The Sandmen of the Sandmall

The Abbey River, a tributary of the Shannon, runs close by our old house in Limerick. That river played a major part in our lives. We played and fished on the sandy banks and there was an old sand-cot beached there that disintegrated a little with each ebb tide until it disappeared altogether.
There were three families in our parish who went out in such boats to harvest sand from certain areas of the Shannon. They were the Frawleys, Crowes and Shanahans who steered their sandcots from the Abbey River out onto the Shannon to dredge the sand by hand from the riverbed. Streams coming down from the Tipperary Hills deposited that sand there in certain places. It was used to build the foundations of the city from ancient times.
The families who gathered the sand were hardy stock. Their sand-cots were more like platforms that were unwieldy and difficult to manoeuvre. Each was about thirty feet in length and five feet wide and was propelled and steered by a long pole set into a lock at the stem.
Each particular family had a designated spot on the Shannon and having reached it, the sand was drawn together on the riverbed, pushed onto the dredge scoop to be hand winched up and loaded onto the middle of the boat. Some say that two tons was the usual load whilst others say that it was closer to five tons. My Uncle Jim remembers going up the canal bank as a young boy with his friends, to jeer the Sandmen as they turned off from the Shannon into a section of the canal loaded down so that there was only an inch of the boat showing above water. If the skipper was distracted and turned the comer too fast or too wide, his boat would sink and provide much merriment for the young boys.
There is another story of how “Boss” Shanahan was breaking-in one of his sons to the trade. Everything was going fine until the homeward journey and the canal presented certain obstacles. The young man was on the bank bow hauling the sandcot while his father “Boss” sat on it steering and propelling and bailing out water running from the sand. The son called out that the towrope had cut through his clothing and his shoulder was bleeding. The only sympathy he got was – “We’ll soon be coming up to Park Bridge – cross over to the other side and put the tow-rope on your other shoulder.”
When they finally reached the Sandmall, the cargo was unloaded through gaps along the river wall. Hauliers came with horse and cart to ferry the load to the building sites of Limerick City.
Then came rural electrification with the building of the Power Station at Ardnacrusha. This could have made the Sandmen millionaires but so much sand was required that the poor Sandmen were unable to keep up with the demand. Sandpits were opened up in the surrounding countryside and the river sandmen were put out of business.
If you’re ever in Limerick and find the Sandman, go into the little pub there and you might just hear a long-standing debate on the merits of river sand over land sand. And maybe someone will tell you about Michael Shanahan mooring his sand-cot on the bank of the Abbey River for the last time in 1956 where it remained until it melted into the river, just like his craft.