The Avondhu - By The Fireside
THE BLACKWATER AS A CROSSING POINT
Luckily, for myself, a big portion of the River Blackwater lies within that area and it’s an area I have dived extensively for over 30 years.
Having completed hundreds of dives in that 5km stretch around Fermoy for a variety of reasons - varying from missing person searches, dive training, trainee dives and pleasure dives - the dives have thrown up numerous surprises.
Just some of those finds included 3 items recovered and donated to the National Museum which included coins, a headstone and a halberd spear. Other items have included WW1 and War of Independence firearms, badges and emblems from a number of different British army regiments, a large collection of pocket watches which ended up in the river following British Army looting and reprisals in Fermoy in 1920; as well as numerous ceramic objects, including a Victorian era water purifier.
One find in 2010 of a number of old substantial timbers in the riverbed, led to almost 15 dives over the year to survey the entire area and identify any timbers left in the area. As part of the survey, all timbers had surface marker buoys sent to the surface to help sketch the locations and try and ascertain how old the timbers were and, as to what was their original purpose was (was it an original timber bridge?).
All of these surveys were forwarded to the underwater archaeological unit in Duchas and contributed to a number of various archaeological surveys in the area. While there was various opinion as to how old the timbers were, the question always remained that I wanted to know how old they really were. This mean getting a scientific dendrochronology survey done of one of the timbers, in order to get it dated.
Fermoy has always historically been a significant crossing point on the River Blackwater with the first records of same being the Cistercian monks operating a ferry between the 13th and 15th centuries. The first real bridge was built in 1626 by Richard Boyle, the Great Earl of Cork. The bridge would last just 2 years before being washed away in a flood and the area would remain without a bridge for almost 50 years, until the Earl’s son - the famous scientist Robert Boyle - spent £1,500 on a new limestone bridge in 1687 (Robert Boyle being synonymous with divers through Boyle’s Law).
This bridge was rebuilt in the early 1800s, with the plaque on the bridge stating it was rebuilt in 1864 and 1865 and it has remained largely unaltered despite numerous large floods since; a testament to the craftmanship of the stone masons who could never have envisaged the heavy goods vehicles now traversing the structure.
For the last decade, I had always wondered how old the timbers were - could they have been part of the original structure commissioned by Robert Boyle (the father of chemistry) or were they from a later construction perhaps?
OFF TO DENMARK
The only definitive way to be sure was to get some dendrochronology done - a dating technique that exploits the annual growth increments of trees to provide a precise estimate of the age (or period since formation) of a wood sample. This would need an archaeological licence and the sample would need to be taken under the supervision of a competent archaeologist and the sample stored and shipped correctly to a laboratory in Denmark for analysis.
Over the years I had been lucky enough to be involved in a lot of archaeology projects and after a call with Julianna O’Donoghue of Mizen Archaeology, offered to the assist and oversee the project and within a few days we had assembled a dive team to safely remove the sample. After Julianna had given everyone a briefing on how to remove the sample correctly to get a valid reading, I was soon descending into shallow fast flowing water and the next 50 minutes would be spent using a handsaw, before we had the necessary sample secure and in a sample container, ready for shipping to Denmark.
The sample contained 98 tree rings and the timber was growing between AD 1654 and 1751 with the tree being felled after 1751; meaning that the timber structures are legacy, from the latter builds and not from the 1600’s. Interestingly, the timber is not Irish and is a Swedish softwood most likely from central
Sweden; something I would not have expected!
With another Scandinavian/ Irish link, the scientist doing the analysis would turn out to be Aoife Daly, an Irish scientist working and living in Denmark; showing just how small the world can be. A huge thanks to Aoife for her excellent work and also to Julianna O’Donoghue of Mizen Archaeology for assisting on a number of different projects and the Department for granting the licence and allowing us to bring these questions relating to the underwater timber find, to a close; the assistance was greatly appreciated.