Dublin’s wet cobbles sparkle with Christmas lights as I make my way to the National Museum of Ireland. The afternoon stopover in the city is a perfect opportunity to visit the Lurgan Canoe. Hewn from a single 14 meter long oak tree about 4000 years ago, this giant is a fine example of the basic craft built, throughout pre-history, to navigate rivers, lochs and the sea. Taking in the line of the boat with my eye and sketching out details in my notebook I’m both excited and daunted by the challenge of re-crafting one of these vessels.
Early the next morning I’m on the Dart train line that hugs the coast from Dublin to Bray in County Wicklow, the location of our freshly felled oak tree. The small town of Bray is closed for the winter. The silent seaside attractions looking garish set against the cold steel sky. I take a taxi to the hotel on the outskirts of town where Brian and I will be staying for the week.
The next morning, in the empty hotel restaurant, we catch up over breakfast and plan the days ahead. An hour later we are standing, tool and camera bags at our feet, waiting for David to pick us up on the main road into town. David’s family have owned the surrounding forest and farmland for centuries. He has kindly supplied our project with timber in the past, this time he had earmarked an oak tree that was being felled in Laragh near Glendalough.
The drive takes us along a winding farm track cut through thick woodland at Killruddery. We emerge into what looks like a post apocalyptic shanty town complete with battered military vehicles. David explains that in these days of farming diversity renting land to film crews can offer an alternative income stream. No stranger I think than allowing a group of archaeologists to recreate an Iron Age boat in your barn? The barn, it turns out, is precariously located between a battle torn future wasteland and a horde of Vikings camped out on a nearby hillside.
David pulls up his 4×4 next to a giant of an oak. Freshly felled, its girth is easily over 70cm. This tree that has made its way northeast from Laragh is what we must carve into a navigable vessel. Dropping my bag of axes next to the log I run my hand over the rough bark, the magnitude of what we have taken on is now clear. David leaves us, promising to return with a tree-grappling tractor. Sometime later the silence of the woodland is broken by the distinctive rattle of a powerful diesel engine. The tractors jaws clamp around the logs mid-section and the motor takes up the strain. We watch as the rear wheels leave the ground, the tractor pitches forward front wheels spinning in the mud, the fallen oak defiantly winning this test of strength. The resolve of the men and women crafting these boats in pre-history is not lost on us. A large split had developed at the base of the living tree prior to felling, but this only became apparent when viewed in section. There were also a couple of irregularities at the crown end. With help from our friends at Killruddery Farm and some modern power tools we reluctantly reduce our log from 7m to 5m in length.
The trimmed log is manoeuvred on to a trailer and driven across the estate to the Kiln Dried Hardwoods sawmill where it is loaded by Neil onto a vast industrial band mill. As we look on it is flipped and sliced on all four sides, days of work done in under ten minutes. Bearing the scars of the bandsaw blade the symmetrical square log is set down in a corner of the hanger-like shed. This is our workplace for the next week. The last powered intervention is in the form of a chainsaw. It traces out the line of the interior, then slices across leaving brick sized blocks, again, saving days of hard physical work. Without this early use of machinery our project would run out of both time and funds. We calculated, using test areas, just how long these processes would take with our copy Iron Age tools. Confident at the end of the project that we would have an accurate tally of working hours taken.
For the first time since being introduced to our oak tree I take a hand tool to its damp, coffee brown wood. The afternoon is spent using the combination of axe, adze and splitting wedges, the modern equivalent of prehistoric finds. As expected, the going is slow. The adze struggles with the oak’s fibrous, twisting grain patterns, the tools handle communicating the woods geometry to my hand. With each blow the raw hide bindings and basic wrapped hafting are challenged. The need to pull the tool head free after it has sunk into the timber puts stress on its fragile design. More successful is the combination of axe and wooden wedges. Splits are started in each block with the axe, then a wooden wedge is forced into this and driven home with sharp mallet blows. A loud crack echoes around the mill’s concrete walls as each oak block yields.
Over the next couple of days, the work falls into the same pattern. Starting from the root end, I split out the blocks using a combination of axe, adze and wedges. Each pass along the log takes roughly an hour and a half. Reaching the tree top I return to back to the root end, brushing away the loose spoil as I go. Then the climb starts again. Dilli and Roy, who work on the estate, take pity on my plight. Seeing someone battling in this way while surrounded by some of the most efficient, heavy duty timber conversion machinery is too much for them to bear. Lost in the rhythm of repetitive work, my thoughts will suddenly be jolted awake by the roar of a chainsaw, and there will be either Roy or Dilli cutting more, much appreciated, grooves.
The day’s work is broken at midday by a welcome trip to the village of Greystones, and lunch at the Happy Pear cafe. David has kindly lent Brian and I an old white Triumph 2500. Sat shrouded in a dark corner of the tractor shed, the cars racing insignia and stripped interior were clues to its past as a contender on the 1970’s rally circuit. With no power-steering, a contrary gear box and the heady fumes of hot oil cut with burning petrol, a simple trip to the next village was to live out a boyhood fantasy.
Slow but steady progress is made through the week and by Thursday the bulk of the interior has been removed. I spend the day using the adze to roughly level the internal floor and sides of the boat. We also bag up the spoil we have created. Numerous oak blocks lay scattered on a bed of brittle wood chips and powdery dust. The sheer quantity of wood waste created by each of our projects is always a source of wonder. This time the waste is destined for Brian’s stove.
Now timber has been removed from the tree the problem of a dead branch, centred on the boats side, is revealed. Running deep into the heartwood, this ugly, black 20cm gash crumbles in the fingers when picked at. There is no doubt that water will seep in at this point. However, in the vain hope to prove that it may not be as bad as feared we put a hose inside the boat and fill it with water. First, a faint trickle colours the dark split gloss black, then the straw white wood below glistens. Now, finding a path of escape, the flow of water increases at an alarming rate creating an ever-expanding puddle in the dust of the mill floor. This will obviously need some attention at a future date.
In line with archaeological evidence, we have decided to submerge our boat, at this early stage in it’s carving, in a small lake on the farm. Many vessels, some completed some half made, have been discovered close to the edge of either a lake, loch or river. Whether this was an act of concealment, or the method used to prevent the hull drying and splitting is open to discussion. Keeping the moisture content balanced in a wooden vessel’s timbers is a necessary science known to mariners throughout history. Evidence suggests trees for boat building were felled in late autumn when sap was low, and foliage lost. Bark was stripped and most of the timber removed before the roughed-out boat was intentionally sunk and secured in a water source. As the worst of the winter past, and spring returned, the water-swollen boat would be retrieved and carving would continue on the damp, soft timber. This way of working with the seasons was something we wished we could explore with our project.
We helped David hitch the roughly shaped vessel to the loader arms of his tractor, then watched on as it was moved from the mill to a small tree lined lake just outside. Here the boat was gently lowered into the cold, still water. A tender push from the tractor forks sent water cascading into the freshly hewn hollow and our craft slipped below the surface. While we had been working, almost unnoticed, the winter sun had slipped below the tree line, and now the lake surface was a burning bronze.
In fading light Brian and I thanked David and our friends at Killruddery for their help and hospitality. With a last glance over the spectral form, barely visible now in the dark water we left. In springtime we would return, raise the boat and move it to a new home at Cork’s community boat yard Meitheal Mara, where the crafting will continue.