.

Prior to Cromwell leaving England, the actual invasion plan for Ireland (his “Southern Design”) was to emulate the Normans. However before he departed Milford, intelligence reached him that the Dublin garrison, which was loyal to the parliamentarians, had secured a major victory.  Plans were hastily changed, a compliant and secure beachhead was always going to be more welcome than the risk of attack.(2)

accessed from

The Wexford Waterford campaign was a mixed bag for Cromwell.  In late November 1649 Lieutenant General Jones first took Passage East Fort and then turned towards Faithlegg, where after a brief siege the castle fell and the Aylwards were hung from the trees in their own garden.  Cromwell was already at Waterford, but there is only the local lore that he came to Faithlegg, to offer terms to Aylward at Faithlegg Castle, and climbed on to the Minaun to view the harbour.

Most online (and written sources) claim that the phrase originated in the feudal times of Norman rule. The vast majority I have read claim that it was a right (Fire Bote) that allowed peasants take firewood from the kings forests. Effectively by using a bill hook, which would only cut small pieces of timber, or by a shepherds crook, ie that they could pull down and take what could be reached with the assistance of this stick.

A less popular account considers it the means of paying taxes, or tithes to the Manor.  You could pay through the growing and harvesting of crops or by raising and keeping animals.  In either case part of what you reaped with a hook, or made from the animals was forfeit to the manor.  As the essence of the phrase is that something will be done by any means necessary I personally lean towards this account.  But I don’t have much support in that.

The “scholars” on internet tend to agree that the phrase is an ancient one, and was used commonly by the 14th century as a expression with the same meaning as in modern usage.  As a consequence even if Cromwell didn’t coin it to describe his invasion plan it would be a difficult point for anyone to argue that he didn’t employ such a common phrase as an expression of intent.  And perhaps, or maybe even, surely, he reflected on the curious geographical similarity once he arrived.  I have a great meas on local lore!

(1) Mackey P By Hook or by Crooke; Six touring Routes, Fifty places to see. 1983 Bord Failte
(2) Walton J.  On this Day Vol 1.  pp100-101.  2013

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A brief history of Faithlegg

This Sunday 21st August my wife Deena and I will conduct a heritage walk through Faithlegg commencing at 12noon at the Church.  Its the 11th year that we’ve organised something for Heritage Week . Faithlegg is probably best known now as a location for weddings, its hotel or to golfers who want 18 rounds in a stunning location.  But to others, its a significant historic location.  So what might you see in Faithlegg.

Well to start with the Churches themselves make a beautiful starting point.  The newer church dates from 1826 and is still in use today.  I served as an altar boy here in my youth, and I mentioned before how we traveled on the mass bus every Sunday morning, something that usually leaves younger readers agape.  There’s an interesting love story attached to the stain glass windows concerning a young heiress of the Power family and an ex Mayor of Waterford, John A Blake. Blake was the man responsible for the Peoples Park in Waterford city.

The church beside it of course is ancient, and many hold the view that it is the site of two churches, and probably stands on the remains of something earlier.  Of course the townland next door is called Kilcullen, or the Church of Cullen, and another church site is located there. If that’s not enough, there was a chapel in Faithlegg House, and mass was conducted on the Minaun in penal times! Surely to be interred here means automatic entry through the pearly gates.

Last resting place of the Bolton family

We have graves historic, such as the tomb of Thomas Francis Meagher, we have graves for sea captains, sailors and the lady who died twice! But most of all we have, in the Council award winning graveyard, the graves of men and women who worked their fingers to the bone to raise a family and try and live a good life.  I put a few of them into the ground, as I worked as a gravedigger in the 1980’s when work was scarce and any job was welcome.

Faithlegg itself has a long history.  It was granted by Henry II to a Bristol Merchant named Aylward after the Norman landings in 1171/2.  Aylward initially built a Motte and Baily to protect himself, but as tensions eased a fine stone castle was built on the lands above the church.  The last of the Aylwards were hung from the trees around abouts after the siege during the Cromwellian invasion, and to this day, there is the mystery of the abandoned Faithlegg village around the castle site.

Motte & Baily with Keep atop – via Google images

Entering Faithlegg we come across the emblem of the area, St Huberts Deer, probably reflecting the Power family’s love of hunting, St Hubert being the patron saint of Hunters and their dogs.  Hubert, the legend goes, was an avid hunter who went out one Good
Friday morning into the Ardennes in search of a stag. As he was pursuing his
quarry the animal turned with apparently, a crucifix standing between its
antlers, while he heard a voice saying: “Hubert, unless thou turnest to
the Lord, and leadest an holy life, thou shalt quickly go down into
hell”.  He quickly converted! 

Faithlegg House was designed and built in 1783 for Cornelius Bolton, who would later go on to create an industrial village at Cheekpoint, we covered that at last years Heritage Week event. Bolton was the last in the line of the family who gained the estate after the Cromwellian invasion. Following bankruptcy it was bought by the Power family in 1816, and the Hotel as it stands today is largely the extension and ornate refit of the house undertaken by the newly wedded Pat Power and Olivia Nugent (daughter of the Earl of Westmeath) in the 1870’s

Faithlegg Harries at the “Big House” AH Poole photo 1890’s

Returning to Faithlegg we can’t but stop to consider the early christian site, dedicated to St Ita.  Her holy well has long been a feature in the parish, but it was once known as Tobar Sionnach. or the Well of the Fox.

These and much more will feature on our walk this coming Sunday 21st August, at 12 noon.  But if you want to walk it yourself here’s a self guided walk to follow.  And if you are coming, your own stories of the area would be welcome too.

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A century of Barrow Bridge incidents

The Barrow Bridge was officially opened in 1906 to connect Waterford’s train station, and thus the SW of Ireland, to the newly developed port at Rosslare.  I’ve written before about the initial planning and concern about crossing the River Barrow which separates counties Kilkenny and Wexford, across from Cheekpoint. The principal objection was from the Port of New Ross.  The concerns were addressed by inserting a swivelled opening span to allow ships access to the River Barrow and thus New Ross. The outside channel was used for ships entering the Barrow, the opposite, on the Kilkenny side, for egress.  A manned control tower operated the opening and closing function. Down the years there have been many incidents recorded at the bridge, what follows is a sample.
The Barrow Viaduct Jan 2016
Interestingly, the first incident I could find occured before the bridge was even operational. During construction two sailing vessels struck it on the one day, indeed almost at the same time. The ships were the Conniston and the Ethel under the guidance of pilots Whelan (apparently one armed) and Kearnes, leaving New Ross on an ebb tide. The Harbour Board received a complaint about the matter from the builders, but thankfully not much damage to the bridge had occurred. The master of the Schooner Ethel also wrote alleging damage to his ship. The board interviewed the pilot on the matter who explained that at the White Horse reach (just above the Bridge) he had recommended to the master that the ship should be warped through the opening. He claimed the master of the Ethel refused stating that the wind was sufficient and he could control the passage through. Drawing close to the opening, the wind dropped and the master ordered the anchor dropped, this was done, but as she swung to the anchor she struck the bridge. No details were given as to the incident with the other vessel.

A few months later in 1905 pilot Whelan was again in trouble when a steamer under his control struck one of the cylinder piles and dislodged a concrete coping.  Despite the evidence of the harbour master, Captain Farady, who was also aboard, that the accident was completely outside the control of his pilot, Whelan received a caution.

The next incident came almost an exact year from the official opening of the bridge. From the Cork Examiner of 26/7/1907 we learn that “Yesterday the barque Venus, of Hellsingborg, Norway, bound for New Ross, with a cargo of timber, whilst in the tow of the barque Heron, collided with the Barrow Bridge, or Railway Viaduct. The Venus had her whole foremast knocked clean out, and the crew had a narrow escape, the bridge being apparently uninjured.”
opening span of bridge

While Dublin was in revolt during Easter 1916, the bridge was one of the pieces of infrastructure considered vital to the interests of the crown forces.  Admiral Bayly, commander of the British naval services sea protection detail based at Cobh sent motor launches to secure the bridge and ensure uninterrupted rail travel. (Nolan: p141).

Another curious incident is related in the Munster Express dated 9th June 1923.  The opening span was stuck in an opened position for some days following a loss of a “Shaft” or pin, which was central to the operation of the swivel action.  The shaft was finally retrieved by dragging the river bed.  No explanation is supplied as to why it happened, or indeed why a replacement could not be found.
In the 1930’s the issue was trespass. Several men were brought to court owing to what was claimed to be a “tremendous amount of trespass”  The defendants were listed as Thomas Dempsey, Campile; Patrick Carew, Ferrybank; Patrick Cashin, Drumdowney; John Black and Richard Atkins of Glasshouse and two Cheekpoint men; Denis Hennerby and Michael Heffernan.  Solicitor from the railway stated that the men were putting their own lives at risk by travelling the line either by foot of bicycle.  The case against Mikey Heffernan was struck out, and Aitkins was adjourned.  The others faced a fine of 6d and costs amounting to 7/-.  (Source: Munster Express 3/12/1937)
At the outbreak of WWII and for several months after the bridge continued to see daily use.  Both Irish and those with Irish relatives and cousins and some refugees, fled the looming war.  Many travellers could only finding standing room on the decks of the ferry boats and seating was a luxury on the train too.  (McShane: p11)  As the war wore on and shortages deepened, rail traffic was suspended due to a lack of coal, only to be reinstated after the war
My mother like so many others left for England in the 1950’s.  To her the bridge brought mixed emotions, sadness on leaving, fires burning in the village, the last farewell to the emigrants that would keep families fed.  Of course it was also of gladness when she would get to return across it for the following Christmas and it would give her the first view of home.
There were several bridge strikes down the years from ships passing through, generally to enter the Barrow.  According to my father, the only surprise about hitting the bridge was that there were not more.  I remember hearing one as a child, where the stern of the ship was swept onto the central fender as it passed through, with minor damage to the ship and none to the bridge.  The sound reverberated around the village.
On another occasion, the 7th April 1986, the inbound Panamanian registered ship MV Balsa struck and did considerable damage to the opening.   She was of 6000 tonnes and was empty at the time (she was chartered to collect a cargo of malt) which probably contributed to the accident.  The central span was damaged and the bridge was immediately closed to rail and shipping until an inspection was carried out.
The bridge strike that caused the most severe damage occurred on March 7th 1991. The MV Amy a Dutch registered coaster was again entering port when she collided against the opening span of the bridge and knocked it out of line.  The timber fenders and central wharf was also damaged.  In fact the damage was so severe that the line and shipping channels were immediately closed.
However, legal writs started to fly as 14 vessels were stranded in the port between the Port of New Ross and the ship owners and shipping companies.  Within days an agreement was reached to allow egress and entry via the undamaged side of the opening, but the railway line remained closed.  Three months later the railway was again in use, saving motorists the 40 mile road trip, and rail passengers a bus transfer from Campile.  The repair was reputed to have cost £3-5 Million, and was carried out by a Cobh salvage company, who operated from Cheekpoint and were as renowned for their long hours of labour as their huge capacity for porter.
By far the most curious incident to close the line occurred on Friday 22nd March 1946.  A drifting mine – used during the second world war- was spotted floating close to the bridge by two Cheekpoint men Heffernan and O’Connor (Paddy and John respectively as far as I can recall, John being the father of the Munster Express journalist of the same name).  They reported the sighting to the Garda station in Passage East and a unit from the Curragh was dispatched under Comdt. Fynes to deal with the threat.  Locally it was always said that the boys had thrown a lasso around the mine and towed it away from the bridge as a train approached, saving countless lives as a result.
A more sober account can be found in that weeks Kilkenny People.  The mine grounded between Snow Hill Quay and Drumdowney Point (known locally as the Point of the wood) as the tide went out and once settled on the mud, a rope was tied around it, to prevent it floating away. Although the Boat train departed from Waterford that evening, it was decided to close off the line to rail and shipping on the Saturday.
The bomb disposal unit had to wait for the tide to go out before they approached the mine on the Saturday.  It was described as 5′ 4″x 3’4″ and was encrusted with rust and barnacles.  It was thought to have been a floating mine, deployed with an anchor and chain that had broken away.  The opinion of the army was that it had been deployed on the sea bed several years before,  There was no information provided about it’s origin.  The unit managed to make safe the mine by 4pm that evening, meaning the 5pm train could depart with safety.
CIE had to face a high court injunction in 1991 to carry out the repairs on the bridge to allow trains to run once more,  At the time there was speculation that they would prefer to remove the opening and make the railway line redundant.  With falling passenger numbers and the rise in private motor use the days of the line were numbered.   The closure of the Sugar Beet factories was the final straw.  The final train crossed the Barrow Bridge in September 2010.
Many thanks to James Doherty for his help with this piece and in particular loaning me the following books which I referenced in the piece;
McShane. M.  Neutral Shores.  Ireland and the battle of the Atlantic.  2012.  Mercier press.  Cork
Nolan et al.  Secret Victory.  Ireland and the War at Sea 1914-18.  2009.  Mercier press.  Cork

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