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.

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

Threatened monuments of Waterford harbour

Some might consider this title a mite provocative.  Indeed others might think on the date of publication and ponder a connection. However, although it is intended to be provocative, it is in no way a joke. The monuments I refer to are at least a millennium old and are quietly slipping into oblivion.  They are the Head Weirs of Waterford harbour and, at this point, are very possibly unique in the world.

Firstly, let me define a monument.  The concise Oxford dictionary states that “3. an ancient building or site etc that has survived or been preserved”  The head weirs certainly fit this definition having been worked over the centuries and regularly maintained by their owners/leasers.

via AJ WENT 1

What is a Head Weir some might ask.  A Head Weir is a method of catching fish which uses the tides to bring the fish to the net. As such in legal terms it is defined as a “Fixed Engine”. The weirs themselves were a V shaped structure. The mouth of the weir is the widest part of the structure. The wings that made the v shape were constructed from straight poles driven by manpower into the riverbed, and held together with horizontal beams. Both wings came together at the “head” from where a net was hung, and it trailed away from the weir. This conical net worked similar to a modern day trawl net.

Depending on the direction they faced, weirs were known as Ebb or Flood weirs. An Ebb weir had its mouth facing upriver, and when the tide was leaving the harbour, it flowed through the mouth, towards the head and concentrated the flow of water into the fishing net, in much the same way a funnel would direct fluid into a bottle.

an indication of the weirs 1950s
via AJ WENT 1

Taking the ebb weir as our example, the net was hauled at low water by bring a punt alongside the weir and hauling down to the cod end. The cod end was taken aboard and the fish emptied into the punt. (In summer time the weirs tended to be used for bait for eel fishing, and in winter they caught bottom fish like cod, flats etc. Herring shoals would be a problem at times, with millions swimming in the habour in just one shoal, weir nets would have to be hauled up, or risk being carried away.) The net was then reset, but would only start fishing again, when the ebb tide started to run. (The tides in Waterford have a 6hr 20min cycle approx)

Duncannon weir. 3

As to the age of the weirs, well even locally there is confusion about this.  Growing up in the harbour, there was uncertainty about the weirs, because a lot of newer weirs were constructed by the landlords in the early 19th C, a method known as the scotch weir, typified by the construction at Woodstown. Many of the older weirs were amended at this time.
However, the Head weirs were recorded in the monastic possessions of the Cistercians during their dissolution. The Cistercians started construction at Dunbrody in the harbour circa 1200.  But it is interesting to note that when the Knights Templars were granted land and ferry rights at Passage and Templetown (1170’s) and “they operated a salmon weir, or fish trap, a large edifice of strong wooden poles, built in the river, which channeled salmon through an ever narrowing chute towards an exit, where they swam into a net“2 What I can’t answer, but suspect, is that they Templars took over an existing structure, rather than building their own,  
Buttermilk castle and weir 3

Interestingly some more recent research has indicated an earlier development of weir in Ireland, but not directly a connection to Waterford. It claims that certain structures in the Shannon and in Co Down, were V shaped structures of stone or wood.  The dates on these structures are Early Christian and records the earliest to between 447-630AD. It also notes that laws, dating 6-7thC, were written to oversee the use of weirs. 

Although I have no proof that the Waterford Harbour weirs are a continuation of use back to Early Christian times, I think they are nevertheless a spectacular connection to Ireland’s ancient east. To allow such structures to simply disappear due to neglect and disinterest (principally due to official disinterest) is to my mind a disgrace, Hopefully, the heritage value of the weirs are realised soon. Otherwise we may have just memories, photographs and written words as a basis to our interpretation of them.
Weirs in the harbour, view from the Hurthill
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1. via Arthur EJ Went.  JRSAI LXXXVII Piece titled Sprat or white fish weirs in Waterford Harbour
2. Niall Byrne, The Irish Crusade.  p107
3. Billy Colfer. The Hook peninsula