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Little Knocknagow - Steam Tug - Lanarkshire c1890 PDF Print E-mail
06 April 2011


There is no record of where or when the Little Knocknagow (Knocknagow II, the Little Knock or the Little Tug) was built. But there may be a clue in the boat's dimensions.
It was clearly built for inland use, given its straight sides and flat bottom. With its deep stern (currently drawing 4'), it was probably built as a tug-barge. Its original dimensions seem to have been 67' 6" by 12' 6" (counting a 6" wooden rubbing strake, 3" per side), and they don't match most waterways. If the boat had been built for the Suir, which has no locks, there would be no reason to confine it to a 12' 6" beam.
It has been suggested that, with those dimensions, the boat might have been built for the Forth & Clyde Canal, but there is no record of similar vessels being used on that canal. Nonetheless, the words "Lanarkshire Steel Co Ltd Scotland" appear in small raised letters on two pieces of steel on the stern; that might fit with the Forth & Clyde idea.
But it is possible that the boat was built to pass through, rather than operate on, the Forth & Clyde, and it would not have been the only Suir-based boat to come that way. The first new-build Bolinder-powered vessel in Ireland was the Rose Macrone, built by Hepple & Co on the Tyne for Graves of Waterford. Fitted with a 25bhp Bolinder engine supplied by James Pollock Sons & Co Ltd, the boat passed through the Forth & Clyde, crossed the Irish Sea and entered the Grand Canal in Dublin in October 1911 en route to Waterford. Knocknagow might have been too long for the Grand Canal locks, but could have gone south along the coast to the Suir.
The Knocknagow's shape, with a pronounced counter stern (good for towing), suggests that it may be older than the Rose Macrone: perhaps built in the 1890s or the 1900s. Jack O'Neill, the Waterford railway historian, says that the Donovan family operated lighters in Waterford from the early 1900s. They carried goods between the railway goods yard and the ships along the quays. They also carried limestone from quarries at Kilmacow, up the Barrow to New Ross and other quays, from which carts brought it further. He said that the Knocknagow was used in that business, although it probably had a different name at that time.
The opening of the Waterford to Rosslare Railway in 1906 provided competition for the delivery of limestone, and Donovans eventually sold out of that business and bought a pub on the quays. They also sold the Knocknagow. After the Civil War, they also left the lighterage business.
Working for Dowleys
Dr Patrick C Power says that the boat's first skipper was J Healy and that the cost "was recouped quickly by towing sand-boats that collected river-sand for Waterford builders". It could carry about 40 tons.
William O'Callaghan said that the Little Knocknagow was regarded more as a tug than as a cargo-carrier: being very deep aft, the propellor 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.
Jack O'Neill said that Knocknagow towed both non-engined barges and sand barges. It would discharge sand on the Waterford side of the river and return to Carrick next day towing a barge laden with general cargo, at two miles an hour.
It seems clear that this boat joined the Dowleys fleet before the Big Knocknagow, but the larger boat became Knocknagow I and the smaller and older Knocknagow II.
Engine and crew
The boat originally had a steam engine, but at some point that was replaced by a 15hp Bolinder, with compressed-air starting of the pre-heated engine. The throttle could be controlled from the helm but an engineer was still required in the engine-room. Theo Harris says that there was no reverse and that one of the Knocknagows had chain steering, with the chains dragging along the deck.
The boat had a three-man crew: the skipper/helmsman, the engineer and the deck hand. After J Healy, there were at least five other skippers:
  • Mikey Dowley (pronounced Dooley)
  • Johnny Norris, who skippered both Knocknagows. He was Chairman of the Carrick Urban District Council in 1947; he is said to have grounded on a shoal once in order to reach a Council meeting on time. According to Dr Power, "he championed the rights of the workers of the town and as a skilful boatman, [...] distinguished himself in the annual regattas." His son Tom says that he was skipper for about twenty years. He was let go from Dowleys and he drowned on December 27, 1949
  • Tim Sweeney from Carrick Beg, who later worked the gantry hoisting the cargo to and from Dowley's store
  • Tom Sweeney, brother of Tim
  • Paddy Sweeney, son of Tim, who had started as deck hand.
  • William O'Callaghan said that Pat Reilly was originally in charge of the steam engine but was sacked by Joe Dowley, who wanted a younger man.
  • He said that James Jacques, of Friary Height, was engineer for over forty years on both Knocknagows, covering both the steam and the diesel era. He died on January 22, 1958 when, in winter floods, the boat got stuck in the wooden supports of the bridge at Fiddown. While trying to pry it free with a bar, he slipped and fell into the river. Although he managed to swim to the shore, the cold caused his heart to give way. If he was engineer for over forty years, he must have started in about 1917.
  • Sean Barrett, a tall thin man, replaced James Jacques.


The sand trade

Dowleys sold the boat to O'Keeffes of Mooncoin, who put a crane (described as a Heath Robinson arrangement) on board to draw sand from the river and bring it to Polerone Quay, whence it was sold to builders.
Roadstone Wexford took over a quarry at Brownswood on the River Slaney, two miles below Enniscorthy, from the County Council. Washed aggregates (gravel) were being bought in from a local supplier, but Roadstone felt it could get them from the bed of the river, already washed. Accordingly, in the mid-1960s it bought the Knocknagow, used it on the Suir for a while and then sailed it around the south-east coast to Brownswood Jetty.
Nick O'Donnell, an inter-county hurler, managed the conversion from barge to dredger, placing a mechanical shovel on the bow; up to 100 tons were extracted daily and most Wexford concrete of the time used Knocknagow sand. The crew was John Myles and Willie Kavanagh.
The boat sank once at Eddermine Bridge. Bill O'Hanlon from Waterford undertook to raise it for £3,000. He put sandbags around the deck opening to raise the deck, pumped out the water and raised it in twenty minutes.
On that occasion or another, the boat sank with its Bolinder running; the flywheel kept going faster and faster and the engine beat itself to death. A Nuffield tractor, without its wheels, was fitted in the engine-room, its power take-off linked to the prop-shaft. By then the original 2" bronze shaft had become a 1.25" oval.
Richard Miller
In 1975 Roadstone decided to scrap the Knocknagow and sold it to O'Rourke Scrap Merchants. However, Richard Miller, a Wexford farmer, saved it from the scrap heap; he had to promise that the boat would not be used in the sand and gravel trade but would be converted for pleasure purposes.
He actually converted it twice and, in the process, shortened it by 6' 6" so that it would fit in the locks of the Grand Canal. He beached the boat on the slipway of the former US flying-boat station in Wexford, cut out a section from the middle and then joined it up again. He also added a wheelhouse. That gave a length of 61', beam 12' 6", draught 4', air draught 9'. He did bring the boat to the Shannon once, but getting back was a slow process.
Richard also rebuilt the stern. The boat had had a 48" prop but, after building a new shaft and installing a new stern tube much further down, he fitted a much smaller (20") prop. This rebuilding was harder to do than shortening the boat: he separated the sides 2' 6" up; the rivets were screwed and threaded, then tightened; plates were beaten in with a sledge. The boat had no engine when he bought it, so he fitted a six-cylinder BMC 5.1.
He reconditioned the engine in 1976 but also decided to enable the boat to sail, so he fitted it with two masts and leeboards. The foremast had a specially-made 24' wide x 13' deep square sail, with a 6' bonnet, the main had a gaff and a topsail. In 1986/87 he overplated the bottom with 5mm plate. This version was advertised for sale in 1988, for £32,000, but was not sold. The specification included
  • BMC 5.1 litre 6 cylinder diesel. Borg Warner 71C gear box 2:1 reduction. Gear box cooler, engine oil cooler, heat exchanger. 2 Jabsco pumps. 24v Dynamo, 1000W. Lister 1.9hp diesel driving capstan and winch
  • Forecastle: store with capstan engine etc, large vice
  • Saloon: open plan, 8 berths, 2 large lockers. Solid fuel heater
  • Galley: lockers, sink, worktops, 2-burner gas cooker, grill, oven
  • Marine toilet, shower well
  • Central heating and hot water from engine
  • Road trailer available; delivery negotiable.


The Knocknagow made some coastal trips (one to West Cork and one to Scotsman's Bay near Dun Laoghaire), went upriver on Slaney rallies and was used as a mother-ship for Wexford Harbour Boat and Tennis Club regattas. But the first conversion went on fire and Richard rebuilt the boat, this time with a low cabin and no wheelhouse.

He also brought the boat home — three tractors to haul it up the slipway in Wexford on the trailer he had built for it; two to carry it through the streets and down the winding roads to his farm — and replated it in 6mm steel in 1994, removing the old plating from the inside and adding new frames. A hydraulic centreboard was installed and the inside of the hull was sprayed with insulating polyurethane foam down to the water line.
He sold the boat to Anne and Brian Goggin in 2004. The handover was at Vicarstown on the Barrow Line of the Grand Canal. Richard skippered the boat, with crew from both old and new owners, from Wexford to St Mullins on Good Friday, 9 April 2004, leaving at 10.30 and reaching St Mullins at 20.45.
Because Knocknagow draws more water than the Barrow provides, Richard reduced the draft by securing three air-filled forty-gallon barrels under each side of the counter stern. That lifted the boat by nine inches and, while it scraped a few rocks on the way upriver, it suffered no damage. The barrels were secured by April 11 and the boat reached Vicarstown on April 16 for the handover.
The boat is now based at Dromineer on Lough Derg. A new JCB 84hp engine was fitted in 2009 and work on other systems is continuing.
Michael Coady wrote in The Nationalist of August, 22, 1998: "I recall still summer evenings when you'd hear the distinctive knock-knock-knock of the Knocknagow's engine before she'd appear through the navigation cut down river and sail up under the New Bridge, into the Town Pond to her berth beside the quay at the foot of Oven Lane." The boat is still fondly remembered by many Carrick people, some of whom have been surprised to meet it on the canal or the Shannon.


Last Updated ( 16 November 2011 )
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