Living in the rural fishing village of Cheekpoint, Co Waterford, one of our communities’ most regular sights are the ships that pass up and down the river to Waterford and New Ross.
Each generation had their own favourite ship, and, for my mother it was probably the Great Western.
As she grew up, it was this ship that passed her window so regularly – and it was aboard this ship that she travelled to England for work during those hungry years of the 1950s.
The ship was owned by the Great Western Railway Company and ran from the Adelphi Quay in Waterford city (on the quay beside what’s now the Tower Hotel), first to Milford Haven and, later, to Fishguard (both in Wales).
Of course, there was another reason the Great Western and ships like her were highly thought of: employment.
In those days when the harbour villages were populated by seafarers, local work was a rarity. Most men had to travel abroad to get work on a ship, and deep sea voyages could mean absences of months, or even years, from home.
Half a month’s pay was generally sent home to the family; the other half was paid off, less expenses or pocket money, once a journey was over. This put a huge financial strain on families, but it was probably the emotional strain of the absence that was felt most. A job on the Irish Sea boats meant a regular income, and, at least, a somewhat-normal home life. It was also a handy start for young lads wanting to make the sea their livelihood.
There was also a regular job there for livestock men. The standard joke being that the livestock were looked after better that the human cargo!
I think the fondness for the Great Western, or its familiarity, was that there were actually three vessels which shared the name and operated from Waterford. The first Great Western (1867-90) was a paddle steamer, while the next (1902-33) was a twin-screw steamer that operated on the route until 1933. This was replaced by a third Great Western (1933-66).
That third vessel was the one my mother knew so well. It commenced on the Waterford-Fishguard route in January 1934. Built in Liverpool, the steamer was 283ft long and 40ft wide, of 1,659t and with a top speed of 14 knots. She could accommodate 250 first-class and 200 third-class passengers, but she was principally a cargo boat.
The cargo included cattle, horses, sheep, pigs, goats and even cars. One of the regular passenger complaints was that the livestock got off the boat ahead of the human cargo.
Not everything being carried was legitimate, of course, and in post-war Britain (where commodity shortages continued for many years after the fact), the temptation of passengers to board with extra supplies was too great, at times.
My mother emigrated from Ireland in the autumn of 1958. She found work in homes, shops and eventually a factory, at the Trebor sweet plant in east London. She sailed back and forth regularly but, as the passenger route was discontinued in 1959, she would thereafter take the Rosslare route. She often speaks about those journeys and the crowds that went abroad to work. Her companions read like an address book of the village; all heading away to work and sending vital money home.
She also recalled some great social occasions and how on a Saturday night she would meet up with others from the area and go dancing together in Kilburn.
The last trip of the Great Western was at Christmas 1966. In her illustrious wake came container ships; a freight system that would become the backbone of shipping in the city for the next few decades until the closure of Bell Lines in 1997. She brought an end to a proud shipping tradition in the area. The Great Western went to the breakers yard in Belgium the following year – a sad end to a terrific servant – but her name and reputation still resonates for many locals and emigrants around the globe.
Andrew Doherty writes a monthly blog at www.tidesandtales.ie concentrating on the maritime heritage of the three sister river network and Waterford Harbour. His new book Waterford Harbour Tides and Tales was published by the History Press in 2020 and is available in most good bookstores or online.