Childhood memories of the Cheekpoint pilot boat

A picture paints a thousand words they say, and that was
proven yet again recently when Catherine Heffernan posted to the Cheekpoint
Faithlegg and Coolbunnia Facebook page. 
The photo was of the Morning Star II, the pilot boat that operated from
Cheekpoint when we were children and it brought the memories flooding back.

Morning Star II photo from Catherine Heffernan White

My Uncle Sonny returned from sea in the early 1970’s and
took up the role of pilot boat officer from the village, servicing the port of New Ross.  His boat the Morning Star II was
a familiar feature, and it was rare that you wouldn’t find Sonny standing on
the quayside waiting for a boat, or in my Aunt Ellen’s house having a cup of tea in between boats.

The Cheekpoint pilot boat serviced ships entering or leaving
New Ross. Because of our location at the point where the three sisters meet, the Barrow, Nore and Suir, and the junction to the two port, Cheekpoint was a logical choice for such activities.  I can’t say I have yet discovered when the practice started but I do recall a photo, below, which depicts a pilot officer house, where pilots waited on ships from the late 1800’s, and I’m guessing it was at least for most of that century.  Hobblers would have been to the fore prior to that.

Pilot House in the left corner of photo, AH Poole

New Ross pilots
departed outgoing ships at Cheekpoint, or joined incoming ships to pilot the
ships up through the Barrow Bridge to New Ross. I’ve blogged about the difficulties caused by the bridge before.  It also marked the point where the Waterford
pilots took over.  Hence a Waterford pilot relieved his New Ross counterpart and took the ship to the mouth of the
harbour, and was then relived of his duty and taken to Dunmore by the Betty
Breen.  They also obviously performed the
reverse role.

Of the pilots themselves I can only remember a few.  The New Ross pilots of the time were my Uncle John of course, and Mickey Duffin, Kevin Barry of Fethard and a Dutchman who I can only recall a smiling face and a smell of cigars.  Of the Waterford pilots  Willie Hearne, Pat Rodgers, John Whitty and the Walsh brothers and come to mind.

What made the whole affair so memorable was that Sonny would regularly take us children aboard the Morning Star II when he was going out to a ship.  We’d be hanging around the quay, fishing for flats
with sprat bait, or playing rounders or soccer on the village green.  Sonny would give the nod and we would
carefully hop aboard and sit on a small midship deck that housed the inboard
engine.  The Morning Star was no more
than 22 feet long, but beamy, and a whole gang of us could easily sit in
comfort.
Local and visitor alike were taken aboard and away the whole
party went.  We were always the happier if the pilot was coming from Ross and had to
be dropped to the Island Quay, at Great Island. 
It made for a longer trip.  Or
other times the Waterford pilot might be put on an outgoing ship, the New Ross pilot come
aboard, and then away to an incoming ship, which he re-boarded to take to New
Ross.

Pilot boat Crofter working at Cheekpoint this week

The scene was familiar to
me from an early age.  Ship sited at
Ballinlaw, coming towards the Barrow Bridge. 
Sonny would slip the painter from the ladder at the quay, negotiate the salmon
punts moored at the quay, cursing a floating anchor rope.  As the ship came though the Bridge, Sonny
would get into position, lining up with the bow of the ship and approaching at
an angle to close the gap.  As we neared there was always
a flutter in my belly, the ship which looked small at the distance, rearing up
and glaring down upon us the nearer we approached.  Always a curious smell, particular
to ships a mixture of food, diesel oil and cargo such as fertiliser, oil or
cement.

The ladder was down at the ships
side, two deckhands waiting at the gunwale of the ship.  We come alongside, Sonny gunning the engine
to maintain position with the ship, the pilot deftly hops upon the jacob ladder and
ascends, something none of us would probably ever choose to do.  Sonny casually looking
around, seemingly oblivious to the anxiety we felt, would he fall away from the
ship coming close if not under the churning propeller astern, would we be
sucked beneath the side.  Then having being relived
in the wheelhouse, the New Ross pilot would be seen sauntering down the side of
the ship, leg out over and onto the ladder, and waved off by the crew.  Once he had a foot aboard, Sonny with a deft
touch on the wheel effortlessly drew the Morning Star II away and departed from
the ship.

Pilot climbing the Jacob ladder
via: newsfromthebow.wordpress.com

My preference was for going alongside tankers, which rather
than a high side, had a railing and you could see much more of the ship and her
fittings. The NO SMOKING sign seemed strangely out of place on a ship, as
everyone I associated with ships and pilotage smoked, well, with the exception
of Sonny. 

All in all a magical era.  A time when health and safety and all manner
of regulation were yet to be devised and jobs to oversee them yet to be created.  In some ways it was a bad time for children.  We know that from the various scandals that
have come to light.  But it was also a
great time to be a child, when we had freedom, were left to create our own entertainment,
when parental fears, screen time and mobile devices were yet to suck up so much of children’s time and
innocence. 

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 russianside@gmail.com to receive the blog every week.
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A century of Barrow Bridge incidents

The Barrow Bridge was officially opened in 1906 to connect Waterford’s train station, and thus the SW of Ireland, to the newly developed port at Rosslare.  I’ve written before about the initial planning and concern about crossing the River Barrow which separates counties Kilkenny and Wexford, across from Cheekpoint. The principal objection was from the Port of New Ross.  The concerns were addressed by inserting a swivelled opening span to allow ships access to the River Barrow and thus New Ross. The outside channel was used for ships entering the Barrow, the opposite, on the Kilkenny side, for egress.  A manned control tower operated the opening and closing function. Down the years there have been many incidents recorded at the bridge, what follows is a sample.
The Barrow Viaduct Jan 2016
Interestingly, the first incident I could find occured before the bridge was even operational. During construction two sailing vessels struck it on the one day, indeed almost at the same time. The ships were the Conniston and the Ethel under the guidance of pilots Whelan (apparently one armed) and Kearnes, leaving New Ross on an ebb tide. The Harbour Board received a complaint about the matter from the builders, but thankfully not much damage to the bridge had occurred. The master of the Schooner Ethel also wrote alleging damage to his ship. The board interviewed the pilot on the matter who explained that at the White Horse reach (just above the Bridge) he had recommended to the master that the ship should be warped through the opening. He claimed the master of the Ethel refused stating that the wind was sufficient and he could control the passage through. Drawing close to the opening, the wind dropped and the master ordered the anchor dropped, this was done, but as she swung to the anchor she struck the bridge. No details were given as to the incident with the other vessel.

A few months later in 1905 pilot Whelan was again in trouble when a steamer under his control struck one of the cylinder piles and dislodged a concrete coping.  Despite the evidence of the harbour master, Captain Farady, who was also aboard, that the accident was completely outside the control of his pilot, Whelan received a caution.

The next incident came almost an exact year from the official opening of the bridge. From the Cork Examiner of 26/7/1907 we learn that “Yesterday the barque Venus, of Hellsingborg, Norway, bound for New Ross, with a cargo of timber, whilst in the tow of the barque Heron, collided with the Barrow Bridge, or Railway Viaduct. The Venus had her whole foremast knocked clean out, and the crew had a narrow escape, the bridge being apparently uninjured.”
opening span of bridge

While Dublin was in revolt during Easter 1916, the bridge was one of the pieces of infrastructure considered vital to the interests of the crown forces.  Admiral Bayly, commander of the British naval services sea protection detail based at Cobh sent motor launches to secure the bridge and ensure uninterrupted rail travel. (Nolan: p141).

Another curious incident is related in the Munster Express dated 9th June 1923.  The opening span was stuck in an opened position for some days following a loss of a “Shaft” or pin, which was central to the operation of the swivel action.  The shaft was finally retrieved by dragging the river bed.  No explanation is supplied as to why it happened, or indeed why a replacement could not be found.
In the 1930’s the issue was trespass. Several men were brought to court owing to what was claimed to be a “tremendous amount of trespass”  The defendants were listed as Thomas Dempsey, Campile; Patrick Carew, Ferrybank; Patrick Cashin, Drumdowney; John Black and Richard Atkins of Glasshouse and two Cheekpoint men; Denis Hennerby and Michael Heffernan.  Solicitor from the railway stated that the men were putting their own lives at risk by travelling the line either by foot of bicycle.  The case against Mikey Heffernan was struck out, and Aitkins was adjourned.  The others faced a fine of 6d and costs amounting to 7/-.  (Source: Munster Express 3/12/1937)
At the outbreak of WWII and for several months after the bridge continued to see daily use.  Both Irish and those with Irish relatives and cousins and some refugees, fled the looming war.  Many travellers could only finding standing room on the decks of the ferry boats and seating was a luxury on the train too.  (McShane: p11)  As the war wore on and shortages deepened, rail traffic was suspended due to a lack of coal, only to be reinstated after the war
My mother like so many others left for England in the 1950’s.  To her the bridge brought mixed emotions, sadness on leaving, fires burning in the village, the last farewell to the emigrants that would keep families fed.  Of course it was also of gladness when she would get to return across it for the following Christmas and it would give her the first view of home.
There were several bridge strikes down the years from ships passing through, generally to enter the Barrow.  According to my father, the only surprise about hitting the bridge was that there were not more.  I remember hearing one as a child, where the stern of the ship was swept onto the central fender as it passed through, with minor damage to the ship and none to the bridge.  The sound reverberated around the village.
On another occasion, the 7th April 1986, the inbound Panamanian registered ship MV Balsa struck and did considerable damage to the opening.   She was of 6000 tonnes and was empty at the time (she was chartered to collect a cargo of malt) which probably contributed to the accident.  The central span was damaged and the bridge was immediately closed to rail and shipping until an inspection was carried out.
The bridge strike that caused the most severe damage occurred on March 7th 1991. The MV Amy a Dutch registered coaster was again entering port when she collided against the opening span of the bridge and knocked it out of line.  The timber fenders and central wharf was also damaged.  In fact the damage was so severe that the line and shipping channels were immediately closed.
However, legal writs started to fly as 14 vessels were stranded in the port between the Port of New Ross and the ship owners and shipping companies.  Within days an agreement was reached to allow egress and entry via the undamaged side of the opening, but the railway line remained closed.  Three months later the railway was again in use, saving motorists the 40 mile road trip, and rail passengers a bus transfer from Campile.  The repair was reputed to have cost £3-5 Million, and was carried out by a Cobh salvage company, who operated from Cheekpoint and were as renowned for their long hours of labour as their huge capacity for porter.
By far the most curious incident to close the line occurred on Friday 22nd March 1946.  A drifting mine – used during the second world war- was spotted floating close to the bridge by two Cheekpoint men Heffernan and O’Connor (Paddy and John respectively as far as I can recall, John being the father of the Munster Express journalist of the same name).  They reported the sighting to the Garda station in Passage East and a unit from the Curragh was dispatched under Comdt. Fynes to deal with the threat.  Locally it was always said that the boys had thrown a lasso around the mine and towed it away from the bridge as a train approached, saving countless lives as a result.
A more sober account can be found in that weeks Kilkenny People.  The mine grounded between Snow Hill Quay and Drumdowney Point (known locally as the Point of the wood) as the tide went out and once settled on the mud, a rope was tied around it, to prevent it floating away. Although the Boat train departed from Waterford that evening, it was decided to close off the line to rail and shipping on the Saturday.
The bomb disposal unit had to wait for the tide to go out before they approached the mine on the Saturday.  It was described as 5′ 4″x 3’4″ and was encrusted with rust and barnacles.  It was thought to have been a floating mine, deployed with an anchor and chain that had broken away.  The opinion of the army was that it had been deployed on the sea bed several years before,  There was no information provided about it’s origin.  The unit managed to make safe the mine by 4pm that evening, meaning the 5pm train could depart with safety.
CIE had to face a high court injunction in 1991 to carry out the repairs on the bridge to allow trains to run once more,  At the time there was speculation that they would prefer to remove the opening and make the railway line redundant.  With falling passenger numbers and the rise in private motor use the days of the line were numbered.   The closure of the Sugar Beet factories was the final straw.  The final train crossed the Barrow Bridge in September 2010.
Many thanks to James Doherty for his help with this piece and in particular loaning me the following books which I referenced in the piece;
McShane. M.  Neutral Shores.  Ireland and the battle of the Atlantic.  2012.  Mercier press.  Cork
Nolan et al.  Secret Victory.  Ireland and the War at Sea 1914-18.  2009.  Mercier press.  Cork

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and history but the daily happenings in our beautiful harbour:
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