Ballydehob and Boats

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!

Cruinniú na mBád – the Boat Gathering

It only happens once a year! During Ballydehob’s Summer Festival traditional sailing boats gather in Roaringwater Bay and when the tide is right they sail up the shallow waters of Ballydehob Bay to the quay.*

This is a tidal estuary and normally not deep enough to be a reliable port of call for boats, especially those with keels. But during the high summer tides the waters become navigable, provided you time it right, and Ballydehob breaks out the band, fires up the barbecue and invites all sailors to the quay for a gathering like no other.

The Cruinniú na mBád (pronounced krinoo nuh mawd) is part of the village Summer Festival so from year to year it’s a real community affair. The vintage cars and tractors (my goodness there’s a lot of them in West Cork) parade behind a marching band to kick off the week of festivities. The week is filled with music in the pubs, guided walks around the village, charade competitions, and an evening of street sports where we cheer on the youngsters in the madcap turnip race and a completely socially irresponsible event involving chugging beer and pushing a wheelbarrow with an occupant (only in Ireland!).

Turnip races down the main street and crab fishing at the quay

On the weekend the whole village takes to the Pier. The kids compete for medals in crab fishing, there’s a “world famous duck race” (I have no photographs as it’s been cancelled due to bad weather so often), there are fireworks (when it’s dry enough) from the Twelve Arch Bridge, and we await the arrival of the Old Boats.

This year’s entertainment was the fabulous East coast Jazz Band. We catch up on the chat, and look out for one of our popular locals sailing in

It’s an oddly emotional experience to see the boats appear, one by one, and round the bend into the last stretch to the quay. Emotional because this is essentially a re-enactment of what was commonplace in former days, when the quay at Ballydehob was a bustling hive of commerce. Bigger boats would anchor at the entrance to the Bay and lighters would haul the cargo to the quay.

Not all the boats are old – some have come just to be part of this unique gathering – but most are traditional and many of them have been lovingly restored. Some, like the Ette, have been rescued from extinction and reconstructed from crumbling derelicts by master boatbuilders Anke Eckardt and Rui Ferreira – check out their site for an illustrated guide to the slow and skilful processes involved.

Anke and Rui arrive in their Ette-class boat

At this year’s gathering Anke’s parent, Dietrich and Hildegard, our neighbours and friends, were there with their classic fishing boat, the Barracuda.

The whole Levis family sailed in on their beautiful Saoirse Muireann (seer-shuh mirren, Freedom of the Seas), a traditional Heir Island Lobster Boat. Cormac has written the book, literally, on these boats: Towelsail Yawls: The Lobsterboats of Heir Island and Roaringwater Bay. He started this gathering way back in 2004 and it’s been going strong ever since.

Saoirse Muireann coming in to dock. The term towel sail comes from the Irish word teabhal (pronounced towel) meaning shelter, as the sail could double as a kind of tent in wet weather.

Another traditional boat was An tIascaire (on tee-skirruh, The Fisherman), a traditional mackerel yawl. Like many boats in these parts, this one has benefitted from the extraordinary knowledge of the boatbuilders at Hegarty’s Boatyard at Oldcourt – regular readers will remember Robert’s post about this wonderful place.

It’s also lovely to see a Galway Hooker, An Faoileán (on fwale-awn, the Seagull), participating – their black hulls and red sails are instantly recognisable. This one has quite a history – and reading it educated me as to the difference between sails that are gaffe-rigged, versus a traditional Irish rigging known as pucán-rigged (puck-awn). Of course all you sailors know this already, right?

Our friend Jack O’Keefe organises a rally every couple of years for Drascombe Luggers and they joined the gathering en masse in 2014. Unlike 2013 it wasn’t the best of weather, but that did nothing to dampen the spirits of the sailors. It was lovely to be there on the dock to cheer them in.

The Drascombes raft up alongside. Jack O’Keefe and  keen sailor Sheena Jolley

It takes lots of sailing know-how to get up the Bay, but even more to manoeuvre into the tight spaces along the quay, or raft up alongside. By the time everyone’s there, they are rafted up four and five boats deep. 

Then it’s up on shore to partake of the music, the food and the friendly camaraderie that is so typical of both the boating community and the village of Ballydehob, until finally the word goes around that the ebb tide has started and it’s time to carefully push out and take to the seas again – until next year.

 I’ll finish with a video. Sit back and enjoy it, and think about the hundreds, no thousands, of years of history that is evoked by the sight of boats sailing up Ballydehob Bay.

*The photographs in this post are not all mine. Barney Whelan (friend and follower of Roaringwater Journal) was in one of the boats and sent me some taken on the water. Thank you, Barney! Some were shamelessly stolen from the Fastnet Trails Facebook Page, and are the work of the indefatigable Margaret McSweeney (great people shots – thank you, Margaret!). The video is by Tom Vaughan of Oakwood Aerial Photography – he makes West Cork look even more beautiful than it is (and that’s saying something) in his amazing drone footage. The rest of the photos are mine and were taken in 2013, ’14, ’16 and this year.

Relaunching

Image

Nead an Iolair

We have returned to West Cork, to the house we bought overlooking Roaringwater Bay, and this time it’s for keeps. Our first month has been a whirlwind of unpacking, sorting, making the house our own, meeting neighbours and friends from our winter stay, and taking in everything West Cork has to offer in the summer. Within a few days of arriving we had been to markets, a play, and several concerts; spent a day at an agricultural fair and another on a beach; attended gallery openings and a classic boat gathering; participated once again in the Friday night music sessions in Ballydehob; hosted dinner parties and been hosted in return; in short – settled back into the marvellous rhythm of West Cork life, but this time as permanent residents.

 Cruinniú na mBád: Ballydehob boat gathering

Cruinniú na mBád: Ballydehob boat gathering

We will be writing in Roaringwater Journal about aspects of life and why we love it here. An enormous part of it all, of course, is the people we meet – their open welcome and friendly acceptance has made us feel at home. But it’s more than that: people here are still close to the land, fiercely proud of this area, keepers of the lore and the history and uniquely expressive. Everyone loves to talk, so you’d better not be in a hurry. Today, for example…

After a late night at the session (made exceptional by the addition of a group of French musicians) we had slept in a bit and decided to head into Skibbereen to breakfast and the market. But even though it’s Saturday here comes Ger, the electrician, with the replacement bathroom fan. Abandoning the plan, we made breakfast for all of us and Ger, having installed the fan, regaled us with stories of the townland he comes from, a mile down the road. We told him we had tramped up and down the roads there, the other day, looking for a piece of rock art, a large boulder with cupmarks on the top, and couldn’t find it. He grinned, “’Tis in my yard,” he said. “The legend is that Finn McCool threw it down from Mount Gabriel.” We made a date to go next week to record it and moved on to discussing the theatre. Ger is an actor and knowledgeable dramatist and, over the eggs and toast, he gave us an insightful review of the recent “Fit Up Theatre” productions (excellent!) we had been going to.

West Cork Arts Centre

West Cork Arts Centre

Then it was off to Skibb, to see if Richard, the cable guy, could come back and finish installing the wireless network in the house. In the store, the manager, who turned out to be Richard’s father, explained to us that Richard was on a hurling team that had just won the County finals for their division and needed to celebrate. With a twinkle in his eye, he suggested that we not look out for him before Wednesday. And while we were waiting, he added, why didn’t we take in this great presentation on Tuesday night, for which he would be delighted to sell us tickets. Half an hour later, we left the store, having been brought up to date on the plans for a new Arts Centre and been told the history of his name, family and business.

First Visitors

First Visitors

And so go our days. The summer is winding down and the villages will soon lose the tourist-mecca bustle. Already many of the houses in our little cove have the blinds down as their owners return to the city. There’s a slight hint of autumn in the evenings. Our walks are slowed by the temptations offered by the blackberry brambles, our mornings enlivened by visits from Ferdia, our friendly fox.

From Canada and from England, from cities, from careers and responsibilities, from vastly different lives, we have come together to this extraordinary place.

And now here we are – at home in West Cork.