The legacy of the schooner B.I. Waterford 1937

Being from Cheekpoint, I’ve often met people both at home and abroad with positive memories about the village or its inhabitants. Its usually a connection with an individual but also recollections of views from the Minaun, the meeting of the three sisters, or a meal in the Suir Inn.  So on first meeting a lady in Kilkenny some years back at a picnic lunch, I was taken aback, when on hearing my birthplace, she remarked “oh the people who pillaged the schooner B.I.!”

Lying alongside the Strand Rd, Cheekpoint
Photo via Tomás Sullivan

All of us knew of the BI growing up.  The schooner was then a wreck on the strand road, directly opposite a garage owned by Jim “Dypse” Doherty.  We would also know her story, retold often through a poem, written by Bill O’Dwyer.  I recall no better recitation than that of Matt “Mucha” Doherty, which would have easily graced the stage of the Theater Royal.

I’ll sing you of a gallant ship that sailed
o’er the western seas,
Whose flag has braved for seventy years the
battle and the breeze.
She was built in 1867 when Parnell was just
a boy,
She was christened at first the Sarah Anne,
but later renamed the BI
She tramped the Atlantic far and wide, and
sailed the Pacific too.
She has seen many weathers and many a gale
and many a cargo and crew.
But though long the day the night must come
and ships and mortals must die.
But the storm at Christmas sealed the doom
of that of that gallant schooner BI

She sailed from Arklow, this gallant ship,
bound down for the English shore.
But she sprang a leek outside Rosslare, and
was stranded just near Dunmore.
She was towed from Passage to Cheekpoint
quay, now her hold is no longer dry.
Battered fore and aft that stately craft,
that was once the schooner BI
With an ugly list on her starboard bow,
with her mainsail gone and her boom.
Now her guardian angel is Captain Burns,
with Darkie as non-de-plume.
She was auctioned as scrap and a Tramore
man, her trappings and all did buy.
He promised the Darkie ten shillings a week
to watch over the schooner BI.
While the Captain slept one cloudy night,
some fellows came in a boat,
Went aboard the schooner and stole some
rope they needed to fetter a goat.
When the Captain found the loss next day he
raised a terrible cry.
He was scared of what the owner would say
of the theft from the schooner BI.
When the owner came and heard the news a
wrathful man was he.
He told the Darkie he was no use, he knew
nothing of ships or the sea.
He cursed like hell and said “well well, my
information I’ll buy
Five pounds I’ll give to arrest the thief
that raided the schooner BI”.
Now Captain Burns was an honest man and he
resented the owners remarks.
He said “Since I took charge of your hulk
I’m working from dawn to dark.
I’ve welts on me feet from walking the deck
so pay me my wages my boy.
And I’ll bid you farewell you may go to
hell, yourself and the schooner BI”.
The BI in prouder days
Photo via Tomás Sullivan

The poem may have had a Cheekpoint bias and my Father when asked, would shrug and say they were hard times.  When pushed he would regale us with stories of “Captain” Burns, who seems to have been a real “character” and perhaps not the first choice for a watchman.

Boats such as the BI had a proud, workman like tradition and went where they were required, and carried what was available. Schooners originated in America and by the start of the 19th C had spread to the Europe.  They were ideally suited to sailing in coastal waters where winds changed constantly and shallow drafts were common. Certainly there are a few mentions of her in the Irish papers of the era, and she seems to have worked out of Youghal for many years. In 1917 the then Cork Examiner carries details of a court case where damages are sought against Youghal Urban District Council, “by reason of a foul berth”.  In September of 1925 the BI is up for sale in a notice in the Irish Independent, her captain retiring, and details can be had from a D.Donovan of Youghal.  The Donegal News of August 1931 in their Ballybofey and district notes, welcomes the BI with a cargo of coal, which were are told was a welcome site at Ramelton quay serving as a “reminiscence of the shipping in the past”

Her last days are recorded for posterity by the man who captained her for the last time; Bob Roberts. Roberts was a seaman, journalist, storyteller and musician and in his own words tells of her last voyage, which I have edited significantly here:

Having departed Wexford Town for Falmouth on Christmas Day with only myself and the mate for crew, (the crew had refused to sail we’re told) the BI ran into serious weather.  Carrying only ballast, she sprung her timbers and we battled for 48 hrs manning the pumps as much as the wheel or the rigging.  Realising our journey, not to say investment and lives were in serious peril, we turned to leeward and made for Waterford harbour.

We spotted the hook in the early hours and with some difficulty, and a lot of trepidation, rounded and headed into the harbour.  The ship at this point was dangerously full of water and we were in unfamiliar waters and unsure if this was indeed the harbour or the feared Tramore Bay. Eventually we found ourselves in shelter and at daybreak, with the assistance of two hobblers, stranded the BI at Passage East.

There our luck turned, as we were reported by a “busy body country custom official” to the Board of Trade.  A survey was required and what might have been a quick repair job turned into a financial nightmare. We were broke and the BI had to be auctioned.
From a piece titled “To earn a living under sail”Yacht and Yachting magazine. December 11 1964 (1)

The Cork Examiner carried the notice on 9th January 1937 saying the “Topsail Schooner BI” would be sold by public auction on Tuesday 19th January at 12 noon.  Locally it was said she was purchased by a man from Tramore who had some plans to make her sea worthy again but he ended up selling what he could from her deck and hold and left the hulk to rot.

aground at Strand Rd. Photo via Tomás Sullivan

As regards the pillaging piece, I suppose I can understand the feelings of Roberts.  Having invested his savings in a joint venture to return the schooner to England, he must have felt cheated.  The crew, weather and eventually the ship turned on him.  The “busy body” custom official and the price of a proper refit must have sealed his opinion of a pretty disastrous venture.  In such a light his badmouthing of the area is probably understandable, but at least he went on to future, and more successful, adventures.

Locally however the reputation of Captain Burns and the BI is well protected. They live on through the folk memory and the telling of the poem to succeeding generations.  I wonder when Jim Doherty recorded it in the Irish Folklore Commissions School Project, not long after it was first written, could he have foreseen that the BI would still be recited today and his words be there for succeeding generations to enjoy.  I sincerely doubt it.  I’d love to know if Bob Roberts knew of it too! Certainly, I made sure my acquaintance that day in Kilkenny did.

(1) The article was passed on to me by William Doherty and was received from another villager who lives abroad, Pat O’Gorman.  My thanks to them both.

Bob Roberts wrote several books.  Some titles here at Amazon.

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