Noël P. Wilkins’ new book outlines the history of the 320 piers and quays of this region, highlighting their social importance as monuments to the work of starving, distressed men. Read on for your chance to win a copy

CLICK TO ENLARGE The breakwater erected by the Piers and Roads Commission at Clais na nUan in 1886 and subsequently raised above high water by Col. Fraser in 1887. Photo NPW

Since 1800, more than 320 separate piers and quays have been erected on the 850 kilometres of sea coast from Black Head in Co Clare to Killary Harbour in Co Galway, including the islands. Most of them are small, artisanal structures, but some are substantial and dominate the seascape where they are located.

Their number, form and structure are important in the maritime heritage of counties Galway and Clare. Many are now being destroyed by recent storms and many others are being renovated and modernised, but without any reference to their historical context.

A new book, Humble Works for Humble People: A History of the Fishery Piers of County Galway and North Clare, 1800–1922

provides the historical context and narrative of the piers and quays of this region, highlighting their social importance in our history and community development. It is the first and only book of its kind, a study that has never been done before for any coast of Ireland. With its treatment of the national history of pier funding and usage, it stands as a template for similar works to be done on other counties.

Why were so many piers and quays erected in this region? When were they first built? Why are they located where they are? Who paid for them? Who used them and for what purpose? Why are so many of them small? Who designed them and supervised their construction? How many piers survive to this day? Are there piers that are recorded in maps but never existed in reality? What was their connection with the Office of Public Works?

What contribution did the county surveyors make? Why did benefactors from places abroad like Canada, Australia and even Calcutta contribute to financing them? What was the influence of the Congested Districts Board on piers?

Can you name the piers of the 1822 famine, or of the Great Famine of the 1840s? What is ‘new’ about New Quay? What have Tarrea pier and Kilronan pier in common? What is significant about Tully pier? Why is the state of Ballyconneely quay a particular concern?

Famine relief works

CLICK TO ENLARGE Duras Pier and Quay

These are the kinds of questions this book sets out to answer, with significant success. It traces the history of the public piers and quays of this county and the Galway Bay coast of north Clare from 1800 to the foundation of Saorstát Éireann. Ostensibly funded and built to help the fisheries, many were simply famine relief works, with little enough consideration for the fisheries; their story unfolds in a background of famine and distress. As such, they are monuments to the work of starving and distressed men.

Many of the piers were useful principally in facilitating the non-fishing maritime occupations of the local communities, i.e. seaweed harvesting, kelp making, turf distribution and local transport of people and animals. The coastal communities of Galway and north Clare sustained a vibrant local economy based on these natural resources and on the region’s unique topography; the story of the piers is, in an important way, a story of these communities.

Starting with maritime activities before 1800, the book describes the legislation governing the funding, erection and management of the public piers and how it evolved from then to 1922. The decade of the 1820s set the tone for all pier building schemes for over fifty years.

The book explains why, and how, the necessary government funding was conditional on local contributions, even in the most distressful times, and the pernicious effect this had both on the piers and the people. Changes in the administration of the fisheries and in the Office of Public Works (OPW) and the county administration were also important in the story.

From 1830 to 1869, management of the fisheries and the construction of fishery piers were the responsibility of the OPW. In 1869, fisheries became independent of the OPW, but the construction of the fishery piers remained in the latter’s brief. A pronounced discord arose between the two departments, with serious consequences during the 1880s, the greatest decade of pier-building in this country’s history. This necessitated a greater role for the county surveyors of Galway and Mayo in pier building.

The Galway and north Clare piers are treated in the context of piers elsewhere in Ireland, so that the book forms an introductory but comprehensive account of the history of the piers of other counties also. It reveals and explains the emergence of a national strategy for fishery piers, with fewer, larger, structures on the east and south coasts and more numerous, but smaller, ones on the west coast.

It introduces and discusses the people, the engineers, the public bodies and the Select Committees and Commissions involved in the piers scene throughout that long century. Many of their names have fallen from memory, but are revived here wherever known. They include William Forsythe, George Tarrant, Barry Gibbons, Henry Abbot, T F Plummer, R H Head and so on.

The book is based on personal, on-site, examination of almost all the piers and a detailed perusal of more than 500 public records and documents. It discusses in detail, with illustrations, the funding, design, construction and subsequent history of over 100 of the piers and quays in Galway and north Clare, and presents information on the distribution of the other piers and quays of these and all other counties.

It is the only study of its kind ever done in Ireland (or anywhere else that I know) and it gives a vivid account of how we acquired the heritage treasury of piers and quays that distinguish and grace our coasts today. The need for a book of this sort covering Ireland was never greater.

Excerpt: Thomas F. Brady argues his case

CLICK TO ENLARGE The stone steps at Tarrea. Note the plaque near the top left of the picture. Photo NPW

The following is an excerpt from the book. Thomas F. Brady was an Inspector of Irish Fisheries from 1869. Previous to that, he had worked a long time in the fisheries section of the OPW, a body he did not appear to hold in very high regard: ‘I think it was rather an unfortunate thing that the fisheries were ever placed in the hands of the Board of Works,’ he told a Select Committee of the House of Commons in 1867.

When the Fishery Inspectors were made a fully independent body in 1869, responsibility for fishery piers was left in the hands of the OPW and its engineers. This was opposed strongly by Brady, who was responsible with the other Inspectors for deciding the sites for new structures, but they had no role in their design or construction.

This rankled with Brady and relations between the two bodies, the Inspectors and the OPW, went from barely civil at best to positively poisonous at worst. The following account of an exchange at the Select Committee on Harbour Accommodation in 1883 describes the situation.

Brady did not have too long to wait for an appropriate occasion to air his dissatisfaction in public. His friend and erstwhile Fishery Inspector colleague, John A. Blake, had been re-elected to Parliament in 1880 and he, Blake, along with others, brought in the Sea Fisheries (Ireland) Bill in February 1883 (Chapter 7). As drafted, the Bill proposed, inter alia:

The plans and specifications for all [piers and harbours] works to be undertaken shall be first approved by the Commissioners under this Act, and be submitted for the approval of the Lord Lieutenant before such works are undertaken … All statutes now in force for such works to be executed or for their maintenance shall remain in full force and effect … and all the powers, rights, privileges, and duties vested in or exercised by the Commissioners of Public Works under said Acts shall be vested in and may be exercised by the Commissioners of Irish Fisheries under this Act.

If passed by Parliament without alteration, that would have meant the removal entirely of the OPW from the business of fishery piers, to be replaced by the new Fishery Commissioners proposed in the Bill. When this issue was taken up by the Select Committee on Harbour Accommodation in 1883, it created the opportunity that Brady grasped.31 In the course of his extensive evidence he alluded to the plans and designs of piers: ‘I am always fearful about those designs. I think we always want some marine engineer to be consulted with regard to those harbours. I think that is a most important thing’. Did he not realise that this comment could be construed as criticism of the engineers of the OPW with regard to marine constructions? When pressed further to say whether it was regrettable that more care was not taken to see that the money spent on piers was profitably expended, he waded in even deeper:

I agree all together with you on that; but it is a question which the committee will see places me in rather an awkward and delicate position in offering an opinion with regard to another department, the Board of Works. It might look as if I were making some unpleasant commentaries upon either their engineer or upon the Board of Works itself, which I would rather be saved from if possible.

That, naturally enough, introduced a more personal tone to the proceedings. Robert Manning, the Board’s Engineer who was responsible entirely for the plans and estimates, responded calmly enough that he had no problem with Brady expressing his opinion, but he himself could only say that:

No design of the Board of Works has failed, and I would be very glad if Mr Brady would put forward a series of specific complaints; do not let him mind my feelings at all, but let the complaints be direct and specific, and not made by innuendo which has not been the case in this instance.

Manning was concerned that his own competence or dedication was being impugned, and that the Bill, if passed as it stood, would result in his replacement:

I can well see from the examination before the committee, that there will be a marine engineer instead of the engineer of the Board of Works. I can only say, personally, that my duties have been very arduous, and they have been altogether unpaid for; and although, personally, I would be delighted to be relieved of them, the only thing that I would avoid would be running away from a duty that is cast upon me, which I shall never do, or being sent away because I was incompetent, and that I would not like.

Blake brought these fears out into the open during the questioning, asking him what had evinced this negative disposition? Manning instanced Brady’s evidence, and when Blake explained that the appointment of a marine engineer, or a navigating naval officer, might be helpful to him, Manning replied ‘I do not think so, because on numerous occasions I cannot fail to find that Mr Brady has not the slightest confidence in me or in anything that I do.’37 To pour oil on clearly very troubled waters, Blake averred that he and the other Irish members of the Select Committee had no other belief but that Manning was a most competent and most zealous, but too much overworked, officer. Manning’s reply was waspish, to say the least:

You can compensate me for overwork by giving me, not overpay, but pay, for you do not pay me at all … I have done all the work that has been put upon me, and I am bound to say, without any want of modesty, that I have done it well, and no person has been able to say that I have not.

In fairness, Blake responded graciously and unequivocally that he would be happy to have Manning administer the whole £250,000 envisaged in the Bill, and Manning, for his part, was satisfied that he could carry out this huge expenditure ‘although subject to great responsibility and anxiety, and occasionally to being urged to perform impossibilities’.

To be fair, Manning was a most competent engineer of very high repute, especially regarding hydrology: he was the eponymous author of Manning’s Formula for Open Channel Flow, a formula used throughout the world to this day for the calculation of fluid flow in open channels.4

For his part, Brady, who was an enlightened and humane fishery administrator, would eventually be knighted.

Your chance to win a copy
Humble Works for Humble People: A History of the Fishery Piers of County Galway and North Clare, 1800–1922 is written by Noël P. Wilkins and is published by Irish Academic Press (RRP: €29.99). The text is complete with tables, endnote references in each of its 13 chapters, nine appendices and bibliographic references to about 700 references. It is illustrated with coloured plans and photos, with maps of the region and with multiple black-and-white photos throughout. It is available to buy from all good bookshops and from the Irish Academic Press website.


AUTHOR Noël P. Wilkins
IMPRINT Irish Academic Press
PUBLICATION DATE 16 October 2017
FORMAT Hardback
HARDBACK ISBN 9781911024910
EXTENT 350 pp

For your chance to win a copy, email your answer to the following question to before Wednesday, 13 December: When did fisheries become independent of the OPW?

Noël Wilkins is a retired professor of the National University of Ireland, Galway. His previous works include Alexander Nimmo’s Inverness Survey & Journal, 1806Alexander Nimmo, Master Engineer (1783-1932): Public Works and Civil Surveys and Alive, Alive-O: The Shellfish and Shellfisheries of Ireland. O'RiordanCivilheritage,infrastructure,marine
Since 1800, more than 320 separate piers and quays have been erected on the 850 kilometres of sea coast from Black Head in Co Clare to Killary Harbour in Co Galway, including the islands. Most of them are small, artisanal structures, but some are substantial and dominate the seascape...