Kate Douglas Wiggin wrote in Penelope’s Irish Experiences in 1901:
If you want to fall head over ears in love with Ireland at the very first sight of her charms, take, as we did, the steamer from Cappoquin to Youghal, and float down the vale of the Blackwater –
‘Swift Awniduff, which of the English man Is cal’ de Blacke water.’
The shores of this Irish Rhine are so lovely that the sail on a sunny day is one of unequalled charm. Behind us the mountains ranged themselves in a mysterious melancholy background; ahead the river wended its way southward in and out, in and out, through rocky cliffs and well-wooded shores.
The rich lands in the valley of the Munster Blackwater were colonised by English settlers, including Sir Walter Raleigh, after the Elizabethan plantations. The area still has many large houses, and even a castle at Lismore, owned by the Duke of Devonshire, who also has some rights to the fishing and the bed of the Blackwater. In 1814 an earlier duke built a short canal from Cappoquin, at the head of the tidal section, to Lismore, so there are three waterways in this area:
- sixteen miles of the Blackwater from Youghal to just above Cappoquin
- seven miles of its navigable tributary the River Bride
- the Lismore Canal, which now has a page of its own here.
These waterways are not linked to other Irish inland waterways, other than by the sea at Youghal.
Navigation on both Blackwater and Bride is tidal. There were three main sets of users:
- various pleasure steamers and motor vessels
- schooners and other trading vessels.
The best-known trade saw coal brought in from Wales; in return timber, for pit-props, was taken out from both Blackwater and Bride. Schooners would come up with the tide, sit on the bottom while loading and float off with a high tide after loading. Schooners might take on only half a load in Cappoquin and complete the load further downriver, in deeper water. The schooners involved in this trade included:
- De Wadden, a steel three-masted schooner built in 1917 and now in Merseyside Maritime Museum. There is a photo of the De Wadden loading at Killahala here with other photos of Dromana
- the recently-restored wooden three-masted schooner Kathleen & May
- the ketch-rigged flush-decked trow Jonadab, whose remains are in the Purton boat graveyard near Sharpness.
Fixed bridges at Youghal and at Camphire now block access by tall vessels to the Blackwater and Bride respectively; here is an account of the building of the old bridge in the nineteenth century.
Neither the Blackwater nor the Bride has any locks, navigation marks or navigation authority. There are said to be shallows in the Blackwater; there are also some fish weirs. Both rivers have fine stone quays as well as some lesser quays: the larger quays were probably those used for the timber trade.
I visited Tallow, at the head of the Bride, in 2006, and saw a poster for Tony Gallagher’s Blackwater boat trips on his 28′ half-decker MV Maeve. Tony’s usual trips last ninety minutes (€20 per head), but we were fortunate enough, in 2008, to contact him just before the start of his season, when he was able to give us a much longer trip all the way to Cappoquin and back. Most of the photos in this gallery were taken from the Maeve; some (of Cappoquin, the Lismore Canal and the Bride) were taken from the land.
We saw only about a dozen boats moving on the river. They included one or two jetskis and a few skiboats, but they had plenty of room and weren’t interfering with anyone. There were lots of boats moored or ashore, so clearly the river is much used.
I am grateful to Nicholas Grubb for correcting some errors and for pointing me to some wonderful photos, now here; he offers traditional houses for rental at Castle Grace near Clogheen and at Dromana on the Blackwater.
Tony Gallagher’s poster seen in Tallow in 2006
Tony Gallagher himself on his MV Maeve in 2008
The map Tony Gallagher shows to passengers
The quays at Youghal
The bay at Youghal. The dinghies, moored to a float, give some idea of the scale
The river meets the bay at Rhincrew, where the Knights Templar had a preceptory
The N25 Cork–Waterford road bridge, built in 1958. The earlier bridge had an opening span
Boats moored on the east side above the bridge
The tree-covered west bank, where we saw otters on our way back down
Most of the photos on this page were taken on the day of the boat trip. Some were taken from shore early in the day, when the sun was shining, and some were taken on other visits to the area. Unfortunately, shortly after we passed the N25 bridge on the boat-trip, the sky clouded over, and photos from later that day were taken in rain or in poor light.
Templemichael, on the west bank, has the ruins of a fourteenth-century Geraldine castle and a later church
Looking upriver from near Templemichael
The River Glendine enters on the west side
Molana Abbey, on the west side, was originally on an island. It is rumoured that Norman leader Raymond le Gros is buried here. Note the sprat weir (for catching fish) in front of the abbey.
Ballynatray House, which has a website
Ballynatray House lodge, salmon weir and thatched boathouse
The west bank above Ballynatray
It is said that egrets nest on the west bank above Ballynatray, but I saw none of them: je ne egrette rien.
The east bank above Ballynatray
Ballynaclash Quay on the east side
On the west side, Old Strancally Castle is hidden by trees until you get quite close.
Old Strancally Castle
Ballynaclash quay again
Coolbagh quay, with vans and a canoe, also on the east side
A cottage upstream of Cooneen Quay
Further up on the east side: how nice to have boats at the bottom of the garden
The west shore still has lots of trees
Strancally Tower comes before New Strancally Castle.
Even when you’re level with it, you can’t see New Strancally castle, but you can see its pontoon.
New Strancally Castle pontoon
From upstream, you can look back at the castle.
New Strancally Castle
Here is Strancally Castle, from the Dublin Penny Journal in 1834.
The navigable River Bride joins from the west. We’ll return to it later.
The River Bride
Formerly used by ferries and fishermen, Villierstown Quay (on the east side) is now popular with swimmers and jetskiers.
Camphire House on the west bank, originally an Ussher house
On the east bank, the collection of buildings at Dromana starts with the Rock House, built in the mid-1700s as “a sort of estate folly” at Dromana but then used as a ferryman’s house. Thanks to Nicholas Grubb for information on this and Camphire House; his own site has more information and photos about Dromana.
The Rock House
Just after that is “a neat bastion the vaults under which serve for a boat-house” (Smith 1746-74).
The Dromana boathouse
I am indebted to Beth O’Loughlin for the next photo, taken from above the boathouse.
Looking down from above the boathouse
Dromana House is built on a site formerly owned by the FitzGeralds of the Decies. Kate Douglas Wiggin wrote:
Next came Dromana Castle, where the extraordinary old Countess of Desmond was born,–the wonderful old lady whose supposed one hundred and forty years so astonished posterity. She must have married Thomas, twelfth Earl of Desmond, after 1505, as his first wife is known to have been alive in that year. Raleigh saw her in 1589, and she died in 1604: so it would seem that she must have been at least one hundred and ten or one hundred and twelve when she met her untimely death,–a death brought about entirely by her own youthful impetuosity and her fondness for athletic sports. Robert Sydney, second Earl of Leicester, makes the following reference to her in his Table-Book, written when he was ambassador at Paris, about 1640:-
‘The old Countess of Desmond was a marryed woman in Edward IV. time in England, and lived till towards the end of Queen Elizabeth, so she must needes be neare one hundred and forty yeares old. She had a new sett of teeth not long afore her death, and might have lived much longer had she not mett with a kinde of violent death; for she would needes climbe a nut-tree to gather nuts; so falling down she hurt her thigh, which brought a fever, and that fever brought death. This my cousin Walter Fitzwilliam told me.’
It is true that the aforesaid cousin Walter may have been a better raconteur than historian; still, local tradition vigorously opposes any lessening of the number of the countess’s years, pinning its faith rather on one Hayman, who says that she presented herself at the English court at the age of one hundred and forty years, to petition for her jointure, which she lost by the attainder of the last earl; and it also prefers to have her fall from the historic cherry-tree that Sir Walter planted, rather than from a casual nut- tree.
Mini-cliff above Dromana
We diverted from the main channel to go to the east of Big Island to pick up a pilot. This gave us the opportunity to look at a rare surviving example of one of the two types of Blackwater cots, formerly used for snap-net fishing, which is now banned. There are some wonderful photos of draft-net fishing at Dromana here.
Inside Big Island
Back in the main channel, we carried on towards Cappoquin, noting these quiet moorings.
The steamer quay
The now-disused railway bridge in Cappoquin
The older quay was at the former site of the bacon factory, now occupied by new houses. The South of Ireland Wheel and Carriage Works were nearby. Some remains of the quay are still visible and there is a slipway to the right of the houses.
The old quay
Here are some photos taken from the site of the old quay.
The bend of the river between the railway bridge (left) and the road bridge (right)
Cappoquin Rowing Club, below the road bridge
The N72 road bridge
Back on board, we head for the Kitchenhole.
Looking upstream through the bridge to the Kitchenhole
Passing moored boats
The Kitchenhole from the water at high tide
The boat turned back at that point. Here is a photo of the Kitchenhole taken from the land earlier in the day, before the rain started. There were anglers just out of shot.
The Kitchenhole at low tide
The Bride: constant and countless sinuosities
The Parliamentary Gazetteer of Ireland, published in 1846, says this of the Bride:
BRIDE (THE) , a river of the counties of Cork and Waterford, Munster. It rises on the south side of the Nagles Mountains, on the north-west border of the barony of Barrymore; and flows, 21 miles eastward through that barony, the barony of Kinnataloon, and the co. Waterford barony of Coshmore and Coshbride, to the Blackwater river, 4.75 miles below Cappoquin, and 7 above Youghal. The chief seats of population on or near its margin, are Rathcormack and Tallow. About 16 miles of its course are in Cork, and 7 in Waterford.
Its early path is among considerable mountains; but its lower channel is along a pleasant valley, partly expanded in flatness, and partly screened by low and softly-outlined heights. Before leaving Barrymore, it traverses what was once a dangerous fastness, and a dreary and almost impervious morass; and there it is so shut up between artificial hanks, and shaded with wood, as to look like a canal in a forest; it then proceeds in constant and countless sinuosities; and receives the tide, and bears flat-bottomed boats of traffic, up to the barony of Kinnataloon. Its serpentine meanders, from the quondam morass to the Blackwater, have almost the exact regularity of art; and, as seen from the hill over Slatwood, in the vicinity of Tallow, they combine with its valley and pleasant screens to form a decidedly beautiful landscape. See KILCREA and TALLOW.
This, remember, is where the Bride joined the Blackwater.
Bride joins Blackwater
Camphire [pronounced CAMFEER] Bridge spans the Bride just above the confluence with the Blackwater. It had an opening span but, once Youghal Bridge became fixed, there was little point in Camphire Bridge’s retaining its span and in 1975 a new fixed bridge was installed.
Camphire Bridge from the north
A cot and other boats at Camphire Bridge
There were several quays on the Bride. The furthest upstream was at Janeville. The quay is on the right in this photo, but is impossible to distinguish.
It’s hard to accept that schooners made it up this far!
Looking downstream from Janeville Quay
Smaller boats could get as far as Tallow, where the bridge marked the end of navigation.
The bridge at Tallow
Nowadays, with the end of salmon netting, the Blackwater is used only by a small number of pleasure craft, but Tony Gallagher‘s trip-boat MV Maeve, a half-decker, will give you a glimpse of the gorgeous scenery and the historic houses and quays. I cannot recommend Tony’s trips highly enough. His knowledge of the river and its history is phenomenal. In one trip he discussed — amongst others — the Knights Templar, Walter Raleigh, Noam Chomsky, John Huston, the Duke of Devonshire, the von Thyssen family, Barry Lyndon (part of it was filmed at Templemichael), Katharine Countess of Desmond (said to have died at the age of 140 after falling from a cherry tree), Claud Cockburn (and his sons Patrick and Alexander), Molly Keane and Richard Boyle (1st Earl of Cork and father of the man who gave us Boyle’s Law). The Blackwater is quite unlike other Irish inland waterways (except perhaps the Erne) in having many Big Houses along its banks, and many of the people Tony discussed lived in one or other of those houses.
Tony Gallagher’s phone number is 087 988 9076.
The other essential resource is Niall O’Brien’s exhaustive history of these navigations. The book is called Blackwater and Bride: Navigation and Trade, 7000BC to 2007, published by Niall O’Brien Publishing in 2008, ISBN 978-0-9560959-0-9. It has a huge amount of information and lots of wonderful old photos and, at €25, it’s a bargain.
Let us end by quoting Kate Douglas Wiggin again:
Down the lovely river we went, lazily lying back in the sun, almost the only passengers on the little craft, as it was still far too early for tourists; down past Villierstown, Cooneen Ferry, Strancally Castle, with its ‘Murdering Hole’ made famous by the Lords of Desmond, through the Broads of Clashmore; then past Temple Michael, an old castle of the Geraldines, which Cromwell battered down for ‘dire insolence,’ until we steamed slowly into the harbour of Youghal […].
Addendum May 2011
At the beginning of May 2011 a group of sea-kayakers from the Phoenix Kayak Club, based on the River Lee, paddled upstream on the Blackwater from Youghal to Cappoquin. They discussed the trip here and there are some photos here.
The 57 miles of this river, from Mallow (rail) to the sea, are in my opinion the finest part of an Irish canoe-cruise. For my part, I would put this river among the best ten small ones that I have ever cruised, and pretty high among them at that.
Given the extent of Raven-Hart’s, er, cruising, that is high praise.
Addendum February 2012
The redoubtable F E Prothero, Rear-Commodore of the Cruising Club, wrote just over three pages about the Blackwater, from Kanturk down to the sea, in A New Oarsman’s Guide to the Rivers and Canals of Great Britain and Ireland edited by F E Prothero and W A Clark and published by George Philip and Son, London, in 1896, as a Cruising Club Manual. Here is a PDF of the relevant pages.
Addendum May 2012
This link may bring you to the Hathi Trust Digital Library’s copy of James Roderick O’Flanagan’s The Blackwater in Munster (J How, London 1844); there is nothing to look at until you get to page 8. There are some nice drawings, including a steamer on page 41.
Addendum November 2012
Here is a view of the Blackwater from water level: an account of swimming the river.
Addendum February 2013
Here is an account of a meeting held in Fermoy in 1844 to promote a proposal to make the Blackwater navigable from Lismore to Fermoy.
Addendum January 2015
Waterford Council has a page about the Blackwater here, with clickable thumbnail maps. The emphasis is on fishing.
Waterford County Museum has 92 pictures of the Blackwater and related matters, including one of a hunt crossing the river on the Villierstown ferry.
Antoin Daltún has drawn my attention to the evidence about the Blackwater given to the Shuttleworth Commission in 1907, starting on this page.
Addendum April 2015
The Brickey is a small river that flows into Dungarvan Bay. Small boats used its lower, tidal reaches, but in the eighteenth century there was a proposal to link the Brickey to the Finisk, another small river that flows into the Blackwater south of Cappoquin.
Waterford County Museum, and others, believe that work began on that project in the mid nineteenth century and that a driveable track along the south bank of a stretch of the river was built as a towpath.
I have visited the river and looked online for further information; my conclusions (with maps and photographs) are here. However, I would welcome further information.
Additional addendum April 2015
I have moved the Lismore Canal to a page of its own here.
Addendum September 2015
Here is some information about the Purton boat graveyard, on the Severn estuary in Gloucestershire, which includes some vessels that traded with the Blackwater.
ADDENDUM July 2018
Here is an interesting article about the Clashmore Distillery.
Addendum July 2020
Here is a page which provides links to other pages, which show photos taken of the Blackwater in 2015, from as close to the waterside as we could get. It has been remarked that the Blackwater is an invisible gem: unless you like exploring boreens, and (preferably) have a 4WD car,it is very difficult to see the river from the land. In March 2015 we went down as many boreens as we could find and took photos of the water from the land, to complement those on this page, which are largely of the land from the water.