Cumann Seandalaiochta agus Staire Phort Lairge

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Book Review : Waterford Port & Harbour 1815-42 by Mary Breen

Mary Breen, Waterford port and harbour, 1815-42, (Four Courts Press, Dublin, 2019).
(Reviewed by Cian Manning)

     The hugely popular Maynooth Studies in Local History Series saw five more additions to its extensive list launched in September 2019. One of these slim volumes was by Waterford historian Mary Breen, titled Waterford port and harbour, 1815–42 (recorded as Issue 140 of the aforementioned series). Breen is a retired public servant from Waterford city and holds an MA in Irish History from NUI Maynooth. Many local history enthusiasts will be familiar with her work in the journal of the Waterford Archaeological & Historical Society’s journal Decies. Previously she has written on James Fanning and his charitable bequest (Decies No. 72 – 2016) and ‘Whitfield Court, Co. Waterford: Challenges and Threats to an Historic House’ (Decies No. 75 – 2019). This exploration of Waterford port and harbour in the early years of the Waterford Harbour Commissioners is based on research for her Masters degree under the supervision of Professor Raymond Gillespie. 

     The period of the study, 1815 to 1842, begins with the establishment of a statutory body in the form of the Harbour Commissioners under an act of parliament in 1816 and ends in 1842 when Waterford Corporation began to experience the impact of the reforms of the Municipal Corporations (Ireland) Act of 1840. This nicely allows the author to delve in depth into many issues concerning the creation of the Waterford Harbour Commissioners and the developments of its roles and remit, capturing a major change in the workings of local government in 19th century Ireland. Within this, the tension between the political and mercantile elites is explored with the interests of Waterford Corporation and Waterford Chamber of Commerce coming into near-constant conflict. 

     Central to Breen’s study are the Waterford Harbour Commissioners, Waterford Corporation and Waterford Chamber of Commerce. The minute books of each group for the period explored are kept uninterrupted and are central to charting the development of the Harbour Commissioners. Breen is utilising an under-used resource by historians, even noting that much of the archive of Waterford Harbour Commissioners is ‘largely uncatalogued’ (p. 8) in the National Archive of Ireland. Additional context is provided by various Parliamentary papers and local newspapers such as the Waterford Chronicle and the Waterford Mail. The latter sources provide much flavour to these formal documents and Breen’s extensive research is presented in an easy to read and highly engaging manner. This allows this short study to be a very enjoyable read in what could easily have been a very dense subject. 

      A plethora of secondary sources are consulted, ranging from Cormac Ó Gráda, to Joel Mokyr, to L.M. Cullen. It was with great delight that one was able to see the names of the late Bill Irish and Anthony Brophy in relation to their extensive research and writings on shipbuilding and Waterford harbour. It is noted by Breen that Brophy’s published extracts from the records of Waterford Harbour Commissioners in Decies first ‘piqued [her] interest’ (p. 9) in the subject. 

     Broken into three main sections:

1. The mercantile, political and economic arena: Waterford port and harbour in the early 19th century: this section looks at the local and national challenges that faced the harbour prior to the creation of the Harbour Commissioners, as well the relationship between Waterford Corporation and the Waterford Chamber of Commerce. The latter’s actions in seeking to improve the conditions and operation of Waterford harbour and port ‘brought them into conflict with the municipal corporation of Waterford, a body that jealously guarded its powers and functions’ (p. 20). Central to this is the ‘pervasive influence’ of Sir John Newport, MP for Waterford [1].  The role of Newport could nearly be considered worthy of a similar study itself. 

2. The establishment of Waterford Harbour Commissioners in 1816: the two competing forces, Waterford Chamber of Commerce and Waterford Municipal Corporation, sought control over the port and harbour through the legislative process. The act, rather than solving their conflict, caused further contention because when it ‘entrusted the management of the port and harbour to Waterford Harbour Commissioners, the ownership of the quays and areas associated with the port and harbour, including the foreshore, was claimed by Waterford Corporation under the governing charter of 1626’ (p. 27). The role of the merchants of Clonmel in the Waterford Harbour Commission further demonstrated how personal interests were invested in the prosperity of the town, as well as showing the strong representation of the ‘Quaker entrepreneurism and business activism’ (p. 30) in Waterford. 

3. Shaping the port: implementing the act of 1816 explores the improvements made to the harbour and port under the 1816 act until the passing of an act in 1846 which reconstituted the board and gave the commissioners additional powers. This chapter encompasses the first meeting of the Waterford Harbour Commissioners and the make-up of the commissioners, pilotage establishment, tonnage duties, water bailiff’s fees to the income and expenditure of the body. In 1821 it was agreed that the Corporation would contribute towards the cost of works ‘not exceeding £1,500, at the quays.’ Over the period we see new quays built, increased berthage and ‘an agreement with the Waterford Gas Company in 1830 to have 13 gas lights erected at the edge of the quays’ (p. 47). All of this resulted in an increase in the number of ships and tonnage through the port, combined with a similar rise in the number and tonnage of vessels registered with the port. 

     Mary Breen’s much needed academic treatment of the subject of Waterford port and harbour leads her to conclude that: 
Waterford port and harbour between 1815 and 1842 evolved in a milieu where political and civic positions were the preserve of the Protestant elite. However, it was also a society in transition, with Catholics succeeding in mercantile and industrial enterprises, becoming increasingly confident and demanding a right to a role in politics and civic institutions. [2]  
The study is completed with useful Appendices including a detailed membership list of Waterford Chamber of Commerce and a superbly detailed and informative profile of the first Board of the Harbour Commissioners. 

     Noted maritime historian Andrew Doherty of Waterford Harbour – Tides & Tales noted of Breen’s study that ‘it was a very interesting account of the set-up of the Harbour Board… I certainly enjoyed it, I must say.’ This reviewer agrees with Doherty’s sentiments as Breen’s engaging and thorough study of Waterford port and harbour, 1815–42 should sit proudly on the shelf of Waterford history fanatics all over the globe. 

[1] Mary Breen, Waterford port and harbour, 181542 (Four Courts Press, Dublin, 2019), pp. 1621.
[2] Ibid., p. 49 

Thursday, March 12, 2020


In keeping with the guidelines nationwide regarding public meetings, this month's lecture

Lucky Escapes, rising damp or something else entirely? Why so few County Waterford big houses were burned in the Irish Revolution  by Cian Flaherty

is postponed.

The Waterford Archaeological and Historical Society, Ireland.
Website By: Deise Design