Waterford “Weir Wars”

I was reared on a story about the local weirs. As I heard it, one day the cot fishermen of Carrick and New Ross and areas in between descended en mass on Cheekpoint and proceeded to cut down the fishing weirs in the river.  The cot men were bazzed out of it with stone by women and children but great damage was done to the weirs.  One cot was overturned resulting in a man drowning. You might imagine that as a child I greeted the news with much indignation and fancied I would have thrown stones myself had I been there.  In recent years I have heard others refer to it as the weir wars.  But what exactly was the incident?, how did it come about? and what happened subsequently?.
An example of a head weir
My present understanding* of the origins of the weir wars goes back to the coming of the Normans and the establishment of the Head weirs which I grew up with. I’ve described this before, but in layman’s terms**, the weirs were a large fishing structure, built in the rivers using timber poles, and employed the tides to catch fish. As the tide ran, the weir poles funneled the water into a narrow shute called the Head and from which a net was hung. Fish were swept into the net and retrieved by fishermen. This method of weir was employed exclusively up to the start of the nineteenth century.

If you would like to know more about the head weirs, construction, fishing method and history I’m doing 3 workshops in the Irish National Heritage Park in Co Wexford over the summer.
(Dates 11th May, June 15th and August 24th. 10am – 1pm.  €35 pp)                     

Booking essential via https://www.facebook.com/events/2061825747386715/

I’ve also written about the introduction of the Scotch Weirs and their fishing methods. Again, and in brief, these were also made with poles, and were used exclusively as I understand it to catch Salmon. They generally ran from high water mark to beyond lower water, were placed perpendicular to the shore and worked effectively to block the passage of anything up or down the river.
Woodstown Scotch weir photographed in the late 1960’s  Brendan Grogan Collection
The scotch weirs were generally owned by landlords who leased out their operation to local fishermen.  However the effectiveness of these weirs caused severe difficulties for local fishermen along the length of the Barrow, Nore and Suir.  Indeed they were problematic where ever they were found.  Newspapers carried many stories of traditional fishermen complaining of their livelihoods being destroyed.  However, if the structures were owned and made money for the landlord class, then what could they do?
The first mention I have as yet found of trouble was 1828, when the use of the weirs were questioned and there removal muted(1).  By 1833 an article stated that “Captain Murphy and a detachment of the 70th regiment are now stationed at Passage for the purpose of preventing the peasants from injuring the salmon weirs in the district. Captain Jarvis and another detachment of the same regiment are stationed at Duncannon.”(2)
A Carrick Cot, courtesy of Jerry McCarthy

And it seems matters became more heated.  The Dublin Penny Journal gives the following account “In 1834, the cotmen assembled to the number of two hundred cots and armed with hatchets, saws, etc, braved the dangers of the sea in their small boats which are generally built of four or five boards.  They left Ross in the morning, accomplished their object and returned on the tide exhausted and fatigued, having performed a voyage of nearly fifty miles.  The lovers of cheap salmon welcomed their return with three hearty cheers and made a handsome collection to buy bread and beer to refresh these nautical heroes”(3)
A sketch of a Scotch weir
And on it went.  The account I have heard so many times in Cheekpoint corresponds with an article from the Freemans Journal of 1844. Just before 12 noon upwards of fifty cots appeared off Cheekpoint, carrying two to three men in each and armed with hatchets, billhooks, scythes tied on sticks etc.  17 came down the Suir past the city, the remainder being from Ross.  They cut down two weirs on the Wexford shore initially, they then crossed over to Cheekpoint and destroyed the weir of a “poor woman, the widow Walsh, who begged of them, on her knees, not to destroy it; but her intreties being in vain…”  Next they visited the Spit at Passage where they were “…cheered by the majority of the Passage folks…” where another scotch weir was cut, next to a weir at the Church Point and then returning upriver.  However, here things went awry.  A man named Meathe (locally Meades dock is still used as a place name by fishermen) successfully protected his weir by displaying a heap of stones to ward off the cots.  Whilst at the next weir they encountered a fisherman named Doherty (another report gave his first name as Andrew, my forefather), who called some of them by name and so they moved on.  When returning to the Ross river (The River Barrow is generally called the Ross River locally even today) a man fell overboard and drowned.(4)

In case you were not aware of them, the cots are traditional boats of the upper waters, originating from log boats.  For a sense of them and the snap netting practiced by the men that operated them, here’s a brilliant video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G0zc73JMS-E&t=302s

The weirs must have been wrecked and rebuilt many times after.  At a cursory glance through the newspapers numerous events, altercations, parliamentary hearings and court cases occurred in subsequent years. One poignant article from the height of the famine(5) relates how cots that were employed in removing weirs from the Barrow had been confiscated, leaving their owners with no means of earning an income.  It was not until the 1860’s when new rules emerged to outlaw the majority of Scotch weirs.  In most cases the Head Weirs were not affected.  They were, of course, an altogether different operation.  Something that is probably still not clearly understood today.
*I say present understanding, as I am finding and considering new information at every turn in relation to the weirs…In fact its a topic that I believe deserves at least a masters research project if not a PhD.
** I am aware of a wide range of local descriptions and several terms from literature used to name weirs.  In Waterford the two types of weir I am certain of as those I describe here.  However the other words used about the harbour include; Sprat weir, Eel weir, Herring weir, Salmon weir, Ebb weir, Flood weir, Stake weir, Fish Traps, Fixed engines, Fish Garths.   
(1) Freemans Journal. 03/09/1828 page 1
(2) Connaught Telegraph. 17/07/1833 page 4
(3) Quoted in Sliabh Rua A history of its people and places.  Ed Jim Walsh. 2001. page 251
(4) Freemans Journal 03/04/1844 page 4
(5) Freemans Journal. 26/07/1847 page 3

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