Waterford Harbour

Waterford Harbour
Cheekpoint village 1940's

Thursday, 24 December 2015

What Robin Red Breast meant to my Grandmother at Christmas

Christmas time in my Grandmothers was marked by a hunt. It was her search for addresses for friends both at home and abroad, addresses she had scribbled on scraps of paper or cut from an envelope and squirrelled away.  Some were in the glass case, others in her box of writing paper, while others were stuffed into an old tea pot. Matters were made worse because she never threw out an address, even if the person had long vacated and moved to a new address.  Each year was the same vexatious search, so much so, that to us it became part of the tradition of Christmas.  For Nanny however, t'was always a chore, and she would mutter and give out to herself, for not being more organised.

As December moved on more and more cards arrived, and nothing gave her as much pleasure as sitting down to open and read the latest batch.  You couldn't come into the house without getting an update from her. It was also a talking point for the neighbours, Margaret O'Leary or Bridgid Power would be interested to hear the happenings when they called in.  Nanny would also make it her business to pass on regards if mentioned in a card, and would task us to remind her to tell Martha Fortune (RIP), Maggie Ferguson (RIP) and many others that such and such was asking after them.

Either Robert, Kathleen, Eileen or myself would be asked to tie up a string over her fireplace, upon which she draped the incoming cards, and by Christmas eve there could be two or three lines of cards and more on the fireplace and mantle.

Now Christmas cards are all much of a muchness to me.  Stereotypical images of Santa, decorated trees, fireplaces, loads of snow...and on it goes.  But of all the cards Nanny sent or received, the one card she loved most of all had an image of a Robin on it.

Via Google images
I once asked her what it was about Robins she loved,  She reminded me that they are loyal little fellows, who are always close to the house, grow friendly and accustomed to human care, will feed from the doorstep or the window sill, and indeed she maintained a habit of feeding the Robin, right up until her very last days.  But she also had a story about the origins of Robin red breast which she said made it the bird of choice for Christmas cards.

"On the night of the birth of Jesus, he lay in a crib in the barn at Bethlehem.  As the night grew on, the fire that kept him warm with his father and mother grew lower and lower and was at risk of going out. Both Mary and Joseph were exhausted from the journey and the occasion of the babies birth. The Shepard's had left and all was quiet. Mary turned to the horse in the manger and asked that he tend to the fire.  But the horse, donkey, cow, and the sheep were all asleep and did not hear her plea. However she realised that something was stirring at the fire, when she heard a whirring sound. Glancing round she spotted a small little bird, beating away with its wings to fan the dying embers. As the fire flamed up, the little bird flitted about the barn, gathering straw, twigs and pieces of timber. The fire grew higher and stronger and the heat grew.

They fell asleep in the comfort that the bird had created and next morning when they woke the fire was still going strong.  Mary called the bird to her and perched on her finger, was surprised and concerned to see that in the work of stoking the fire, the little bird and burned itself and the breast was now red.  In thanks for the deed of the little Robin, she decreed that forever more the Robin would keep the red breast in memory of the selfless deed."

When Nanny died all those small traditions went too. But the card industry seems to be still going strong, and the image of loyal Robin red breast is still very much in evidence.

Last year I marked Christmas with a story about our local Faithlegg Church Crib

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 email me at russianside@gmail.com to receive the blog every week.

My Facebook and Twitter pages are more contemporary and reflect not just heritage 
and history but the daily happenings in our beautiful harbour:  
F https://www.facebook.com/whtidesntales  T https://twitter.com/tidesntales

Friday, 18 December 2015

East meets West, a Herring Fishermans Christmas

I've covered the Herring Drift Net Fishery in several parts these last few weeks, and today in the run up to Christmas, I wanted to recount an incident that made Christmas a little more poignant for me in the mid 1980's.  We were selling directly at the time to Polish luggers that moored off Passage East in the harbour. These were fishing boats themselves and I've covered their activities before.

Part of the process of selling to the lugger was that we had to go aboard to agree the tally and get a docket to ensure we got paid.  Stepping out of the half decker and onto the ship was entering a very different world.  All ships have a similar smell; food, diesel oil, humans living in close contact.  They also have a familiar look, bulkheads, narrow passages, small cabins with smaller bunks, men trying to pass each other in close proximity.  The first thing I noticed was the solidness of the deck, it felt like land when compared to the half decker.

A squat burly man, the bosun, stepped forward.  He had a woollen hat on his head and a padded jacket on against the cold and damp, but no oilskins.  He held a tally book in one hand and he extended to other and gave me a firm handshake, then a gesture to follow him, into the superstructure of the vessel. 

Once we reached his cabin, he sat down at the table and indicated I do the same.  He had a book of dockets, upon which the evenings catch per boat was listed.  I wrote the name of the Boy Alan above and he stated the number of cran taken aboard.  I was, frankly, bricking it in case t'was a lesser amount than what Robert Ferguson (Skipper of the Boy Alan) had stated.  With a wave of relief I agreed with his tally and this was entered into the book.  He took out a glass from a shelf, filled it, and his own stained glass, then he beamed at me, toasted me Slainte and we both downed the shots.  The rum struck the back of my throat and I could feel the redness in my cheeks.  But I managed it without a cough.  

As my eyes glanced around the cabin, it was obvious to me that it was its own self contained unit. The table was adjoined to the wall and at its best could seat four, but only if the papers, docket books, glasses, bottle and a number of other nick knacks were tidied away.  There was a small wash stand, that doubled for washing drinking glasses and a regular shave, judging by the items set beside it. There was wood panelling around the bunk and I could see some photos within easy sight, as the bosun lay at rest. I could see a family group, but too small to distinguish and some individual photos of children.  The porthole was on the outer wall and as the Lugger swung with the tides would have given him a view of the New Line in Passage, or Seedees bank on the Wexford side. Behind me lay a metal bulkhead, grey and unyielding.  In all it was probably a ten foot long by five feet wide rectangle and it was the bosun's only space for privacy.  He was luckier than most crew aboard I guess.

The Polish deep sea fleet numbered about 80 vessels at the time and they fished from the North Sea across the Atlantic and as far as Africa. Mackerel was the top catch, followed by Herring and Cod.  The fishery was centrally planned by the communist government and was managed by three state run companies Dalmor, Gryf and Odra.  The bosun was one of 16,000 employed in the deep sea fishing.
   
I was still sitting, as he moved to get back on deck, and slightly embarrassed I moved to join him.  I'd forgotten how tired I was, it was the first chance I got to sit in hours.  He ripped the page he had been scribbling in off the docket book and placed it in my hand.  “Good Business” he said and clapped me on the back and pushed me out the door.

Returning to deck was like running a gauntlet.  At several cabin doors, seamen were offering produce; fags, spirits, beer or clothing.   Each came at a price, but it was buttons compared to what we would normally pay in Irish shops.  Half of Cheekpoint, and all the other villages in the harbour were dressed as Poles, drunk on questionable spirits and sweet tasting beer and coughing up tar from foul smelling fags.  They traded their eastern European produce, in the hope of making enough western currency to buy sought after goods.  These could be then sold at huge profits at home or given as gifts.  Levis jeans seemed to be a favourite western purchase, branded jackets, clothes, perfume and watches were also sought after.    

The bosun walked me to the ladder, and as I turned towards him to descend onto the halfdeckers below, I wished him a Happy Christmas and said I hope he made it home to his family. He must have grasped what I was saying because he beamed at me, and said yes, but that we needed to bring more fish!  There would be no trip home without a full hold.  Although Poland was firmly behind the "Iron Curtain" and had been since the end of the second world war, the Communist party had turned a blind eye to the country's deep religious beliefs.  Christmas in Poland was a festival with as much meaning and custom as in Ireland. To be home for Wigilia would be important to any family man.  

Heading upriver that evening I realised the Poles who worked so hard both to fill the fish barrels and to trade with us for hard currency were no different to ourselves in the run up to Christmas.  Most of them, just like the bosun were probably family men.  Working for low pay in a dirty and dangerous job, they wanted no more than ourselves; a few bob in their pockets and some nice gifts for their families once they made it home.  I as much as anyone knew what it was like to have my father away. I could appreciate just how hard Christmas was on fishing and sailing families, many of whom, particularly in the previous generations, were lucky to get a parcel with some hand made gifts or foreign purchases and a letter.

We would continue fishing for another few days, and although this was governed as much by the weather, as the market, I was happy for the lugger crew when we were notified that it was time for them to set sail for home. We had whatever we were going to have for Christmas now, and so did the Poles.  

In the preceding days I followed the progress of the lugger on her journey home, at least in my minds eye.  I wondered would they head up the Irish sea and over Scotland, or go via the English Channel and then slip across the North sea.  Days later they would steam over the tip of Denmark and into the Baltic. They would probably welcome the air getting denser and colder and surely their hearts would lift their chests as they slipped into port at Gdansk, Hel or Kolobrzez.  They would take a bus or a train home, and arrive into the arms of family and greetings over would unpack their bags and widen the eyes of their children.

At least that's how I imagined it would be.  Free of the routine of fishing, we could turn ourselves now to Christmas shopping, house calling, drinking beer and making merry.  Christmas was only starting and it would soon enough pass, and just like the Poles we would grow weary and perhaps even bored of the festive routine, and would long to be back on the water.

Postscript.
The glory years of the Polish Deep sea fishery was coming to an end.  3 factors were crucial in the demise, and even as the luggers bought Herring in Waterford harbour, the storm clouds were upon them.  The first impact was the extension of 200 mile limits on national fishing grounds and related restrictions, the second, was the changing of the guard in Poland and the move to private enterprises and finally the third, was joining the EU.  From being one of the largest deep sea fishing fleets in the world the Polish fleet is now decimated.

some figures:
in 1988 total catch was 628,000 T approx. in 2008 it was 179,000
in 1990 there were 77 deep sea fishing boats.  By 2009 there were 4!
in 1980 there were 16,000 people employed in deep sea fishing alone.  by 2008 there were 2991

All the details on the Polish fishery are taken from an EU report on Fisheries in Poland IP/B/PECH/NT/2011_02 

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 email me at russianside@gmail.com to receive the blog every week.

My Facebook and Twitter pages are more contemporary and reflect not just heritage 
and history but the daily happenings in our beautiful harbour:  
F https://www.facebook.com/whtidesntales  T https://twitter.com/tidesntales

Friday, 11 December 2015

Did Waterford port have a flag based communication system?

One of our most intriguing ruins in the area must be the Lookout in the Glazing Wood.   The Lookout stands above the River Suir and is now surrounded by Larch trees, part of the Coillte forestry scheme. But in the past it would have had fine views of the river, and many have speculated that this gives a clue to its purpose.

Perhaps the best view I have seen of the structure
via the ever generous Brendan Grogan
The Lookout is a stone and mortar made structure built out from the cliff face of the Glazing wood. The stone used in the base was hewn from the cliff behind the structure on the Glazing wood path.  The positioning is very strategic.  It's built on a solid outcrop of stone which stands out from the surrounding hillside and has a fall of about 15 feet to the hillside.  The structure rises approximately 20 feet to its base.  This base measures fifteen feet by four feet.   There is an entry arch onto the platform, again made of stone and above this there appears to be the remains of second storey, or at least a higher platform.  I've seen a painting (by one of the Power's of Faithlegg House) which suggests the building was once a small tower, with a door for, I presume, security. 

The only written account I could find as an explanation came from one of Michael Fewer's books by Cliff and by Shore.  In it, Fewer and his companions, speculate that it was perhaps used by revenue men to monitor river traffic. Perhaps related to this, Anthony Rogers had a story that it may have been part of a system of monitoring the river traffic up to New Ross at a time when relations between the two ports was particularly fractious and where laws required all Waterford ships to offload their cargo at their home port.  Ships heading up the Barrow could expect to be intercepted, boarded and examined.  Not alone can you see the entry to the two rivers, but you can also see the old alternative entrance around the Great Island and of course the medieval Port of St Mary (Dunbrody Abbey and Campile)

My father always said that it was used by the Hobblers and Lightermen as a lookout for ships.  Its known that Hobblers rowed as far as the Hook and beyond to take sailing ships in tow and provide pilotage.  Its also a fact that a series of mooring buoys were positioned at Cheekpoint for sailing vessels who would have required the services of lighters to be unloaded, or lightened.

Others have speculated that it may just be a folly.  The detail that went into the construction is, I think, a little basic for a folly.  I also think that if the Aylward, Bolton or Power family were minded to construct such, that they would surely have located it at a site that would have afforded them the spectacular view of the harbour from the Minaun, or the vista of the counties of the south east, not a strategically significant overlooking the river such as the Lookout affords.




The lookout from the Marsh road circa 1950
photo credit Anthony Rogers


An idea of the view from the Lookout 1970
Photo credit: Brendan Grogan
Tommy Deegan, amongst others on the Waterford History Group Facebook page, has considered there to be a link between the lookout and Popes Tower in Ferrybank.  The tower, which is situated close to where the Ard RĂ­ hotel is now lying in ruins, was the property of the Pope family, a very prosperous merchant family from the city.  Some of the speculation suggests that semaphore may have been used to communicate the arrival of ships.

Any reader of the 17th & 18th C sea bourn trade will know that the quantity of trade was phenomenal.  In the same way that the M50 in Dublin is now jammed with traffic, so was the river system and wharfs of ports, of which Waterford was to Ireland's fore.  The difficulties faced by shipping companies and the boats and sea captains were many.  Weather was an ever present factor obviously, but getting pilotage into ports, whether or not to pay for towing services, the speed of passing through customs and the ability to get a good position when berthing to allow for fast and efficient unloading.

Ports such as Liverpool operated a flag system from the mouth of the Mersey.  The Bidport flag system was a means to communicate to the port the arrival of a particular locally owned shipping company boat and cargo.  This gave the company time to organise for custom men to be ready, a berth to be secured, dock workers to be ready to offload, and provisioning and an outboard cargo to be organised.  Then as now, speed was considered to be of the essence.

I've also read that flags at points such as Bidport also were a factor in communicating the weather conditions at the mouth of the harbour.  Ships would delay sailing until sure that conditions were favourable to make a safe passage out of the harbour and onto the sea,

Is it possible Waterford had a system of flags or other warning system operating to communicate the arrival of craft?  When we look at the scale of shipping along her quays, would it not be in local merchants interests to secure a ripe unloading position along the quayside.  Isn't it also probable that a port almost 18 miles from the mouth of the harbour would have some means of predicting the sea conditions off the harbour, where ships could be at their most vulnerable. Lets face it, Flags have a very long history in the conducting of maritime trade and defence. 

There are other interesting points in relation to lookouts or flags that I am aware of.  Brendan Grogan could tell me that his grandfather used a flag to communicate his whereabouts as Harbour Master in town.  He was also aware (via Julian Walton) of a flag system being used from Brook Lodge (near Jack Meades) to communicate the passing of ships in Kings channel.  James Doherty could tell me that there were a series of flag poles on the quays, upriver from the Clock tower.  He was also aware of a curious placename in Crook known as Spy Hill.  It brought to mind another story I heard on a Barony of Gaultier Historical Society walk in Dunmore some years back, where mention was made of a look out post above the village, where pilots kept an eye on incoming ships with a spyglass, or telescope.  

Spy Hill, Crook.  Accessed from maps.osi.ie
Obviously a lot more research needs to be done to confirm or dismiss this idea. Is it not possible however that in a harbour and port of over 1000 years, where war, plague and every nationality under the sun has visited, that many of these stories are just echoes of the reality of life at different points along this noble history.  I can't but feel, there are many other echoes out there.  


Many thanks to James Doherty, Anthony Rogers and Brendan Grogan for allowing me their time and knowledge of the area, to discuss this with them.  If anyone else has other stories, placenames, theories or written accounts, I would be delighted to hear of them.

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 email me at russianside@gmail.com to receive the blog every week.

My Facebook and Twitter pages are more contemporary and reflect not just heritage 
and history but the daily happenings in our beautiful harbour:  
F https://www.facebook.com/whtidesntales  T https://twitter.com/tidesntales

Friday, 4 December 2015

Cheekpoints most notable landmark

Growing up in the Mount Avenue in the 1970's the most notable and invasive feature on our young lives was neither the magnificent Barrow Railway viaduct, or the colliding waters of the three rivers as they met below our home.  That honour, if that phrase is appropriate at all, was given to the blue and grey superstructure of Great Island Power Station, which lay directly across from our bedroom windows on the Wexford shore, and the twin chimneys that raised to 450 feet.

Great Island was an oil fuelled power generation station, owned and operated by the ESB, construction of which commenced in the spring of 1965.   It was the first such station to be built outside or Dublin or Cork and at its peak would employ up to 200 people.  The station opened in 1967 with one generator and work commenced soon after on a second generator, which necessitated a second chimney.  This extension was completed and working by 1972. At its commercial height it would supply 20% of the nations power needs.  To the right of the site, are five 17,000 ton capacity tanks for the storage of oil.  To fill these tanks, a very fine jetty was installed to which tankers tied up and were unloaded by suction pumps and via pipework to the tanks.

The proposal when first mooted (around 1963) met with considerable disquiet in the community of Cheekpoint.  And a deputation of fishermen travelled to Dublin to discuss and negotiate the fishermen's concerns.  The deep water jetty which would be planted smack bang in the centre of some of the best salmon driftnetting waters was the principal concern and fishermen were anxious to communicate the loss that this would bring.

A good sense here of the scale of the jetty, and how it blocked the fishery
accessed from:http://homepage.eircom.net/~horeswoodns/power_station.htm

Fishermen got little footing in Dublin however.  The project was a major capital investment for the country and was seen as crucial for the developing industrial base which was a major plank of government policy.  The promise of jobs however, was considered to be very real, and assurances were given that Cheekpoint men would be in a favourable position to benefit.

In the end those jobs did materialise and it was one of the reasons for example that my father returned home from sea, and it was also a factor in the return of my mother from London.  They were married in the Christmas of 1964 and my father started on the building work on the station in 1965. 

The jobs, however, were fleeting.  Once the major construction work had ceased so did the work.  A bone of contention in the community, probably still felt to this day.

Photo circa 1969 with thanks to Brenda Grogan
In the 1970's the station was a real invasion into our lives.  The lights at night shore through all but the thickest of curtains, and was one of the reasons my father planted a line of trees between the house and the river.  There was an ever present humming noise, which we managed to get used to.  But there was an extremely loud release of steam occasionally and also ear splitting bangs from time to time.  These were bad enough during the day, but they also occurred at night/early morning and were the cause of many a night of lost sleep.  (My Uncle John, a river pilot, managed to get the number of the manager of the station at one point.  Any night the station started and woke his home, he'd ring up the manager.  "what can I do" asked the manager, to which John replied "well if you can't stop it, you may as well be awoken like everyone else in Cheekpoint" I thought being woken at night was bad enough, but it was only when I started drifting for salmon later in the 70's and we were right under the station that the noise was really brought home to me.

An advert from the time with an artists sketch of the work in progress
There were several local campaigns to highlight the noise, but in those days we had limited means of recording the racket.  Occasionally, a monitoring station was set up outside our home as a result of my father (amongst others) campaigning through Brian O'Shea TD.  Coincidentally however, the station lay dormant until the monitoring station had been moved.  It didn't seem to be as big an issue on the Wexford side.  However, noise travels more easily across water than land.
grass fire in front of the oil tanks late 1970's
Photo credit Aidan McAlpin
The chimneys could be seen from almost any part of the area, including town and did become an identifying landmark.  The red lights that shone constantly at night became a familiar feature from the river and shore, and were always intrigued to watch the work of steeplejacks scaling up the sides to replace bulbs or do other essential maintenance.   However imposing they looked from a distance to be standing under them was awe inspiring, and you felt like the whole structure was tumbling down upon you, when you looked up. I'd never make a steeplejack.

As early as 2000 there was speculation that the station would have to close as a result of deregulation in the power industry and concerns about the commercial viability, pollution and cost of oil, used in stations such as Great Island.

Appropriately named Grizzly at Great Island from News & Star dated Fri 11aug 1995.
In the news following the death of two tug boat men who were helping in berthing the tanker.
Mickey Aspel and Johnny Lacey were their names. RIP

I had a mixed reaction to news that it might close.  Along the way there were some concerns that an Incinerator could be located on the site.  The fact that it was such a fine site with deep water access made it a very important, strategic location.  The announcement of the sale of the station to a Spanish power generation company Endessa sent shivers through the village I think.  For the state to sell off such a site made little sense in the long term.  Construction of a new gas fired station, which commenced in 2012 and officially opened in June this year brought the possibility that the old station would finally be knocked along with the chimneys.  It's currently owned by Scottish company SSE Airtricity.  I wonder how many others will feature in the stations story in the coming years.

Several years back Julian Walton, at the launch of the Development Groups booklet on local history, stated that the chimneys were a local landmark, and would in time become as important as the church to the local built heritage.  Many scoffed at the notion.  However, after living under their shadow, smoke and warning beacons for most of my life, I think I would miss them not lighting the night sky. In the end, like so much in the Ireland of present, I guess it will all be reduced down to pounds, shilling and pence matters, rather than any thought for built heritage.  Mind you, a similar landmark in Dublin, the Poolbeg chimneys, have been retained because of their iconic status.

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 email me at russianside@gmail.com to receive the blog every week.

My Facebook and Twitter pages are more contemporary and reflect not just heritage 
and history but the daily happenings in our beautiful harbour:  
F https://www.facebook.com/whtidesntales  T https://twitter.com/tidesntales