Spanish fort at Passage East

Passage East stands at the head of Waterford Harbour, where a spit of sand runs out into the estuary.  Because of its location, it has long been of strategic importance.  Ships from earliest times could sail to the village before the rivers narrowed and made sailing more difficult. Under the lee of a high hill and good riverbed, ships were assured of a safe anchorage.   The village was legally part of Waterford City, an actual municipal district, up to 1842 when it was ceded back to the county.* This was most probably because steam powered ships, towage and enhanced river navigation made it easier for ships to reach the city at this point.

According to one of our foremost local historians, John Burke “Passage comes from the Latin word for a ferry “Passagium”.  Or the payment that was charged for the use of a ferry trip. One of the first references to the name is in the “Registrum de Kilmainham” when mention was made in 1325 of “Passagium”.  The village was well established by the 14th century.”[i]  My own research has not found any great insight into where the East came from, it does not show up in local papers until the 1830s.

Passage fort or blockhouse 1784 via BGHS

Although there was a castle in the vicinity from the time of the Knights Templer (Crooke) The first fort at Passage East was built circa 1568 by the citizens of Waterford to protect the city.  According to local historian of note Jim Hegarty [ii]the fort was built by Spanish prisoners of war and to pay for the maintenance a tax was placed on local fishing boats called the “castle tax” which effectively meant that a portion of their catch, when sold at the fish shambles in the city, was forfeit to the city. 

John Burke at one of the popular Barony of Gaultier Historical Society summer walks (Hopefully to be returning this year after missing 2020) stated that the function of the fort was “…for the defence of the city and security of boats and ships and the maintenance of good rule and order amongst the fishermen and  in order to pay for the upkeep of the fort at Passage which defended the river, all fishing boats had to pay a toll with some of their catch”[iii]  McEnery states that “The towers primary purpose was probably to protect merchantmen from privateers”[iv]

The fort, therefore, seems to have had a role in protection not just of the city, but of the fishing boats of the estuary and lower harbour and the ships that anchored there.  Although I am using the word fort throughout, the term blockhouse is often used. A definition of which can be accessed here.

A birds eye view of the village, which includes the circular tower, via Mark Power of Waterford Epic Locations

Paul Kerrigan describes the fort as: “…a broad round tower mounting ordnance commanded the estuary and the anchorage.”[v]  Kerrigan also stated that in 1587 the tower was surrounded by a ‘tenaille trace’ as tensions mounted between England and Spain.[vi]  These works seem to have been rather a drawn out affair. In 1590 Edmund Yorke arrived from England to supervise operations and the city was to provide 150 labourers to support the necessary works at Waterford which included the Citadel in the city, Reginalds Tower, the fort on the rock (on the Ferrybank side and later to be known as Cromwells Rock) Duncannon and Passage.   However, in 1592 the Mayor of Waterford was requested to give an account of progress at Passage.  This was reported as moving along, the outer walls had been finished and only some inner works remained. [vii] Not exactly inspiring confidence or any sense of urgency or impending peril!

Passage as drawn by George Victor Du Noyer (1860s) There are remains to the left, which may or may not be assoicated with the fort

The greatest challenge to the fort came in 1649 during the Cromwellian invasion of Ireland.  Cromwells “Southern Design” was to take Ireland by “Hook or by Crooke” and although this changed when he diverted his invasion to Dublin, his troops eventually arrived at Duncannon after the fall of New Ross on 19th October.  Duncannon Fort was seen as the key to taking Waterford affording a clear water route to the navy.   The siege was commanded by Lieutenant General Michael Jones. Although Cromwell came to Duncannon to offer terms, the garrison commanded of Edward Wogan remained resolute and was untaken. Cromwell was now faced with a more difficult job at Waterford and would eventually lay a siege after his troops crossed into the county from Carrick On Suir.[viii]

Passage Fort was strengthened around this time by an extra 50 troops from the city under the command of the Marquis of Ormond.  However Michael Jones set his sights on the fort and after a surprise attack by a regiment of horse and three troops of dragoons, the gates were set alight and realising the danger, the soilders surrendered on quarter – being allowed to walk out alive.  Jones garrisoned the fort at Passage with 100 troops and then he proceeded downriver (most probably Creaden Head) where his troops captured two cannon overlooking the harbour.[ix] 

The siege of Waterford was settling in for the winter at this stage and the loss of Passage was impacting on supplies, particularly via the river.  It was decided that Passage needed to be retaken and so a plan was developed that would see troops under General O’Ferrall who were based within the city, and some of Wogans troops at Duncannon to join in a combined attack on the fort.  It commenced on the 12th December 1649 but the defenders were resolute, and four attacks were repulsed with lots of casualties, particularly from expert musketeers. [x]

An excerpt of Philips’s sketch of the Spanish Fort. I used this image in my new book as it happens. For a hi res image of the full sketch check out the NLI

On the 13th December Wogan brought over two battering guns and a mortar from Duncannon but before an attack could get under way, they were overrun by a relieving force of Cromwellian cavalry and dragoons led by Colonel Sankey.  It was a rout and the Irish troops were either killed, captured or forced to flee for their lives.[xi]

According to Jim Hegarty, Passage Hill was known as Cannon Hill from this era.[xii]

It would appear that there were some repairs carried out at Passage Fort following these events[xiii]  In 1663 Sir Willam Flower was appointed deputy Governor of Duncannon and Governor of Passage Fort.  Flower was responsible for repairing and reoccupying the fort. In 1666 extensive lands around the village were granted to Sir Nicholas Armorer, Governor of Duncannon for the use of the two forts.  In 1684 the fort mounted seven pieces of iron ordnance – a 12-pounder, a demi-culverin, three sakers and two falcons.  However the standing carraiges of the demi-culverin and one of the falcons were reported as defective. [xiv]

Perhaps the most important survey was carried out by Captain Thomas Philips circa 1685.  Philips was noted for his accuracy.  The sketch of Duncannon and Passage by Philips is certainly spot-on in terms of geographic location and positioning so it would be difficult to think that the depiction of the fort is anything other than accurate.  It shows the “Spanish Fort” at Passage as being very similar in description to the works of 1587.  The fort is seen out on the gravel spit on the lower side of the present village.[xv]

Philips plan for a new fort on Carrickcannuigh. Availble to view here at the NLI where you can increase the resolution and see the existing fort etc and Ballyhack.

Philips survey and proposals were submitted to James II in March 1686 and only Passage was recommended as offering the strategic value in terms of protecting Waterford and the three sister rivers from the threat of invasion at the time.  Philips proposals included a new fort, placed above Passage, on Carrickcannuigh Hill. This offered a direct line of fire on any fleet intending to pass the village or to land on the beach below.[xvi]

Paul Kerrigan gave this synopsis in the local Decies or the two principle forts protecting the city following Philips assessment   “At Duncannon there was one 24-pounder, two culverins (18-pounders), two 12-pounders , three demi-culverins , twenty two sakers and various smaller pieces. This was considerably less than the new Charles Fort at Kinsale – also badly sited like Duncannon- where there were five demi-cannon (32-pounders), three 24-pounders,twenty-one culverins, three 12-pounders, sixteen demi-culverins and many smaller pieces… At Passage the guns listed by Phillips were two demi-culverins, three sakers and two falcons, a small armament for such an important position to defend the estuary, a short distance from Duncannon on the opposite shore. Both Passage and Duncannon should have been provided with batteries of culverins or 24-pounders, which had a range of somewhat over a mile; with Passage and Duncannon some two miles apart the estuary between them and the deep-water channel off Duncannon would then have been adequately covered, making it difficult for enemy warships to sail upstream.”[xvii]

Sir James Jeffreys was appointed Govenor of Duncannon and Passage forts by Willaim III and held that position between 1690 and 1698.  Some of the works at Passage during his tenure included:

  • June 17th 1691 – paid Denis Sullivan for covering the castle in the fort with deal boards, mending the stairs and making beds for the soldiers
  •  July 10th 1691 – paid Richard Hughs for works at Passage
  • Aug 6th 1691 –paid Edward Spry for repairs at Passage
  • Oct 5th 1692 – paid John Dunn for repirs to the iron gate at Passage
  • Nov 23rd 1694 – paid H Parkes for several wateraills and mending the guardhouse

Despite these repairs, in 1711 the Duke of Ormond had the ordnance and other material at Passage removed [xviii]

Charles Vallency toured the southern Irish defences in 1777-8.  He was highly critical of Duncannon and it appears only the walls were still standing at Passage at the time.  He recommended that the battery be reinforced, with six 24-pounders and with mortars which would delay any enemy force from passing or landing.  Vallency urged the same defences to be installed at “Faithlegg Point” which I presume would most likely mean the Mount at Cheekpoint.[xix]

With the outbreak of the American wars and the alliance with France, defences were upgraded and and Passage was revived.  Five 24-pounders and three 12-pounders were situated at the fort and a barrack to accommodate an artillery detachment.  This work took place between 1779-83 and was abandoned again within the next ten years.[xx]

Julians photo here of Passage east blockhouse

When war with France came, invasion was again a threat, and Charles Tarrant of the Royal Irish Engineers reported on the defences around the country.  His views on Waterford in 1796 included a proposal to reconstruct the now derelict battery at Passage to provide cross fire with the guns at Duncannon.[xxi] Interestingly the White Wall at Passage dates to this time,. I always thought of it as a sea defence, but perhaps it had a military defensive purpose? Over the next number of years Martello towers and signal towers were constructed to provide defence and advance warning and troop numbers were added to repulse any invasion.  The two Martello towers at Duncannon were built to counter one of the forts biggest weaknesses, its subspeciality to attack from higher ground.  With the defeat of the French at Waterloo we can only surmise that Passage fort was forgotten as an unnecessary defence.

I’m sure that over time the fort and its walls crumbled and disappeared.  Some into new buildings or developments at the village for example the extension of the main quay in 1870 or the building of the new smokehouse in the early 20th C. The relentless erosion of the sea probably played a part too.  All that remains now are some paintings, sketches and a small round flanker tower associated with the outer defences.

All that remains of a long history. Photo credit Michae Farrell BGHS 2014

Obviously much of the story remains to be told.  What role if any did Passage East play in those many centuries of use.  Or was it just fort that was used as and when needs must, and was then left vacant and neglected.  It certainly appears so.  One mention I found that might suggest an involvement with the Fort was after the Ulster Rebellion of 1641.  The English living in the city of Waterford were expelled ( apparently 350 men women and children were sent to Passage and I can only imagine they were confined within the walls of the Fort).  Later protestants living outside the city were rounded up, initially held in the city and then sent to Passage too.  Others were held at Duncannon and according to Power 48 people died.[xxii]  Its not clear in the account what happened to these people afterwards, but perhaps they were shipped out of the country.

Did the fort have any other part to play in significant events?  Too often Passage is stated but no details are given.  For example after the Battle of the Boyne King Billy left from the village, did he even give a passing glance to the fort?  Or when the Croppies were being marched for transportation to the village from Geneva Barracks, were they held within its walls prior to transhipment.  There must have been other purposes to the fort as a military establishment – if anyone has other insights or information I’d be delighted to hear them.

I’d like to thank the work of Julian, John and Jim who I have referenced in this piece, as I would have nothing to really go on without their work. Also thanks to my cousin James Doherty for some feedback and loan of resources.

* Matthew Butler – A History of the Barony of Gaultier. 1913. Downey & Co, Waterford see p146

[i] From an article by John Burke in the Barony of Gaultier Historical Societys Barony Echo. Accessed Saturday 23/1/2021

[ii] Jim Hegarty Time & Tide pp7-8

[iii] Accessed Saturday 23/1/2021

[iv] John Hartnett McEnery.  Fortress Ireland.  2006.  Wordwell Books.  Wicklow p7

[v] Paul Kerrigan.  Castles and Fortifications in Ireland 1485-1945.  1995.  Collins Press Cork. P37

[vi] Ibid p4

[vii] Ibin pp 41-41

[viii] Julian Walton with Frank O’Donoghue. On This Day Vol 1. 2013.  pp 100-01

[ix] Ibid pp102-3

[x] Ibid pp104-5

[xi] Ibid pp 104-5

[xii] Jim Hegarty Time & Tide p8

[xiii] Kerrigan p101

[xiv] Julian C. Walton Aspects of Passage East, Part II , Decies No. 11 , (May 1979) p 17

[xv] Accessed from 22/1/2021

[xvi] Kerrigan p114-117 and also

[xvii] Paul M. Kerrigan, The Fortifications of Waterford, Passage and Duncannon 1495 to 1690, Decies  #19      Summer 1985 pp13-23

[xviii] Julian C. Walton Aspects of Passage East, Part II , Decies No. 11 , (May 1979) p 20

[xix] Kerrigan p144

[xx] Ibid p149

[xxi] Ibid p150

[xxii] Patrick C Power.  History of Waterford City & County.  1990.  Mercier Press. Dublin pp 73-75