On 28 May 1851 the Limerick and Clare Examiner carried a report on a cot race at Plassey, on the River Shannon near Limerick. The reporter seems to have got his tributaries mixed up: it would make no sense to start a race at the mouth of the Blackwater and have the turning point at the bridge [what we now call the Black Bridge], which is only feet away: I guess that the start was at the mouth of the Mulcair River, further upstream on the left bank of the Shannon.
Here’s an extract from the 6″ Ordnance Survey map showing Plassey, the Shannon and the route of the race. The survey of Ireland took 21 years, from 1825 to 1846, and different sheets were done at different times. Here, the south (Limerick) side shows the Black Bridge stretching half way across the river, while the north (Clare) side shows the ferry route that was replaced by the bridge, so the Clare side was surveyed before the Limerick.
This might look like a quiet rural area, but it was a busy and productive zone. The towing-path of the Limerick Navigation is on the south side of the Shannon near the western (left) edge of the map. The horse-drawn passenger boat Nonsuch didn’t run on Sundays [and had stopped running anyway in 1848 when the railway reached Limerick], and nor did the 60-foot horse-drawn boats carrying cargoes. But on weekdays some of them would have passed, as would traffic for the mill, which had its own lock into the millstream, on the south side of the river, providing a safe dock for boats.
Traffic going onwards, via the Plassey–Errina Canal, to Killaloe and perhaps to Dublin, would have had to cross the river, from the towing-path on the south side to Annaghbeg or Plassey Lock on the north; that was why the Black Bridge was built.
There might have been a sand cot or two and (at appropriate seasons) there might have been people tending the eel weirs: you can just about make out the zigzag lines of one set of eel weirs and there’s another near Plassey House. There is also a dam directing water into the millstream. So this is a busy place but on Sundays, then as now, it’s a recreational area, and that’s what the newspaper account captures.
On Sunday last a polling and rowing match came off on the Upper Shannon. The starting point was from the mouth of the Blackwater River, and the course was down the Shannon, around Plassy Bridge, rowing, and polling back to the Island, opposite Castle Troy.
Spellings there are as in the original; Blackwater is clearly wrong; the Upper Shannon meant the non-tidal Shannon, as opposed to the estuary.
The delightful walks in the vicinity of the place, and the picturesque combination of river and woodland scenery which the locale presents, attracted large crowds of visitors, including many of the beautiful fair ones of our city, who cheered not a little, by their enlivening presence, the hilarity of the scene.
Three boats started, one belonging to Bill O’Brien, at the head of the Canal, the other to Considine of Castleconnell, and the third manned by the Ellis’s of Killaloe. The word “away” being given, off the boats dashed, proceeding down the current pari passu, with the velocity and precision of an arrow, shot by some strong and skilful Archer.
The spectators on the banks cheered loudly and lustily as they perceived their respective friends gaining any advantage. “Bravo, O’Brien,” “Pull, Considine,” “Hurra, Ellis,” were shouted from throats numerous as the leaves in “Vallum Brossa“. The shouting and cheering rose and reverbrated in the echo until it made the “very Shannon tremble ‘neath its banks to hear the reciprocation of their sounds made on its concave shores.” Going down the stream, the Considines had the advantage, Bill O’Brien’s was the second boat, and the Ellis’s last.
But now they near Captain Hickey’s Fall; and as this was a spot of considerable danger, great crowds awaited near the spot to see the boats pass over it. The racers, however, ran along, heedless of danger; regardless of peril; minding nothing but the race, and they took the “leap,” as you see a thorough-bred hunter take a “rasper.”
If, Gentle Reader, you can tell me where Captain Hickey’s Fall is, and why it’s called that, I’d be glad to mark it on the map. I suspect it’s the obstruction just below where I’ve written the words “Black Bridge”.
Addendum: I see from Lewis’s Topographical Dictionary that Captain Hickey lived at Willow Bank, right on the river near the Mill Dam. Perhaps the dam was regarded as his fall?
The boats having made the “turning-point” at Plassey Bridge, and gone round the pier — now comes the “tug of war,” to pole the boats up against the stream — the current roared, and they did buffet it, until stemming it with lusty sinews, and hearts of controversy, they arrived at the point proposed — the Goal — in the little Island outside the old ivy crowned Castle of “Pergamus,” of which “Time, with assailing arm, had smote the summit; but the base defies the lapse of Ages.”
After a hard struggle, Bill O’Brien’s boat came in first; the Considine’s boat second; and the Ellis’s boat last.
On next Sunday evening a match for £10 will come off on the Lower Shannon, from the Wellesley Bridge around a flag boat in the Pool, between Messrs Ryan and Mulcahy’s (Ship Agents) boats. On Monday evening there will be a cot race.
Read about the choking of Plassey (and other river stretches) here.
And here is the rival footbridge on which the Minister for Finance and Limerick Council intend to spend much larger sums of money (which they haven’t got).
Read about Killaloe’s 1850 Regatta here.