Navigating the Campile Pill

One of our favourite boat trips is up the Campile Pill from where we can call to Dunbrody Abbey, visit the village itself or explore the neighbourhood and its interesting heritage.  Although my favourite pastime is in exploring the fishing heritage of the area, another fascination is maritime trade, and of course, the Campile Pill was used for this too. 

The Pill is located on the Wexford side of Waterford estuary across from Cheekpoint.  You enter it across the tidal Shelbourne Bank, a vast mudflat.  The Pill is visible at low water, but only navigable with a kayak I would think.  As the tide rises, the mud bank covers and you would be forgiven for thinking that the Pill was a river.  About a ½ mile up you come to Dunbrody Abbey on the right, the Kilmanock embankment is on the left, a vast wall that blocked out the river leaving the marshes to be drained in the mid-1800s as far as I can ascertain.  The mighty Barrow once flowed through these marshes too – creating The Great Island.

The Pill is seen here on the right across from Home! Cheekpoint
A good idea of the extent of the Pill as you pass up Dunbrody, under the Gantry Bridge (see the train line crossing the pill for location), then the New Bridge (where the R733 intersects) and then the T junction – left towards Portbello and right to Campile

As we proceed upriver we pass under a metal rail bridge, the Gantry Bridge, and then after some twists and turns, we pass under the New Bridge or Dunbrody Bridge on the old OSI maps.  We are now entering narrow waters, with lots more mud banks, a double kiln is visible on the right and another few hundred yards the Pill breaks in two.  Take the left and you will wind up about a stone’s throw from the old Portobello Bridge (a trip for only the most adventurous – Deena said she would divorce me if I tried to go back there again) and the right takes us to Campile.

Looking for the route to Portbello – her patience is waning here.
Portbello Bridge, found it – we later walked to it after mooring at the New Bridge

Now to clarify the word Pill.  Up to recently I have tried unsuccessfully to find a clear and unambiguous explanation of the word.  Most accounts accept that it is an imported word – almost certainly from the Normans and used very commonly in Waterford and along the banks of the Three Sister Rivers; Barrow, Nore, and Suir, but apparently not as common elsewhere in Ireland.  It also seems to be a common enough word on both sides of the Bristol channel, the River Severn, and along the SW coast of the UK.  I recently put out an appeal for more information on this via Twitter and the response was so good I will need a separate blog to record it. 

Not much chance of reaching the Head of the Pill now in anything but our punt or a Kayak. Seen here at the bridge beside Harts in Campile

Campile is apparently derived from its location at the head of the Pill.  In this case, the bridge in the village at the point where the Pill stops being tidal.  In Irish, this translates (according to some accounts as Ceann Phuill – the Head of the Pill)

The skipper gearing up as we leave after icecream at Harts over the summer.

On the Logainm placename site, several different spellings are recorded down the centuries including Kempul (1195) Kempuil (1296), Kempull (1654) Ceanpoyle, and Keinpoil (1816).  The site has also a number of variations on the origins of Pill – small watercourse, pool, tidal stream, a tidal inlet, etc.

Sunrise at Dunbrody Abbey

Historically I guess the Cistercian Abbey at Dunbrody is arguably the most important site located on the Pill.  Located on the Eastern side, on a hill overlooking the pill and the present Kilmannock Embankment where once the mighty Barrow flowed to create “Le Great Island”.  Below the abbey, at least two tidal water mills were located at the placename still recorded as Saltmills.  Above this, there is the Water Gate which even though it is now overgrown and largely forgotten, still impresses as a piece of architecture.  A small tributary flows up to this but the old maps show that the lands here were low-lying and prone to flooding, doubtless, the river once flowed here too. I imagine it played a much more important role in the heyday of the Abbey as the monks controlled the waters, managed the fishing weirs, and greeted weary travellers at the gate.

Dunbrody’s Water Gate. From Hore.P.H History of the Town & County of Wexford. Dunbrody Abbey, The Great Island, Ballyhack etc. 1901 London. 
Kilmannock House and lands are presently for sale. I flinched this off the sales site but hopefully, that’s ok as this is for historical research purposes. Note the boundary on the top follows the route of the Pill, turned at Dunbrody and passes beside the Gantry Bridge.

I know nothing of the fishing on the Pill, although I can only imagine that using the power of the tides, many was many the scooneen (a local phrase for a short driftnet tied from the shore to an anchor in the river)placed at various locations along it to try to catch a salmon in the past.  I see no evidence of weirs anywhere along it, although there are short poles in areas – these look to be for mooring boats in the past. (Billy Colfer shows a prong moored beside these page ref)

When the monks were pushed aside the lands went over to the Etchingham family, and later through marriage, it passed to the Chichester family. 

According to the Horeswood Historical Society (HHS) in their wonderful book on the Campile Bombing[i] as many as 22 barges or lighters were operating the Pill.  Much of this trade was carrying Limestone to be burnt in local lime kilns and then used as fertiliser on the land or for a myriad of other uses.  There is a fine double kiln on the way up to the village just above the New Bridge and the remains of at least one kiln is adjacent to Harts. The lighters would also take freight away. 

A photo of a yard behind Harts taken from the Pill, the lime kiln or kilns perhaps are now overgrown and just be seen behind a container

As regulars know the Lighters are a passionate interest of mine and I have a deep respect for the river knowledge of the men who operated them.  Harnessing the power of the tides, they worked with nature to propel their flat-bottomed craft along the rivers using oars, poles, and basic sail to make their way, and an anchor to hold onto the hard-won milage.  Operating in the Campile Pill was an extra challenge as the mud flats must have shifted and changed and the New Bridge was so low. – Interestingly the HHS does mention that the bargemen could not pass under it at high water. 

You can join us here for a journey under the New Bridge – OSI maps call it Dunbrody Bridge which doesn’t seem to be used by locals

The book mentions that in the 1800s Barron’s of Campile had 7 barges, Murphy’s of Ballykerogue had 2 while Michael Sinnott also of Ballykerogue and Hart of Campile had 1. 

Harts barge was involved in two recorded incidents (there was certainly more I imagine) – in February 1914 the boat was swamped in a storm while anchored off the Kilmannock embankment and the three-man crew was rescued by two local Great Island fishermen – Thomas Dunphy and William Doherty.  A month later having been refloated, the lads were again in trouble.  Having taken on a cargo of coal and other items in Waterford worth £100 the barge was again off Great Island when they lost the rudder in a gale, but they managed to reach the shore before jumping for their lives – the barge sank soon after.

Kennys of Campile had a motorised barge operating in the 1930s while the Shelburne Co-Op bought an engine-driven barge from CIE in the 1950s to bring grain to Halls of Waterford.  The barge was pole driven on the tides up and down to the Gantry Bridge before the engine was started and they continued under power to deeper waters.   

The Campile – 1950s. Standing is Larry Dillon (left) and Jim Wade on the right both from Campile. In the background are Mikie Shalloe, Ballyhack (left) and Patsy Forristal from Campile. The photo was taken beside Dunphy’s coal yard opposite the public house. Photo and info courtesy of John Flynn via Horeswood Historical Society

Lighters used the Pill prior to this of course (I have found a lot of information on this including crew, but it will take another blog post)– using the tides to bring much-needed imports such as coal and to bring away farm produce from the village.  Interesting to note that the Piltown Stage was also very accessible to locals – using the PS Ida on her daily New Ross to Waterford route. And of course, there was the train which operated from 1906. It was so interesting to me to see the river played such an important role for so many years after the railway came.

This drone footage gives a very good sense of Dunbrody Abbey and its location on the Pill

I could find little enough online or in the newspapers about the Pill, although there were three tragedies reported.  There was one story on Duchas of a drowning “On the 10th of June in the year 1911 a very sad drowning fatality occurred at Portobello Pill in the Barony of Shelburne County Wexford. A boy named Peter Kavanagh from Coolaherin Campile Co. Wexford nineteen years of age went for a swim”

The People newspaper of July 1880 carried just a snippet of a tragedy – a young lad named Peter Quinn, the son of a Campile shoemaker was drowned in the Campile Pill.  The last accident was a railway worker. 

The Enniscorthy Guardian of Saturday 16 May 1903 recorded that the body of a railway navvy – James Harvey, Great Island (He was living in railway accommodation it seems), was found under the new railway bridge (the Gantry Bridge) on the morning of May 11th, 1903.  Sargent Fitzgerald of Arthurstown took charge, searched the body, and removed the corpse to Campile. James was “an old railway employee who was addicted to drink” according to the follow-up inquest.  He had been drinking in Harts where the local blacksmith James Murphy deposed that he was in good form and appeared to be sober at 9.30 pm.  Joseph Harte deposed that he had served him a pint that night and he believed he left afterward alone to make his way back to Great Island. Dr. WJ Shee was deposed and gave a description of his injuries considering it to be the cause of a fall. David Munroe, general manager of the Campile section of railworks gave evidence about the character of his deceased employee and explained that he had no right to be walking along the bridge which was specifically for trains.  The jury found that he died of a fractured skull occasioned by a fall and that a notice should be placed on the bridge warning the public of the dangers of crossing.

I’m afraid we are getting close to hauling out the punt for this year, and there may be no more trips on the Campile Pill until 2023 (all going well of course). But I need to spend a bit more time writing as opposed to “messing about in boats” – I look forward to getting back out there, however, as I never feel more alive than when exploring the river.

Postscript – I started writing this story in 2019. The great John Flynn gave me some photos and also an extract from the Campile bombing book, so it’s not like I didn’t have the information. I managed to find the book in Wexford recently and rereading it spurred me into action. My thanks to John for his support, all errors and omissions are my own.

One of our favourite mooring places – The New Bridge, note Dunbrody in the distance. I am always struck by the thought of the countless riverfolk who passed along here, moored here lived their lives on the water. Now the traffic flys past without hardly a thought to the history associated with these waterways – the highways of centuries that were wiped away in a few decades,

Apologies to my email subscribers. I was using feedburner as a mail delivery system which was discontinued by Google in July. It seems that Mail Chimp is the solution and I am hoping to get this rectified soon.


[i] Horeswood Historical Society 2010.  The Campile Bombing – August 26th 1940.  Nass Printing. Kildare (specifically pp 1-2)