I was never great at school.  But one specific class I can remember as a highlight was a lesson one day on placenames.  I don’t recall if it was a planned session, or if it was an aside.  But Michael White who was principal at Faithlegg was talking about how important it was to appreciate the Irish language, when it came to an analysis of the origins of placenames.  He gave a brilliant example, Knock Boy or in Irish Cnoc Bui.  The cartographer obviously hearing the name spoken in Irish tongue, completely twisted a beautiful geographic description of Yellow Hill, to a totally irrelevant English language replacement.  I found the translation, of what in my minds eye was a hill festooned with in-flower gorse, and that heady coconut like smell on a hot day, an insult to those who had gone before.

The townland I was born and raised in is called Coolbunnia.  Its a strange enough name, and not one I have come across elsewhere.  For some reason our area doesn’t seem to fall neatly into so many of those obvious Irish placenames such as Rath, or Ard or Dun.  Mind you we do have a Kil.

Canon Power in his Place Names of the Decies decried the fact that during his studies that native Irish speakers were not to be found in our area.  No surprise in a Barony called Gaultier; land of the foreigner.  With so much settlement and trade, the pressure on a native tongue must have been pronounced down the years.

For the learnered priest then, Coolbunnia, despite the fact that he didn’t have a native speaker to pronounce it, suggested to him the “Ridge back of the stream”  The Stream I have always thought is that which flows from below Everetts, now Malachy and Michelle Doherty’s.  It flows down to the left of the road as you drive towards Faithlegg and flows under the road at the “bridge” and then down the Glen and to the Suir.  The stream rises in the fields below Malachy’s and in years gone by a well was oft used to quench your thirst, fed from the source.  The ridge in this context of course is the Whorthill which winds its way towards Passage high above the estuary.

According to Power it didn’t actually exist at the time of the Down Survey.  Then the entire area was known as Faithlegg.  So sometime in the past two hundred years we have had the two local townlands added, Coolbunnia and Cheekpoint.  The following map highlights the extent of it, spreading from Tom Sullivans to the ditch at Vic and Eileen Bibles and from there back to the River.

Of course Canon Power could be wrong. He spelled it Cúl Buinne.  But the Irish placenames site, Loganim considers it Cúil Boinne.  The Cúil in this case is considered a nook or a corner,  They also provide several other spellings including Couboyngne and Coolbunna and interestingly the name Coulboygun is dated to 1313.  Another interesting fact is that it’s the only Townland placename of its kind in the country.

I often wondered if I had picked up more Irish would I have had an advantage in deciphering placenames.  But for the last eight years I have sat beside a native Irish speaker in work and she has reminded me several times that such queries are the gift of specialist people, so many complexities and variations are involved.  So I can let go of that bit of guilt anyway.

Post boxes have stories to tell

Today marks one year of blogging about my community and giving a sense of just how rich this area is in terms of history, heritage and culture.  A theme that runs through the writing is how the ordinary becomes a little more, once you take the time to look more closely or ask some questions.  On Nationwide I mentioned how even the trees and rocks have stories to tell around here and through the weekly blog and daily facebook posts I try to illustrate that.  The blog today is a case in point.  It was the first I wrote, exactly one year ago today, but unlike most which now reach about 100 views per week, this made a modest 20+. 

Not sure that I ever paid much attention to post boxes until very recently.  They are functional and I guess once you know that a letter pushed through the slot gets collected and delivered by the Postman then you are probably satisfied with that.

But although we probably take them for granted a little curiosity can reveal some interesting history.  Now we have a couple of post boxes in the area and they all have some history attached.  Directly below is the Post Box from a wall at Cheekpoint Quay.  It’s in the wall directly in front of you as you walk up from the main quay, in a wall that was once part of the home of Denis Doherty RIP and family.

The curious thing is that it has the British crown on the top aside of which is marked VR. This VR cipher stands for Victoria Regina which signifies that it’s from the reign of Queen Victoria when Ireland was ruled from London.  Made of cast iron, the first of these “wall box” types were erected in 1857 in the UK. 

Another distinguishing feature, it was manufactured by WT Allen of London – many of the Irish boxes were made under licence by Irish foundries. Haven’t been able to accurately date this one but WT Allen started manufacturing in 1887. Victoria died in 1901 so our post box in Cheekpoint is  obviously in situ sometime between these dates. 

On a related point, I once quipped on a tour that the only real difference between today and when it was first erected was the colour, it would have been “pillar box red”.  I was challenged on this by a gentleman who correctly told me that the first post boxes were actually green, in an attempt to blend them into the background,  However on looking more closely at it, and in line with the dates of it’s likely origin the Cheekpoint box was most probably red initially, so in fact I was more than likely right!  The first boxes were trialed in 1853 and by 1859 were universally introduced not just in Britain but across the colonies also. While these were generally green in colour by 1874 a decision was taken that the boxes would be red in colour and it took a decade to achieve.  The reason for the change? – the Green colour was too effective a disguise and the British public complained at not being able to find them!  maybe An Post should take note…

There are two others locally, at Ben’s shop at the Crossroads and Faithlegg.  The latter post box is a later design than the wall box in the village. It carries the gaelic print of the Dept. of Post & Telegraphs which was formed in 1924. The first Irish boxes carried an “SE” Cipher to denote Saorstat Eireann. This box probably dates from between 1937 – 40. Its builder was the Jessop Davis Foundry of Enniscorthy whose name is found near the base. This foundry operated between 1890-1964.  You can find out more about the Irish postal service here.

So maybe the next time you post a letter you might take a moments pause to consider the receptacle you’re using? It’s a great way for children to learn a little history.  It’s an interesting fact to swap with another consumer of the service.  However, in my experience it’s probably best to keep well out of the way if Postman is coming to empty it…they do not tend to hang around!

Pat Hanlon, Cheekpoint sailor, WW II POW and unsung hero

On the 5th October 1939, Coolbunnia man Pat Hanlon (able seaman) was captured as part of the crew of the SS Newton Beech by the German pocket battleship Admiral Graff Spee. No one could have foretold what would lead from the event, but by February 16th 1940 it would turn Pat into a celebrity at home and make naval and military history.

The Graff Spee was the pride of the German naval fleet at the time and at the commencement of World War II she was dispatched to the South Atlantic under the command of Captain Hans Langsdorff.  Langsdorff was an old fashioned sailor, and despite the fact that his orders was to disrupt and sink as much allied shipping as possible, his views were that he would not kill fellow seamen.  As a consequence the Graff Spee modus operandi was to approach allied shipping with the French flag at her stern, and once alongside run up her colours and put a crack boarding party aboard the allied ship.  The crew were then transferred, or if close to land, were given the option of rowing to shore in their ships lifeboats.  Charges were then set and the ships sent to the bottom.  As a consequence, he probably sank less ships than would have been possible, but of the nine he did sink, no crew man died.

The SS Newton Beech was from Newcastle-Upon Tyne and was built in Sunderland in 1925. She was an average sized tramp of her day (4615 GRT) owned by Tyneside Line with a crew of 21 Tynesiders and 14 from other areas including Cheekpoint.  She was under the command of Captain Jack Robison and had departed Cape Town on September 7th heading home with a cargo of Maize.  Her last resting place is recorded here.

SS Newton Beech
Photo via Pat O’Gorman

Aboard that fateful morning was Pat Hanlon one of the eleven children born to  Fisherman Martin O’Hanlon and his wife Margaret nee Murphy who was originally from Mooncoin. They lived in Coolbunnia on the main road below the present school.  Pat like so many from the area “went to sea” to earn a living.  Pat was a brother to our  current eldest resident Annie Phelan nee Hanlon in the Mount Avenue.

Hanlon homestead in Coolbunnia today

As the sinkings escalated the numbers of prisoners grew and they were transferred to the Graff Spee’s supply vessel the tanker MV Altmark who shadowed the battleship and hid under a Norweigan flag and fake name SS Sogne.  As the allied net closed on the Graff Spee and her ultimate fate, it was decided that the Altmark would break away from the scene and return to Germany.  Working hard to avoid capture her Captain, Heinrich Dau, headed northwards towards the Artic and nursed her towards the Norweigan coast.

Aboard conditions were tough, but apparently very fair.   An example of the regime:
7 a.m., turn-out and wash; 7.45, breakfast; 8.30-9.15, on deck for fresh air; 11.30, dinner; 2.30-3, fresh air on deck; 5.30, tea; 9 p.m., lights-out.  The Altmark was a large ship of 20858 GRT and prisoners were held in various sections, Pat being unluck to be 25 feet down in one of the holds.  It was dark, cold and very uncomfortable.  At one stage Pat got in trouble as he tried to send an SOS in a tin over the side, in the hope of raising their fate to the outside world. 

MV Altmark

He need not have worried however.  British naval intelligence was aware that prisoners had been taken and were busy trying to track likely vessels.  As the Altmark approached Norweigan waters, the navy demanded she be searched.  Despite three boarding parties of Norweigan navy personnel on three separate occasions, nothing was discovered.  British suspicions were obviously aroused however and she was tracked down by a spotter plane.  The Altmark was confronted by HMS Cossack, a destroyer and challenged whilst still in Norweigan waters.  The resulting diplomatic incident became so heated that none other than Winston Churchill, gave the order to interecept and board the Altmark.  She ran aground in a fjiord and was subsequently boarded by the Navy where hand to hand combat was used, in case gun shot would harm any prisoners. 

HMS Cossack

When the hold containing Pat Hanlon was thrown open, with a call of “The Navy’s here” he was first out of it, and risked falling back off the ladder such was the surge from below. Pat O’Gorman reminded me that in the same situation he would have tried to do the same…sailors would have expected the ship to be scuttled, and would have been keen to get on deck and grab anything to help them float off.  “The Navy’s Here” would later become the catch cry taken up by the press and media and used throughout the war as a symbol of naval potency. 

All the freed “Prisoners of war” were taken aboard the Cossack and she departed for Leith the following day.  Some footage of their Ariving back to England was taken by the Pathe News.  I fancy I can make out Pat, but I could be wrong. 

HMS Cossack arriving to a huge welcome at Leith

The incident created history in that it was the last naval boarding undertaken by the British navy.  It also led directly to the invasion two months later by Hitler of Denmark and Norway, as he determined that the Norwegians were not prepared to stand up to the British on matters of neutrality.  The incident was widely reported in the media and Pat found himself on the pages of several newspapers including the Irish Independent and the local Munster Express.

Despite his experiences Pat returned to sea not long afterwards and he along with hundreds of fellow Waterford men and thousands of Irishmen plied their trade with the merchant navy all through the horrors of the war.  Unfortunately the consideration of Captain Langsorff was uncommon and tens of thousands of merchant men died, one piece I read put it at 50,000,  some of whom were from Cheekpoint and many more from Waterford and the rest of Ireland.  Its worth remembering they put to sea in ships with little or no way of defending themselves and were unsung hero’s in a war where they played a crucial part, and got little by way of recognition for their bravery.

Thankfully, Pat survived the ravages of the war and afterwards got married and started a family in Liverpool and continued to work as a seaman. He died in Liverpool in 1994 at the age of 89 and his ashes were scattered on the Mersey.  

Thanks for various pieces of information to

Jim Doherty
Michael Farrell – Barony of Gaultier Historical Society
Tomás Sullivan
Pat O’Gorman
Captain Jim Murphy
The work of Con McGrath first published in the Irelands own November 2013
Anna Phelan for the personal family pieces included

More reading here:
Altmark incident explains how the situation developed and the implications for Norway

a full account from the German perspective can be had here:

Diary of Captain Brown of the SS Huntsman who was prisoner aboard the Altmark