Williamo’s barge, 29B

This mornings guest blog comes from Carrick On Suir but as with all things connected to the water, it travels fairly widely. Maurice Power, another of those supporters of my blog that I have come to rely on, introduces us to an institution on the River Suir in Carrick On Suir. An institution embodied in a man and a boat; Williamo’s barge – 29B. Over to Maurice…

Recently a photo of William O’Callaghan’s barge was shown on our local facebook site Things I Miss About Carrick and somebody wondered where it is now. His barge was the last working sand dredger in Carrick and possibly the only one which used a mechanical digger to extract sand and gravel from the river bed.

Williamo’s barge taken from North Quay in Carrick looking across to Carrickbeg. Williamo normally moored the barge tied up to the buttments of the New Bridge (Dillon Bridge) In Carrick. It kept the kids from playing on it.

Williamo, as he was known, grew up on the river coming from a family with deep roots in the navigation of lighters and yawls which transported goods from ships lightened in Waterford. Lighters would typically transport goods with a burden of 40/60 tons they had a draft of 2′ 9″. Prior to the introduction of the tug the Fr Matthew by Earnest Grubb which was the first steam tug to operate on the river between Waterford and Carrick lighters were navigated by the use of poles, sweeps (oars 30 feet long which took 6 steps forward and 6 steps backward to operate) and sails. To continue to Clonmel the goods would be transferred to Yawls which had a burden of 20 tons and a draft of 16″. These were towed in pairs with a team of 12 horses to Clonmel. Williamo’s father, Daniel, was part of the last crew to tow yawls to Clonmel in 1922. When the railway was introduced in the early 1800s river trade dwindled until it finally ceased the 1960’s. However the long tradition of excavating sand from the riverbed continued up to Williamo’s retirement when it finally ceased.

Williamo was noted for his knowledge of the river and was often called upon to help others who were unfamiliar with the river for assistance or advice on navigation issues. He was a very genial and approachable individual who loved to tell stories and relate experiences. Williamo was also known in times of need, and noted in times of tragedy, recovering several bodies from the river.

 So what was the History of Williamo’s barge? Firstly using photographs and the help of guys from Inland Waterways and the Heritage Boat Association I was able to establish from unique profiles on her hull such as a sharp bow, lower rubbing streak, upper rubbing streak which stops short, tiny washboard that Williamo’s barge was registered under the title number 29B.

The first record I could find of 29B was an advertisement in the Freemans Journal dated the   27th September 1873 offering for sale 13 canal boats the property of a Patrick Coyne deceased which included a barge 29B.

Again in the Leinster Leader dated the 29th of March the property of a Mr M Mitchell deceased from Enfield were up for Auction. The sale included a canal boat 29B in working condition.

 Barge 29B was first weighed in Killaloe on the 24th of October 1912 under the ownership of Murphy Brothers of Rathangan, Co Kildare.

On the Grand Canal via the Irish Press April 21st 1934

Dimensions recorded were Length 60 feet, Breadth 12 ft. 9ins. Stem height 7ft. 2ins. Stern height 7ft.2ins. and laden with 50 tons in weight she drew 4ft.2ins. She also had 50 gallons of fuel in her tanks. The weigh master was a Denis Crowe from Killaloe. She would have been fitted with a standard Bollinger engine. A  Mr D.E. Williams, General Merchant from Tullamore, bought her in 1947. He was the founder of the world famous Tullamore Dew Whiskey Company.

29B was then passed on to a Denis Ronan of Athy. A photo from the Kildare Nationalist shows her giving tours during a carnival in the early 1950s. It’s interesting to note the lack of health and safety regulations in this era.

In 1956 she was sold onto Messrs Deegan of Waterford who subsequently sold it to Williamo. He used her on the river until his retirement in 1983 when she was bought by a Mr Gerry Oakman from Athlone. Gerry brought her back up to the Shannon by way of the Barrow Navigation system and the Grand Canal where she worked as a work boat on various  projects on the Shannon before being retired and converted into a live-aboard barge in Shannon Harbour Co. Offaly.

Last year she was again sold on and moved to Lough Derg where she is on a hard stand and is undergoing a major refit. The photo above was taken about a month ago.

Probably the last photo of barge 29B in operation in Carrick on Suir. Williamo at the helm and his son at the bow. Photo by John Denby. Carrick on Suir

I was fortunate to be party to the facebook discussion and follow up research of Williamos barge on the Things I Miss About Carrick on Suir Facebook page. Social media has many negatives associated with it, but virtual journeys such as these that reach deep into a locality’s past and weave a path to the present are surely one of the platforms positive achievements. Just like the Carrick natives, the photo above reminded me of so many boats that signified my own childhood and to this day, such as the Portlairge, my uncle Sonny’s pilot boat Morning Star or the harbour launch as she crewed the buoy gangs to work.

I can only thank Maurice for sharing it with me and everyone else who is part of our online community. In preparing for this piece I recalled an iconic image and a wonderful poem by Carrick poet Michael Coady. On checking with Maurice he confirmed that they were about the same man. Michael’s poem which features in his book of the same name (Going by Water) celebrates Williamo’s life and his connection with the river, and features an image of his coffin borne by river to burial. As I haven’t asked permission to use any of it, can I just recommend that you keep an eye out for it. In a few lines he really captures the essence of the river and how it embodies us.

This will be my final guest blog in the current format, but it certainly will not be the end of sharing the best of our maritime heritage. On a personal level the series has proven to be the most emotionally draining. In some cases editing other peoples work, or offering suggestions that might risk offence. There is also the extra pressure of making sure that I make no mistakes in the formatting or that it reaches a wide audience. I have been fortunate over the years that I have had copy for each month, and that through this I have been able to extend the reach of what I personally can do, by sharing the passion, intelligence and personal insights of others who share my appreciation of our maritime heritage. We might be few in general terms, but I think the blog has proven a genuine interest and appetite for recognising and celebrating the boats, people and industries that thrived in our three sister rivers and her harbour.

I’m celebrating the four years of the blog at an event in the Reading Room, Cheekpoint on Saturday 8th June at 7.30pm. All welcome.

The Lighters – work boats of the River Suir

Some boats are just not sexy.  Sailing ships, paddle steamers, even smokey steam boats returning from foreign shores all have their appeal. But work boats tend to get a poor press, except perhaps amongst the men that plied their trade among them.  One that surely fits this category is the Lighter, the river transporter par excellence and one that is now confined to memory. I know of nothing extant and no plans for a replica.  So today’s guest blog is very special to me.  I was put on to the source of the information by David Carroll, but the writer today is Leslie Dowley and his topic; The Lighters of the River Suir.
Waterford’s unique location in the south-east corner of Ireland allowed for easy access to ports in the UK and continental Europe. It was also serviced by two of Ireland’s largest rivers, the Barrow and the Suir. The former serviced counties Carlow, Kilkenny and Wexford and was tidal as far north as St. Mullins in Co. Carlow. The latter serviced counties Kilkenny, Tipperary and Waterford and was tidal as far west as Carrick-on-Suir in Co. Tipperary. These counties were among the top food producers in Ireland and the long tidal stretches made it easy to transport goods up and down the rivers in large boats. This resulted in Waterford becoming one of Ireland’s leading ports for the import and export of goods. By the early nineteenth century, Waterford was the second largest port in Ireland (after Dublin) in terms of commercial traffic. 
Prior to the “great famine” Waterford had some £2.5 m worth of exports and £1.7 m worth of imports and was therefore a net exporter. The exports where nearly all food stuffs, as prior to the famine, Ireland was exporting sufficient food to feed 2 million people in the UK and had gained the name of being the “breadbasket of England”. In 1832 the volume of goods going down stream from Carrick-on-Suir was estimated to have been 11,527 tons of flour, 28,678 barrels of wheat, 19,445 barrels of oats, 3,878 barrels of barley, 1,028 tons of butter, 139 tons of lard and 63,751 sides of bacon. 
In the tidal areas, the main boats used to transfer goods to and from the ships in Waterford were known as a “Lighters”. These were a type of flat-bottomed wooden barge which were about 71 feet long and 16 feet wide and could carry up to 40 tons. The lighter’s had a crew of two and they used 30 foot steel-shod poles for manoeuvring at close quarters and to keep the boat in the tidal stream. While the main power was generated by the rising or ebbing tide each crew member was equipped with a 35/36 foot oar or “sweep” which swiveled on a 2 inch oak dowel. These were used to increase propulsion and each stroke meant walking six steps forward and six back. The lighter men were very skilled operators, with intimate knowledge of the river, its currents and tides. The journey from Waterford to Carrick normally took two tides while the reverse journey took at least 8 hours. While Carrick was the main destination upstream, there were wharf’s at regular intervals for the unloading of coal from the lighters. This was due to the delivery radius of a coal-horse being some two miles.
Lighters being poled into position in Waterford
By 1835 there were some 88 boats operating between Carrick and Waterford. In 1836, the Suir Navigation Company was founded to control all commercial traffic on the Suir and to improve and maintain the navigation. One of its first projects was the construction of the “navigation cut” at Carrick, which allowed the lighters to avoid the weir at Carrick Castle and enter the harbour at periods other than high tide. To finance these ventures, the hauliers were empowered to charge one penny per ton on all goods transported more than one mile west of the bridge in Waterford. The main investors were Lord Bessborough, Lalor of Cregg, Richard Sausse, the Grubbs of Clonmel, William O’Donnell and the Dowleys of Carrick-on-Suir. 
In the same year there were 93 boats employing 200 men on the stretch of river between Carrick and Clonmel. The boats on this route were known as yawls and carried about 14 tons. They were initially towed upstream by a team of men, but were later replaced by horsepower. The route to Clonmel was dogged with industrial action. In 1918 there was a strike which went on until February 1919 and the route to Clonmel was finally abandoned by Dowleys, who were the sole operators at the time.

Yawls in Carrick awaiting a cargo for Clonmel
Many of the lighters and yawls were built in the Carrick-on-Suir area. Three firms of boat-builders are listed in Slater’s Directory of Ireland of 1870 and one of them, Keogh Brothers, were still active in 1919 according to Kenny’s Irish Manufacturers’ Directory of that year. 
In 1877 J. Ernest Grubb founded the Suir Steam Navigation Company and was the owner and sole shareholder. In the same year he bought the steam tug the “Fr. Matthew”. It could tow four lighters to a maximum of 160 tons and could also carry passengers to fairs in Waterford. This improved the commercial use of the river and the stores on the quayside were a hive of activity and employment. By the end of the nineteenth century the route to Waterford was dominated by J. Ernest Grubb with the steam tug the “Fr. Matthew” while the others using the route included Thomas Butler, the Healy’s, T. G. Howell & Co., Richard Walsh of New St. and Edward Dowley of New St. 
In 1912 J. Ernest Grubb retired and his grain business was sold to Edward Dowley & Sons Ltd. while the Suir Steam Navigation Company was sold to Richard Walsh of New St. In the same year Dowleys bought a tug of their own, the Knocknagow I, for service between Carrick and Waterford. The Knocknagow II was added soon afterwards and both were used to tow lighters also.
The fully laden Knocknagow II making way from Carrick to Waterford
In 1923, Dowleys and Walshs attempted to reduce the rivermen’s wages. This resulted in a series of strikes and the river trade was further disrupted by a dockers strike in Waterford. All of this hastened the demise of the river trade in favour of the more dependable road transport. The civil war led to some revival in the river trade as road and rail traffic was disrupted by the blowing up of strategic railway bridges. However this revival was only temporary.

The Knocknagow I with a lighter being loaded in Carrick
In 1927 there were further strikes by the rivermen and the river trade never fully recovered from these disputes. In the same year Edward Dowley & Sons Ltd. purchased the Suir Steam Navigation Company from Walsh’s which effectively ended Walsh’s involvement with the river trade. 
During the Second World War the two Knocknagows continued to ply the route between Waterford and Carrick when fuel for road transport was in short supply. The lighters also served the town well during the war. 
After the war Edward Dowley & Sons Ltd purchased another two barges in the UK called the Rocksand and the New Forge. They also bought a cement barges that was towed by the Knocknagow. The imminent arrival of a cement boat in Carrick caused a lot of debate in the local pubs and bets were being laid as to whether a cement boat could float or not. It did float and was 100 ft long by 24 ft wide and 13 ft high. However, it was very cumbersome and an ill-advised purchase and its’ use was abandoned not long after. The Knocknagows kept operating up to 1973 when they were sold and this effectively marked the end of commercial trade on the river Suir.

My thanks to Leslie for this piece of vital maritime social history. You can read more of his amazing family history on his family website. Our next guest blog is due for May 26th and at this point I may have two to choose from.  We have several others in writing I’m told and would still be open to some female contributions.  The only criteria is that the piece needs to be about our maritime heritage, about 1200 words and I can help in editing if required, source photos and add in links etc.  I’d also welcome any contributions from younger readers including students

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 connect with me to receive the blog every week.  Simply email me to request to be added to my email list at russianside@gmail.com.