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 Rí 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.  Hobblers Rock in Creaden, a point from which these men operated, must have had a lookout point.  I also can recall 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.

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