Saturday July 6th was a day of remembrance of our ancestors and of the history of the Oughterard and Moycullen area, as well as a day of appreciation and wonder at the future that they behold. I felt that the music which would ring out over the launch of the 2,400 year old boat into Loch Coiribe needed to be relevant and expressive. Irish traditional music, on the fiddle which I play, was the obvious choice. The initial piece was an easy decision to make as it is aptly named ‘Launching the Boat’. The reel composed by great Donegal fiddler, Francie Byrne, lifted the atmosphere into immediate celebration as the replica floated along the water. To complete the set, I went into a second reel, ‘Lad O’Beirne’s’, a familiar tune for most trad session enthusiasts. As the rower powered through the water with surprising agility and control over the long boat, I launched into a set of reels I learned from the Dubliners, ‘Gerry Cronin’s Reel’ and ‘Denis Langton’s Reel’. Before the rain started on the gathered crowd, I had time to play a set of jigs, ‘The Sheep in the Boat’ and ‘The Rooms of Dooagh’, a jig from Mary McNamara and named after a cave system in the hills between Maghera and Tulla in Co. Clare. The first jig is an adaptation of a slow air by the name ‘Eanach Dhúin’, or ‘Annaghdown’ in English. The tune was composed by famous blind Irish poet, Antoine Ó Raifteiri. I picked this jig as it was in remembrance of the tragedy that occurred in 1828, when a boat of twenty people were making their way across the lake from Annaghdown to Galway for a mart. A sheep on the boat put its foot through the bottom board and ended up causing the boat to sink in the Loch Coiribe drowning its owners with it. Saturday was an opportunity to pay a small recognition to those people on such a remarkable day on the Loch Coiribe.
I can’t remember which of us suggested that it was a good idea to launch Mark’s replica of the Lees Island 5 Iron Age boat on Lough Corrib in Co. Galway, on the bottom of which the original had been lying for nearly 2500 years. But what I do remember thinking is: ‘sure, great idea, no bother, we just need a trailer to get it up there, a willing driver and a place to launch it…’. If we’d known quite how drawn out and difficult the actions briefly outlined in the previous sentence would turn out to be, we may have been tempted to quite literally push the boat out a bit closer to Cork City.
In fact there were a few moments when Mark’s blood sacrificeseemed to have been insufficient to assuage the unquiet Iron Age ancestors who seemed to be determined to prevent our Lee’s Island 5 replica from taking to the water. As it was, I will gloss over the extended problems of lifting and moving two tons of oak via road to Lough Corrib, finding a suitable time and place to launch, advertising the event to ensure a people actually came out to witness the event, and actually persuading a trained kayaker (well, two of them in the end…) to do the all important first paddling of the vessel. The main reason that these problems ended up dispersing like an autumn mist over the Lough, was due to the remarkable efforts of Paul Naessens and his colleagues in Oughterard and Moycullen Heritage. Their enthusiasm and persistence in the face of recurring obstacles and difficulties was truly inspiring and genuinely touching, especially because other than a series of phone calls, none of us had ever met Paul or any of the groups. To add to the occasion, Paul had managed very late in the day, to find musician Ciara Finan to play at the launch, as Sarah Roche, who had been working on a composition to mark the event, had been unfortunately taken ill the week before.
And so it was, that we all found ourselves on the Knockferry pier, on a cloudy but generally dry Saturday afternoon. Every launch needs a VIP: in this case TD Sean Kyne had kindly agreed to do the honours. A few short speeches later we were watching a JCB hoisting the vessel up in the air and down into the water. There were some nerves, especially because Dr. Niall Gregory had speculated that the original vessel had never been intended to float: visions of Youtube immortality for all the wrong reasons sprung up as many of the crowd of 200 or so people, raised their camera phones to capture the moment the boat was released into the water. But float she did, perhaps not the most elegant or lithe vessel across the Lough, but a remarkably moving sight after so much effort (and some small blood loss..) by Mark and our new friends from Moycullen and Oughterard. Some things you know will stay long in the memory; for me this was one such time.
In February 2019, I took the short trip to Meitheal Mara boatyard in Cork to visit the latest Pallasboy Project. A couple of weeks previously I received an email from Mark Griffith and Ben Geary about this latest exciting endeavour. Mark was undertaking the significant task of remaking the Lee’s Island 5 dugout boat. The original discovered by Capt. Trevor Northage and surveyed by Karl Brady of the Underwater Archaeology Unit of the National Monuments Service, was found to be of late Bronze Age date. A remarkable aspect of this boat is how one the most significant axes ever discovered of the period was deliberately secured against the boat’s side and beneath one of the boat’s seats or thwarts. A notch had even been cut into it’s haft in order to firmly keep it in place wedged under the thwart.
Aside from genuine curiosity about the boat project and Mark’s work, the reason for the initial email and my subsequent visit, is that it was felt that the reconstruction had reached an impasse – was the boat (based upon Karl’s records) complete or should it receive more work? I was invited to view the work based upon both my knowledge of these boats as well as experience with crafting them. My visit to the boatyard coincided with me being on route to Bonane Heritage Park in Kerry to meet and discuss another forthcoming replica dugout boat project. Unfortunately at the time of my visit I did not have the opportunity to meet Mark, but Ben was in the yard waiting to greet me.
Without yet having had the advantage of access to the original boat’s records or previous discussion in any depth, Ben presented Karl’s drawings to me on his mobile phone. However, prior to this, he pulled back the tarpaulin to reveal Mark’s fantastic work. A number of details immediately struck me. The shape of the boat was very blocky or rectilinear in plan, longitudinal and cross-section; there was an inordinately excessive thickness to both ends; and the sides were three and a half to four times thicker than normal for dugout boats. All these considerations are contrary to the corpus of Irish dugout boats. With a little examination I could see that the base of the boat was extremely thick. My immediate conclusion was that this was an unfinished dugout boat. However, this conclusion did not rest easy with me as with dugout boats, the external hull is shaped and finished before the trunk is turned over to make way for the boat’s hollowing out process. Clearly with the squared or rectilinear hull shape, it defied the completed external shape of these boats. This further presented the conundrum of internally the curvilinear ends (on all three axis) appeared complete. The other unique aspect of this boat was that the two (oval in cross-section) thwarts (seat insets into the boat and transverse to the hull), were mounted through the sides of the boat, which presented an apparent potential point of water ingress. In all other circumstances with dugout boats, the thwarts are flat boards set onto internal shelf-like projections.
At this point – and not having met Mark or had the opportunity to discuss the project with him – I informed Ben that Mark appeared to have been working from two perspectives at the one time – that Mark had commenced fashioning the external hull shape up to a point and then stopped for the time being in order to commence the hollowing. I advised while suggesting referral to the original boat data, that both ends have more rounded profiles externally to emulate the interior and be of reduced thickness; that the cross-sectional profile have rounded edges rising from a flat base; that the floor thickness be reduced a little and the sides be internally reduced significantly. Ben presented the drawing of the original boat to me on a small phone screen from which it appeared that the thickness of the sides were obscured by a tumblehome – the top edge of the sides curving back in towards the interior, which suggested a smaller original tree trunk than originally desired.
On my return to the office I emailed Ben, Mark and Karl what I had discussed as well as my suggestions. The following day Karl responded and thankfully provided clarifications. It transpired that Mark’s work was indeed nearly complete and that the 7 to 8cm thick sides were an accurate portrayal as was the reminder of his work, except where Karl suggested the sides in location narrowed through wear and use of the boat. Karl also noted that reducing the floor thickness from it’s 20cm to that of 8cm would complete the boat.
Once I recollected my thoughts, my first reaction was that the original must be an unfinished boat, as there is sufficient evidence in the archaeological record to demonstrate that the unfinished dugout boats were sunk between periods of fashioning them in order to keep the oak wood soft and pliable. Perhaps the best known example of this is the Lurgan Boat on display in the National Museum of Ireland. However, the fact that the interior appeared to be finished, the thwarts were in situ and an axe was deliberately secured beneath one of them, more than aptly demonstrated that this was indeed a finished dugout boat.
I carefully considered the implications, in particular of how such a boat would perform in open water and with timber as dense as oak… The inordinately thick ends would invariably have caused the boat to pitch and yaw in any waves, regardless of the wave size. This would have significantly increased the potential for, or actual swamping of the boat. Having the boat’s sides as thick as the base almost completely negates the stability of these craft normally have with much thinner sides. The enhanced roll of the boat as a consequence would have caused the boat to capsize and sink. In other words, if the boat did not swamp and sink, it would invariably have capsized and sunk. It interesting to speculate that by having thwarts running through the sides of the boat, water may have leaked aboard by this means. However, I believe, the swamping or capsizing of the boat would have overtaken the slower rate of leaking.
As a consequence, the only satisfactory conclusion that I have arrived at is the original boat Lee Island 5 boat was deliberately designed to have a short lifespan and not for sustained use. The fact that the axe was deliberately and permanently secured beneath the thwart, or at least in a manner that the haft was made deliberately no longer useable, suggests ritualistic connotations. I can only surmise that this boat was designed and used for a one-off deliberate, watery sacrifice. While I wish Mark well with the completion of his project, I look forward with mixed feelings about the boat’s maiden voyage. As I have made a number of these boats, I fully appreciate the sheer effort in embarking on such an endeavour and of course wish the boat and its crew safe and happy passage. Yet, I can’t help also visualising a sinking outcome and safe rescue of the crew…
I’ve made a mistake. The hotel I’ve booked, in the St Lukes area of Cork, sits on a hill and offers wonderful views over the city and harbour. However, it means that I have a thirty-minute walk to Meitheal Mara, across the other side of the city. That’s not so bad, unless of course you are carrying two tool bags packed with as many axes as my Ryanair limit will allow, and an equally heavy backpack. By the time I reach the boat yard I feel that I’ve already done a day’s work.
I’m conscious, reading back through these blog posts, that I’m constantly bemoaning the strain this work puts on my body. Conceding that much of it can be put down to self-pity, I still feel an awareness of the effects of crafting, with these tools, on the maker is an important part of our research. While using a contemporary axe is hard physical work, the difference when carrying out the same task with one of our Iron Age replicas is marked. The design of the modern-day axe has evolved over thousands of years. The process of forging steel is now an exact balance of metals and heat. The timber for hafting handle is grown for this purpose alone. Its serpentine shape, so easy in the hand, made specifically to deliver accurate strikes without transferring too much force to the user. Whereas the expertly made replica tools we used were forged in a primitive hand-bellowed clay kiln. The heads we then hafted, with hide and black resin, onto thick stock shafts, more designed to hold the axe head’s socketed end than offer any comfort to the user.
A day spent using basic hand tools while contorting your body to position it for an optimum cutting angle, kneeling or laying on a stone floor or just spending hours repeating the same task that had blistered your hands the day before is an aspect of the creation of ancient artefacts that can be overlooked. The sheer physicality of the work opens conversations about the delegation of labour, how time was structured to complete projects on this scale and the importance of an object, such as this, over other necessary daily tasks. I would start the day with a session of yoga stretches in my hotel room. My first task when reaching the yard would be to tape my fingers, strap on a back brace, then don a range of protective clothing. At the end of the day, back at the hotel, I would gingerly ease myself into a scolding bath to ease the muscles before attempting a few more gentle yoga positions. Some nights I found myself too tired to go out and eat, instead falling asleep around six or seven. Reading through my notebook to write this blog I see clearly how as the week progressed my handwriting would become more skittish and illegible. Hands, cramped by work, were unable to carry out tasks requiring dexterity. Would these same aches and pains be recognised by the maker of the original Lee’s Island boat?
Since my last visit to Cork in October 2018, our replica had been visited by two respected experts in the study of these craft, Dr Niall Gregory and Karl Brady, whose Underwater Archaeology Unit carried out the survey on the original boat, buried in the silt of Lough Corrib for four and a half thousand years. Their input was of great help, and much appreciated. However, the guidance received did leave us with a dilemma. According to Karl by making a few adjustments we would have a vessel very close to the one he had seen at the bottom of the Loch; all be it reduced in length. Niall on the other hand was quick to observe that the design of this craft, with its heavy bow and stern, could hinder its lake-worthiness. He went as far as expressing the opinion that the Lee’s boat was in fact designed as a votive offering, crafted with the sole purpose of sinking (see Dr Niall Gregory’s guest blog post). Should we adjust our vessel to render it more likely to preform on water, or should we stick to recreating the specific craft observed by Karl in the Lough and risk seeing all our hard work slip below the waters on its maiden voyage?
After serious consideration the decision was made to stick with our original plan. As with all our projects to date, the object itself is of less significance than the experience of making it, and sharing that experience with others, whatever the outcome. We have left a Highlands goddess buried on a hillside above the village of Ballachulish. And our replica of the Red Man of Kilbeg broke its tethers in a storm and was washed out to sea. If our boat was destined to join all the other lost craft on the bed of Lough Corrib so be it. We would at least have some insight into its intended purpose.
Karl had suggested that we remove another 25% of material from the inside of both bow and stern. This would go some way to compensate for the loss of volume after reduced the boat in length. The floor also required thinning down to roughly 80mm. The underside of the craft, so far untouched, would need some attention. This would require flipping the boat over, a daunting task as we estimated it still weighed two and a half to three tons. With twelve boatbuilders looking on Seamus stood in silence formulating a plan. Each person was assigned a task, old car tyres were lined up on one side of the vessel, then using two long scaffold poles the boat was flipped onto its side. Tyres were moved, and the boat was flipped again this time onto the trolleys. As we all congratulated each other for making this very hazardous manoeuvre without injury to boat or human, Seamus just walked silently away, back into his workshop.
I needed to break the sharp angle between the sides and the bottom. Using my wide headed axe, I worked along each edge cutting deep forty-five-degree slices, then working back I cut away the timber between these slices. I found the task was very satisfying. Whether it was the wonderful sound of splitting timber, the light cooling rain that had started to fall on me or the knowledge that this was the last of the axe work. The boat was finished.
Repeating the Seamus plan, the craft was righted. My last job was to dig out the dead knot in the boats side and fill the black void with West System Six10 Epoxy resin. Waterproof and flexible, this versatile marine filler adhesive is perfect for this type of repair. I also filled the long split that ran along the right side of the bow.
It is when sweeping up the sawdust and wood chippings, spread across the yard, that I truly feel my work is complete. It offers a chance to reflect on the many days spent on this object we had made. The early days working in Bray, driving around the sleepy town in a beaten-up Triumph 2000, and starting work on the freshly felled oak. Through all the days spent here in the Meitheal Mara boat yard, bent over the same oak log, shaping it with axe, and adze, into a copy of a craft lost in a Lough way back in our distant past. In connecting with the early Irish culture responsible for building these vessels, I had also connected with the present-day Ireland. Through the friendships I have made, and the places I have visited, the incredible experience of working in this country will stay with me always.
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.
The streets of Cork are alive with people enjoying the warm spring evening as the taxi takes me across the city. I last left Ireland in midwinter, working in a bitter, draughty barn in Bray. With the outlook for unseasonably pleasant, dry weather all week I was looking forward to spending time in the Meitheal Mara boat yard.
The next morning, I find myself once again walking along Wandesford Quay, and on to Crosse’s Green following the curve of the River Lee. On the other side of the river stands the now derelict Beamish brewery. A wall of weathered brick and thick framed industrial windows. The pavement turns, and I’m walking towards two large white wooden gates set between high walls tagged with bold graffiti. This is Meitheal Mara.
Walking into the yard I’m greeted by friends who treat my arrival in a warm, casual way that I feel I’ve only been away for a few days, and not almost a year. Tea is made, and we all start the day’s work. This is the Meitheal Mara way.
Seamus pulls back the tarpaulin from a shape in one corner of the yard and reveals the roughed-out hulk I last saw submerged in an icy lake in Bray. The oak timber, once a fresh straw colour, is now grey green. Looking over the boat I see that no new splits have appeared. Even the heart wood looks tight, this being an area prone to radiating cracks. A few strikes with my adze show that the wood is still soft and easy to work. The technique of stabilising timber by submerging, as used in the past, appears to be very effective.
Slimy, green algae coats the boats surface from its time laying on the pond bed. This must first be scraped away with the edge of an axe so my pencil can mark out the shapes to be carved. The bulk of the work for this week will be to remove as much of the vessel’s interior as possible. For this task I would be relying on an angle grinder and my large shipbuilder’s adze, with its four-inch-wide blade.
I take up position at one end of the boat, feet placed on the sides, and work backwards. The oak timber is tough as would be expected, however it yields under the adze blows. As I edge down the boat, I start to find my rhythm, and best cutting angle of the tool. Then, a missed place strike, on the algae slick timber, sends the adze blade off target, and into the side of my boot. I press my fingers on the leather to see the damage to my boot. As I do this, blood oozes from the neat gash, and I become aware of a numbing pain. Hobbling into the workshop I seek out Seamus. I’m taken into the sail room where my wound is cleaned and dressed. Then Brendan, from the yard, takes me to A&E for an x-ray, stitches and a tetanus jab. A lack of concentration, or luck, has cost us a day’s work.
After spending the rest of the previous day in my hotel, with my bandaged foot propped up, I wake eager to get back to work. The project we have undertaken is ambitious, and the time I have here is too precious to squander. So, I start the day as I will for the rest of the week, cleaning and redressing my wounded foot, then gingerly squeezing it into a work boot still damp with blood. I’m acutely aware of the pitiful figure I strike as I hobble, on crutches, into Meitheal Mara on that first morning after my accident. As to be expected, there is a fair amount of well-deserved teasing from the boat builders. However, this is more than matched by genuine concern and sympathy from everyone.
With a daily cocktail of coffee and painkillers the foot doesn’t bother me as I work. However, I find I must steel myself each time I take up the large adze. I’ve brought over an angle grinder which is fitted with the same carving disk I used on the Pallasboy vessel. It’s messy and noisy, yet very effective at removing large quantities of material. And it offers an opportunity to rest tired hands.
On dry timber the grinder is a pleasure to use, the tungsten tipped blade effortlessly carving deep gouges. The boat’s timber, saturated in brackish pond water, proves more of a challenge. The blade, tearing rather than cutting at the fibrous wood, throws up a dirty, damp clogging sawdust which clings to clothes, mask and grinder. Regular stops must be made to clear the hot machines air intakes, and wipe the moist sticky dust from my goggles.
At the end of each punishing day I step back and, with a feeling of disappointment, look at how little progress been achieved. Had we miscalculated and taken on a task too great for our project’s resources? All too quickly this eventful week comes to an end. A large quantity of the interior has been removed, and shaping has started to the inside ends of the boats bow and stern. However, there is still much more work to do. Needing a rest from the whine of the grinder I spend the last part of my last day carving the side of the boat with a small adze. There is satisfaction to be had sitting on an aromatic bed of Oak chippings, listening to the sound of the sharp adze blade as it gouges out a line of crisp, even scoops. As the afternoon sun reaches the boats side these simple toolmarks come alive, creating movement and life to what was a flat grey surface. My spirits are lifted.
The week has been hard; physically and mentally exhausting. It has been both painful and disappointing. Looking at the boat I wonder where is the evidence of five days of constant work? When starting out we knew this was an ambitious project and that our resolve would be tested. Yet, how often does one have an opportunity to take an ancient oak tree and carve it, by hand, into a craft from our distant past. How often can we say we work with people who teach, challenge and offer kindness and friendship in equal measure. The week has been hard. Yet, I find myself counting the days until I’m back.
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 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.