The Duncannon Lighthouses

A guest Blog by Pete Goulding. Last month I mentioned in the story about 1790 navigation into Waterford that my good blogging buddy Pete was working on a story of the lighthouses at Duncannon. It’s one of those stories I always wanted to tell, but let’s face it, when it comes to lighthouses Pete’s the man, certainly in an Irish context. So over to Mr Irish Lightouses!

Reposing in the shadow of Hook Head (not literally, except during very peculiar astronomical events), the lights of Duncannon Fort might not enjoy the limelight of its illustrious neighbour but it has an interesting history nonetheless.

The Lighthouse at Duncannon Fort. Commissioners of Irish Lights

The problem for shipping bound for Waterford in the 1700s was that, having breathed a huge sigh of relief on rounding Hook Head, they then got caught out by a nasty bar just south of Duncannon Fort. Not the sort that sells frothy pints and stale pies, but a sand bar, lying from one shore of the Suir to the other. A French visitor in 1784 wrote that it was the only natural obstacle to the harbour, with a draft of only 13 feet at low tide. Sayer’s Sailing Directions (1790) – the full title is the length of a short story in itself – clarifies this by saying that the thirteen feet only applies to low tides when accompanied by a northerly wind. The only feasible crossing place for this bar was on the Wexford side of the river at a place only 600 feet (a cable length) wide.

The narrow channel off Duncannon Fort is clearly shown here from Sayers Chart (1787)

The above-mentioned publication also gives two methods of crossing the bar in 1790. One was to line up Newtown’s Trees and Hogan’s House, which must have had many a foreign sea-captain scratching his head. The other was to keep the two lights in line.

The Lighthouse Digest[1] suggests a date of 1774 for the foundation of a light station in the fort, as does a handwritten note in a 1930s Commissioners of Irish Lights ledger. Certainly, the lights were there by 1790, as per Sayer’s above. However, a Notice to Mariners[2] for 1791 states that “a new lighthouse” would be established on 29th September of that year. The two lights, one above the other, would shine like “two stars of full magnitude” and, when the fort was passed, only one light would show.

This would seem to indicate that the 1791 lighthouse, with its two lights, one above the other, superseded an older arrangement, maybe a light from a fort window or flat roof lined up to a perch on the coast, probably coal fires. The 1791 light was, almost definitely, the first of its kind in Ireland, with its two lights in one tower. The lights incidentally were white and fixed and powered by three Argand lamps. They could be seen for 8¼ miles. The tower was 25 feet tall and the top light sat 53 feet above high water.

Duncannon Fort Light – Pete Goulding Collection

The notion of having a lighthouse in a military installation was not new, however. The first light at what became the site of Charlesfort on the approach to Kinsale was at Barry Og’s castle in 1665. When the castle was destroyed, the light shone from a window in the newly built Charles Fort. Similarly, Rosslare Fort at the entrance to Wexford harbour also had a lighthouse. Not only did this move safeguard the lighthouse from vandalism by forces who saw the harvest of shipwrecks as a God-given right, but the Commissioners of Barracks were made responsible for lighting Ireland’s shores from 1767 to 1796. As such, they killed two seagulls with one cannonball.

Funding for the light was not straightforward. An allowance was given to the Lighthouse Superintendent Samuel Newport but he had to convene a hurried meeting with the Waterford merchants and shipowners in 1793 as the money was practically gone!

Duncannon Fort was one of fourteen coastal lights that were handed over to the Ballast Board (the precursor of Irish Lights) when that body was charged with lighting our shores in 1810. According to Engineer John Swan Sloane (writing in 1880) the cost of repairing, converting and upgrading the light at the time was £845 10s 6d[3].

By 1832, the lights were paying their own way, costing £83 for maintenance and salary per year, and taking in £308 in light dues, out-performing all other harbour lights, except Poolbeg, and indeed many sea lights such as Loop Head and Clare Island.

Duncannon North Lighthouse. Commissioners of Irish Lights

In the 1830s, a new light was erected at Duncannon North (Blackhead), though one suspects this had more to do with the situation at Roches Point at the mouth of Cork Harbour. Basically, it was decided the small light there was too insignificant for such an important headland, so they decided to build a new one and move the old lighthouse somewhere else. Duncannon North came to mind and so the new light, half a mile to the north of the Fort, was established on 1st June 1838., after being transported from Cork in two boats.

North Light – Pete Goulding collection

Because of this, the top light at the Fort became the front leading light, with Duncannon North as the rear leading light. The lower light at the Fort became a tide light, only showing at half-tide or less.

In 1859, the light was classed as a 3rd order catoptric lens, using prisms to concentrate the light. A red light was added in 1882.

Unfortunately, none of the names of any of those early keepers, who came to light the light, have come to light. During a Trinity House inspection cruise in 1859, though, it was reported that the keeper at the time succeeded his father in the job. As he was not required during the hours of daylight, his pay was only £21 per year, compared to his counterpart at Duncannon North, who raked in £46 per year.

The first name I could find for a lightkeeper at Duncannon Fort was one John Redmond who served there as Attendant Keeper in 1871. Through the years, the two Duncannon lights, with others such as Donaghadee, Dungarvan and Broadhaven, were regarded as handy numbers. Not for them the isolation of the rock stations, the relief in mountainous seas and the life without medicine or religion. As such, it was often regarded as a nice, pre-pension station, a reward for those who had spent their years battling the elements of inhospitable cliff faces.

North Light upclose. Pete Goulding collection

The further complication of having two keepers in Duncannon, each managing one of the lights, means that very often we do not know who was at the Fort and who was at the North light. Maybe when, or should I say if, Irish Lights ever get around to publishing their archives, we should get a better idea. But until then, there’s a lot of either / ors. (Post Publication edit: see comment from Attendant keeper Martin Kennedy below)

For example, George Brownell, 58-year-old keeper at Balbriggan, county Dublin, states on the 1901 census that he was born at Duncannon, county Wexford. His father, Michael, was a keeper and so was likely the keeper at one of the two lights when George was born in 1841.

Similarly, a newspaper report from 1881 reports that one of the keepers, Hugh Duggan, fell down the stairs of his house and was killed. The other keeper in town, Timothy O’Leary, was called as a witness.

My sincere thanks to Pete Goulding for this excellent reprise of the navigation around Duncannon. Pete is the lighthouse blogger at Pete’s Irish Lighthouses. And author of When the Lights Go Out – a detailed history of deaths associated with Irish lightkeepers and their families.


[1] https://www.lighthousedigest.com/Digest/database/uniquelighthouse.cfm?value=4866

[2] Freeman’s Journal 20th September 1791

[3] The Irish Builder 15th June 1880

Oxford rowers at the 1890 Waterford Regatta

I am delighted to have this guest blog entry from Cian Manning of a vivid account of just one of the many historic races that took place in the regattas of the past in Waterford City. In this case, it reveals the visit of the Oxford rowers in 1890 who came to compete against some of the best Irish rowers of the era. Over to Cian to set the scene, and let us know how Waterford got on.

 On Tuesday 15th July 1890 the renowned Oxford and Liverpool (Mersey Club) crews were scheduled to compete against All-Ireland with notice of numerous entries promised from Clonmel, Dublin, Limerick, and New Ross in a regatta on the River Suir. The events were going to be accompanied by music from the Band of the Manchester Regiment playing from the Grandstand of the Waterford Boat Club. All the action was to be followed by a dinner at City Hall on the Mall, with tickets costing 10s each. It was the most eagerly anticipated event in the history of Irish rowing, as the Waterford City Regatta was about to play host to several high calibre teams that would compete against one another in exciting races. Previewing the excitement, the Waterford Mirror & Tramore Visitor noted:

…some of the crews are famous. An unprecedent fact is that of two English crews having entered, viz: Oxford and Mersey (Liverpool). The former is, of course, world-famed as the cradle of rowing, and the crew which will compete at Waterford, will probably, be a carefully selected one.

Waterford Mirror & Tramore Visitor

It was considered the first occasion on which a crew from Oxford competed in Ireland. The best teams on the island of Ireland were to be equally well represented with Dublin University sending several crews. The eagerly anticipated race for the senior fours was described as ‘a ding-dong one’ on a day filled with many attractions. Nevertheless, there was pragmatism about how Waterford representatives would get on against high calibre opponents. This, however, didn’t rule out hope, the Waterford Chronicle concluding “However, on their own [Waterford rowers] water the blue with white hoop will make a great race, and it will take a ‘nailing’ crew to beat them.”

A later era (1930s) but highlights the interest from spectators of regatta day. Image courtesy of Brendan Grogan. The ship in the mid river is the Clyde boat SS Rockabil.

 “…an occurrence of peculiar moment…’: OXFORD UNIVERSITY BOAT CLUB IN WATERFORD CITY

The appearance of the Oxford crew led the Standard to pronounce of the Waterford Regatta:

Within modern times it was always an event of importance in the rounds of amusements of the season, but this year it was regarded as an occurrence of peculiar moment, in which the reputation of the oarsmen of Urbs Intacta was supposed to be at stake.

Waterford Standard

Hospitality was provided for the Oxford crew and several of the Boat Club men, who were entertained and housed at the residence of Mr. Richard Hassard at Rockenham. He was the son of Michael Dobbyn Hassard of Glenville, who had represented Waterford City in the Imperial Parliament at Westminster. Richard had previously crewed with several of the Dublin University clubs and lived just outside the city centre in Ferrybank. Richard practiced as a solicitor in Waterford but died at the young age of 33 in late 1892 as a result of contracting typhoid fever. The Waterford Standard reports that the Oxford men were the guests of Charles E. Denny at his residence in May Park. The rest of the crews stayed at the Adelphi Hotel, which overlooked the course on the Suir for the day’s races.

Regatta day at Waterford c. 1900. Note original Boat Club building and terraced seating for public which was similar to the setting in July 1890. Photo courtesy of Brendan Grogan. A new boathouse was constructed in 1902.

Such was the anticipation, that many watched the crews’ final exercises that Monday evening before the day’s competitive rowing when the number of spectators was surpassed due to trains (which the Standard evocatively described as ‘iron horses’) bringing many visitors to the city to witness the day’s events. Many businesses in the city decided to give employees an afternoon off, with the Standard reporting ‘from one to two o’clock there was a partial suspension of commercial transactions, thus letting free a considerable number whose energies for the rest of the day were directed to securing the best view of the races.’ Crowds lined the Quayside from the Milford hulks as far as past the Market House. For those few hours on that July day, the atmosphere would rival the crackling anticipation of the world’s great sporting arenas, from the Circus Maximus in Ancient Rome to the banks of the River Thames on boat race day.

    ‘…a rare combination…’: the River Suir, sunrays & soaking rain

And Waterford, as it appeared to me from the boat, which was floating me across from the ferry steps, under the welcome effulgence of that returned prodigal, the Sun, and on a magnificent tide which exhibited to striking advantage the splendid stretch of the Waterford Course, and as if inviting people to come forth and make the most of such a rare combination of the elements.

Waterford Chronicle

Though with such idyllic conditions it wasn’t long before the rain would arrive in flourishes and eventually a torrential downpour for the rest of the regatta which saw many of the women in attendance depart as they were dressed in ‘summer costumes’ which were not practical for the lashing precipitation that had engulfed that summer’s day. The Manchester Regiment’s band played at the Boat House as a precursor to a local Amateur Band playing at the Mall later that evening. The Waterford Boat Club’s Grandstand was decorated with many flags, which were matched by bunting on many vessels anchored at the port.

However, not everything was as serene as there was no rest for the ferry which was nearly brought to a point of complete exhaustion. This was partially due to the ferry boat not being fit to cater for such huge volumes, with one local paper suggesting it was of antediluvian origin. Thus, in evoking Genesis (from the Bible, not Phil Collins) it seemed appropriate that the day’s racing was drenched by such torrid rain and a West to South-Westerly wind blowing.

The Peoples Regatta of 1925 programme. Images courtesy of Brian Forristal. I think it gives a good sense of the popularity, the planning and the prestige associated with the river regattas

The evening banquet held in City Hall to honour the visit of the Oxford crew (you’ll note the lack of Mersey representation in the day’s events which would point to a change of plans) to Waterford saw many well-known local figures and competing oarsmen hosted by Alderman Mahony, High Sheriff of Waterford in the absence of the Mayor. Sadly, we lack descriptions of the day’s racing, as the local Regatta Committee did not provide the press with the adequate facilities to witness the action and provide suitable reportage in their subsequent publications. The big race of the day was the Waterford Challenge Cup, valued at £50, with presentation prizes valued at £20; for any class of four-oared boat with the course stretching to around 1 ½ mile. Nevertheless, with an absence of colour to the rowing proceedings (other than the Munster Express recording that the races were ‘fairly well contested’) we know the result was:

First place – Dublin University Boat Club (black and white)

N ‘Kaye’ (bow), A ‘Catesby’, R Bleasby, H.A. Elgee (stk), H.A. Cowper (cox)

Second – Waterford Boat Club (navy blue and white)

T.F. Sheedy (bow), C.W. Mosley, B.C. Manning, W.J. Manning (stk), A. Farrell (cox)

Third – Oxford University Boast Club (dark blue)

A.W. Mahaffy (bow), C. Parker, R.P.P. Rowe, J. MacLachlan (stk), A. Cowper (cox)

The Waterford Boat Club crew didn’t disgrace themselves in obtaining a runner-up position that was made even more illustrious by beating an in the form Oxford. The most notable member of the Oxford crew at that Waterford meet was R.P.P. Rowe, who competed in the famous Boat Race from 1889 to 1892, winning three of the four races over Cambridge. Rowe attended Clifton College in Bristol (where he would form connections with the Old Vic) and Magdalen College at Oxford University. He later became President of the Oxford University Boat Club in 1892. However, this fails to adequately convey what a generous and remarkable figure the Waterford Boat Club hosted that summer.

A Poole photo of the 1901 regatta, the originals are held by the NLI and this image was shared by Paul O’Farrell on Facebook previously, with a link to the photo on the NLI site where the image can be viewed including the boat house and crowd in higher definition.

SIR REGINALD PERCY PFEIFFER ROWE (1868-1945): OXFORD OARSMAN & PUBLISHED PHILANTHROPIST

His full name was Reginald Percy Pfeiffer Rowe and was born on 11th  April 1868 in West Derby, Liverpool. The Rowe family later moved to Paddington and after attending Clifton, Reginald obtained a Bachelor of Arts in 1891 having read history. Three years later, he completed a Master of Arts degree. In 1896, he applied for membership as a ‘Jobber’ in the London Stock Exchange and came to reside at Kensington in London. We know from the 1911 census that he then worked as Secretary of the New University Club at 57 St. James Street in Westminster. Upon the outbreak of the First World War, R.P.P. Rowe, at 46 years of age, joined the committee of the United Arts Volunteer Force and after two months of drilling he was gazetted as a Captain in the 6th Battalion, the Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment in December 1914. After finishing serving with the Military Intelligence Directorate, Rowe published a book titled the Concise Chronicle of Events of the Great War. For his military service, Reginald Rowe was awarded the 1914-15 Star, the British War Medal 1914-1918, and the Victory Medal.

Reginald Percy Pfeiffer Rowe (1882)

An eternal student, Rowe later qualified as a barrister and resided at 16 Old Square, Lincoln’s Inn, and served as Under Treasurer of Lincoln’s Inn at the New Hall. From 1900, Rowe served as Chairman of the Improved Tenements Association and was the Founder and Honorary Treasurer of the Sadler’s Wells Fund. A man of many talents, Rowe wrote two novels, a play titled ‘The Worst of Being William’ and many poems. Other publications included The Root of All Evil (printed by the Economic Reform Club, of which he served as President for a time) and a popular book on rowing produced by the Badminton Library. In the 1934 New Year’s Honours List, he was made a Knight Bachelor for his services in combating slum conditions in London and across England. Rowe died aged 76 on 21st January 1945 at Charing Cross Hospital in Westminster.

 EPILOGUE

One ponders what a loss to the city that the razzamatazz of the regatta at the Old Boat Club clubhouse to the prominence of the course on the River Suir that allowed spectators to form along the city’s Quayside which created a spectacle and an occasion that even saw businesses shuttering their shops to witness the day’s rowing and racing. We see how sport had increasingly become a huge part of the public and social life of Ireland’s oldest city, and is reflected in the important civic figures that supported and organised such events. Furthermore, in the figure of R.P.P. Rowe, we have one of the great figures of British sport who went on to become a hugely influential personality in a crusade to improve the living conditions of the poor. It seems more than appropriate that Sir Reginald competed in one race for Oxford in the shadow of the iconic Reginald’s Tower, you could say it illustrates the modern concept of ‘game recognises game’. If that fortified tower was built as a statement of power and defence then Reginald Rowe was certainly a worthy namesake in his crusade in housing and sporting endeavours.

Helen Keller visits Waterford

Recently Cian Manning featured a story in Irelands Own about the visit of disability rights campaigner Helen Keller to Ireland. Her entry point to the country was via Waterford City by ship and here Cian reprises the article with a specific focus on the local element. Helen’s visit occurred this week in 1930. Take it away Cian.

American author and disability rights advocate Helen Keller toured Britain and Ireland for 6 months during the year 1930. The Alabama-native made the trip with her mentor Anne Sullivan (whose parents were from Limerick) and Polly Thompson. After staying in a bungalow in the coastal town of Looe in Cornwall, they decided that their next port of call was to Ireland with their destination being the city of Waterford.

Photograph of Helen Keller at age 8 with her tutor Anne Sullivan on vacation in Brewster, Cape Cod, Massachusetts.  New England Historic Genealogical Society. Public Domain

     On 13th June 1930, they left Plymouth aboard the SS Ballycotton making their way along the coast of Cornwall, with Keller writing that passengers got ‘a good view of its rugged cliffs and bold headlands’, the vessel traversed the Celtic Sea making its way towards the mouth of Waterford Harbour. The ancient name of the natural harbour at the mouth of the Three Sisters (the River Nore, the River Suir and the River Barrow) was known as Loch Dá Chaoch meaning ‘the lake of the two blind people’. As you can imagine it is one of several interpretations of the name with many utilizing folklore and mythology.

     DA CAOCH?: THE LEGEND BEHIND WATERFORD HARBOUR

     Often places are named with allusions to geographical traits or after deities or heroic warriors but one interpretation of Loch Dá Chaoch is derived from the name of a woman who endured among much suffering. She’s a heroic figure but not in the traditional masculine portrayal of violence and virtue in Celtic or Norse mythology. From Prof. Gwynn’s translation of the Metrical Dinniseanchus we know from a poem about the place name as:

Loch Da Caoch – Hither came strangers from afar with a mighty warrior band. With the king went his gentle mother…Loth Luaimneach, swift as a lion. He brought with him his wife to the feast, on the night of the host, Fuata Ba Fail. She advanced into the conflict, into the encounter of vengeance. Thus went she over the sea – (pregnant) – to the noble harbour of famous Da Chaoch. One daughter she bore. Blemished her offspring, the blind, misshapen daughter, feeble of health Da Caoch was her name at all times and places, designation of suffering. [Caoch is the Irish for blind.] Hence is given from the woman’s name this title unto Loch Da Caoch; an ill occasion had this noble nomenclature.

There’s a poignancy to the harbour being named after a woman with a disability and the area being the location of where Keller first set foot in Ireland. One imagines that Keller and her companions could relate to the legend and strength of Da Caoch to overcome adversity. Keller was just 19 months old when she contracted what doctors described as ‘an acute congestion of the stomach and the brain’. Today we believe that the illness might have been meningitis or Haemophilus influenzae. The effects of which left Keller both blind and deaf which she described as living ‘at sea in a dense fog’.

     Whereas Da Caoch suffered, Keller with the help and guidance of Anne Sullivan would thrive by using finger spelling. Those who have read Keller’s autobiography or remember the film The Miracle Worker starring Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke will recall the remarkable sequence when Keller realizes the motions that Sullivan is making on her hand symbolizes water. Keller described this moment as ‘The living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, set it free!’ It illustrates the famous refrain of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s ‘The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.’ It gave her a code from which she could explore and express beliefs from her innermost thoughts to the world around her.

SS Ballycotton, departing Waterford from a postcard image. Courtesy of Michael O’Sullivan Waterford Maritime History Facebook page.

SS BALLYCOTTON (later SS City of LIMERICK): FROM DUNDEE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA, 1911-1940

     From their journey aboard the freight boat, Keller ‘pleasantly’ recalled her talks with the crew and ‘especially one who bestowed such tender care on the animals aboard.’ The Ballycotton was built in Dundee at the Caledon Shipbuilding & Engineering Co. Ltd and was operated by the Clyde Shipping Company from 1911 till 1936. It then came into the ownership of the Saorstát & Continental Co. in Dublin and later renamed the SS City of Limerick. The vessel carried general cargo from London, Plymouth, Southampton and Waterford. We know that she also serviced the Glasgow to Waterford line in the early ‘20s. From the Munster Express (dated 15th November) in 1924 we learn that the SS Ballycotton towed the Ulster Steamship Company’s Orlock Head to Passage East after the vessel ‘had her rudder carried away at sea’. From Passage, she was brought to Waterford by the dredger and discharged her general cargo. The Waterford Harbour Board decided to charge the Orlock Head £60 for the tow and for attendance at Waterford.

     Over Christmas 1925, the Ballycotton which was serving Glasgow to Waterford via Belfast, was caught in a storm, though no damage was reported, it did arrive to anchor at the city by the River Suir four hours later than scheduled. We know that on the vessel’s voyage from Plymouth to Waterford on Friday 13th June 1930 that she carried 34 tourists as it stopped in Waterford before voyaging to Glasgow. Hardly a figure that would get the Tourism Board’s heart a flutter in the 21st century.  Bearing her new name, the City of Limerick first reached Waterford the weekend of 20-22 November 1936 carrying general cargo from Antwerp in Belgium. She was bombed and sunk in the Bay of Biscay just a few years later on 15th July 1940 with the loss of two crew members.

     …the Cavaliers called it “Urbs Intacta”: KELLER ON WATERFORD’S QUAY

     Landing in Waterford that early morning in June 1930, Keller with her companions had to wait for their car to arrive meaning they stayed on the ship till late in the afternoon. Keller recorded in her letter to Nella Braddy Henney that:

…I sat on deck “listening” to the great derricks as they lifted barrels of Devonshire cider on to the pier and replaced them with barrels of Guinness’s stout and Irish bacon. O, how good they both smelt.

Waterford city and quays some years before Helen’s visit. AH Poole

Anchored in the River Suir, adjacent to Waterford’s main thoroughfare the Quay, the group noted that the traffic was primarily made up of ‘jaunting-cars and little donkey-carts. The donkeys brought the bacon to the ship, and the stout came in great trucks.’

     Of Waterford city, Keller noted that:

It was the only place in all Ireland which successfully resisted Oliver Cromwell’s victorious forces, and for that reason the Cavaliers called it “Urbs Intacta.”

Now many local history connoisseurs will be raging and deploring the mix up in facts here surrounding the city’s Latin motto. However, this fails to recognise that Keller, a woman who was both deaf and blind was able to obtain such information in the first place. Even today on trips abroad our minds can get information jumbled and this is with the benefit of having all information available to us at the touch of a button. All the information of Ireland held be Keller was conveyed to her by Anne Sullivan and Polly Thompson through finger spelling. The city clearly made enough of an impression to warrant such notable mentions in her letters.

     ‘That is the King’s car…’: TRAVELLING FROM WATERFORD TO LISMORE

     Eventually, their rented chauffeur-driven Daimler did arrive, with Keller writing to Lenore Smith of the luxury, ‘That is the King’s car, I would have you know.’ Though not all among the travelling party were as comfortable such as Anne Sullivan who was not as at ease with travelling in such extravagance. From Waterford, they made their way towards Killarney, a journey that was described by Keller as ‘for the most part depressing, in spite of the fact that it was a glorious day.’ They were horrified by donkeys who were ‘nothing but skin, bones and misery’ as they passed drab and silent towns populated by women in black shawls which ‘made the scene still more gloomy.’ Though the poverty witnessed along the countryside in County Waterford was broken by the impressive structure of Lismore Castle. Keller recorded that:

The estate of the Duke of Devonshire was in vivid contrast with the poverty stricken country surrounding it. For miles we followed his high walls. The rhododendrons and the hawthorn were in full bloom. They are wonderful from bud to flower. Every hawthorn-tree is as white as snow, or as pink as a blushing bride. It is not only hedges, but whole groves and hill-sides of hawthorn. The Irish will not cut down a hawthorn-tree, lest they disturb the fairy folk who inhabit its covert. Beside the hawthorn and the rhododendrons there were stretches where the horsechestnut-tree, pink and white, dominated. Over the walls tumbled golden laburnums and ivy and cascades of a blue flower resembling the forget-me-not. Then again there were fuchsia hedges higher than my head, their pendant blossoms twinkling in the breeze. We got out of the car to have a better view of the castle, an immense castle, beautifully situated above the Blackwater which rushes and tumbles in flashing leaps and bounds.

The architecture and surrounds of Lismore Castle were a fairy tale compared to the reality that engulfed a huge part of rural Ireland in the 1930s. After reaching Killarney, they travelled to Limerick to learn more about the ancestors of Anne Sullivan but sadly little further information was shed on the life of her parents before they travelled to the United States. Sullivan commented of her time in Ireland that she felt as if she was ‘held fast as if in a nightmare’. They crossed the border to County Clare and visited Cratloemoyle Castle before making their way to Dublin and later spending a week in the seaside town of Bray, Co. Wicklow. It was there that Keller would mark her 50th birthday which she said was ‘solemnized in Ireland by drinking a bottle of liquid sunshine.’

Helen Keller sitting, holding a magnolia flower, circa 1920. Image from the Los Angeles Times. Public Domain

     An interesting story of a remarkable individual celebrating their 50th birthday in Ireland that displayed wonderful ruins and beautiful landscapes but was tainted by the poverty and gloom that was widespread at the time. Only if that ‘bottle of liquid sunshine’ was felt by everyone in that summer in 1930. Nevertheless, the story of Helen Keller’s tour of Ireland starts in Waterford and her story and visit to Ireland’s oldest city deserves further recognition in Urbs Intacta.

Reimagining Henry II’s route to Waterford Oct 1171

After a busy month of activities, I was relieved when Damien McLellan offered a guest blog arising from last week’s two-day event exploring the arrival of Henry II at Passage East in 1171 – 850 years ago this year. Damien, like so many others who attended, was buzzing with questions and speculation, and his enthusiasm led to today’s blog entry. I think you will enjoy the virtual journey. Over to Damien.

We know for a fact that King Henry 11 of England arrived in Waterford Harbour on October 17th, 1171, and that on the following day, October 18th, 1171, together with a huge army of knights and soldiers, he journeyed to Waterford City to conclude what we now know as the Norman Invasion.

Last week, on Saturday, October 23rd, Barony of Gaultier Historical Society organised a fully booked public event in Passage East to mark this internationally significant event. An absorbed audience (Covid compliant, of course) heard from a distinguished panel of experts fascinating opinions, figures and facts about those two extraordinary days and subsequent events. The next morning, Sunday October 24th, about 30 of us walked from Passage East to Waterford City on the route believed to have been taken by King Henry and his army. We were welcomed at the Bishop’s Palace by Cllr. Joe Kelly current Mayor of the City and County of Waterford.

Michael Farrell, Chair of the Barony of Gaultier Historical Society leads off the walk

What struck me was the lack of consensus among experts and locals about exactly where the landing took place and about the route taken to the city. I have for long been nurturing my own theories about both issues and I am grateful to Andrew Doherty for giving me the space here to share them and for his skill in assembling the maps and photographs needed to support them.

If as many as 400 ships were needed to carry the men, horses and considerable supplies, a substantial safe landing area was required. I understand that ships of the time arriving in Waterford Harbour, there being no ports then, would not be able to land on a safe beach until close to Crooke on Passage Strand.

The strand leading downriver from Passage East towards Crooke and Woodstown

It makes sense to assume that the forward party would have signal fires ready to light at the first sight of the fleet to guide them onto the safe landing area. Each ship would have to run up on the strand on the incoming tide until all 400, propped and secured, stretched along the strand from Crooke to Passage East, nearly a mile of ships. So, where did Henry 11 himself land, Crooke or Passage or in-between?  The answer must be where his ship landed in what could have been a melee of ships manoeuvring for position and avoiding collisions.

The landing in 1066 of William the Conqueror’s army at Pevensey in Sussex. Except for the dramatic sea, and if ships had not significantly evolved over the intervening years, this may have been something like the scene on Passage Strand on October 18th, 1171. Painting by Charles Edward Dixon (1910) sourced from https://mercedesrochelle.com/wordpress/?p=390
Although this is an image of preparation for departure to the Battle of Hastings, I find it useful in terms of the organisation, and I think it may help get our minds around the estimated 400 ships at Passage and Crooke and the spectacle it would have made. (Andrew) Accessed from https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/

Standing and looking round today on the breakwater at Passage East it is obvious that here must have been the mustering area, because of the space available. Here the vast army may have camped for the night, with guards strung all down the strand towards Crooke to watch over the ships. It is fun to speculate that where the present children’s playground is, perhaps the king’s royal tent was pitched and where reputedly the most powerful man in the world at that time had his first night’s sleep in Ireland.

Patrick C Power (1990) also wondered whether “The people of Waterford and especially the merchants may have heard of how a great war-king travelled and equipped his army and retainers and here in front of their very eyes was a great display of power and wealth on the road from Passage to the city of Waterford the like of which they had never seen” (p.20). But which road from Passage?   

Last Sunday we walked up to the church at Crooke to take a right turn at the school and the traditional route to Waterford. My walking companion, Michael Fewer, and I, impatient to be walking, had gone ahead and somehow missed Strongbow’s Bridge (but not Jack Meade’s!). I enjoyed the walk, but all the time sensed (and possibly nagged Michael) that it was not the historic route.

I now believe that it goes up the street known as The Brookside (in the centre of Passage East), becomes the Wet Hill after St Anne’s Well, reaching the present main road opposite Brook Villa, now an abandoned farm. Then into the city via Cowsheen Bridge, Strongbow’s Bridge (avoiding the marshy area) and on to Halfway House.

The Brookside, Passage East. Is this street part of the footprint of the route?
The Wet Hill, and the Well (St Anne’s Well) beyond which the path is overgrown
Brooke Villa (aka Murray’s Farm)

The path today is impenetrable after the Well. But I also started down from the top and found what I fancied was a drove road, very familiar to me from Galicia, and seemingly marked as a wide road on the 1925 OS Edition.

The Drove Road?

Michael Fewer had wondered aloud on the walk how all the produce and livestock that came across the river from Wexford in medieval times got to Waterford. Perhaps up this lost road?

This week I talked to a local man, born in Passage, who remembered from his childhood the farmers who lived in Brook Villa, known as Murray’s Farm, using a horse and cart on this same road to collect coal from the Quay in Passage. Incidentally, he also said it was a family tradition that King Henry 11 had taken this road to Waterford. And I understand that the late Cllr John Carey had a passionate interest in having the Wet Hill reopened and restored to how he remembered it as a boy.

A map of the area from the OSI historic series (Historic 25″) shows a very clear roadway leading up from the village, through the valley between Passage Hill and Carraickcannuigh (large arrow points to this. It turns rights at Murray’s and then veers left towards Knockroe from where there is almost a straight run to Strongbow’s Bridge. For a clearer image and to view the entire roadway click into https://webapps.geohive.ie/mapviewer/index.html

Therefore, it does seem logical to me that as this road was in plain sight of where the army was mustered and if it was as negotiable then as it was in living memory, why would King Henry, and before him Strongbow, not use it?

If I can impose on Andrew’s space a little longer, I would like to address the popular belief that the origin of the phrase ‘By hook or by crooke’ is attributable to Oliver Cromwell (it came up at the panel discussion). According to Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1990) it comes from the medieval manorial custom “which authorised tenants to take as much firewood as could be reached down by a shepherd’s crook and cut down with a bill-hook”. He offers a line from Edmund Spenser’ s The Fairie Queen, which was published in 1590, 9 years before Cromwell was born: “In hope her to attain by hooke or crooke”.

Finally, I offer these thoughts on the landing and journey to Waterford of Henry 11 in the hope that they might inspire others much more learned than me in these matters to continue this research and perhaps result in informative plaques being erected at some of the key sites mentioned.

Ivor H Evans (Ed) (1990) Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable London: Cassell

Patrick C Power (1990) History of Waterford City and County Cork & Dublin: The Mercier Press

A new book will be launched in the future celebrating some of the historical aspects of the Barony of Gaultier. For more information and to reserve a copy you can email thegaultierstory@gmail.com

I want to thank Damien for his thoughts on this. I have written my own theory on it previously. What struck me about last weekends successful gathering was the interest, the searching questions and the many remaining areas we have yet to fill in about the arrival of Henry II and the changes it meant for the locality as well as the country. Why Passage? Did any of the vessels sail to Waterford city? Is there any substance to a story I shared before of a chain based defence of the city? What kind of ships were used? (My own reading suggests that the design of horse transport had moved on and the Tarida were being employed carrying up to 30 horses). And so many more. Hopefully last weekend was only the start of what might be a regular event. The Barony of Gaultier Historical Society deserves great recognition for their efforts in these challenging times of Covid and the financial pinch this creates for voluntary committees.

Captain Albert Bestic remembered – surviving Lusitania

I would like to thank David Carroll for this guest post on Captain Albert Bestic who served aboard the RMS Lusitania which was torpedoed on this day, May 7th 1915. Third Officer Bestic was one of those that survived. Over now to David for his account.

Growing up in Dunmore East during the 1950s and 60s, I was constantly regaled by my father, a Master Mariner, of stories of shipwrecks, great exploits and heroic deeds by seafarers and explorers.   Names that were always to the forefront and that were given tremendous respect were Sir Robert Falcon Scott, and Irish Antarctic explorers Sir Ernest Shackleton and Tom Crean, a member of three expeditions to Antarctica.  It is sad to think and an indictment of the lack of respect shown to Ireland’s maritime heritage that it is only in recent years that the latter two and other Irish explorers have received the proper recognition and celebration that they deserve in their native land.

Another name that kept cropping up during my childhood was Captain Albert Bestic, who was Junior Third Officer on RMS Lusitania, torpedoed off the Old Head of Kinsale on May 7th, 1915.  My father had served with Irish Lights for a short period before World War Two and would have known Captain Bestic on a personal basis.  I can still remember the excitement that followed when my father received a copy of Captain Bestic’s book, Kicking Canvas’, an autographical account of his maiden voyage as an apprentice aboard a sailing ship called the Denbigh Castle in 1908.  The Denbigh Castle sailed from Cardiff and its destination was Peru. The ship had a treacherous crossing and endured many storms. The ship was feared lost until it finally sailed into Freemantle, Australia and then proceeded to its destination of Peru, a voyage that had taken over a year to complete. This traumatic voyage did not deter Bestic and he continued to work his way up the nautical career ladder to become a professional deck officer in the Mercantile Marine.

Albert Arthur Bestic was born on August 26th, 1890 and grew up in South Dublin. Bestic is not a name of Irish origin, his family descended originally from Huguenots in the Normandy region of France. He was the second child of Arthur and Sarah Stephenson. He had an older sister Olive who was born in 1888. He was educated at the Portsmouth Grammar School and St. Andrew’s College in Dublin.

Captain Bestic as a young Officer.

As a boy on holidays in Scotland, he had seen the Lusitania in the Clyde.  “If I could sail on a ship like that,” he had thought, “I’d go to sea.”  He added: “To me she was my dream ship. I saw her first when in her regal beauty she sped along the surface of the Clyde upon her trials. My boyish heart went out to her in admiration.”

Later, while in the service of the Denbigh Castle, he once again saw the large liner sweep by.  As he looked up at the liner, he saw, “a photographic impression of four big funnels, tiers of decks, fluttering handkerchiefs, the name ‘Lusitania’, in gold letters, and a roaring bow wave.” When the ship “streaked by”, it created a large wave that sent all the men into the lee scuppers. The sailors began cursing at her, but not Bestic. He vowed one day that he would stand upon the bridge of that ship! 1

In early 1915, Albert married Annie Queenie Elizabeth Kent, originally from Belfast but by then living in England. He sailed to the United States as an officer aboard the Leyland liner, SS Californian,  that is best known for its inaction during the sinking of the RMS Titanic  in 1912 despite being the closest ship in the area. To Bestic’s great surprise, he was informed that his next assignment would be as the junior third officer of the Lusitania– his dream ship!  With many officers, joining the Royal Navy for the war effort, Cunard’s recruitment policy had altered.

The RMS Lusitania had been launched on June 7th, 1906 at the shipyard of John Brown & Co, Clydebank, Glasgow.  The ship, and her sister ship RMS Mauretania had been built because of negotiations between the British Government and the Cunard Line with a view to being capable of taking back the prestigious ‘Blue Riband’ for the fastest Atlantic crossing. She was the first British passenger ship to be built with four funnels, with a gross tonnage of 32,500 tons and an overall length of 785 feet, and with seven decks for the use of passengers.

RMS Lusitania on the Clyde

On September 7th, 1907, after the completion of her trials, she sailed from Liverpool on her maiden voyage to Queenstown (now Cobh) and New York, watched by a crowd of 200,000 spectators. On her second voyage, in more favourable weather conditions, she did achieve the distinction of taking the ‘Blue Riband’, a record that would stand for the next twenty-two years.2

Crowds gather in New York to welcome Lusitania on her maiden voyage.

Lusitania completed her last peacetime voyage from New York, arriving in Liverpool on the day Great Britain declared war on Germany, August 4th, 1914. Lusitania was not requisitioned by the Admiralty but continued to sail for Cunard once a month to New York. Between December 16th and March 13th, 1915 four more successful round voyages were made, although these were not without incident.3

The waters around the British Isles were dangerous places for Allied shipping, and in April 1915, the German Embassy in the United States published warnings in the New York newspapers that passengers, travelling on Allied ships, travelled at their own risk.  At the time, the Lusitania was taking passengers on board at Pier 54, New York, for the homeward voyage, departing on Saturday May 1st, 1915, with 1,266 passengers, including many wealthy and notable Americans, and 696 crew aboard, including Junior Third Officer Bestic, making his first voyage on the ship.

`A contemporary advert

On Friday, May 7th, 1915 at 11.00hrs, Lusitania broke through the fog into hazy sunshine on its voyage from New York to Liverpool. To port was an indistinct smudge, which was the Irish coastline. But there was no sign of any other ships. Captain William Turner, Master of the Lusitaniahad expected to see HMS Juno, which would have acted as an escort. There was no sign of Juno.

At 11.55hrs, Captain Turner was informed of U-boat activity off the southern Irish coast. At 13.40hrs, Captain Turner saw a landmark as familiar to him; a long promontory with a lighthouse on top of it, which was painted with black and white horizontal bands- the Old Head of Kinsale. To avoid reported U-Boat activity in the area, Captain Turner was instructed by Vice Admiral Coke of the British Admiralty to change course and head for Queenstown.

Captain Turner

However, at 13.20 hrs, the German U-Boat U-20 under the command of Kapitänleutnant Walther Schwieger spotted the smoke from a steamer with four funnels astern approximately 12-14 miles away. Once the U-boat closed into its target, it fired a single torpedo.

At 14.10hrs, the torpedo struck the ship with a sound which Turner later recalled was “like a heavy door being slammed shut.” Almost instantaneously there came a second, much larger explosion, which physically rocked the ship. A tall column of water and debris shot skyward, wrecking lifeboat No. 5 as it came back down. On the bridge of the Lusitania, Captain Turner could see instantly that his ship was doomed. He gave the orders to abandon ship. He then went out onto the port bridge wing and looked back along the boat deck. The first thing he saw was that all the port side lifeboats had swung inboard, which meant that all those on the starboard side had swung outboard. The starboard ones could be launched, though with a little difficulty, but the port side boats would be virtually impossible to launch. 4

At 14.11hrs the Lusitania has started to send distress signals from the Marconi room. “SOS, SOS, SOS, COME AT ONCE. BIG LIST. 10 MILES SOUTH OLD KINSALE. MFA”. The last three letters were the ships call sign.

An extract from Lusitania website describes vividly the drama and mayhem that unfolded:

“At the port No 2 boat station, Junior Third Officer Bestic was in charge. Standing on the after davit, he was trying to keep order and explain that due to the heavy list, the boat could not be lowered. Suddenly, he heard a hammer striking the link-pin to the snubbing chain. Before the word “NO!” left his lips, the chain was freed and the five-ton lifeboat laden with over 50 passengers swung inward and crushed those standing on the boat deck against the superstructure.  Unable to take the strain, the men at the davits let go of the falls and boat 2, plus the collapsible boat stowed behind it, slid down the deck towing a grisly collection of injured passengers and jammed under the bridge wing, right beneath the spot where Captain Turner was. Bestic, determined to stop the same situation arising at the next boat station, jumped along to No. 4 boat, just as somebody knocked out its link pin. He darted out of the way as No. 4 boat slid down the deck maiming and killing countless more people, before crashing into the wreckage of the first two boats. Driven by panic, passengers swarmed into boats, 6,8, 10 and 12. One after another they careered down the deck to join 2 and 4. The sea was now swirling over the bridge floor. Then the stern of Lusitania began to settle back, and a surge of water flooded the bridge, sweeping Captain Turner out of the door and off the ship. As the Lusitania sank beneath the waves, that same surge of water swept Junior Third Officer Bestic out through the first-class entrance hall into the sea. The Lusitania was gone, and with her had gone 1,201 people.  It was now 14.28 GMT, on Friday May 7th, 1915.”

Another extract from website continues with the story of Bestic’s ordeal:

“He was still at his post on the port side of the ship when he saw the last wave charge up the deck.  Without a lifebelt, he jumped over the side and tried to swim clear of the ship but was still “dragged down with the ship.”  He tumbled in the water and noticed the water getting lighter as he was pushed upwards.  He swam upwards for what felt like minutes, and when he burst to the surface, he realized that he was inside an overturned lifeboat.  He made his way under the gunwale and felt a hand as Seaman Thomas Quinn pulled him by the collar to the top side of the boat.  When Bestic surfaced, he only saw wreckage and people struggling in the water where the great ship had been.  He could hardly bear the sound of hundreds of men, women, and children crying out in the water, “the despair, anguish and terror of hundreds of souls passing into eternity.”

Fearing that the capsized boat that he was on would soon be overwhelmed, he struck out on his own, swimming towards land miles away.  A current carried him off by himself but could still hear the cries of children in the water.  The cries soon stopped.  He lost his sense of time and place, imagining that he was a young boy seeing Lusitania sail by again.  Then Bestic found his own collapsible and hauled half of himself over the gunwale into the boat, the other half of him still in the water.  He soon realized that this boat was taking in water.  Bestic struggled to keep afloat by plugging his collapsible boat with any flotsam that was around him.

Bestic soon sighted a young, dark-haired man swimming in the water and called out to him.  After the young man got himself on the boat, he quipped, “I suppose it’s no use asking you for a cigarette.” “I’m sorry,” Bestic apologised, “Mine have gone rather soggy.”

The two men rowed and bailed water from their boat to keep warm and came across the body of a young girl.  They then came across a woman in a lifejacket, seemingly in shock.  Her heavy, soaked garments required that both men pull her out of the water and into their boat.  She asked them, “Where is my baby?” “I’m sorry,” Bestic answered, “we haven’t seen any babies.” To their horror, the distraught woman threw herself overboard.  The young man grabbed the woman and lied, “Your baby is safe.  I saw it taken into another boat.”

The woman allowed herself to be helped into the boat again.  Bestic chided himself for not thinking of the lie.  The small, waterlogged boat picked up a dozen or more survivors before they could not take on anymore.  Hours passed and Bestic feared that it would be dark before help came for them.  He found a watertight tin of biscuits and passed them out to everyone in his boat, “Chew these biscuits.  You’ll find that working your jaws keeps you warm.”  He had learned this from experience when he had sailed around Cape Horn.  The lifeboat was quiet as all on board busied themselves with chewing instead of making conversation.

Four hours after Lusitania sank, their collapsible was picked up by the trawler Bluebell.  If help had come any later, the skies really would have been dark. In the messroom of the Bluebell, Bestic saw Captain Turner alive, sitting by himself.  Bestic went up to him and said, “I’m very glad to see you alive, sir.” “Why should you be?”  Turner asked.  “You’re not that fond of me.” “Fondness doesn’t enter into it, sir.  I’m glad to see you alive because I respect you as my Captain and I admire you as a seaman.”

Amongst the 1,191 who lost their lives were 786 passengers and 405 crew, and the trawlers Bluebell and the Wanderer from Peel, Isle of Man rescued most of the 771 survivors. In all, only 289 bodies were recovered, 65 of which are never identified. The bodies of many of the victims were buried at either Queenstown, where 148 bodies were interred in the Old Church Cemetery, or the Church of St. Multose in Kinsale. The bodies of the remaining 885 victims were never recovered.5

Courtmacsharry RNLI received news of the disaster and the lifeboat Ketzia Gwilt under the command of Coxswain Timothy Keohane (Father of Antarctic explorer Patrick Keohane) was launched and set out to row the 12.6 nautical miles to the casualty, as in calm conditions the sails were of no use.

An extract from Courtmacsharry RNLI Return of Service log states: “We had no wind, so had to pull the whole distance- on the way to wreck, we met a ship’s boat cramped with people who informed us the Lusitania had gone down. We did everything in our power to reach the place, but it took us at least three and half hours of hard pulling to get there- then only in time to pick up dead bodies.”

The Courmacsharry Lifeboat then proceeded in picking up as many bodies as they could and transferred them to the ships on scene tasked with transferring bodies back to Queenstown. The final entry from the log stated: “It was a harrowing site to witness- the sea was strewn with dead bodies floating about, some with lifebelts on, others holding on pieces of rafts- all dead. I deeply regret it was not in our power to have been in time to save some”. 6

Included amongst the lost passengers was Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, one of the richest men in the world. Yet he showed himself willing to sacrifice his own life for the sake of others. He was travelling with his valet to Britain to conduct a meeting of the International Horse Breeders’ Association. He refused to save himself. He gave his lifejacket away and used the critical moments as the ship was sinking to put children into the lifeboats. He showed, according to a report in the New York Times, “gallantry which no words of mine can describe”. His body was never found.

Another famous person that drowned was Sir Hugh Lane, the Irish art dealer and nephew of writer Augusta, Lady Gregory of Coole Park. He is best known for establishing Dublin’s Municipal Gallery of Modern Art, but his famous collection, the ‘Lane Bequest’ has proved to be a controversial issue with ownership being disputed for almost a century between Britain and Ireland until an amicable arrangement was agreed.

There were harrowing scenes in Queenstown as survivors and bodies were brought ashore. The casualties of the Lusitania included 128 Americans, leading to outrage in the United States. President Wilson later dismissed the warning printed in the paper on the day of the ship’s departure, stating that no amount of warning could excuse the carrying out of such an inhumane act. However, it would not be until April 1917, before he went to a joint session of Congress to request a declaration of war against Germany.

In May 1915, a wave of anti-alien rioting spread throughout many English cities, particularly in Liverpool where the local Echo newspaper reported in May 2015: “Almost 600 people with Liverpool and Merseyside connections alone were on board the RMS Lusitania when it was torpedoed and sunk off the coast of Ireland 100 years ago this week. At least 145 local crew members are recorded as losing their lives.”

As news of the attack on the Lusitania spread around the world, emotions and opinions became polarised. Britain and Germany each advocated for the justness of their side. The sinking became a powerful propaganda tool in the build-up to America joining the war and closer to home, many propaganda posters appeared that advocated for more men to join the war effort.

A year after the sinking of the Lusitania, Albert Bestic’s wife gave birth to their first child, Desmond. At that time, he was serving in the Royal Navy aboard minesweepers. His second son, George was born in Scotland in 1919 and his third son, Alan was born in England in 1922. Alan became a well-known journalist, initially with the Irish Times, and later as a prolific writer.  One of his sons Richard, a name that many readers may recall, was an outstanding international correspondent with Sky News, broadcasting from around the world.

In 1922, Captain Bestic joined the Irish Lights Service. On December 19th, 1940, he was master of the lightship tender SS Isolda, which was bombed and sunk by the Luftwaffe off the Wexford coast. Sadly, six crew members, all from Dun Laoghaire were lost on that occasion. Relating this part of Captain Bestic’s maritime career must wait until another time.

Albert Arthur “Bisset” Bestic died in Bray, Co Wicklow on December 20th, 1962, aged seventy-two years. He is buried at St Michan’s Church in Dublin. The nickname “Bisset” had been given to him by Captain William Turner.

All images are courtesy of Maritime Historian Cormac Lowth, whose assistance with the article is very much appreciated.

References:

  1. https://www.garemaritime.com/lest-forget-albert-arthur-bestic/
  • Ibid.
  • Information kindly provided by Cormac Lowth.

Recommended Further Reading:

The Lusitana: Unravelling the Mysteries by Patrick O’Sullivan