Lee’s Island log boat carving, Meitheal Mara 22.10.18 to 26.10.18

Mark Griffiths

Nothing appears to have changed in the Meitheal Mara boat yard since I was last here five months ago. When away, I can close my eyes and find my way back here. The racks of sweet-smelling pine and long sticks of Willow. The workshop walls papered with intricate plans of traditional boats and well used tools. It’s easy to imagine standing in the yard, its floor splattered with bright paint and black pitch, listening to the banter and laughter mixed with the sounds of making.

I find our boat buried behind a stack of finished currachs. The summer has been hot; however, Brian has been diligently keeping the hessian sheets that shroud the wooden boat damp. I’m relieved so see that any new splits are small, and the large split that slashes across one side of the stern hasn’t increased. We have set the boat on three industrial trolley’s, which make it easier to manoeuvre around the yard.

The aim this week is to get the boat as close to complete as possible. Any additional work will be done before a planned floating in Galway. I start by removing more material from the boats floor. The drawings show that the original Lee’s boat had an external depth of 400mm, and internal depth of 300mm. This leaves me with another 50mm to remove from our replica. Starting from one end, I work down the boat with the large adze making slightly angled cuts roughly 10mm deep. Reaching the end I switch sides and repeat the process. The small adze is then used to clear away the chipped-up surface. This removes roughly 15mm from the floor of the boat and takes just over an hour and a half to complete. Therefore, removing just 50mm of material from the inside of the craft will take the best part of a day.

Both bow and stern have a distinctive wedge-shaped end, the top of which runs flat for approximately 300mm and then dips into the crafts interior with a gentle scooped curve. It is difficult to judge from the plans if we have the true angle of this detail. Seeking advice from Elli, one of Meitheal Mara’s skilled boat builders, confirms my view that too much weight in this area could drastically affect the displacement of the craft when in the water. More timber would have to be removed. The small adze was quite effective at this task when working at the bow end, which was the top of the Oak tree. It was quite a different story when shaping the stern, it being the root end. The structure of timber close to the trees root end has a greater proportion of dense heartwood. The grain pattern, particularly on oak, is unpredictable and wild, making it stubborn and hard to work. For this reason, I had to resort to using my angle grinder with its Tungsten tipped carving disk.

One lunchtime I break off and meet Brian and Ben at a buffet reception in a gallery at Brian’s workplace. Among the guests is Sorcha de Roiste, an artist and traditional musician. Inspired by our project, and the approach we have taken, she is considering composing a piece to be preformed when we finally launch our replica Lee’s Island boat. At every stage, the Pallasboy Project has been supported, and gifted, by many diverse artists, willing to collaborate and to explore the cultural significance of the artefacts we have chosen to replicate. We are excited to see how Sorcha interprets our work, and its connection to the makers of the original Lee’s Island boat.

Too quickly, the week comes to an end. The crafts interior has been hollowed out to match, as closely as possible, our interpretation of the survey drawings. The boats sides have been hewn with an adze, leaving tight, even toolmarks that ripple in the light like fish scales. All that is left to do is fit the two round oak crosspieces, or thwarts. As our boat has been shortened in length by 2.5 Meters I set the thwarts in from Bow and Stern at the same distance seen on the original, leaving the centre spacing reduced. Both crosspieces are set down 80mm from the gunwale, or boats top edge. Without an opportunity to examine the original, the method of fitting these shaped sections of oak must be guessed at. My solution is to gouge out a hole, slightly larger than the thwart, on one side of the hull. The rounded thwart is then pushed through until it touches the opposite side. After checking it is level, a pencil line is scribed around the end, and onto the hulls inside. This opposing hole is then gouged out, this time tight to the line. Using the butt of my axe, the thwart is driven home, wedging it tightly in its snug home. The protruding ends of the crosspieces are then cut back flush with the hull’s exterior.

What was once a large oak tree now resembles a vessel capable of navigating a waterway. More work will be needed on the boat’s underside, however what we have crafted is a fair interpretation of the archaeological record made during the underwater survey. I have one last task. Saying goodbye to the yard manager Seamus I gift him a carving knife I’ve had made by a craftsman in Poland. This is a token of my appreciation for the care given after I had my accident during my last visit. It is also important to me to pass on a treasured tool, from one maker to another, to mark the end of a shared project. In the past, tools were prized objects of high value, and they still hold a great significance to craftspeople today. Each time they are taken up memories are evoked of people, place and a working life.




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