Book reviews: tall tales of the high seas, from Waterford's vantage point

To say that Doherty, from Cheekpoint in Co Waterford, is steeped in stories of the sea is a bit like saying the tide itself ebbs and flows.
Book reviews: tall tales of the high seas, from Waterford's vantage point

A Clyde Shipping Co. vessel in Waterford Harbour

  • Waterford Harbour: Tides and Tales
  • Andrew Doherty
  • History Press Ireland, €12.99 

THE past year has seen the publication of some fabulous Irish maritime books not least Connie Kelleher’s The Alliance of Pirates, and Marc Vallig O’Sullivan’s People of the Sea about seafaring life on the Beara Peninsula. Joining them is a riveting collection of memories about coastal life in Co Waterford by Andrew Doherty.

To say that Doherty, from Cheekpoint in Co Waterford, is steeped in stories of the sea is a bit like saying the tide itself ebbs and flows. It is a given. His village lies at the confluence of the rivers Suir, Nore and Barrow and is a superb vantage point from which to watch the ships sailing to and from Waterford City. And was ever thus.

As a youngster, Doherty drifted for salmon and then worked for years in commercial fishing following his father, Bob’s path. Along the way he picked up many a story from his father’s circle of fishermen, merchant navy men or port workers. Whether tall tales or not, they were passed along ó ghlúin go glúin, as he says; from knee to knee.

Smuggling is as old the stones on the strand, he writes. And when the Coastguard was established in 1822 combining the functions of revenue cruisers, revenue men on horseback riding the coast, and the waterguard (shore-based officials), the smuggling didn’t stop. Ever-elaborate ruses were devised to ensure contraband goods could be brought ashore and thus avoiding payment of taxes: Crates pushed off the sterns of boats and overcoats with pockets filled with goods swapped in pubs, were two of the more ingenious.

One of the more stirring tales is Doherty’s account of the sinking of the Alfred D Snow. The three-masted, fully-rigged timber ship under Captain William Willey had sailed from San Francisco with a cargo of wheat. It had survived the infamous ‘greybeard’ seas in the South Atlantic but was hit by a massive storm off Ireland and limped around Hook Head towards Dunmore East. The ship was stricken and very little could be done to save it. 

However, in a description that has since been associated with lifeboatmen from the area, the Dauntless lifeboat put to sea in a gallant effort to save the crew: “The Dauntless bravely battled the mountainous seas and she was like a cork on the crest of the waves before disappearing into a mad downward drive into the trough.” The ship sank and the crew was lost, but the bravery of the men who tried to save them, was never forgotten.

A terrible event took place at Campile in Co Wexford in 1940 when a German bomber suddenly appeared from the sky before dropping its payload on the defenceless village. Three young women were killed in an attack reputedly carried out because butter packaging produced in the village were found on Allied soldiers on the Western Front. A second target was the South West Wexford Railway which carried supplies for the war effort. The event was witnessed by the astonished father of the author from the hills above Cheekpoint looking towards the neighbouring county.

One of the more moving tales is of an inanimate object. The Portlairge was a coal-fired, steam-driven dredger which sucked up massive quantities of mud blocking piers and wharves and deposited then as landfill or out at sea. At the end of her days the once noble ship was abandoned at Saltmills, Co Wexford, an ironic end: ”Stripped of all her values she corrodes into the element that she once so valiantly controlled”.

This thoroughly entertaining account of Waterford’s seafaring tradition is delivered in a captivating conversational style which makes you feel like Doherty has pulled up a chair beside you, tapped his pipe, and drawn you into the mysterious world of sea captains, pirates, bombers and devils.

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