Two years ago Finola wrote about the Cruinniú na mBád (Boat Gathering) in Ballydehob. When I saw that Tidy Towns have erected some new information boards down by the quay – one dedicated to the history of the pier and its importance to the town in past times – I thought it was time to revisit the whole subject of Ballydehob and boats. By chance, our friend Jack suggested that Finola might like to travel with him in his Drascombe and sail up to the quay in this year’s gathering, so we have some ‘live’ coverage of the event from our on-board correspondent! I prefer to keep my feet dry, so watched the event from the vantage point of the 12-arch railway bridge.
Header – Finola took this pic from Jack’s Drascombe of one of the fleet heading for Ballydehob this weekend, rounding the point opposite Rincolisky Castle and negotiating the mussel ropes; above – the view from the 12-arch bridge, waiting for the boats to arrive at Ballydehob Quay
Ballydehob Tidy Towns has recently unveiled two new information boards close to the quay: one (below) is all about the railway line that connected Skibbereen, Ballydehob and Schull: I had a hand in that board! The other tells the history of the harbour itself and is full of information, collected by Cormac Levis, whose forebears worked many of the boats that traded into the town. Cormac initiated the Cruinniú na mBád in 2004 and it has been going ever since, barring the occasional cancellation due to atrocious weather conditions (which can happen, even here in serene West Cork).
The new information boards enlighten us on many aspects of Ballydehob history, particularly within the vicinity of the 12-arched bridge and the quay. The view above, from Cormac’s board, shows the harbour in the early 1900s and is reproduced courtesy of the Fergus O’Connor Collection and the National Library of Ireland. Note the higher section of buildings to the right of the main warehouse – they are no longer there; they are said to have once housed seven families
The pier at Ballydehob is often called ‘the sandboat quay’ as one of the main commodities to arrive in the town was sea-sand dredged from beaches nearby and on the islands. This was rich in nitrates and minerals and was valued as a fertilizer. However, sand was only one of the commodities that came to Ballydehob; the following is an extract from an excellent piece that Cormac Levis wrote in the (now sadly defunct) Mizen Archaeological and Historical Journal, back in 1996:
On market day, which was Thursday, a long line of small two-oar and four-oar boats would make their way up the channel, lug sails set if the wind was favourable. One by one they would approach the quay, bringing people from the Skeam Islands, Horse Island and Hare Island to do their marketing. Some would have eggs and butter to sell, some would have a plough or other farm implement for the smith to repair. Wrack timber would be brought to be cut into planks or corn to be milled. During the summer months the Hare Island boats would be occupied by women only, their menfolk having migrated en masse to fish lobsters east along the coast as far as Ballycotton. On the arrival of the first letter bearing the fruits of their husband’s labours, they would set out to buy two pigs at Ballydehob Fair. Quite often, if the wind wasn’t in their favour, they would row the full four miles to Ballydehob . . . The day of a cattle fair would occasionally see the arrival of the 39ft MV Mary Patricia with cattle from Old Court or Sherkin. The 20ft Barker, driven by a 6/7 Kelvin, would visit to load up with provisions for Burke’s shop on Hare Island. A rather melancholic sight that would be seen from time to time, was that of two oarsmen making their sad way down the channel returning to one of the islands with a coffin across the gunnels of their small boat . . .
From the 1996 Mizen Journal article by Cormac Levis: a photograph of one of the sandboats from 1936, and a diagram showing the hessian dredge that was used for collecting the sand
Cormac provides good information on the sandboats – this is a short extract:
When William T Young of Ballydehob purchased the stores and quay from Jane Swanton of Skibbereen in 1899, the property was described as the ‘old stores’ and ‘sand quay’, indicating that the practice of discharging sand there was well established by that time . . . In 1885 John Collins moved to Filenamuck. There in the early 1890s he built two boats for W T Young. These sister boats were the largest of the Ballydehob sand boats, capable of carrying a cargo of 8 tons 5 cwt and were typical of the Collins design. They had a 24ft keel, an overall length of 28ft, a beam of approximately 8ft 3ins and, when fully laden, a draught of approximately 4ft 6ins. They had a very shallow keel and, unladen, they had a draught of approximately 1ft 9ins . . . One of the two boats described above came to be known as the Conqueror and the other simply as Levis’s boat, after her skipper Charlie Levis.
The Sandboat Bar in Ballydehob is still owned and run by the Levis family
Today, the harbour of Ballydehob – while as picturesque as ever – is quiet, and seldom hosts anyone travelling by water. Ballydehob Bay itself is silted up and it’s only on the highest tides of the year – when the moon is full – that boats of any size can make the journey. So we salute the intrepid voyagers who, every year, keep up the memory of a thriving waterfront that was once the heart of the community. If, like me, you are nostalgically inclined – on the day of Cruinniú na mBád, as you stand looking for the flotilla coming in on the rising flood, close your eyes slightly and imagine that you hear the sound of the whistle as a little train clatters over the viaduct behind you . . .
Finola (see her post this week for more on what’s happening here) will assure you that it’s an exhilarating and moving experience approaching Ballydehob by water: I’ll close with some more of her pictures: there was a stiff breeze with high gusts coming in – I’m amazed she managed to keep her horizons horizontal!