Since I went to the monthly format I have stopped the very popular guest blog segment. However, as Cian Manning publishes his new book on Waterford I asked if he would consider sharing some memories of why the river and our maritime past means so much to him. Much like myself, it’s becuase of a deep family tradition.
Ireland’s third longest river, the River Suir is 184 kilometres long and for centuries was a major artery bringing the life blood of trade and visitors to the island’s oldest city – Waterford. It has seen Norsemen traverse its waves to settle on its banks, Anglo-Norman mercenaries have travelled along its estuary, English kings have followed it as their entry point to Ireland and in later centuries would see many Irish leave the port of Waterford to explore the globe in search of opportunities and a better life not afforded to them in their homeland.
The ebbing and flowing of the rivers tide represents the story of the city of Waterford from its early development as a Viking settlement to becoming a medieval walled enclave. The city was a place of intense religious devotion in the 13th century and would transform into a modern European city over the course of the 18th and 19th century as a hub of industry and commerce. This is reflected in the numerous shipyards that sprang up over the period. This was accelerated by the development of steamships and in June 1817 the Princess Charlotte was the first such vessel recorded on the Suir.
A noteworthy shipyard is that of Pope & Co which constructed the SS Kilkenny in 1837, it was purchased by the East India Company and later renamed the Zenobia. The noted maritime historian Bill Irish stated that this vessel ‘was one of the first steamships to make the passage around the Cape of Good Hope to India.’ By 1841, Waterford and Cork accounted for 41% of ships built on the island of Ireland. Such demand led to the development of the Neptune Shipyard in 1843. Their steamship the SS Neptune was one of 40 ships built at the yard till 1882. It was one of the first steamers to regularly service the London-St. Petersburg route. On her journey up the River Neva, she was boarded by Tsar Nicholas I who decreed that whenever the Neptune was docked at Petersburg it did not have to pay its port tariffs.
Sadly, the Neptune Shipyards demise was precipitated by the decline in the fortunes of the Malcolmson family who declared themselves bankrupt in 1877. The interests of the Malcolmson’s shipping empire were assumed by the Clyde Shipping Company, the oldest steamship company in the world. Originally in partnership with the Malcolmsons they operated services from Belfast to Plymouth and Waterford to London. Another successful route of the Clyde was the Waterford to Liverpool route in transporting travellers and cattle. Though the events of the First World War would cause some troubled times for the Clyde and tragic events for the people of Waterford that are still hard to quantify to this day.
Just ten days before Christmas 1917, the SS Formby and SS Coningbeg were torpedoed by German submarine, U-62. Altogether 83 people perished aboard the vessels, sixty-seven of whom were from Waterford. The master of the U-boat, Ernest Hashagen details in his memoirs the stalking of the Coningbeg:
It is rather dreadful to be steaming thus alongside one’s victim knowing that she has only ten or perhaps twenty minutes to live, till fiery death leaps from the sea and blow her to pieces. A solemn mood possesses the few upon the bridge. The horror of war silences us. Every one of our orders, every moment, every turn of a wheel is bringing death nearer our opponent. All is exactly settled in advance. We, too, have become part of fate.
Only one body was recovered from the sinking of the two Waterford ships, that of Annie O’Callaghan, a stewardess on the Formby. My great-grandfather James Manning was one of the victims (a cattleman aboard the Formby) of the tragedy. Living at Roanmore Terrace in the city, James was the father of nine children. His widow was Mary, a Tipperary woman, aged 40 in 1917.
My grandfather Michael was the third youngest of their children. Waterford must have been a very bleak place that Christmas as the families waited by the quayside for news of their loved ones. The uncertainty must have been heart wrenching. Hope is eternal but can be a very bitter pill to swallow as time passes with little reward in such faith. In 1924 a message in a bottle washed ashore with a note from a soul clearly resigned to their fate. The morsel which survived the ravages of the seas read “We will never reach the Hook” and signed “Jack”. The family were issued with a Memorial Plaque known as “Dead Man’s Penny” which has sadly been lost.
James’s son Michael went on to serve in the army (reaching the rank of Sergeant) of the Irish Free State and was a successful participant in the All-Army Championships winning the ‘Hop, Step, and Jump’ now known as the ‘Triple Jump’ at Croke Park in 1924. Michael was adept at signalling and undertook courses in ‘Chemical Warfare’ from October 1937 to January 1938. In concluding his career with the army in order to support his young family of four children, he followed in his father’s footsteps and worked as a docker for Clyde Shipping. It must have been a very difficult decision with the memory of his father’s death in mind. However, it was necessitated by the need to provide for his family. The memory of my grandfather Michael lives on in his children Terry, Oliver, Elizabeth and Bennie while my great-grandfather’s name is enshrined in stone on the wonderful monument located at Adelphi Quay erected in 1997 in honour of those who perished in 1917.
My connections to the River Suir and the sea are not only exclusive to my paternal side but also my mother’s side of the family. My maternal grandfather was Thomas ‘Tunney’ Murphy of Ferrybank. He was a keen hurler playing with the local club and later Erin’s Own. His own father William ‘Feehan’ Murphy numbered the Shamrocks side which won back to back county titles in 1915 and 1916. My grandfather Thomas served as a ‘fireman and trimmer’ with Irish Shipping in the latter part of the Emergency. He carried out the duties of cook ‘unofficially’ with his speciality being bacon and eggs. To add some variety to the menu he would re-package the meal as ‘rashers’ and eggs. Some of his notable voyages were on the Irish Ash with destinations including Montreal in Canada and North Africa in 1945 while he was aboard the Irish Rose which reached New York in 1946.
His love of the water came from his own father as the family punt was passed from generation to generation. Thomas’s father and grandfather were carpenters with Hamilton’s. The punt was docked near the mud boat Portlairge which served in dredging the river Suir for decades. My mother was the youngest of three children and was ten years younger than her nearest sibling, her brother Raymond. Thomas Murphy died in April 1973 aged 49, ten days short of reaching a half-century. My mother was just eleven years old when he passed away. The memories and moments spent between my grandfather and my mother Miriam on the punt (painted in Corporation colours) are some of her most cherished of a relationship that cruelly ended too soon.
My brother Olin and I are still regaled by stories of salmon magically jumping into the punt (left by those our grandfather had done favours for in his later career as a Corporation worker) or to the hair-raising incident of when a ship nearly hit the boat with my grandfather and his daughter in it. Apparently he had drifted off, but Olin and I like to think it’s the rogue-ish sensibilities of playfulness (that we aim to continue) than that of nodding off carelessly.
Such bittersweet moments are evoked in my uncle Liam Murphy’s poem about the funeral of his father Thomas titled ‘Donal Foley Played Hurling With My Father’ (published in Issue 3 of the Poetry Ireland Review) and the lines:
my fathers funeral stops outside theatre royal
beside corporation yard where he worked and died
near where we lived and laughed in my childhood
closeby on the river his boat floats
on a flood of memories
No further words can adequately conclude the story of my family and our relationship to the River Suir and the sea. The lyrics of Bruce Springsteen, the words of WB Yeats or the images revealed in this piece can not elevate the stories of the Manning and Murphy families to a way of life that is more alien to my brother and I, our boat trips have been as tourists along the Amstel, Seine and Liffey. To us a novelty was a way of life for centuries which we can just about cling to. The River Suir is the impetus behind the narrative of Waterford. The story of my family is an intrinsic part of that history like the stories of many a family of this city. Memories do not flood back unless they are told, I’m glad my parents shared a reservoir of them to me.
Cian’s new book was published yesterday by the History Press. It’s called Waterford City, A History. I want to wish Cian the very best of success with it and hope he gets the support he deserves. The launch of ‘Waterford City: a history’ will take place on Friday 15th November at 18:30pm in the Book Centre. Donnchadh O Ceallachain, curator of the Medieval Museum, will speak at the event and will be accompanied by music from Waterford duo Deep Foxy Glow.
You can contact Cian by email if you would like to wish him well, get more information, or find out about stockists firstname.lastname@example.org