Buttermilk Castle, Co Wexford

While out walking in the early morning sunlight last week, I spotted something that I haven’t seen as clear and obvious ever before. The remains of what was once the Norman era tower house that is Buttermilk Castle. I’ve written about it before

But here’s the photo I’m referring to from last Friday morning as seen from the Russianside, Cheekpoint. Taken at about 5.45am. I’ve added the arrow as it might not be so obvious to everyone.

And here’s some other photos taken from the site itself when rowing around the river which is about all an ex fisherman can do anymore around here!

looking at it from the river, facing west
looking at it towards the east

Hope you enjoyed this little visual tour. Next time I might try shoot some video.

Dunbrody Abbey

As a child growing up in Cheekpoint, Dunbrody Abbey loomed large in our lives.  It might have been in a different county, might have been separated by a fast lowing expanse of water, but it was a landmark that everyone knew, and I think, were proud of.  We learned about it in school of course, and our parents had stories of visiting it by boat, and it even found its way into newspapers and local poetry.  One that I still recall to this day was often recited by my grandmother.  The words were contained on a yellowed newspaper clipping that was folded into a decorative teapot that sat inside her glass case (the spot where all the treasures were kept, including her best china, our first curls and tatty ornaments we brought her back from school tours!) The poet was a local woman Kathy Leech and the poem went at follows:

Thankfully I typed this up years ago, although I have no year of publication or what local paper published it. Kathy was an elderly woman who loved in the High St in the village when I was a child. Reading the poem for the first time all those years back it struck me as strange that someone then so old was once young, vivacious and full of the joys of life.

The Abbey was founded after the required land was granted to a religious order by Herve de Montmorency (uncle of Strongbow), after the Norman invasion of Ireland. The first grant was to the monks of Bildewas in Shropshire, England.  However a monk (Alan) sent to scout the site found the area inhospitable and hurried home.  Actually he didn’t really put a tooth in it; “…the waste of the place, the sterility of the lands, and the wildness and ferocity of the neighbouring barbarians…We might incur no small damage or loss, if we should attempt to send any to those parts in order to inhabit and dwell.”[1]   Needless to say they decided against a move to the area, but eventually a sister abbey in Dublin, St Mary’s, accepted the ground and work got under way around 1182. It would become known as the Abbey of St. Mary le Portu (St Mary of refuge), although I have read that this refuge concerned Hervey’s wish of the establishment – to provide a sanctuary /refuge for travellers.  However Hore says that it refers to an earlier incident where ships in Strongows invasion fleet found shelter in the Pill[2]

The name Dunbrody is speculated by Hore to connect to a fort (dun) of a man named Brody and he speculates that the spot was an ideal location for an abbey. In contrast to Monk Alan’s report, he described it as sorrounded by fine Oak forest to the North and West, rich pastureland to the east and south (in Alan’s defence perhaps it was only potentially rich pastureland when he visited), fresh water flowing by, an abundant river of fish and a ready supply of wine through the port of New Ross.

An image of the Abbey and Campile Pill from Coolbunnia, Waterford (where I spent my first seven years) by our local photographer of note Tomás Sullivan. (Carraig Byrne in the distance)

One theory about such grants is that it was part of a settlement pattern of the English rulers, a way of managing the land and securing the strategically important harbour area.  The lands stretched from Dunbrody and Campile, along the river front to Duncannon and inland as far as Battlestown (Where the Deise and Ostmen of Waterford battled Raymond le Gros) and Sheilbaggen.  In all it totalled 40 caructaes or ploughlands the equivalent of 13,000 acres today.[3]

According to Billy Colfers judgement, and I certainly respect that, when completed it was one of the finest Cistercian abbeys in Ireland.[4]  Not alone was all this land put to productive use, but so too was the rivers with weirs for catching fish, the castle at Buttermilk, possibly for governing shipping, and St Catherines fortified church in the grange of Nuke.  But like everything the winds of change must blow and eventually the abbey was dissolved.  According to the website of the abbey visitor centre the demise started when its last abbot, Alexander Devereux, granted to the King, his heirs and successors, the Abbey and all its possessions circa 1542. The lands and Abbey subsequently became the property of the Etchingham family, and later through marriage it passed to the Chichester family, who own the lands to this day, although the site of the Abbey was handed over to the State in 1911 (not the Irish State at the time obviously)[5]

Berangers sketch of Dunbrody 1780 RIA from Hore

In my childhood and into my earlier days of fishing a trip to Dunbrody by boat was an annual occurrence. Landing as we did in those days from the Pill, the abbey was naturally the first facination, but over time I became less interested in it and more drawn to a small, ruined church, adjacent to the Pill.  Lost beneath ivy and adjacent to a tiny but well kept graveyard I would explore and try to imagine what life was like at the time this building was in use.  It always reminded me somewhat of the old church at Faithlegg, perhaps because of its size but also the carved dressed stone of its entrance door, contrasting nicely with the rougher cut stone of the walls. 

From Hore What he describes as a Water Gate – the church and graveyard are situated on the right.

In later years I would discover that this is probably in fact the first church built be the monks that came to the area.  It was customary to have a place of worship as the work progressed, and generally located beside an entrance gate, hence Cappella ad Portum – the chapel by the gate.  The monks would forsake this early church leaving it to commoners who worked the surrounding lands, or weary travellers seeking an intervention from on high to protect them on their journey.  The monks of course had their own place of worship, which was exclusively for their own use. It’s also interesting to me that when I was part of the four person voluntary committee led by Kevin Ryan (and included Pat Murphy and Damien McLellan) who worked to preserve old Faithlegg Church that some evidence of the construction at Faithlegg suggested that our church had possibly been constructed by monks from Dunbrody.

One of the best videos available on the ruins as they stand today, from Waterford’s Mark Power

Whether you are interested in history or not, a visit to Dunbrody is a marvel. Its open for the summer season at present and its certainly worth dropping by. I’ll leave the last words to a young Waterford lad returning from school in England named Thomas Francis Meagher who in a few brief words captured the essence of the site for me :”… the ruins of Dunbrody  Abbey – an old servant, with torn livery, at the gateway of the noble avenue.” 

To mark the fifth year of the blog I’ve organised an evening in the Reading Room Cheekpoint on Saturday 8th June form 7.30-9.30.  I’ve invited a few friends, neighbours and colleagues to share a specific blog, a memory prompted by a blog or something that has emerged from a blog.  I’m calling it Tide Line as it marks some changes to the future direction of the blog. Its open to all, free of charge and it promises to be a lively night, hopefully with plenty of laughter. 


[1] Colfer. B.  The Hook Peninsula. 2004. Cork University Press. Page 43

[2] Hore.P.H History of the Town & County of Wexford. Dunbrody Abbey, The Great Island, Ballyhack etc. 1901 London. Page 40 (I’m indebted to John Flynn for the loan of his copy)

[3] Colfer. B. The Hook Peninsula. 2004. Cork University Press p44

[4] Ibid p 66

[5] Accessed from http://www.dunbrodyabbey.com/abbey.htm  Sunday 12/5/2019

The Monks forgotten Tower house

Adults can sometimes be guilty, inadvertently in fairness, of causing deep confusion in youngsters. An example I can recall was the placename “Buttermilk Castle” or more common with the fishermen simply “the Castle”.  The Castle was formidable lump of rock and forestery that jutted out into the river directly across from the Russianside, just below Nuke in Co. Wexford.  The associated fishing weir shared the name. The rock gave a sense of a citadel but when I sought further information my youthful questions were usually brushed aside.  My confusion continued even after I started fishing, the Castle from which the name arose you see had crumbled into the cliff, and was swallowed up by the undergrowth.

My first introduction to the Castle, came when visiting a wonderful maritime museum that was located at Duncannon Fort, back in the 90’s.  Alas no more now, it had a photograph, below, of the Castle, taken by AH Poole in the late 19th C. It depicted the familar square shaped Norman Tower house. It was before the coming of social media and the wonderful books of Billy Colfer, and it was a joy to me to finally see what for years I could only try imagine.  It was well worth the £25 I paid!

Buttermilk Castle AH Pool

But where one question is answered, others very often arise.  And so it was with Buttermilk. Why a castle in such an out of the way spot and what was its purpose? Locally the accepted wisdom was that it was part of the elaborate farm and business of the Cistercian abbey at Dunbrody. The monks constructed it as a protection and comfort to their fishing monks, who were working the associated weir, and operating others, no doubt 24/7. Colfer states that it was built as a “headquarters for fishing activities in the harbour”.1

Via Colfer, RSAI 2

However in another publication he says that both the Towerhouse at Ballyhack and Buttermilk were constructed to “exploit the economic opportunities presented by Waterford harbour”3

I personally lean towards the broader position, although for years I had accepted the fishing monks abode without question. In the first instance, it’s an elaborate build to keep the rain off fishermen. Towerhouses, were usually built for defense.  The location would not protect it much from the land, but would certainly be formidably from the river.  Was it more of a secure location, a place where business could be transacted and valuables stored.

Its undoubtedly true that the weirs were a commercial success in the harbour and drove a lot of the trade from the area to the continent.  Rental to Dunbrody of three fishing weirs was equal in value to the rental of half a ploughland at 48s 4d.  4

Buttermilk castle and weir circa 1850 N.L.I.  5

Of course, foreign fleets were also working the harbour and off the coast.  Such fleets needed secure landing places to dry or salt their catch.  Is it possible that it was an administrative centre for such activities.  The monks certainly would have had the contacts.  I wonder was the fact that we have two towerhouses so closely located, a sign of hostility. The tower at Ballyhack is most probably of Templar build, was there competition between both groups at a time in the past, for such trade .

I also heard it described as a Toll House and indeed a Water Gate.  I find the notion of a toll house fascinating. In modern times, we might think Buttermilk is a bit out of the way, but in medieval times what ships needed was a safe anchorage and would have sought out such places whilst waiting a cargo or a position in port. There could have been a possibility of a connection with Dunbrody or New Ross.  An intriguing thought.  Even in modern times the site is still highly regarded as a safe anchorage.

Colfer says that the Tower was initially known as “Skeroirke Tower”, something that he speculates is a name of Norse origin, Skar being a word used for rock.6  Certainly appropriate given the outcropping,  The name Buttermilk is a newer origin.  I’ve never heard anyone speculate as to why a tower built to protect weirs, would be called after a dairy by-product.  According to my Grandmother, the name of the castle comes from the fact that it was used to transport point between Dunbrody and Faithlegg. She said that butter was made on the site from milk gathered from the Waterford side of the harbour on a Faithlegg farm under their control.

Whatever the truth of it, the reality is that over millennia, the chances are that Buttermilk Castle served several purposes, some of which we may never realise.  Its just another one of those rich and fascinating placenames and sites we have in the harbour, which we need to explore.

My Facebook and Twitter pages are more contemporary and reflect not just heritage
and history but the daily happenings in our beautiful harbour:
F https://www.facebook.com/whtidesntales  T https://twitter.com/tidesntales

1&2 Colfer B. Wexford Castles. 2013. Cork University Press
3,4,5&6 Colfer. B. The Hook Peninsula. 2004. Cork University Press

Rowing to the dance

If any one thread runs between my weekly blogs, it’s the rivers. Being at the meeting place of the three sisters, the Rivers Barrow, Nore and Suir, that’s probably not a surprise.  But in all those blogs, one I think has been missing, the social element of the rivers, the connections between its riverside communities and the activities it brought.

One of my earliest memories of this interconnection was as a nipper going in the punt with my Father, Bob and Uncle Sonny to a wake in Great Island, directly across the river in Co Wexford.  On reaching the quayside, I recall the fear of walking on the timber slated jetty, expecting I’d trip or fall down between the gaps. Next along the old road and under the Barrow Bridge, towering above me and worrying a train might come along.  All new and wondrous.  Then a concreted driveway, and a sweep down to an old two storey house, the driveway of which was lined with groups, predominately of men, and we stopped and talked to all. Into the house then and I have a memory of being wrapped up in female hospitality, ushered into a kitchen and a huge fuss being made, while the men went elsewhere.  Although only snatches of memory, the overall feeling was of acceptance and welcome.

My grandmother often talked about boating trips on the river and visiting “neighbours”.  In her glass case she kept her mementos amongst which for years was a carefully folded piece of newspaper, upon which was a poem. Occasionally she’d take it out as she reminisced about these trips, and at some point would include her reciting these lines called Dunbrody by Kathy Leach, a contemporary of hers, who lived in the High Street, Cheekpoint.

In the springtime and in the summer, autumn
and winter too.
I can see Dunbrody Abbey, nestling close
beside the Suir;
I can see Dunbrody Abbey standing there so
quiet and still,
sorrounded by the green fields, and the
banks of Campile Pill.
How we loved the Sunday evenings in the
summer long ago;
We urged the boys to get a boat, we coaxed
them for to row.
They were great navigators, we never had a
spill.
But sure we were delighted when we got
through Campile Pill.
Then we went to see the Abbey, it looked so
peaceful there.
It is a sacred place, where holy monks did
pray.
We thought it part of heaven as we went on
our way.
Up to Horeswood Chapel, where the bell rings
every day.
When I hear the angelus bell ring, now
calling all to pray,
it brings back golden memories of bygone
happy days;
The old friends are all scattered now, some
are dead and gone.
But rememberance of Dunbrody will forever
linger on.
And of course there were events such as the regattas which I covered recently and the dances in the village.  Not just in the Reading Room, but also at the cross roads and on the village green and on the strand road.  I haven’t a notion how they were organised, but have no doubt but that was as easy to promote and we would find it now.  Passed by boat to boat, person to person, or maybe prearranged and agreed in a cyclical fashion. Apparently they would try to match the prevailing tides and would travel the rivers to Glass house, Ballinlaw, Great Island, Campile, Ballyhack and beyond. My father told me he could recall the stage being brought from the Reading Room to the Green. Apparently a great fuss was made to have the village looking at its best. And then via the river they came, in punt prong and sailing yawl and pleasure craft and an evening of song, music and dancing was enjoyed long into the summer nights. I’ve never seen a photo of it, but below is one I came across in a book called Lismore by Eugene F Dennis, which might give a sense.

As a consequence of the fishing, the travel and the social outings the communities of the river were much closer in the past.  Marriage between the villages was more common and those ties strengthened the bonds between us.  My Grandmother (her Grandfather was a Malone of Clearystown below New Ross) was often to be heard commenting on the happenings over in Nuke(directly across from the Russianside, in Co Wexford).  Maybe it was the Whitty’s and whether the boats were moored off, or fishing.  Or compliment Mrs Murphy having the smoke out early in the morning, or maybe that there was a light on overnight in Shalloes and wondering if anyone was sick. I can often recall Josie Whitty of Nuke, who died earlier this year herself, attending local funerals in Faithlegg.
But this last generation has seen a dramatic shift in this connection to the rivers.  The loss of the fishing has certainly played a decisive role, but already the old traditional ways were under threat. Perhaps even more so its being faced with so many options and activities, that the simpler pleasures have been lost.  Odd when you think that we have never had such great opportunities to communicate, that those that are a little more than a half mile away now feel so distant. 
I publish a blog each Friday.  If you like this piece or have an interest in the local history or maritime heritage of Waterford harbour and environs you can email me at russianside@gmail.com to receive the blog every week.
My Facebook and Twitter pages are more contemporary and reflect not just heritage 
and history but the daily happenings in our beautiful harbour:  
F https://www.facebook.com/whtidesntales  T https://twitter.com/tidesntales