Reclaiming an Irish Way of St James

weeks blog marks a new departure, which is appropriate as we enter a new year.
 I’ve asked a number of people to contribute a piece of writing on the
harbour, and these will feature on the last Friday of each coming month.
Today’s piece first featured in History Ireland this year and was written by a
neighbor of mine, Damien McLellan.  The article explores the historical and present day evidence that points to the harbours past prominence in medieval pilgrimage.  
year for the past 16 years I have walked one of the many medieval pilgrim roads
in France and Spain that lead to Santiago de Compostella in the far north
western corner of Spain. I usually travelled by Irish Ferries to France and
then by train or bus to continue on the Chemin de St Jacques de Compostelle in
France or the Camino in Spain. But last year, following an invitation from the Gaultier
Historical Society
 to include in my talk a local connection to
the pilgrimage, I walked from my own front door in Faithlegg, Co Waterford, to
take the much shorter and cheaper (€2) ferry from Passage East to Ballyhack in
Co Wexford. To my great delight, not long after starting up the hill from
Ballyhack, I realised I was walking on an Irish Way of St James, on what I now
believe is the medieval route that Irish pilgrims would have taken travelling
from St James Gate in Dublin to Waterford or returning to Dublin and the
eastern half of the country. This article offers the reasons why I came to that
realisation and all the information you need to make the same journey, whether
on foot or by armchair.
Tomb of James Rice in Waterford’s protestant cathedral
Estuary was the arrival and departure point on many significant occasions in
Irish history. It was here at Crooke, near Passage East, on St Bartholomew’s
Eve, August 23rd 1170 that Richard Fitzgilbert de Clare, better
known to us as Strongbow, arrived to complete the Norman
invasion. Later that same year something happened in the English county of Kent
that is not normally seen as relevant to Irish history but I believe is very
much so. On a bitterly cold 29th of December, Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, was
brutally murdered in his own cathedral by four knights acting, so they assumed,
on behalf of King Henry 11, then ruler of England, Normandy,
Brittany, Anjou, Aquitaine and much of Wales. Thomas had been the King’s
closest friend but had infuriated Henry on becoming Archbishop by, among other
things, refusing to hand over to the crown for punishment churchmen accused of
sexually assaulting and murdering subjects. When he became Archbishop, Thomas
was expected to abolish this canon law practice but he refused to. According to
tradition, a hot headed and exasperated Henry had declaimed after perhaps too
much wine, “Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?” and the loyal knights
left France immediately for England.
Pope Alexander 111 demanded that the knights
atone for this sacrilegious atrocity by making pilgrimage to Rome or Santiago
de Compostella. Jerusalem was not an option as it was then under Muslim
control. In the following year, at the Council of Argentan in July, Henry was relieved
of making a penitential crusade to the Holy Land until he had secured control
of Ireland. Ireland had its own troublesome priests and Rome was anxious to
bring them into line. Henry was in no hurry to return to London either.
Pilgrims were already thronging to Canterbury in huge numbers attracted by the
miracles being attributed to Thomas the Martyr. Henry’s head was being called
for and his crown was in peril.
October 17th 1171 the bows of Henry’s 400 ships crunched up
onto the safe sandy beaches at Crooke and Passage East. The ships are
said to have carried 500 knights, 4000 men at arms and archers, and thousands
of horses. On the following day, the feast of St Luke, Henry 11 advanced on
Waterford and set about bringing the Normans, the Irish and the remaining
Norsemen into submission to the crown of England. Before leaving for Dublin he
founded a church dedicated to St Thomas the Martyr outside the walls of
Waterford. The church no longer exists but Thomas Hill still leads towards the
site from O’Connell Street in the city centre.
Frances Jobson map of  1591 depicting the temple of St James, Ballyhack
the following year, 1172, at Avranches, Henry was given absolution for his part
in the murder of Thomas a Becket but his penance was to provide for the
maintenance of 200 Knights Templars in the Holy Land and
to undertake a crusade, either to the Holy Land or to Compostella. Fearing that
his avaricious sons (especially the future Kings John and Richard the
Lionheart) would usurp his crown while abroad and knowing that funding 200
knights would bankrupt the kingdom, Henry offered instead strategically
important tracts of lands in Waterford to the Knights Templars, including
control of the lucrative ferry rights between Passage East and Ballyhack in Co.
Wexford. In return, they provided sanctuary and protection to travellers,
especially pilgrims.
first recorded pilgrimage to Santiago took place in AD 951 and was led by Godescalc,
the Bishop of Le Puy,
 a town in the Auverne region of France.
Among the millions of pilgrims who descended on Santiago during the next few
hundred years were the Irish pilgrims who were identified by the scallop shells
and bone relics recovered with their remains in the 1986 archaeological excavations in Tuam and
in 1996 in Mullingar.
pilgrimage experienced a significant lull because of the Black Death in 1347-1349 and the 100
Years War 
between England and France which ended in 1453. There
then immediately followed a long pent-up resurgence of pilgrims making their
way to Santiago, a hundred years more of pilgrimage which ended with the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the Wars of Religion.
I began to look at the Irish dimension I had assumed that only wealthy people,
such as James Rice, mayor of Waterford and wine merchant,
could afford to make the journey by sea, as he did twice, in 1473 and 1483. But
also in 1473, the Mary London, a ship carrying 400 Irish
pilgrims returning from Santiago to Waterford was captured by pirates but
released, minus their belongings, one would assume, at Youghal. In May 1456, an
English pilgrim, William Wey counted 84 ships, many of them from Ireland,
moored in Corunna, the port an easy week’s walk to
Santiago. The authority on this issue, Roger Stalley, estimated that perhaps
5000 pilgrims arrived within the space of a few days and that in this peak
period, two million pilgrims were on the move. This would mean that a
remarkable number of Irish pilgrims were returning to the ports of Dublin,
Drogheda, Galway, Dingle, New Ross and Waterford. I set myself the task of
answering my own question: how would pilgrims who had travelled from St James
Gate in Dublin return there from Waterford?
was assuming that the majority of pilgrims were without the funds to purchase
direct passage to Corunna and would walk overland from Dublin to Waterford or
New Ross and then by sea to France to continue overland across the Pyrenees to
Santiago. The motivation for the pilgrimage for many was to save their souls
from eternal damnation and the devout pilgrims understood that the journey
should be a penance and an ordeal, not that a sea voyage across the Bay of
Biscay in those days would be a picnic. They would also know, by word of mouth,
that abbeys would provide a chain of accommodation, food and medical care from
the coast of France to Santiago, free of charge, providing they were genuine

A laneway out of Ballyhack
plan that day was to walk from the quay at Ballyhack north
towards New Ross as the crow flies, or as the pilgrim
walks, the easiest and most direct route and to see what I encountered on the
way. I had done some earlier research, looking for a church to start from, a
pilgrim essential. On the current Ordinance Survey map a graveyard is indicated
nearby and Frances Jobson’s 1591 map shows that a church of St James once stood
on that site. This was a very exciting discovery as there are churches
dedicated to St James at Dingle, Drogheda and Dublin, at St James’ Gate, all
known departure points for pilgrims, The churchyard presently looks down on to
Arthur’s Bay but I understand that its earlier name was St James’ Bay. The
returning pilgrim, landing at St James’ Bay would surely give thanks at the
church before continuing up a broad track that today leads to a large open
field where a fair was held every Michaelmas and also on St
James’ Day,
 July 25th. specialising in black
bullocks and hogs. At the top of the hill the pilgrim would see ahead the
Blackstairs Mountain and Mount Leinster and looking back would view Creedon
Head looming left out into Waterford Estuary.
if you are following my footsteps, return to the churchyard, walk through it
towards the main gate, and turn right after climbing the style at the gate.
This is the old road which was replaced by the modern road below you, taking
traffic to and from the ferry. On your left you will come to a very old ruined
farmhouse which I mistook first for the church because it is exactly oriented
towards the east. Lying on the ground before this building is a millstone and
if you explore further to your left you will find the protected remains of
where millstones were cut in medieval times from the surface of the outcropping
red sandstone. There must have been accommodation here for the monks from
nearby Nook and perhaps pilgrims waiting for a boat to France or England, with
commanding views up and down the river, might have earned their keep in return
for some manual labour.
Dunbrody Abbey, Co Wexford
to the end of this road and turn right on to the main road up from Ballyhack.
Soon you will be facing a green lane and you may well imagine you are now
walking a Way of St James. Turn left when it re-joins the main road. Turn left
again when you reach Grange and on your right you will pass a Holy Well. Your
next stop will be Dunbrody Abbey where pilgrims would have
been able to claim hospitality. Continue to head north and you are in Horeswood,
passing another church of St James.
stop, keeping straight on as always, is Burntschool Cross Roads, past standing
stones to Whitechurch, where there is a church, through Ballykelly,
another church, and then the very medieval hamlet of Oldcourt, where there is a
church behind a barn. This number of churches and ancient remains suggests to
me that there are strong reasons to believe this road is a holy way.
is now a long slog beside the main road into New Ross and I chose to drive the
next very long section from New Ross to St
. The river Barrow is practically a gorge between these
points and there is no river path. At St Mullins among the many ruins you will
find a small chapel dedicated to St James but again no explanation as to why,
although a very popular Pattern Day is held here every year, on July 25th,
the feast-day of St James.
St James cell, St Mullins, Carlow
the medieval ruins the river now has a broad towpath on the right bank facing
north, called ‘the trackline’ by Barrow people but in my opinion it is in fact
the Slighe Chualann, identified by Colm
O’Loughlainn as one of the five ancient roads, the Road of Cuala, “a district
comprising South Co. Dublin and part of Co. Wicklow”. Going north or home as a
pilgrim you will continue alongside the Barrow through Graiguenamanagh to
Leighlinbridge, where you will turn right away from the river and head north
east on the Slighe Cualainn though the possible pilgrim stops of Tullow,
Rathvilly, Baltinglass, Dunlavin, Ballymore Eustace, Kilteel, Rathcoole,
Saggart, and Tallaght.
will now be within easy reach of the original starting point at the church of St James in
where pilgrims would certainly have offered prayers of
gratitude to St James for a safe journey home and one made possible by the roads
and facilities on offer all along the way since arriving at St James Bay in
Waterford Harbour.

McLellan is a consultant psychotherapist and also teaches at Carlow College. He
is grateful to his colleague, historian Dr Margaret Murphy, for her generous
assistance in providing crucial research material.
Byrne K.M. (2008) The Irish Crusade Dublin: Linden Publishing
Colfer (2004) The Hook Peninsula Cork: Cork University Press
C Power (1990) History of Waterford City and County Dublin:
Mercier Press

I’d like to thank Damien for trusting me me to reprint his article here today. I hope to line up other contributions which will go out on the last Friday of each month. For January we will have a memory of Dunmore East in the 1950’s from David O’Carroll, the son of the then harbour master. David’s piece literally takes us back in time, and captures the comings and goings and daily happenings in a busy fishing harbour. For February we will have a piece from my cousin James Doherty on the incidents of 18th C smuggling in Waterford harbour. In it James looks at the evidence from newspaper accounts and other sources which highlight the scale of this once common practice. If you have a piece you would like to submit for consideration, all I ask is that it relates to Waterford harbour, increases the knowledge and appreciation of our rich maritime heritage and is approximately 1200 words long.  Please contact me via

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 to receive the blog every week.
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and history but the daily happenings in our beautiful harbour:  
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Imagine arts festival walk 2016 – A big River

As part of this years Imagine Arts Festival, Deena and I were asked to lead a walk in our local community on a theme reflecting our heritage and arts.  To do this we thought about the many songs, stories, poetry and prose that surround our area and reflect our rich maritime heritage. So the walk that departs this morning from Faithlegg Church at 11am is a walk that celebrates the big river, or more accurately rivers ( Barrow, Nore and Suir), that inspire and continually enrich our lives.

Our history stretches long back into antiquity.  Gael, Viking, Norman and English have entered the harbour here and used it as a route to open up the entire country.  When Ptolmy drew a map of the known world in 2 AD he included Ireland, and a River Birgos, long considered the Barrow.  The parish of Faithlegg itself was gifted to a Bristol merchant named Aylward following the entry of King Henry II through Waterford this past week in 1171.  Those Bristol men played a significant role in the development of the port, as did the Norman knights and religious orders that followed.
The Aylwards managed to weather many political storms until the arrival of Cromwell put and end to their reign of the area, when it passed to the Bolton family.  The last Bolton, Cornelius left us Faithlegg House which he sold to the catholic Powers in 1816.  We have the powers to thank for the modern church.  Throughout these times Waterford continued to trade and prosper.
Accessed from;
A sense of where the area was at is reflected in this piece from a man we have heard from before on the blog. Arthur Young, and his Tour in Ireland 1776-79 from which we take the following:
“The number of people who go as passengers in the Newfoundland ships is amazing; from 60-80 ships and from 3000 to 5000 persons annually.  They come from most parts of Ireland; from Cork Kerry etc.  Experienced men will get £18 to £25 for the season, from March to November; a man who never went will have £5 to £7 and his passage, and others rise to £20, the passage out they get but pay home £2.  An industrious man in a year will will bring home £12 to £16 with him, and some more.  A great point for them is to be able to carry all their slops (work clothes)for everything there is extremely dear, 100 or 200% dearer than they can get them at home.  They are not allowed to take out any woollen goods but for their own use.  The ships go loaded with porrk, beef, butter, and some salt, and bring home passengers, or get freights when they can; sometimes rum.

The Waterford pork comes principally from the barony of Iverk in Kilkenny, where they fatten great numbers of hogs; for many weeks together they kill here 3000 to 4000 a week, the price 50s. to £4 each; goers chiefly to Newfoundland.  There is a foundry at Waterford for pots, kettles, weights and all common utensils; and a manufactory of anvils to anchors etc., which employs 40 hands.  There are two sugar houses, and many salt-houses…
There is a fishery upon the coast for a great variety of fish, herrings, particularly at the mouth of Waterford Harbour…There are some premium boats here…
The butter trade of Waterford has increased greatly for seven years past; it comes from Waterford principally , but much from Carlow…the slaughter trade has increased…Eighty ships of sail now belonging to the port, twenty years ago not thirty…
The finest object is the quay, which is unrivaled by any I have seen…”

So Waterford as a city and the rivers that formed her harbour were a busy and prosperous place at this point, and it would continue to flourish long into the following century. But a variety of circumstances began to undermine that prosperity and I’m probably guilty of a lot of nostalgia in what I write when I reflect weekly on where we are now, not just as a city, or a port but also our once rich fisheries.  When ever I hear the Jimmy Nail song Big River, it stops me in my tracks as I listen to his elegy for the hard work and vitality that was the River Tyne and its heavy industry.  I don’t get any sense of what the future of the Tyne is in it however (lyrics here).  But I do get a sense of a future in our rivers.
Faithlegg Churches 13th & 19th C
Our walk this morning is not meant to be nostalgic.  It’s meant to communicate the rich history and heritage imbued in the buildings, pathways and vistas that surround us.  Its meant to explore what they once meant and what the yet might become.  It is story, song, poetry and prose of a past, a present and hopefully a future.

The walk is free and booking is via the Imagine Arts Festival Office at 083 313 3273 or email

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 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:  
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Henry II lands at Crooke

This coming week will see another significant historic anniversary.  For on the 16th October 1171 Henry II launched his fleet which beached on the 17th at Crooke in Waterford Haven as the harbour was then known. As he stepped ashore he became the first foreign king to do so and it represented the loss of our country’s sovereignty which would endure for 750 years.

There are many intriguing political, religious and entrepreneurial reasons for the Norman invasion of Ireland that began in 1169 on the invitation of an Irish chieftain; Dermot McMurrough.  The upshot of it all was the arrival of Henry II, then king of England, Wales and northern France as a means of cementing his authority and control over his new dominion.  We would do well to also remember he had papal authority for his conquest in his back pocket!

Arrival of King Henry II in Waterford James William Edmund Doyle (1864)

It is speculated that 400 ships* were required to carry the kings invaders, estimated at 4000**. Apart from the vista this number of ships must have created in the harbour, it is fascinating to consider the logistics.  500 knights were said to be among them.  That would mean at least 500 horses (although it seems knights took at least two horses along, and then more for carrying, drawing carts etc).  The horses were transported which would have been beached and unloaded via the stern.  Its likely that the capacity of the time was between 12-30 horses per ships called Taride.  There were the much feared archers and foot soldiers also. Along with attendants, cooks, religious, servants and hangers-on.  I found this account to the invasion plan for the battle of Agincourt, which although two centuries later gives some sense of the headaches of organising such a campaign.

Horses and men being transported on the Bayeux Tapestry

The Pipe Rolls help provide an insight into the scale and costs associated with it.  This included the hire of ships; pay of masters, seamen, and artificers; payments for horses and their passage; and other provisions and implements such as; hogs, wheat, oats, beans, cheese, supplies of axes, hand-mills (presumably for milling the wheat) and ovens for baking their bread.  Implements included pre-fabricated wooden towers for assembling atop mottes, bridges for fording streams and spades, pick-axes, nails to do the building work.

A rainy Passage East strand at high tide yesterday

Although the landscape at Passage East / Crooke has changed over the centuries, it’s most likely that a beach similar to what now exists, if less vast, was on hand.  It’s said that the whole landing took the day, and that they camped overnight before departing for the city the following day.  In my own opinion the route they took must have been through Faithlegg, based on the local placename, Strongbows Bridge, which is on the main Cheekpoint Waterford road, just before Jack Meades, at the junction with Carraiglea.  Based on this I’d speculate (see map) Henry and his entourage came via Knockroe (A) or Kill St Nicholas(B) (and possibly both) and via Strongbows Bridge (C) in Carraiglea and on past Jack Meades and into Waterford. The present main road from Passage is marked in red and was a later construction

The possible routes marked in blue.

Henry arrived at the gates of Waterford on the Feast of St Luke, 18th October.  From there he took the subjugation of the Norman mercanaries, who had managed to sweep the Irish from power in the SE, and Irish chiefs led by Dermot McCarthy, prince of Desmond. Before leaving Waterford he dedicated a new church on the western side of the city to Thomas a Becket (on Thomas’ Hill) which will be subject to an article in the forthcoming History Ireland magazine by my good friend Damien McLellan.  Henry left from Wexford on Easter Monday 1172, never to return.  But many followed in his wake.  A topic I’ve covered previously in my piece A harbour fit for a King

* I’ve also seen a smaller figure of 240 mentioned but most sources quote 400.  I’ve read no analysis of the figures.
** Again 4,000 troops is mentioned as a minimum in almost every account. Some add 500 knights to it, others add attendants, squires etc.  It’s possible the 4,000 actually covers the entire entourage including ships captains and crews, which would diminish the actual invasion force considerably.

Byrne. N. The Irish Crusade.  2007.  Linden. Dublin
Power. P.C> History of Waterford. City & County.  1990. Mercier Press. Dublin

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
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 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:  
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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