Enduring Mystery of Creaden’s Forty Steps

One of the most intriguing and enduring mysteries we have anywhere in Waterford harbour is the Forty Steps at Creaden Head.  Carved into the cliff of this inhospitable headland the purpose and the creators of the stone steps have intrigued and perplexed many. 

Creaden Head is located on the western side of Waterford harbour, 1 ½ mile NW of Dunmore East.  The stone at the tip of the headland is from volcanic puddingstone, a sand and pebble mixture that was forged in the furnace of the earth’s natural heat.  It juts out into the harbour and stands as the most eastern tip of the county of Waterford and the province of Munster.  Canon Power speculated that the name originated from a person, but someone unknown to us.[i]

Creaden Head is marked by the +

The steps were carved into the cliff face in a very steep area. It would have taken time, determination, and a lot of skill. It would also have had to be financed. Numerous theories have been put forward about the steps and I will share those that are known to me in no specific order.

The steps as seen this summer from our punt. We are looking upriver.

I might start with a piece written by the column “Sean Suir” in the News & Star in 1949.  “While camping in Woodstown my old pal and myself walked down those steps when the tide was very low. I often wondered who made them and why they were cut in such a point almost at, the steepest part of the cliff. If you have not seen them, do go and have a look at them.  Seemingly no one in the locality could tell us anything about them. The first time I saw them was when brought by my parents for a cruise to Dunmore on the old ‘ Vandeleur,’ the once-famous river steamer.[ii]  What I love about this is the notion that even in the era of the Paddle Steamers (1837-1905) the steps evoked speculation and intrigue. 

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Templetown, Co Wexford

One theory is that the steps were created when the Knights Templar operated a ferry between Creaden and their church at Templetown in Wexford, just over a mile across the harbour.  The Templars were granted ferry and numerous other rights after the Norman conquest.  According to Byrne[iii], they established a ferry crossing at the narrowest point (Passage East to Ballyhack).  No mention is made of another crossing, and why they would want another crossing point a few miles away and in a wider and more dangerous location is beyond me. 

A more incredible theory is that it was used as a means of taking African slaves ashore to be walked in chains (for exercise apparently) before being reloaded and sent to the America’s.  The origin of this theory is that an old path close to the shore at Fornaght leading inland known as Bothar na mban Gorm , the road of the blue women.  The name has created much speculation and wild theorising, but the notion of diverting northwards from off the customary slave route has no evidence that I am aware of.  More importantly, It ignores the well-known practice of triangular trade that governed shipping at the time, and indeed the fundamentals of the theory are still in use to this day.

The late Noel McDonagh had a very interesting and to my mind plausible theory which linked this roadway with Creaden and the ancient burial site of the Giants Grave at Harristown.  Noel’s research was unfortunately cut short by his untimely death but his theory, in brief, was that ancient people may have used the road and steps as part of a funeral rite as they placed the bones of their dead at the base of Creaden in a sea cave to enable their passage to the other world by water. Noel’s findings of flints and other evidence have turned the heads of everyone with an interest in the early settlement of Ireland.

The steps and the cave beneath to the left

One theory that I occasionally discussed with Noel was smuggling.  Neither of us really thought smuggling at the location made any sense.  Firstly it was within view of Duncannon which had a military presence since the medieval era. But it is also an inhospitable location.  Tides can reach three knots on the Head during spring tides, and it is open to all wind directions except south-westerlies.  To put it mildly, it is far from being an ideal location.    

There is merit to the theory, however.  Firstly smuggling was a well organised and lucrative trade in Ireland up to the mid 19th Century.  My cousin James has guest blogged on it before.  Creaden is out of the way, right beside the channel into the ports of Waterford and New Ross.  More importantly, such steps have an established association with smuggling in other areas including west Cork. 

My view of smuggling was that it would involve a ship coming into the head to unload.  Not feasible on this site in my view.  But what if it anchored above the head, and a number of smaller boats worked to bring the goods ashore, where willing hands passed the goods up onto the headland and distributed them inland.  Not just feasible, but practical.  It may have also served the purpose of offering a diversion to the revenue coastwatchers, another site amongst many to be watched and the spreading of resources. And it’s a theory supported by one of Ireland’s foremost archaeologists Connie Kelleher. Connie specialises in underwater archaeology for the National Monuments Service.  She spoke about it in Waterford some years back in a talk organised by the cousin.  Connie has a new book out called The Alliance of Pirates: Ireland and Atlantic piracy in the early seventeenth century, which I have promised myself for Christmas.  I’m sure Creaden and Waterford will get a substantial mention.

Another theory about the steps was that they were used by pilots for boarding sailing vessels coming into the ports. See for example Michael Fewer’s account from Rambling Down the Suir[iv].  Most likely this was the era of the hobblers, prior to the formation of the harbour commissioners in Waterford (1816) who appointed their own official pilots and a pilot boat.  However, it’s also known that the hobblers operated for many years after this and that they operated from the area.  I would think it would be highly unlikely they went to the bother of cutting steps into the cliff, but very likely they used the steps when tide and weather allowed.

a virtual tour via Mark Power

There is one idea I have myself that I have yet to properly research.  That is the use of stone on Creaden by millstone makers and which has been researched by Niall Colfer (son of the renowned late Billy Colfer) If anyone can get past the paywall, they might keep me in mind! 

And of course, there’s likely to be other theories that I have not heard, or have yet to unearth.  But that’s the joy of research.  It’s an ever-evolving story. 

Any feedback can be added to the comments on the blog or by email to tidesntales@gmail.com


1950’s Dun Laoghaire visitors to Dunmore

My guest blog this month is from a stalwart of the page, David Carroll.  Like myself he has a passionate interest in the local maritime heritage story and his personal reflections and research into the stories make a significant contribution to our understanding.  This month he considers the regular summer visitors from Dun Laoghaire to Dunmore during his childhood and paints a very vivid scene.

Both my parents, Desmond and Freda, were from Dun Laoghaire but had come to live in Dunmore in 1947, six months after I was born. The reason we arrived was that my father was appointed Harbour Master in succession to Major Wilfred Lloyd.  My parents were very happy living in Dunmore and had integrated well into the maritime community of the village. They remembered Dun Laoghaire fondly and loved every opportunity that presented itself to catch up on gossip and news.  Countless visitors made this possible; members of the OPW dredger crew, visiting yachtsmen, fishermen during winter months and also those staying in the hotels, caravans or renting houses during the summer months.

1950’s Dunmore

One such visitor was my uncle Jim (J.J.) Carroll who came to stay with us one summer during the mid-1950s at the time the Dunmore Regatta was taking place. My uncle, who incidentally was the first curator of the National Maritime Museum, was an expert model maker of ships and locomotives. He brought with him a model yacht that I was able to race in the regatta, which was a great thrill for me. He also brought a replica model of the Kingstown lifeboat Dunleary 11, the last lifeboat to be stationed in Kingstown, which relied solely on oars and sails for propulsion. It was in service from 1914 until 1919, during which time the RMS Leinster was torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine UB-123 off the Kish with the loss of over 500 lives in October 1918. I arranged for the model to be displayed in our garden beside the harbour to draw attention to the Annual Flag Day for the Lifeboat, which was always held on Regatta Day.  That was a time, long before Twitter and Facebook were used to publicise such events. The model is now on display in the National Maritime Museum.

JJ’s model as it looks today, highlighting the proud history of the Dun Laoghaire Lifeboat
Dunmore was a favourite port of call for Dun Laoghaire yachtsmen. It was an ideal ‘stopping-off point’ for a yacht sailing onto Crosshaven or West Cork and was also convenient for yachts coming from Milford Haven in Wales. Looking at visiting yachts to the harbour as recorded in the 1957 Irish Cruising Club Annual, over fifty per cent showed Dun Laoghaire as their home port. This would be typical of all summers in the 1950s and up to the time that the re-development of the harbour started in the early 1960s.
I have some fond memories of the Dun Laoghaire yachts coming to Dunmore and some that I might want to forget! The typical yachtsman arriving in Dunmore would have been a professional type of person as yachting was a pastime that required a lot money to fund. Having worked hard all year, many would let their hair down during their time in Dunmore. It was mainly all good-natured fun and antics but one escapade that I was told about, by my parents, involved a small Messerschmidt car being brought through the windows of the Haven Hotel and placed in a guest’s bedroom.

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One of the most ebullient yachting characters from Dun Laoghaire was a dentist called Gerry Reddy. He was a regular visitor, coming as a member of the crew on different yachts. On one famous occasion, he arrived, not by sea but rather by air and it almost had an unhappy ending. The front page of the Irish Press of 12th August 1954 reported as follows:
Escape In Waterford Plane Crash
“A 4-Seater Miles Messenger aircraft crashed at Dunmore East, Co. Waterford last night while attempting to land on a local air-strip. Neither of the two occupants of the plane was injured but both received a severe shaking. The plane was piloted by Mr. Cedric O’Callaghan, who had with him as passenger Mr. G. Reddy also of Dublin. After circling the harbour twice, the plane overshot the landing ground, plunged through a wire fence and landed heavily in scrub. The under-carriage and wings were wrecked”. [1]
The Waterford News went on to say: “..It was the second time within a week that Mr. Reddin (I think they meant Reddy) figured in an unpleasant incident. The first occasion was when the yacht in which he was a passenger was buffeted by mountainous seas five days ago off Hook lighthouse.

All on board though that they were going to be swamped and crushed to death on the rocks. They tried to light flares, but they had become so wet that they would not light. It was the intention to raise an alarm so it could be conveyed from the lighthouse to the crew of the Dunmore East lifeboat.

If the lifeboat had arrived at that time, according to Mr. Reddin, they would have abandoned the craft at sea. They steered the boat two miles out to sea after considerable difficulty and managed to get into Dunmore East on the tide.” [2]
Two other regular yachtsmen were Roy Starkey and Bob Geldof  who sailed a small 4-ton yacht called Bonita.  I can recall them coming into our house at midnight to hear the shipping forecast on BBC radio. This information was vital to them before setting off to round the Tuskar and heading up the Irish Sea home to Dun Laoghaire. Bob Geldof lived just a few doors away in Crosthwaite Park, Dun Laoghaire to where my mother had lived before her marriage. I can recall saying to her that Geldof was an unusual name and she told me that  it was a Belgian name and the family had come to live in Dublin, which satisfied my curiosity. Many years later, he rose to national prominence because of his famous son, also Bob who became celebrated as the singer with the Boomtown Rats and who brought Live Aid to the world.
Two motor yachts from Dun Laoghaire, listed in the 1957 Irish Cruising Club Annual were the Kittiwake and the Santa Maria and I have memories of them both for very different reasons.
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The Santa Maria, may have been a converted fishing boat, and was kept in pristine condition by two professional yacht hands from Dun Laoghaire called Pat Carey and Billy Davis. They crewed and maintained the motor yacht on behalf of the Creedon family, who were well known in business.  Pat and Billy were real seafaring characters and I always thought that they may have spent time at sea earlier, with Irish Lights or maybe on the mailboats.
During my summer holidays around that time (1957/58) I was allowed serve as an altar boy at the daily Mass in the small chapel attached to the Convent that overlooked the harbour.  On one occasion, I was told that  the priest celebrating mass would be the priest who was a guest aboard the Santa Maria. The priest was from Blackrock College in Dublin. He obviously was used to older and better-trained boys serving and was very intolerant of me as I struggled sometimes with the responses, which in those days were in Latin and I had a tendency to ring the bell at the wrong time!  After Mass, the priest took me aside and told me directly that I would need to speed up and cut out the errors. I was very upset and did not return to the Convent after that until the Santa Maria was well and truly around Hook Head.  Much later, I discovered that the priest was Father Walter Finn, nicknamed Wally, who was a famous rugby coach in the College and coached many successful SCT teams.
I had much happier memories of the Kittiwake. Another well-known person in business, called Sam McCormick, who held the agency for Caterpillar heavy-duty machinery in Ireland, owned this motor yacht. This company later became McCormick MacNaughton.  He and his family were always very kind and generous to my parents.  I often used to catch shrimps in the harbour and hand up a bucket full to the guests staying onboard, who always seemed to enjoy cooking and eating them.
At the end of the 1957 summer, my father was asked to skipper the Kittiwake on its return voyage to Dun Laoghaire.  Along with Sam McCormick and his eldest daughter Jean, I was given special permission to be part of the crew. I was absolutely delighted. This was to be first time to go past the Hook in a boat and I was told that the course my father was to steer would bring us right between the two Saltee Islands. I could not hide my excitement. From Killea church, you could see the Saltees in the distance off the Wexford coast.  I was looking forward to seeing them at close quarters, but the reality was somewhat different, as I got very seasick as we passed through the sound between the two Islands and had to lie down on a bunk in a cabin for a few hours. We reached Wicklow by nightfall and went to the Grand Hotel for a lovely meal. My appetite has returned at this stage.  Next day, was the All-Ireland Hurling Final and we completed a very enjoyable voyage to Dun Laoghaire along the Wicklow and Dublin coastline. I recall that it was about 3am, when we arrived back in Dunmore by car but I was still up in time for the first day back at school, which was overshadowed somewhat by Waterford’s narrow loss in the final.
It was not only during the summer that Dun Laoghaire folk came to Dunmore because during the winter herring seasons, fishing boats from Dun Laoghaire formed part of the large fleet fishing in the rich herring grounds at Baginbun and landing their catches at Dunmore.
Nordkap photo courtesy Richard Mc Cormick, National Maritime Museum” 

One Dun Laoghaire skipper who stood out and was held in very high esteem by my mother and father was Brian Crummey of the m.f.v. Ard Ailbhe. This was partly because he hailed from Booterstown, where my parents had lived but more importantly because he was highly qualified and trained skipper and a very ambitious one that had the expertise and drive to compete with foreign fishermen.

In 1967, Brian travelled to Norway to bring the trawler Nordkap back to Ireland. It was 65 feet in length (20 m), wooden hull and powered by a 230hp engine. It was an outstanding vessel.  Brian, of course continued the Dun Laoghaire / Dunmore East connection many years later when he married Frances and came to live in the village.
The two ports will always have connections and I am sure that other people will have as many happy memories to share, over the years, as I had growing up on the harbour in Dunmore.


Next month’s guest blog will feature Catherine Foley, who will introduce us to her uncle Joe from Passage East.  I’m always delighted to get contributions for the guest blog.  If any others out there would like to contribute, I would love to hear from you.  The brief is 1200 word count, on a theme of  the three sister rivers, the ports of Waterford and New Ross and harbour maritime history.  If interested to know more or discuss an idea please drop me an email. 
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[1] Irish Press 12 August 1954
[2] Waterford News 13 August 1954 (Thanks to Michael Farrell of BGHS for alerting me to this.)

1904 Harbour War Games

In 1904 a local paper(1) announced that war had been declared from Waterford Harbour.  The war was a game, but a serious game, that involved up to 200 ships and extended across the length of the Irish Sea. The Waterford Flotilla stationed in the harbour played a crucial part.
The early years of the twentieth century saw heightened tensions across Europe and Asia as Russia, Germany, Britain and France flexed their might and vied to extend or to enhance their individual power bases.  On land and sea new technologies and uncontrolled expansion saw risks multiply and preparations for war was the order of the day. A feature of this preparedness were manoeuvres or war games played out on a grand scale.
In this particular war game in 1904, the Irish side of the Irish sea the “Blue side” and extended from Lough Swilly to Cobh (then called Queenstown) with three ports assigned as “designated protected zones” meaning in short that to the opposing side these were seen as no go areas due to the perception of land defenses and military might.  The three were Carrickfergus, Kingstown and Waterford.  On the opposing side of the Sea the “Red Side” had her own areas of protection Loch Ryan, Milford Haven and Falmouth.
The manoeuvres commenced on Monday 8th of August (preparations had commenced two weeks previously) and were set to continue until August 15th.  The object was to test out naval strategies, enhance communications, testing machines and weapons and ensuring the security of land defenses.  Such defenses had at their core, it would seem, the efficient working of signal stations and intelligence bases. Ultimately it seems with the reorganisation of the British home fleet flotilla and the introduction of new technologies and ever faster and more powerful ships, new strategies for deployment and engagement were critical for the defence of the realm.
HMS Invincible, later HMS Erebus and finally HMS Fisgard
By Unknown – Old photo (1870), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23302252
Central to the Waterford base of operations was the river between Passage East, Ballyhack and Arthurstown. There the “Waterford flotilla” was managed. The ship at the centre was HMS Erebus a depot ship which headquartered the command of Captain Charlton. The Erebus, which was formerly HMS Invincible is described as a floating factory dealing with everything from initially painting signaling boards for use in exercises to repairing ships and dealing with all manner of mechanical and technical faults through an army of artificers stationed aboard.
Following a terrific storm Waterford harbour was littered with sheltering ships of the “Blue side”.  Those further down the harbour were reported to be at risk of dragging their anchors.  Those at Passage had their troubles too. For example a collision between HMS Erebus and the destroyer HMS Starfish is reported.  The latter coming alongside collided heavily with the depot ship.  She also narrowly missed HMS Violet (1897) presumably already alongside. Interestingly the link above used for Starfish suggests that there were handling issues with the craft. Later while Starfish is swinging on the tide, her stern collides heavily with the bow of HMS Vulture which is also at anchor.

A journalist gives a first hand account of departure from the harbour aboard HMS Vulture, a Torpedo boat destroyer with a top speed of 30 knots. (I’m speculating this was an earlier departure, probably arranged specifically for the media) The journalists were given special permission to board by Captain Charlton and the “Waterford flotilla of destroyers and gunboats” departed the harbour at 5pm heading down to the Hook and then dispersed.  Aboard the HMS Vulture the journalists are welcomed aboard by a young commander named Lieutenant Hill who “…looked young to have such responsibility, but only the young can stand the strain of life on a destroyer.” Of his appearance “…one of the great mysteries of the world is the permanent cleanliness of the naval officers among the all pervading filth and smuts of a destroyer.”

A whistle announced the departure of the ship and at first only a spray makes the speed of the craft noticeable.  At 15 knots a shudder runs through the ship and a gale blows along the decks. At 20 knots the deck is throbbing.  When 25 knots are reached the ship is tearing past the wooded hillsides of the harbour and a hurricane is blowing along the decks.  At this point a stoker emerges from a manhole in the deck of the ship covered in coal dust from head to foot and limp with perspiration. Below him the air glows red with heat, and when at full power the temperature will rise to 140 degrees.
1909 cartoon in Puck shows nations engaged in naval race game
By L M Glackens(Life time: 1866-1933) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Whatever the outcome of the games, over 114 years later it is obvious that the tone of the article and the romance and adventure reported in parts was very absent from the actual conflict when it emerged.  As the superpowers went on to build larger and more powerful machines, the threat of war increased in tandem.  Far from acting as a deterrent it arguably made war more inevitable.  Ironically many of the ships used in the war game would be redundant by the outbreak ten years later.

(1)This article is based on a new report from the Waterford Standard, published on Wednesday August 10th 1904 page 3.

I would like to thank Paul O’Farrell for helping me clarify some points with the piece

The Sparkling Wave dilema

Generally ships in distress receive a welcome in any port, but this was not so with the Liverpool barque Sparkling Wave. For the ship was carrying an explosive cargo, of such a quantity, the city fathers of Waterford could not permit her into their port for fear of the safety of the town.

Recently we covered a report from the News and Star of 1862, which chronicled a series of shipping disasters and misadventures along the coast of Waterford and Wexford. At least six ships were known to have perished but many more sustained damage, necessitating repairs.  One such vessel was the barque Sparkling Wave.

The Sparking Wave was a new ship which had been launched the previous September, was 130 feet long and 432 tons*.  Under Captain Frazer she had departed Liverpool for the port of Old Calabar, in present day Nigeria before running into the storm. She was owned by MP Thomas Horsfall of Liverpool, a family with a long time connection in shipping between their home port and Africa.  As she battled ferocious waves and mountainous seas her mainmast broke and her bowsprit snapped.  Close to the Hook, the Master nursed his stricken vessel to Creaden Head where he managed to shelter.(1)


When the weather moderated the ship requested entry to the port as a refit was necessary.  She was towed up as far Passage, where the Coast Guard (the newspaper states it was the Arthurstown Coast Guard) telegraphed the city with the alarming news that along with general cargo, the ship had no less than 800 quarter casks of gunpowder aboard.(2)

What could have occurred, Liverpool docks 1864
Accessed from http://blog.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/2007/04/maritime-tales-terror-of-the-lottie-sleigh/
The ship was held in the lower harbour, and it was subsequently discussed at the quarterly meeting of the Corporation in the Council Chamber of City Hall.  The Mayor,William Johnson, assumed the chair of what was obviously a strained meeting.  On the one hand they could not ignore a vessel in distress. The usual anchorages between Cheekpoint and Passage East would be crowded with shipping.  However, if she came into Waterford Port, it would not just be shipping that would be in peril, but the city itself. Consideration was giving to removing the cargo, however it was determined no magazine of a suitable size was available in the city to store it. Eventually it was decided that the ship would be towed to Fox’s Hole, below the city and there repairs could be made. It must have been a tense debate, but I wonder did some consider the precautions too severe because the paper notes “The Council, generally, expressed their satisfaction that his worship had exercised so wise a discretion” (3)
Fox’s Hole from an 1830s chart of Waterford, seen on the Kilkenny side of the River Suir just above Little Island.
With thanks to Frank Ronan
The following week its reported that a new mast had arrived from Liverpool and was already fitted.  (As an aside, one wonders why they would not have had the repairs made in Waterford, given that the required skills and materials must have been readily available. Although it does highlight the promptness of the trade between the city and Liverpool at the time) The report concludes, perhaps with a hint of relief, that the barque will be soon underway.(4)  It may have been good news for Waterford, but a curious line in a previous news report, suggests it might not be good news for everyone; “A strong impression prevails that the cargo on board the Sparkling Wave will reach the rebels ‘of the Confederate States’.”  A story to be uncovered perhaps.

* Lloyds Registar
 (1) Waterford News and Star 31.01.1862, page 3
(2) Waterford News 9th Feb 1862 page 3
(3) ibid
(4) Waterford News 14th Feb 1862. Page 3


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They welcome a Christmas spent in their homes

On this years Late Late Toy show the television moment of the year was said to have been the unwrapping of Sergeant Graham Burke by his kids. He was, up to hours previously, serving with Irish peacekeepers in Mali, Africa. The host, Ryan Tubridy, became emotional at the scene, a family reunited.  Yet when I heard of it my thoughts turned to my own childhood and how Christmas was marked by an absence; where seafaring men were as likely to eat their turkey dinner in a foreign port or in the middle of the Atlantic or Pacific.
In my father and mothers generation absences at Christmas was just something to be accepted. Emigration was a fact of life and in a seafaring community that absence was probably felt much more as the men were part of a dangerous way of life, and where the monetary return was not very lucrative. Christmas in those days could be marked (if you were lucky) by a package from any part of the world with some hand made gifts and some trinkets with a card of greeting and a bit of news. I suppose that’s why those at home celebrated the holiday so much. In my own generation Christmas morning was as much about the house visits as anything else. One of only two days of the year that the pub closed, there was never as much drink consumed.  And as it flowed so did the yarns.
My father left with Tom Sullivan, they spent Christmas 1958 together in a BP tanker in the Persian Gulf

I recall one of a Christmas in New York and I think it was Charlie Duffin who was met off the ship by his relations and he was entertained all day and then dropped back to his ship the following morning. There were yarns of turkey flying across the table in an Atlantic storm. Of puddings going afire with too much brandy poured over it.  Of the sights, sounds and smells of foreign ports and cities from as diverse as Buenos Aires, Cairo or Tokyo. Tom Sullivan of Coolbunnia told me recently that there was always a special effort made for Christmas on the ships he sailed on. No one was expected to work except on core duties. And there was always plenty to eat and drink with extras for all via the cook and stewards.

But ships could also be docked in foreign ports and of course this created the best tall tales. Walter Whitty told me once of a session he went on in the Philippines. One of the crew was an ex WWII British Commando who described to an incredulous crew how they used to dispatch guard dogs during a commando raid, by wrenching the dogs front paws apart. According to Walter when his word was questioned the commando went out into the street and started chasing dogs around with a wild eyed frenzy. By the time the police had stopped him, several hounds lay dead in the street. When the ship sailed for Australia their crew mate was still in jail.
My father had one of a spree in a Spanish port, although I’m not sure if it was Christmas or not. It started with a session in the harbour area, where you would not be sure of your life and you stuck close to your crew mates.  Next morning he woke in a cell, and was dragged before the courts.
“Will the prisoner state his name?” says the judge.
“Bob Doherty your honour” says me father.
“Anything to the Dohertys of Cheekpoint?”
“One in the same yer honour”
“I had a fine pint of stout in the Suir Inn a few years back Bob, is their Guinness still as cool and creamy”
“Still the same yer honour”
“Well Bob, stand a round on my behalf the next time you’re home – case dismissed”
Being away from family can never be easy however, especially at Christmas, and probably felt all the more when youngsters were involved. The following extract comes from the Irish Times of December 23rd 1955.
“While people all over the world make arrangements to get home for Christmas by air, rail and sea, and worry about the time on Christmas Eve that they will arrive, they may be inclined to forget those whose job it is to get them to their destinations, and in particular the seamen. Few seamen ever count of a Christmas at home, for, as it often happens, they may get a few days with their families before Christmas and then on Christmas Eve they have to leave for Persia, South America or some place even further away.
 
When the ESSO tanker Avonmouth  leaves Dublin port this morning for the Persian Gulf she will have several Irishmen in her crew. Two of these, who joined the ship for the first time yesterday, were Thomas Murphy, aged 20, of Victoria road, Clontarf, who has been at sea for three years, and Andrew Doherty of Cheekpoint, Co Waterford, who has been at sea for 27 years. Since going to sea, Mr. Murphy has not had a Christmas with his family, to whom he said goodbye once again yesterday. Mr. Doherty has not spent a Christmas with his family in seven years, and most of the other twenty he has spent in all parts of the world, mainly at sea.
Andy’s ship ESSO Avonmouth accessed from http://www.aukevisser.nl/uk/id155.htm

Mr. Doherty arrived in Dublin last Saturday and went to Cheekpoint to spend a few days with his five children.  His wife died 18 months ago and the children are now looked after by their aunt…”  The Andy Doherty mentioned here of course was a neighbour of ours here in the Russianside, and was known to everyone as “Lannen”

Looking through my fathers discharge book  recently I discovered that he first went to sea at 19 years of age in May 1951. His first Christmas was aboard a US tanker the Missionary Ridge. He was at sea or in a foreign port for most Christmases over the next fifteen years. Some of the ships I had not heard of before such as the Andes of London, the Esso Glasgow or the MV Arklow.  One of course which I wrote of before was the MV Ocean Coast, on which he was awarded a scroll for bravery following a Mersey river rescue.

Another he served Christmas aboard was the MV Devon Coast, which Tom Sullivan had the following yarn about.  My father and another chap were aboard over Christmas, all the other crew had gone to their homes. They were tasked with minding the ship but got fed up with their own company and went shoreside on a session. Staggering back to the ship they discovered a dog howling having fallen over the side of the quay by their ship which was stuck on a ledge. The howls were unmerciful and realising they would get no sleep, they grabbed a rope and my father straddled the gunwale and quayside while his mate slide down to grab the dog. Next moment my father gets a tap on the shoulder from the dock police asking what he thought he was up to.  “Mercy Mission Mate” came the reply from Bob. Next day they were on the front cover of the Liverpool Echo, the dog in their arms and they both got a bonus from the company, as no mention was made of their “condition” in the article.

My parents were married on Stephens Day 1964, one Christmas that he was home! I was born the following November and two weeks later he shipped out on the SS British Star not returning home until March. His last Christmas on a ship was aboard the MV Seriality for FT Everard and Sons of London. He signed on in New Ross on December 10th 1968 (my younger brother Roberts 2nd Birthday) and signed off the ship at Ellesmere Port (Liverpool) in January 1969.  He went on to take a shore job with the paper mills in Kilmacow where he stayed until the lockout of 1978.

MV Seriality alongside her sister ship. Accessed from http://www.shipsnostalgia.com 20/12/2017.
Photo: P Downsby Collection.

So that Tubridy scene some weeks back touched a nerve on so many levels. Because behind all the drink, yarns and laughter at Christmas growing up, there was also a sadness. Young boys left home to join ships where they were thrown together with mixed crews of all nationalities and temperaments and  told to get along. Pay was poor, conditions were relatively harsh (but improved considerably by my fathers era) and drink was the only means of escape. Men could be away for months and sometimes years and the longer that went on, the harder I think it became, to fit back in on their return. And needless to say it was the women who held everything together. Wasn’t it ever thus!

Thanks to Tomás and Tom Sullivan for helping me with this piece.

My book on growing up in a fishing village is now published.
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