Sourcing timber (30.05.15/02.07.15)

One of my first tasks on the project was sourcing the timber that we would use to craft a replica of the Pallasboy vessel. At that stage I didn’t have a clue that a log of alder of those dimensions was very rare and special. I started by phoning timber yards as close as possible to the site of discovery in Westmeath. Much to my surprise they didn’t have what we wanted lying around out the back! They quickly set about lowering my expectations but gave me some hope by recommending that I contact David Brabazon of Kiln Dried Hardwoods in Wicklow. “If anyone in Ireland was going to find a piece of alder that big it was him”. However David, our Indiana Jones of timber sourcing, was equally doubtful about finding a specimen that would meet our requirements. He was however genuinely interested in our project and prepared to give it a try.

The rarity issue made me wonder about the original Pallasboy vessel and the tree from which it was crafted. Was this tree felled with that single purpose in mind? Did it fall down due to natural causes? Was it valued due to its rarity as well as its species-specific qualities? As you would expect I then became rather uncomfortable at the realisation that if indeed we did find a suitable specimen of our own it would most likely be standing proud minding its own business and we would have to set about harvesting it in the interest of archaeological and artistic research. We all felt uneasy about this including David, who wanted to find buyers and suitable creative uses for the entirety of the tree. In short we all had to share responsibility for the dirty work. We were not going to find the timber on a shelf in a shop. We would have to chop it down.

David Brabazon of Kiln Dried Hardwoods, Wicklow measuring an ivy-clad alder in County Mayo.
David Brabazon of Kiln Dried Hardwoods, Wicklow measuring an ivy-clad alder in County Mayo.

Our first search area was a small collectively owned woodland in Co. Mayo. David, one of his dogs and I set off on alder safari measuring specimens as we went. The alder were growing in damp conditions and were heavily colonized by ivy. The largest specimen would have been about 50cm in diameter. Some had already begun to rot and fall over. It became very clear to me why alder don’t grow very big if wet ground is a preferred environment. In the end we concluded that the Mayo specimens would not be suitable, even for a slightly smaller replica. At this point we discussed the possibility of using a different species with similar material qualities but we agreed that we should persevere in the interest of authenticity. Alder was after all a very special material and it was often used to make very special objects like our vessel. Amongst other things alder ‘bleeds’ when it is worked!

In the end we found our specimen very close to David’s home, on his own land in fact, in the appropriately named ‘Bog Wood’. I joined David, his daughter and a couple of dogs to choose between two trees. The biggest and straightest was still a little undersized at 60cm in diameter but we agreed that it was the best we were going to get. David later booked a tree surgeon and on a very wet day in July the deed was done. I was sent a very grainy mobile phone video of the tree hitting the dirt. We all felt the pressure of doing the tree justice with our work.

Our tree in situ in County Wicklow.
Our tree in situ in County Wicklow.

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David and his wife Sheila personally delivered our log (and a smaller spare log) to Meitheal Mara in Cork, where it was greeted by the boatbuilders with a huge degree of interest and excitement. The logs were rubbed and sniffed. There was concentrated and earnest discussion about the timber’s material qualities and its uses from prehistoric times to the present including the crafting of electric guitars. For me this was a very exciting moment. I had enjoyed the timber quest with David but witnessing him and the boatbuilders sharing their appreciation of the tree was completely captivating and timeless. Like them I too had developed a respect for this particular tree and its potential in the afterlife.

Brian Mac Domhnaill

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