Commercial Activity on the River Suir



Carrick-on-Suir is located at the upper end of the tidal reaches of the river Suir. There is evidence that the river was navigable up to a few kilometres south of Golden around 12005. This is where William de Burgo founded the Priory of St. Edmund Athassel run by the Augustinian order. Some of the stone used in the building was imported from Dundry Hill near Bristol and transported directly to the site by boat5.

As the rivers were the main transport routes before road transport, this gave Carrick direct access to the port of Waterford and on to the UK and continental Europe. The river Suir was therefore central to the development and economic prosperity of the town. Apart from being tidal for some 50 km upstream from Dunmore East, the river was also very deep, wide and easily navigable up to Carrick. It was also dotted with Castles every few miles to protect against invasion coming up or down the river. The first Castle upstream from Waterford is Grannagh Castle while the last before Carrick is Tybroughney Castle which is currently occupied by Louis and Daphne Dowley.

On a journey along the river between Carrick and Waterford, it becomes obvious that there were many stopping points along the way. For instance between Carrick and Fiddown there were wharfs or quays at Ballylynch, Tinhalla, Tybroughney, Piltown and Fiddown. These were used mainly as coal wharfs as it was said that a horse and cart had a delivery radius of approximately 2 miles.

In 1756, a sum of £1500 was sought from Parliament to build a towpath suitable for horsepower rather than manpower to assist in transporting goods further up-river from Carrick to Clonmel. In 1830, the quaysides were made to their present state by the creation of a new quay named after its financiers, the Sausse family. This berthing place would be referred to in the future as Sausse’s Quay.

Sailing Boat Carrick

A two masted sailing boat at the quay in Carrick at low tide

The “Lighters” and one or two masted sloops brought goods up river to Carrick from Waterford. The lighter’s measured 71′ long by 16′ wide and had a crew of two that used 30′ steel-shod poles for manoeuvring at close quarters, for steerage and to keep the vessel in the tidal stream. They each had two 35′ or 36′ oars, each stroke of which meant walking six steps forward and six back. The oars swivelled on 2″ oak dowels. These lighters were propelled up river by the tide and oars known as “sweeps” and sometimes by sail. This required intimate knowledge of the river, the tides and the currents. The journey from Waterford to Carrick normally took two tides7. Each Lighter could carry up to 40 tons.

The lighters unloaded their cargo in Carrick and returned on the ebbing tide with grain, flour, cattle, butter and bacon. The cargo from the Waterford was further transported up river to Clonmel by “yawls”. The yawls were initially drawn by groups of men and later by horses (13 horses and 2 men) travelling along the river towing path. The horses returned by road to Carrick. The journey to Clonmel from Carrick took about 7 hours depending on the state of the river. A yawl could carry up to 14 tons depending on the state of the river. As a result Carrick became a central hub in the distribution of goods in the south-east of Ireland.

1838 Map of Ireland in the report of the Railway Commissioners showing the main traffic routes of Ireland (mostly water based)

Waterford was the second biggest port in Ireland with £2.5 exports and £1.7m imports in 1838

Waterford was the second biggest port in Ireland with £2.5m exports and £1.7m imports in 1838

In 1832 the volume of goods going down stream was estimated to have been 11,527 tons of flour, 28,678 barrels of wheat, 19,445 barrels of oats, 3,878 barrels of barley, 1,028 tons of butter, 139 tons of lard and 63,751 sides of bacon. Prior to the famine, Waterford was the second largest port in Ireland (after Dublin) in terms of commercial traffic. In 1838 Waterford had some £2.5 m worth of exports and £1.7 m worth of imports and was therefore a net exporter. The exports where nearly all food stuffs, as Ireland prior to the famine, was exporting sufficient food to feed 2 million people in the UK and had gained the name of being the “breadbasket of England”.

The fact that Waterford was a major exporter of foodstuffs is no accident. It is located in the south east with easy access to UK and continental Europe. It is surrounded by one of the most fertile areas in Ireland which had easy access to the port by virtue of the large tidal rivers such as the Suir and the Barrow which were easily navigable by larger boats.

The imports would have been largely non-food based products of which coal would have formed a major part. Many of the merchants that were exporters were also the same merchants that arranged and distributed the imports. Serious profits were to be made from this trade and the Dowleys, in the form of John (1810-1882) and to a lesser extent his first cousin Patrick John (1812-1872) would have been significant beneficiaries.

A lighter being poled by the two man crew at Waterford

The raised bridge with steamship passing through to sea

By 1835 there were 93 boats employing 200 men on the stretch of river between Carrick and Clonmel. At the same time there were 88 boats operating between Carrick and Waterford. The journey from Waterford to Carrick took 8 hours at least. It was also in 1835 that the first branch of the National Bank was opened in Carrick-on-Suir and Cleary’s of Bridge St. was established. It was also in 1835 that Castleknock College was established by Fr. Philip Dowley of Ballyknock9. In 1836, the Suir Navigation Company was founded to control all commercial traffic on the Suir and improve and maintain the navigation. To finance this venture the hauliers were empowered to charge one penny per ton on all goods transported more than one mile west of the bridge in Waterford. Fees were set to carry goods by tonnage and shares in the new company were £20 fully paid up. The main investors were Lord Besborough, Lalor of Cregg, Richard Sausse, the Grubbs of Clonmel, William O’Donnell and others1. The author (P. C. Power) does not state if the Dowleys were one of the others although I have seen a share certificate confirming that they were.

The advent of the steam train in the 1850’s as a source of transporting goods did irreparable damage to the river trade. The new station at Carrick, on the track from Limerick to Waterford, fulfilled such a function as was hitherto considered the preserve of the boats on the Suir.

In 1843, J. Ernest Grubb, son of John Grubb, came to Carrick from Clonmel to extend his father’s coal, grain and goods business. In 1877 he founded the Suir Steam Navigation Company and was the owner and sole shareholder. In the same year he bought the steam tug the “Fr. Matthew”. The “Fr. Matthew” arrived in Carrick for the first time on Saturday, August 11th, 1877. As it could tow a number of lighters at the same time it improved the commercial use of the river. At that time, the boats carried extensively to Waterford and returned with coal and other accessories of the age. The stores on the quayside were a hive of activity and employment. However, working relations were strained as employer and employee were constantly at loggerheads, mainly over wage rates.

The “Fr. Matthew” was possibly one of the most famous of the cargo boats on the river and is still remembered up to the present time. It could tow four lighters to a maximum of 160 tons and could also carry passengers to fairs in Waterford. Grubb was a Quaker and he named his tug after the temperance crusader as he too opposed the misuse of alcohol. By the end of the nineteenth century the route to Waterford was dominated by J. Ernest Grubb with the steam tug the “Fr. Matthew” while the others using the route included Thomas Butler, the Healy’s, T. G. Howell & Co., Richard Walsh of New St. and Edward Dowley of New St.

In 1912 J. Ernest Grubb retired and his grain business on the Quay and the north end of New St. was sold to Edward J. Dowley & Co. Ltd. while the Suir Steam Navigation Company was sold to Richard Walsh of New St. The Father Matthew was sold to the Torpey family of Carrick-Beg. It is possible that Dowleys did not take the opportunity to buy the Father Matthew in 1912, as in the same year they had bought a tug of their own, the Knocknagow I, at a cost of £1,600 for service between Carrick and Waterford. The Knocknagow II was added soon afterwards.

In 1916 both Dowleys and Walsh’s discontinued services between Carrick and Clonmel due to the unsatisfactory conduct of some crews. When the first horses on this route were sold it initiated a strike by the rivermen on the stretch between Waterford and Carrick. This affected all boats except the Knocknagows which kept operating a few times a week. The strike was settled in November and the route to Clonmel was reopened by Dowleys alone while Walsh’s continued only on the Waterford route.

In 1918 there was another strike when Dowleys dismissed John Keating the union organiser. This strike went on until February 1919 during which time the boats were operated by five sons of Edward Dowley (Jack, Milo, Joseph, Louis and William) with help from their farmer customers. Later in 1919 the route to Clonmel was finally abandoned.

In 1923, Dowleys and Walsh’s attempted to reduce the rivermen’s wages by 30%. This resulted in a series of strikes and the river trade was further disrupted by a dockers strike in Waterford. All of this hastened the demise of the river trade in favour of the more dependable road transport. The civil war led to some revival in the river trade as road and rail traffic was disrupted by the blowing up of strategic railway bridges. However this revival was only temporary.

In 1927 there were further strikes by the rivermen and the river trade never fully recovered from these disputes. At this time the Fr. Matthew was aground at the end of Barrack St. and badly holed. It was eventually refloated by Jim Cooney and brought down river for breaking up. In the same year Edward Dowley & Sons Ltd. purchased the Suir Steam Navigation Company from Walsh’s which effectively ended Walsh’s involvement with the river trade.

During the Second World War the two Knocknagows continued to ply the route between Waterford and Carrick when fuel for road transport was in short supply. The lighters also served the town well during the war.

After the war Edward Dowley & Sons Ltd purchased another two barges in the UK called the Rocksand and the New Forge. They also bought two cement barges that were towed by the Knocknagows. The imminent arrival of a cement boat in Carrick caused a lot of debate in the local pubs and bets were being laid as to whether a cement boat could float or not. It did float and was 100 ft long by 24 ft wide and 13 ft high. However, it was very cumbersome and an ill-advised purchase and its’ use was abandoned not long after.

The Knocknagows kept operating between Carrick and Waterford for many years after the war, but their cargo was restricted to grain being delivered to Flake Maize and Waterford Flour Mills. During this period two crew members of the Knocknagow were drowned. These included the skipper John Norris in 1949 and the engineer, Jimmy Jacques in 1959. The Knocknagows kept operating up to 1973 when they were sold and this effectively marked the end of commercial trade on the river Suir.

The second Waterford bridge with steam ship and lighter

Lighters on the east quay harbour above the Navigation Cut

Lighters on the east quay harbour above the Navigation Cut

The Knocknagow 1 being loaded from the gantry at Dowleys mills

Lighters in the main harbour at Carrick

Lighters in the main harbour at Carrick


Lighters above the old bridge awaiting cargo for Clonmel

Lighters above the old bridge awaiting cargo for Clonmel

Lighters above the old bridge awaiting cargo for Clonmel

The tow-path on the river Suir between Carrick and Clonmel east of Kilsheelan bridge

The Docks in Clonmel with the offices of the Suir Steam Navigation Co.


The initial Knocknagow I was purchased in 1912 and it’s first skipper was J. Healy. The initial cost of £1,600 was recouped quickly by towing sand-boats that collected river-sand for builders in Waterford. When the Little Knock or Knocknagow II was added to the fleet is not known, but it would have been soon after Knocknagow I. William O’Callaghan maintained that the Little Knocknagow was regarded more as a tug than as a cargo-carrier: being very deep aft, the propeller was never out of the water, even when empty, so the boat was good at towing, and would often give a tow to unpowered sand and gravel boats. After many years on the Slaney, the Kocknagow II is now a pleasure boat on the Shannon owned by Brian Goggin.

As a child (10-12 years) I was allowed travel the round trip from Carrick to Waterford and back to Carrick on the Knocknagows. This was a great treat and very enjoyable. However, safety did not seem to be a great priority as the boats lacked the most basic safety equipment and it would be hard to visualise any of to-day’s parents allowing an unescorted child to travel on either of these boats.

The larger of the two boats (Knocknagow I) could carry 120 tons while the smaller one (Knocknagow II) could carry 80 tons. The smaller boat had a top speed of some 15 knots, however, lower speeds were required on most of the river to protect the banks. The voyage from Carrick to Waterford normally took about 3 hours and started at the turn of the tide in Carrick. This ensured that by the time you reached Waterford the tide had fallen sufficiently to get under the road bridge in Waterford without a bridge lift. The same principle applied on leaving Waterford on the return journey. On one occasion when I was on board the timing was not what it should have been and as the boat passed under the bridge the wheelhouse became dislodged when it hit the bridge. This did not seem to upset the crew unduly as they carried on to Carrick as if nothing unusual had happened. Perhaps this was a regular occurrence.

The Knocknagow pulling two lighters 1939

Knocknagow Ballylynch

The Knocknagow 1 berthed in Ballylynch harbour, Carrick-on-Suir

The fully laden little Knocknagow leaving Carrick for Waterford

The Knocknagow 1 being loaded from the gantry at Dowleys mills

The Knocknagow 1 being loaded from the gantry at Dowleys mills

Knocknagow, lighters and gantry on the quay early 1900's

Knocknagow, lighters and gantry on the quay early 1900’s

The little Knocknagow on the Shannon, refurbished as a pleasure boat by Brian Goggin

The New Forge, which carried a little over 60 tonnes and was described as being more like a canal boat, as it was blunt in front. It had a two-man crew and a Gardner engine that was notoriously hard to start: handles at the two ends of the engine had to be swung in opposite ways. The New Forge is currently based in on Lough Erne, having been based in Shannon Harbour for many years.


The New Forge being towed into Dunmore East on arrival in Ireland. Michael O’Dwyer (Mechanic) in centre of picture.

The Rocksand, which may have been called the Corsand at some stage, had a single-cylinder Plenty-Still engine and a three-man crew. It carried 200 tonnes (usually grain downriver, fertiliser up) and was the least-used of the Dowley fleet and the first to be sold off. It berthed at their downstream yard at Ballylynch, along with the lighters and concrete barges, and was used for storage when not required for transport. A crane with a bucket, sometimes using slings, emptied phosphates and potash from the boats and conveyed them to the store where Dowleys blended their fertilisers (4.4.8 and 0.5.10), for sale in 2 cwt jute bags, well into the 1960s. Although it was a small plant, it despatched 50 to 60 tons of fertiliser per day, selling both wholesale and retail. There was a grid here, based on an outflow pipe with short arms (skips?) at right angles to it, on which a vessel could take the ground on a dropping tide; the bottom could then be inspected when the tide went out, and plates could be welded on if necessary. After being sold off, the Rocksand was used in the dismantling of the old New Ross bridge in 1968 and then became the floating pontoon base, with kitchens and offices, for the New Ross Galley cruising restaurants. At it’s hight, the Dowley fleet consisted of the two Knocknagows, two cement barges as well as the Rocksand and the New Forge.

The Rocksand at the quayside in Ballylynch



The Rocksand (in blue), now home of the Galley Restaurant in New Ross

Water Flour Mills and Flake Maize Ltd. on the north bank – a common berth for the Dowley boats

The Rocksand berthed near Waterford Flour Mills

The Knocknagow 1 berthed near Waterford Flour Mills


It is worth noting that in the early 20th century the winter temperatures fell so low that ice formed on the river Suir. As a result some of the boats were fitted with a reinforced steel bow to act as an ice breaker.

In a moment of madness in the early 1970’s, when the Knocknagows were only occasionally used, John Shelley (Agricultural Adviser with Dowleys) and myself put a bid on the Knocknagow II with a view to converting it into a pleasure boat. Fortunately Cecil Dowley refused the bid and the boat was eventually sold to the Miller family in Wexford. It is currently owned by Mr. Brian Goggin and is moored on the Shannon. The Knocknagow 1 was abandoned and eventually bought for scrap.

The abandoned Knocknagow 1




Leslie J. Dowley

3 thoughts on “Commercial Activity on the River Suir

  1. Thomas Brett

    Great piece of local history. I remember the ‘Knocks’ well as a school boy. Jumping on them when no one was around. An the gantry crane was a marvellous contraption.

  2. Brian Phelan

    As a native of Clonmel I enjoyed reading your family history especially your account of the boat traffic between Clonmel and Carrick.

  3. Joseph Ryan

    Absolutely fascinating history. I’ve just cycled along the old towpath, now the Suir Blueway, so it’s lovely to learn of the background. Also, I live quite close to the old homeplace of Fr.Matthew, Thomastown Castle, near Golden, Co.Tipperary. He sure left an indelible mark on our country. Nice to see this connection. Thanks for sharing all the information.


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