Vital pier construction in Mayo in the 1820s

By Tom Gillespie

THE pioneering Scottish engineer Alexander Nimmo came to Ireland in 1811 and remained in the country until the time of his death in 1832.

During this time he was employed by a number of government bodies in various key road and pier building projects.

Initially he worked for the government-appointed Bog Commission. When his term with that body was over in 1813, he remained on to take up a number of private commissions in various parts of the country.

Clifden born author Kathleen Villiers-Tuthill, in her 2006 book Alexander Nimmo and The Western District, described that he was responsible for overseeing the construction of over 40 piers between 1822 and 1824, particularly on the west coast.

Pictured here is the old pier on Inishturk island, one of three, Saleen, Tarmon at Blacksod and Inishturk, that, according to Nimmo, contributed greatly to the development of the Mayo coast.

All three were constructed under the management of William Bald. Bald deviated from Nimmo’s plans on both Saleen and Blacksod, incurring extra expense, which irritated Nimmo and delayed their completion.

Bald had faced the Saleen pier one beach side with hewn granite from Tarmon Point, which Nimmo considered expensive.

At Blacksod Point, he was again ‘tempted’ by its proximity to the ‘excellent blocks of granite’ and again faced the pier with hewn stone.

Nimmo did not approve of what he had done: ‘As might have been expected, the sum allowed for the purpose was exhausted ere the piers made of much use’.

Inishturk pier also proved unsuccessful and expensive, and Nimmo was forced to send in Alexander McGill, his trusted friend from Waterford, to render the quay safe.

Nimmo was, however, completely satisfied with Bald’s pier on Achill Island, situated opposite Achillbeg.

His assistant, Patrick Knight, later wrote that Saleen, in his opinion, was badly positioned and Blacksod Point was seldom used.

The Board of Public Works, however, struck a more positive note in their report in 1833.

The pier at Old Head was expected to be of great benefit to the fishermen of Clew Bay, as it was much nearer to the fishing grounds than Westport.

Here the works had run over budget and it was some years before the extra funds needed were allocated for its completion.

The contract for the Bundorragha pier, Killary Harbour, although publicly advertised, was awarded to one of Nimmo’s assistants, William O’Hara.

Work on the pier began in 1824 and it was finished ‘in a very substantial manner’ in 1825.

Nimmo’s ‘rough jetty-pier’ at Leenane was reported as being frequented by about 30 fishing boats in 1833. The site was later improved during the Great Famine with the addition of the west pier.

Initially Nimmo designed functional piers to serve the needs of the local fishermen and to suit the sites chosen, but always with an eye to keeping costs low so as to win the Fishery Board’s sanction.

Frequently he suggested improvements that could be made later as trade on the piers increased.

Most of the work was carried out after the coastal survey was suspended in 1824 and Nimmo’s term with the Fisheries Board came to an end.

For an independent assessment of the works carried out on the piers, the Fisheries Board employed a second engineer, James Donnell, to make a general inspection of all the piers that had received board funding.

Donnell was the harbour engineer and inspector of harbours to the board. He conducted his surveys in 1824, 1826 and 1828 and his reports to the board gave a history of the individual piers, their cost and progress.

Although he was frequently critical of the standard of workmanship employed on the piers, almost all of which were in need of further funding for repairs or improvements, he strongly defended the board’s decision to built several small piers over one or two big harbours.

The funds allocated to the Fishery Board, he argued, prevented them from constructing anything greater than the small piers undertaken. He also defended Nimmo’s choice of site for the piers.

In Donnell’s opinion, the site chosen for each pier ought to be judged against the ‘geographical peculiarity of the coast’.

The piers were built to facilitate the coastal population, to enable them to keep their vessels closets their dwellings, so as to be ready ‘without loss of time or labour, to step on board and start for the fishery when weather and other inducements offer’.

In the years that followed many of the piers were enlarged and extended. Parapets and capping were added and in some cases the basins excavated and the quays extended to accommodate the erection of stores.

Many of the improvements were those suggested by Nimmo and included in his original plan; others were recommended by James Donnell.

In her book, Kathleen Villiers-Tuthill refers to the impact of the Famine, and Nimmo wrote: A partial failure of the potato crop in 1829, accompanied by a failure of the fishery, left the people short of food supplies and anxious for the coming months.

As early as February 1830 calls went out from the people from Galway and Mayo for charitable donations, government assistance and public works to help alleviate the distress already evident among the poor.

As the year unfolded it brought added misery. The newspapers reported 1830 to be the wettest year in living memory in the west: ‘The gales about the period of the equinox continued longer than usual, accompanied by great rains, so that much of the oats was destroyed’.

Provisions in the west were reported to be low and expensive. The price of food rose in the market place as the severe weather continued through the winter.

The cold, wet and stormy weather continued throughout the remainder of the month of September and far into October. Great storms occurred at the end of November, and early in December, high floods - several bridges were swept away.

To prevent the poitín makers from getting their hands on what little corn was available to them, the people on the north coast of Mayo destroyed the kilns that dried the malt and pulled down the houses where illicit distillation was carried on.

At Belmullet and Clifden, large crowds gathered on the quays to prevent the merchants from exporting the corn and it was only on receipt of assurances that representations would be made to the government on their behalf that they eventually backed down and allowed the merchants to proceed.

Nimmo used the incident to highlight the advances made in the west in recent years and to emphasise the improved habits of the people.

* Pictured, the harbour on Inishturk pictured in 1985 with the uninhabited Caher Island in the background.