ONE of the most striking pieces of engineering in the Waterford Harbour Estuary is the Barrow Railway Viaduct Bridge.
I stood on it watching a tall ship approaching, its masts so high that it seemed one could almost touch them, as the vessel headed for the opened gap in the bridge. From my vantage point, that opened span did not seem particularly wide.
It was July of 2005 as, with my RTÉ TV News crew, we filmed the tall ship Dunbrody heading downriver from New Ross. There had been some debate about the safety of moving the ship to Waterford to join the international fleet at the Tall Ships Race which was in the city for the first time.
The Dunbrody is a vital tourist resource in the County Wexford town. Any damage to her would be an economic catastrophe. Vessels had hit the bridge before. The job of moving Dunbrody had been entrusted to Cork maritime experience.
We heard the sound of Cork voices from the crew, cheering and waving at us as the bowsprit of Dunbrody safely cleared the opening and pointed its course to Waterford.
It wasn’t the first time that Cork had made an impression on this river crossing.
There are “lads from a Cobh salvage company” fondly remembered in the village of Cheekpoint in County Waterford, located beautifully on the estuary close to that viaduct at the point where the ‘Three Sisters’ meet – the Rivers Nore, Suir and Barrow.
The Cobh men are remembered in a new book recalling a century of mishaps and incidents at the Viaduct. It was built, at a cost of then £109,347 pounds, to connect Rosslare with Waterford and link the railway to southern countries. It has 13 fixed spans over a length of 2.131 feet (650 metres), with the opening space section to allow ships get up to New Ross. Construction began in early 1902 and the viaduct was opened in 1906.
It was hit by ships, under sail and power, a number of times when they didn’t get safely through that opening. The most severe damage was caused on March 7, 1991 when a Dutch coaster, the m.v.Amy collided against the opening span and knocked it out of line.
Author Andrew Doherty in his book ‘Waterford Harbour Tides and Tales’ says that the repair work “was carried out by a Cobh salvage company which operated from Cheekpoint…These lads are still remembered fondly in the village, renowned as much for their long hours of labour as their huge capacity for porter!
“They used to get their dinner in a bar called the Jolly Sailor in the west end of the village and they also ate in Jack Meade’s on the Cheekpoint Road.
“They would go for the dinner about 7pm, and then the bar and it was always a late night.”
When I asked him about those Cobh lads, Andrew replied: “The pubs were sorry to see them go home, at the weekends let alone and when the repair job on the bridge was completed, their loss to the village economy was felt!”
The men of Cobh had provided a huge boost to the economy of Cheekpoint and they weren’t the only connection between the Cork harbour town and the Viaduct.
During the Easter Rising of 1916 the Barrow Bridge was identified as a vital link for British Crown Forces. Then-Vice Admiral Lewis Bayly commanding naval forces at then Queenstown sent motor launches to secure the bridge from sea and land attack.
Captain Tom McCarthy was in command of the Dunbrody on that voyage through the bridge which I watched. In Irish tall ships history, he is one of the Corkmen who sailed on all three Irish tall ships – Asgard, Jeanie Johnston and Dunbrody. So did Tom Harding and my son, Rowan, now with Irish Lights. Those three vessels led the 2005 Tall Ships Race which started from Waterford. It was a piece of Irish maritime history off Cheekpoint that was never seen again.
Dunbrody is a vital economic asset to tourism, alongside the specially-built visitor museum and dock in New Ross, recalling the history of the area. Jeanie Johnston is a museum ship and tourist attraction in the Dublin docklands. The Asgard sank off France.
That Ireland no longer has an active tall ship is regrettable, underlining State neglect of our maritime tradition.
Despite promising that the insurance compensation payout of €3.8m. for the loss of Asgard would be used to purchase a new tall ship and continue the national sail training programme, the Department of Finance took the money, then axed the training programme, a shoddy example of disregard for maritime affairs by the government of an island nation.
‘Waterford Harbour Tides and Tales’ by Andrew Doherty is published by The History Press