My first introduction to Falskirt Rock was in the Spring of 1984 fishing on the decked motor boat Reaper with Jim Dips Doherty and his neighbour Denis Doherty. Denis pointed it out to me as we steamed away west from Dunmore East towards Tramore Bay with a deck filled with ground nets on a frosty but clear March morning. The seas were breaking around it and the jagged top was exposed as the seas surged.
The sight of the rock alarmed me I had to admit. Not just because I was aware of how dangerous it could be to a boat that had lost power and might drift atop of it. No there was another reason – and for me a scarier reason. You see during that previous winter when I first fished out of Dunmore for herring, several nights we had set our nets close by, and I was ignorant of the rock and the inherent dangers it posed. The fact that Jim and Denis knew, and I trusted them completely, was beside the point. It reminded me of how little I knew of the deep waters off the coast and how literally out of my depth I was in these unfamiliar waters.
As if to underline these fears Denis told me about a fishing boat that was washed close to the rocks while fishing at night in a raging storm and blizzard of snow in December 1950. The crew alerted fellow fishermen by flares of their difficulty and the local lifeboat Annie Blanche Smith raced to their rescue. But by the time the lifeboatmen arrived the boat (Naomh Déaglán) was almost atop the rock and the fishing nets were starting to bunch around her almost like a shield or protective boom. Somehow the lads on the lifeboat managed to negotiate their way in despite the obvious risks to themselves if the prop of the lifeboat was fouled, got a line to the fishing boat, and managed to tow the five-man crew to safety. I had goosebumps listening to Denis that day (although I was sure he was putting legs on the story). However, David Carroll shared it with us before, and if anything the story was more incredible.
Falskirt is a rock that is barely visible at high water but partially strips when the tide recedes. It is about 400 meters off the coast, close to Swine Head (sometimes referred to previously as Swiny Head/Point). It lies off the coast between Portally and Rathmoylan. The Waterford Harbour Commissioners Bye-Laws of 1960 define the outer limits of their influence as a straight line drawn between Hook Head and Swiny Point. The International Shipping & Shipbuilding Directory of 1940 defines the outer limits of the pilotage of the area as being determined within an imaginary arc with a radius of 4 miles drawn seaward from a midway point between Hook Head and Falskirt Rock.
Origins of the name
Although I am using the spelling Falskirt I’m aware of at least two other spellings. Fileskirt from the Robert Sayer chart dated 1787 called “An actual survey of the harbour and river of Waterford, and of the bay of Tramore,” Another spelling I have read is Foilskirt. The meaning or origin is not included in Canon Powers Placenames of the Decies alas, although I did find one article from 1871 claiming it to mean “The Cliff of the Sea Rock’ – which seems to suggest a part of the actual coastline rather than the rock itself. Ray McGrath, writing in the quarterly newsletter of the Barony of Gaultier Historical Society in 2017 draws on the knowledge of the late fisherman and lifeboat legend Stephen Whittle and speculates that although the name is obscure, the first part may refer to ‘cliff’ and the second syllable ‘scairt’ possibly meaning separation.
After publication, Seán Ó Briain commented (see full comment below) that it is also mentioned in The History, Topography, and Antiquities of the County and City of Waterford and named Fileskirt.“..at the projecting headland called Fileskirt or Swinehead, there are sunken rocks nearly covered by the sea at high water..” Seáns conclusion is that Fileskirt could have been the name of the headland, from which the rock got its name.
Incidents associated with it
Although the five-man crew of the Naomh Deaglán had a narrow escape in 1950 at least three shipwrecks have been recorded that I am aware of on the spot. In 1804 an unidentified brig was sunk after striking the rock but all the crew was saved. In 1867 a vessel called Willie was wrecked on the rock – no details of the crew were recorded. (Pete Goulding later sent a newspaper clipping stating the crew was saved. The Willie had departed Waterford on a Tuesday afternoon and grounded and later broke up about midnight. Carrying oats, a large part of this floated off and into Tramore Bay.) Meanwhile, in June 1884 the crew of 6 off the trawler Welcome Home was rescued after striking the rock. (1) Of course many shipwrecks down through the ages were simply referred to as lost off the Waterford Coast – it’s possible if not probably many others were claimed by the Falskirt. David Carroll in Dauntless Courage of course recorded the relatively recent tragedy associated with fishing, when a small punt driftetting for salmon was washed up onto the rocks with two brothers aboard. Sadly one was lost, but the other was saved thanks to the efforts of the local lifeboat RNLB St Patrick (See Dauntless Courage pp184-5). As recently as June 2021 the Dunmore East lifeboat Elizabeth and Ronald went to the rescue of 4 people in a 4-meter fishing boat that lost its propeller and drifted close to Falskirt.
You might think that such a danger to navigation would be worthy of a marking system or a light. Well in November 1859 a Commission for Improving the Port and Harbour of Waterford proposed that a beacon, tower, or pillar be erected as a warning to navigators on what was spelled Foilskirt. They also appealed for a lighthouse to replace the perch at Passage Spit. The details were submitted and published in the Commission Appointed to Inquire into the Condition of Lights, Buoys and Beacons of the British Isles in 1861. We got the lighthouse – The Spider Light, but the Falskirt remained as nature left it – and as it still is today.
This concludes a series of Lifeboat related posts to acknowledge the RNLI fundraising efforts associated with the Mayday Mile. Members of the Dunmore East Team would still benefit from any donations, please consider them, the website remains open for the first week of June. I’m indebted to David Carroll for his assistance with the content this month.
(1) Sourced from Shipwrecks off the Waterford Coast by Tony Caulfield