Being in Waterford for Christmas is fun but not the best time of year for outdoor activities. But the weather was occasionally pleasant enough to get out of town for social activities including this run in Tramore on New Year’s Eve. I’m somewhere among the runners hurtling down Tramore’s long beach on the North Atlantic coast 10km outside Waterford. Tramore comes from the Irish Trá Mhór, “big strand” and it felt big enough when you have to run all the way down to the pebbly beach to the end at Saleens, then around the back of the sandhills and home via the back strand. The race used to have the colourful name of the Baldy Man for one of the sandhills which resembled the pilgarlic in question. The name was changed this year for reasons unclear but it still was an attractive course. The weather was good too. It proved tough but I was happy to do the 8km course in just under 43 minutes.
The race starts from the Promenade and in summer this area is packed with visitors. It’s not so busy on December 31 even with the attraction of the Baldy Man. The view of Tramore is dominated by the two churches on the hill, the smaller Church of Ireland on the extreme left and the bigger Gothic revival Catholic Church of the Holy Cross centre-right. The Building News said of that church in 1861, “standing as it does on the highest ground in Tramore, is naturally a remarkable object for miles along the east coast of Ireland, and attracts a great deal of attention. On the 14th of September, 1857, the Bishop of Waterford laid the foundation-stone of the new edifice, and the works having been steadily and carefully proceeded with, in July last the church was opened for divine service.”
This is the Metal Man, Newtown Cove and the Guillamenes to the west of Tramore Bay. The Metal Man statue and his two sentries are older than the church, dating to 1823, thanks to Lloyds of London. On a stormy night hazardous Tramore Bay can look deceptively like nearby safer Waterford Harbour, as many ships found to their cost. In January 1816 three ships were caught in a gale off these waters. The Sea Horse was in a convoy was carrying members of the 2nd Battalion of the 59th Regiment of Foot and their families from Ramsgate home to Cork at the end of the Napoleonic War. The two other ships, Boadicea and Lord Melville carried the rest of the battalion and members of the 82nd Regiment of Foot. The weather deteriorated as they approached Ireland and the Sea Horse’s mate, John Sullivan, the only officer familiar with the south Irish coast fell from the foremast and died. Captain Gibbs could not locate the Kinsale lights and attempted to reach Waterford harbour, but the ship ran aground in Tramore Bay. Only 30 men, including the captain and two seamen, survived from the 394 people on board. The other two ships also foundered near Cork with great loss of life. As a result of the tragedy Lloyds installed the Metal Man and two towers across the bay on Brownstown Head as a warning for shipping to stay out.
Some shipping still managed to ignore the warning and I remember teenage trips to Tramore to look at the rusting wreck of the MV Michael which ran aground in 1975. The wreck has long been removed and nowadays Tramore has a reputation for surfing and windsurfing and kiting, and other watery sports. In this photo the low New Year’s Eve sun in the southern sky blazes over over Brownstown Head and a solo windsurfer.
On the other side of Brownstown Head is Dunmore East and the real entrance to Waterford Harbour. Dunmore is a beautiful town with resemblances to Brittany. It is full of smuggler’s coves, dangerous cliffs, and thatched cottages and is a haven for seabirds. Dunmore East is in the barony of Gaultier, which means “foreigner’s land”. In this case the foreigners were Danes or Ostmen (Norse Gaels) expelled by the English from the city of Waterford in 11th century ethnic cleansing.
Dunmore East is also one of Ireland’s most important fishing ports serving the Celtic Sea. There is a home fleet of five vessels and 30 half-deckers catching crab, lobster and shrimp as well as mackerel. Boats from other ports such as Cork, Greencastle, Kilmore Quay and Castletownbere also use Dunmore East as do French vessels. The harbour is crowded during the autumn herring and spring fishing seasons, and also busy during the summer when the harbour is visited by leisure crafts, and increasingly cruise ships, which hover off shore in warmer months.
In 1814 the Post Office chose Dunmore to be the Irish terminal of a new Mail Packet route from Milford Haven. Scottish engineer Alexander Nimmo designed and built the new harbour using local old red sandstone. His design included a magnificent lighthouse which took the form of a fluted Doric column with the lantern on top of the capital. The lighthouse was operational by 1825 though an early report said the keeper and his family were living in remote lodgings as the lighthouse accommodation was not habitable due to dampness. The Milford mail service ran to 1835 when it was moved to Waterford. Initially run on oil lamps, the lighthouse was converted to acetylene in 1922 and finally electricity in 1964.
This beach is Councillor’s Strand, a safe and popular beach in summer, but it disappears entirely at high tide. The view from the beach shows the other lighthouse at the entry to Waterford harbour, Hook Head in Co Wexford. Much bigger than Dunmore’s it is usually easily visible from across the harbour.
To get to Hook Head via the Suir bridge at Waterford and the Barrow bridge at New Ross would be a journey of 100km. But it is made much shorter by the car ferry 14km up the harbour from Dunmore at the appropriately named “Passage”. Passage East is its proper name to distinguish it from Passage West in Cork, though few in Waterford use that distinction. Passage is near St John the Baptist church at Crooke, which may or may not have inspired Cromwell to say he planned to conquer Waterford in 1649 “by Hook or by Crook” indicating he was willing to attack either via county Wexford or Waterford. Also nearby is Geneva Barracks, built to house a colony of Swiss Huguenot artisans and when that didn’t happen it housed the British military who played an important role in defeating the 1798 rebellion in Wexford.
The car ferry takes only a few minutes to get to Ballyhack on the Wexford side. My late grand-aunt had a lexicon of bizarre non sequiturs and one famous one was “Ballyhack Dirty Butter” which she would exclaim apropos of nothing. It seems there was always something unsavoury attached to the name of Ballyhack in the popular imagination of the surrounding district; and Ballyhack ” dirty butter ” was a derisive epithet often used against those who came from the village. I can’t comment on the quality of the butter, but Ballyhack has a 15th-century Norman castle which belonged to the Knights Hospitallers and a nice pub to wait for the ferry.
We didn’t hang around in Ballyhack or nearby Arthurstown along the river (where you can see how far you are from your ferry when returning). We went to Duncannon Beach where we looked back across the harbour to Woodstown beach and Creadan Head – the most easterly point in Waterford – just upstream of Dunmore. Duncannon was strategically vital as its fort commanded the bay and was centrally involved in wars and sieges in the 17th and 18th centuries. In the Irish Confederate Wars (1641–1652), the fort was occupied by English soldiers and used as a base to attack nearby Redmond Hall.
Redmond Hall was our next stop, now known as Loftus Hall. Raymond (or Redmond) FitzGerald nicknamed Le Gros (“the Fat”), was a Cambro-Norman commander in the Norman invasion of Ireland, and Strongbow’s second-in-command. He built the first house here in 1170. A second castle was built in 1350 which was attacked in the Confederate Wars in 1642 by English soldiers loyal to Charles I. Irish Confederates routed the English but Duncannon forces attacked the hall defended by 68-year-old Alexander Redmond, his sons and workers. The attackers were delayed by fog and Irish Confederates returned to save the day. The Redmonds were eventually evicted in Cromwell’s invasion in 1650 and ownership passed to the Loftus family of English planters. In 1666 Charles Tottenham came look after the mansion with his wife and daughter Anne while the Loftuses were away on business. During a storm, a ship arrived at Hook. A young man came to the mansion and became romantically entangled with Anne. One night, the family and mystery man were playing cards. The man dealt each three cards apart from Anne who he only dealt two. Anne bent down to pick a card from the floor which she thought she dropped. When she looked under the table the man had a cloven foot. She challenged him and he went up through the roof, leaving behind a large hole in the ceiling. Anne became mentally ill and was locked away until she died in 1675. Her ghost still haunts the building. The Redmonds disputed the claim of the Loftus family in court without success but in 1864 were compensated with lands at Ballaghkeene, Co Wexford. They became a wealthy banking family whose most famous member was Irish Political Party leader John Redmond.
Hook Lighthouse is a few kilometres south of Loftus Hall at the end of Hook Head. It is “the great granddaddy of lighthouses”, the second oldest working lighthouse in the world after the Roman-era Tower of Hercules at La Coruna in northern Spain. Hook Lighthouse dates from the 12th century, though tradition says the missionary Dubhán established a beacon there in the fifth century. In Irish the headland is Rinn Dubháin (St Dubhán’s Head) but the Irish word ‘duán’ also means a fish hook, hence the English name. Strongbow’s son-in-law William Marshall, Earl of Pembroke, built the tower to safeguard his upstream port of New Ross. The first lighthouse keepers were monks who lit warning fires and beacons to warn sailors of the dangerous rocks on the peninsula. The limestone tower is four stories high with walls 4m thick and a stairway of 115 steps. In the 17th century lighthouse keepers replaced the monks. They used coal burning lanterns, then whale oil, then paraffin oil and finally electricity in 1972. Hook became automatic in 1996 and opened as a tourist attraction five years later.
The car ferry to Hook is not the only boat crossing over Waterford harbour. The second is further upstream on the Suir after it split from the other two Sisters. It links Waterford with Little Island (or simply The Island) using the ferry Mary Fitzgerald which used to ply the Passage-Ballyhack route. The Island divides the Suir into two channels, with shipping taking the main shorter channel to the north. The free ferry is on the longer Kings Channel detour that shapes the island into a rough heart.
Pride of place on The Island is Waterford Castle. The island was home of a monastic settlement but was given to the Fitzgerald family for their role in the Norman invasion of Waterford in 1170. In 1865 descendant Gerald Purcell-Fitzgerald commissioned architect Romayne Walker to give the old run-down building a new Gothic-style facade using unrefined rubble stone in great Irish style. In 1980 developers bought the building and turned into a hotel.
The 19-bedroom luxury hotel is for guests only, but Little Island has its own rewards for other visitors with a lovely hour-long walk looping around the island with great views of the Castle and the Suir from many angles. It also has important sloblands for bird habitats. This photo is of the eastern end of the Kings Channel looking downstream to the 150m Minaun Hill near Cheekpoint where the Three Sisters meet.