Falskirt Rock

My first introduction to Falskirt Rock was in the Spring of 1984 fishing on the decked motor boat Reaper with Jim Dips Doherty and his neighbour Denis Doherty.  Denis pointed it out to me as we steamed away west from Dunmore East towards Tramore Bay with a deck filled with ground nets on a frosty but clear March morning.  The seas were breaking around it and the jagged top was exposed as the seas surged. 

The sight of the rock alarmed me I had to admit.  Not just because I was aware of how dangerous it could be to a boat that had lost power and might drift atop of it.  No there was another reason – and for me a scarier reason.  You see during that previous winter when I first fished out of Dunmore for herring, several nights we had set our nets close by, and I was ignorant of the rock and the inherent dangers it posed.  The fact that Jim and Denis knew, and I trusted them completely, was beside the point.  It reminded me of how little I knew of the deep waters off the coast and how literally out of my depth I was in these unfamiliar waters.

Fileskirt from 1787 chart entitled, “An actual survey of the harbour and river of Waterford, and of the bay of Tramore,”

As if to underline these fears Denis told me about a fishing boat that was washed close to the rocks while fishing at night in a raging storm and blizzard of snow in December 1950. The crew alerted fellow fishermen by flares of their difficulty and the local lifeboat Annie Blanche Smith raced to their rescue. But by the time the lifeboatmen arrived the boat (Naomh Déaglán) was almost atop the rock and the fishing nets were starting to bunch around her almost like a shield or protective boom. Somehow the lads on the lifeboat managed to negotiate their way in despite the obvious risks to themselves if the prop of the lifeboat was fouled, got a line to the fishing boat, and managed to tow the five-man crew to safety. I had goosebumps listening to Denis that day (although I was sure he was putting legs on the story). However, David Carroll shared it with us before, and if anything the story was more incredible.

Falskirt Rock from the air, photo courtesy of Neville Murphy
Falskirt Rock as seen from the shore a few weeks back

Location

Falskirt is a rock that is barely visible at high water but partially strips when the tide recedes. It is about 400 meters off the coast, close to Swine Head (sometimes referred to previously as Swiny Head/Point). It lies off the coast between Portally and Rathmoylan. The Waterford Harbour Commissioners Bye Laws of 1960 define the outer limits of their influence as a straight line drawn between Hook Head and Swiny Point. The International Shipping & Shipbuilding Directory of 1940 defines the outer limits of the pilotage of the area as being determined within an imaginary arc with a radius of 4 miles drawn seaward from a midway point between Hook Head and Falskirt Rock.

Origins of the name

Although I am using the spelling Falskirt I’m aware of at least two other spellings. Fileskirt from the Robert Sayer chart dated 1787 called “An actual survey of the harbour and river of Waterford, and of the bay of Tramore,” Another spelling I have read is Foilskirt. The meaning or origin is not included in Canon Powers Placenames of the Decies alas, although I did find one article from 1871 claiming it to mean “The Cliff of the Sea Rock’ – which seems to suggest a part of the actual coastline rather than the rock itself. Ray McGrath, writing in the quarterly newsletter of the Barony of Gaultier Historical Society in 2017 draws on the knowledge of the late fisherman and lifeboat legend Stephen Whittle and speculates that although the name is obscure, the first part may refer to ‘cliff’ and the second syllable ‘scairt’ possibly meaning separation.

After publication Seán Ó Briain commented (see full comment below) that it is also mentioned in The History, Topography and Antiquities of the County and City of Waterford and named as Fileskirt.“..at the projecting headland called Fileskirt or Swinehead, there are sunken rocks nearly covered by the sea at high water..” Seáns conclusion is that Fileskirt could have been the name of the headland, to which the rock got its name.

Sailing Directions

I will return to the placename Swede Patch in the future
An excerpt from the Sailing Directions for the Coast of Ireland, Part 1. 1861. Richard Hoskyn RN. which details to the mariner the means by which the rock can be avoided.

Incidents associated with it

Although the five-man crew of the Naomh Deaglán had a narrow escape in 1950 at least three shipwrecks have been recorded that I am aware of on the spot. In 1804 an unidentified brig was sunk after striking the rock but all the crew was saved. In 1867 a vessel called Willie was wrecked on the rock – no details of the crew were recorded. (Pete Goulding later sent on a newspaper clipping stating the crew were saved. The Willie had departed Waterford of a Tuesday afternoon and grounded and later broke up about midnight. Carrying oats, a large part of this floated off and into Tramore Bay.) Meanwhile in June 1884 the crew of 6 off the trawler Welcome Home was rescued after striking the rock.(1) Of course many shipwrecks down through the ages were simply referred to as lost off the Waterford Coast – its possible, if not probably many others were claimed by the Falskirt. As recently as June 2021 the Dunmore East lifeboat Elizabeth and Ronald went to the rescue of 4 people in a 4-meter fishing boat that lost its propeller and drifted close to Falskirt.

Warning method

You might think that such a danger to navigation would be worthy of a marking system or a light. Well in November 1859 a Commission for Improving the Port and Harbour of Waterford proposed that a beacon, tower, or pillar be erected as a warning to navigators on what was spelled Foilskirt. They also appealed for a lighthouse to replace the perch at Passage Spit. The details were submitted and published in the Commission Appointed to Inquire into the Condition of Lights, Buoys and Beacons of the British Isles in 1861. We got the lighthouse – The Spider Light, but the Falskirt remained as nature left it – and as it still is today.

A sense of the menace that Falskirt presents – Waterford Harbour Sub-Aqua Club

Mayday Mile

This concludes a series of Lifeboat related posts to acknowledge the RNLI fundraising efforts associated with the Mayday Mile. Members of the Dunmore East Team would still benefit from any donations, please consider them, the website remains open for the first week of June. I’m indebted to David Carroll for his assistance with the content this month.

(1) Sourced from Shipwrecks off the Waterford Coast by Tony Caulfield

Venus B – a tragedy long remembered

A guest blog by David Carroll tells the tragic loss of the barque Venus B on Feb 21st 1885 at Ballymacaw and how it lived long in local folklore

From 1937 to 1939, the Irish Folklore Commission enlisted more than 50,000 schoolchildren from 5,000 schools in Ireland to collect folklore in their home districts. This included oral history, topographical information, folktales and legends, riddles and proverbs, games and pastimes, trades and crafts. The children recorded this material from their parents, grandparents, and neighbours. The scheme resulted in the creation of over half a million manuscript pages, generally referred to as ‘Bailiúchán na Scol’ or ‘The Schools’ Collection’. Schools in the Barony of Gaultier took part in the project during the 1930s and by a remarkable coincidence, two girls, from two different schools living a few miles apart wrote about the same shipwreck from information received from older people living in the locality and the legends and folklore associated with the tragic events of February 1885.

Bad weather hit Ireland in February 1885. The Waterford Standard on Wednesday, February 24th reported that the severest storm of the winter blew on Saturday night in the Irish Channel and shipping due in Dublin was badly delayed. The weather along the South East coast was also severe. There were reports of ships having to put into Passage, one a sailing ship ‘Crusader’ with two boats smashed, three sails carried away and bulwarks damaged. Also, a steamship bound for Liverpool from Norfork U.S. put into Passage short of coals, having lost an anchor and 50 fathoms of chain off Creadan Head.
A headline in the same paper read as follows:

THE STORM
WRECK OF VESSELS TRAMORE AND
BALLYMACAW – ALL HANDS LOST

“The storm which swept over the country on Saturday has proved a most disastrous one, many accounts of shipping disasters being at hand. A wreck which took place at Tramore is particularly sad…[for] of the entire crew, not one was saved…….”

The vessel in question was the Camilla, a schooner from Cork with a cargo of coal that was wrecked close to the Brownstown Head side of Tramore Bay with all crew lost, despite valiant and courageous efforts made by the lifeboat in Tramore to rescue them.

The report continues as follows:
“Another shipping disaster occurred at Ballymacaw early on Sunday morning. A large barque, which had been ascertained to be the Venus B of Fiume, bound to Rio Janerio from Liverpool with a general cargo, Captain Sablich. When the vessel was observed it was between one or two o’clock in the morning, and shortly afterwards she was dashed on the rocks at Long Cliff, under the cottage of Mr Kiely. It was blowing a very stiff gale at the time, and the sea was washing with considerable force over the vessel. The coastguards hastened to render assistance, although it was conjectured from the fact that no lights were shown that the vessel had been abandoned, and this supposition was borne out by the fact that there was never any exhibition of life on board. Nothing on this head is however certain, as owing to the hour when the vessel struck, and the consequent darkness, but little knowledge could be gleaned as to her belongings. When day broke she was found to be the barque already named, and to be of 650 tons register. Portions of the cargo and wreckage continued to be washed ashore during the day, and it was then seen that she had been laden with railway iron, household utensils, crockery, ware etc. Some traces of blood, which were observed to be on the figure head, would lead to the supposition that some of the crew had received injuries of a more or less serious nature. The scene was visited by a large number of people on Sunday, when the most eager inquiries were made as to most probable fate of the crew, who must all have perished. The sea, which continued to break over the vessel, rendered her total breaking up a question of time. On Monday, it was reported that she had all gone to pieces, and on the same day a body, probably that of one of the ill-fated crew, was washed ashore.”

Source: nzhistory.govt.nz
1863 wreck from New Zealand (HMS Orpheus)- a fate similar to that of the Venus B.
On March 18th 1885, the following notice appeared in the Waterford Standard:

Readers may wonder as to how a sailing ship from a land-locked country such as Austria could come to be wrecked off the Irish coast. The answer is that prior to 1918, the political landscape in Europe was completely different. In 1885, Austria-Hungary was an empire, the largest political entity in mainland Europe. It spanned almost 700,000 square kilometres and reached down to the Adriatic Sea. Fiume, home port of the Venus B is now called Rijeka, a major port and industrial city in western Croatia.

Source: www.pinterest.com The port of Fiume c. 1890, the home port of the barque Venus B.

The two pupils from the Gaultier Barony that participated in the Irish Folklore Commissions ‘Schools Collection’ in the late 1930s were Mary Flynn from Portally and Kathleen Gear from Ballymacaw. Mary Flynn was a pupil at the Convent School in Dunmore East and transcribed information passed to her from her grandmother Mrs. Power of Portally, described as being over 70 years. Kathleen Gear was a pupil at Summerville school in Corballymore and recorded the story of the Venus B as told to her by her father Patrick Gear, aged 60 years.

While there are a number of small errors made in the stories as regards the correct name of the ship and the actual year, both accounts are fascinating and colourful to read and give us much more anecdotal information that we fail to get in newspaper accounts. We are told that the first person to see the ship in distress was Jim Gough. The 1901 Census lists Julia Gough, a widow aged 64 years living at Graigue, Rathmoylan with her son, Michael. It is probably correct to say that Jim was Julia’s husband. His name also appears in Griffiths Valuation – Waterford 1848-51.

Both scribes tell us that all the bodies recovered from the shipwreck were buried in Rathmoylan graveyard. The actual number of crew members has been difficult to ascertain. Kathleen tells us that many people in Ballymacaw got in new floors from the timber salvaged from the wreck. I wonder if any of those floors still remain? Both Mary and Kathleen also refer to the location of the shipwreck as being called the ‘wrack hole’.

Mary Flynn wrote that a man who came from Waterford to buy crockery fell down the cliff and was killed. She also writes that the shipwrecked vessel was then called the ‘Phantom Ship’ by older people in the district as it was always seen sailing up from Ballymacaw to the ‘old ship rock’ in Port Leanaibhe before a storm. Kathleen Gear also relates that following the shipwreck, the lights of the Venus B could be seen sailing into the ’wrack hole’. She writes that many people saw them.

As a young lad I spent some wonderful times during school holidays in the 1960s with Paddy Napper Kelly lobster fishing and also catching mackerel with Nicko Murphy along this picturesque but rocky coastline. There was always a forlorn and eerie feeling around Falskirt Rock with all the seabirds present as well as the incredible rock near the shore that looked like an old sailing ship and was so named. In stormy weather with poor visibility, I have no doubt that a person could easily mistake the rock for an actual sailing ship. But what about the lights? How do you explain that?

Coastline near Ballymacaw with Falskirt Rock visible in the distance. Photo credit Neville Murphy

Maybe the answer lies with the famous Irish folklorist Lady Gregory – a close friend of WB Yeats, who had a fisherman explain to her over a hundred years ago: “The fairies are in the sea as well as on the land. That is well-known by those that are out fishing by the coast.”


Thanks to David for that facinating account. David is of course author of Dauntless Courage, Celebrating the History of the RNLI Lifeboats, their crews and the Maritime Heritage of the Dunmore East Community which was published in December 2020. The book is almost sold out, but some copies are still available. More details from the project website

References:

The Waterford Standard, February 24th 1885
The Waterford Standard, March 18th 1885

1901 Census.

The Duchas.ie ‘The Schools Collection’ contains many transcriptions of stories about shipwrecks and other maritime stories from pupils living on both the County Waterford and County Wexford sides of Waterford Harbour.