Meet Milo. Milo is my trusty four legged companion who likes nothing better than meeting new people and going to new places. As part of my research into our transport collections I have been fortunate enough to meet some interesting people and have Milo along as my assistant – he’s great company but his note taking is something he definitely needs to work on!
Back in May Milo and I embarked on a holiday adventure along the Wild Atlantic Coast of Ireland. Since I was in the area, I took the opportunity to do a little work while there. I wanted to research the maritime history of the county of Galway so set off on a quest to discover more about the marine heritage around this coastline. We have two Galway boats within the National Museums NI collection and I wanted to learn how these different vessels were used by the people who built them.
Our first stop was the village of Kilcolgan at the mouth of the Kilcolgan River, the origin of our flat bottomed oyster dredger and a meeting with local historian Joseph Murphy.
Joe recently became more interested in the history of oyster dredging in the area and last year published an Audit of the Environmental, Cultural, Social and Economic Heritage of the Native Oyster in Galway Bay. His research focuses on the native oyster found in South Galway Bay Ostrea Edulis (European oyster) and its importance to the people of the local area in the past, now and in the future. Tied in with this is the role of the flat bottomed oyster dredger, synonymous with Galway Bay.
Joe took Milo and me on a lovely walking tour along the river pointing out the original house where our oyster boat was built. Overlooking the Kilcolgan River, it is now located beside the famous oyster bar, Morans The Weir.
Looking out across the river from here, we spotted the ruined outline of Tyrone House. Built in 1779 for local landowner Christopher St George, it dominated the landscape standing three storeys high.
Tyrone House was destroyed by locals while it was unoccupied during the Irish War of Independence in 1920 and was acquired by the Irish Georgian Society in 1972.
Talking with Joe, he described to me the sense of injustice felt by many locals in the area during the 19th century at the power of landowners such as St George. These landed gentry were the only private individuals able to apply for a licence to fish the oyster beds. When the local community found out that the fishery authorities were preparing to grant said licence to St George due to the Clarinbridge beds appearing unproductive, they took action. Oysters were secretly brought down from Connemara and laid in the bed in an attempt to convince the Fishery Inspector that the beds were still fruitful. It worked and the beds remained public.
Disputes between St George and local farmers and fishermen over the right to dredge the Clarinbridge oyster bed was immortalised in a poem with one verse reading:
“Sad news I heard not long ago which pierced our hearts with grief
That we should part an oyster bed that often gave relief
But this precious spot we have regained which stood to every call
It helped to clothe, to feed and rear the country big and small”.
The oyster dredger was an important part of everyday life for the coastal inhabitants of the south Galway bay area. Averaging 16 feet in length, the ‘flat’ is a carvel built rowing boat and according to Críostóir MacCárthaigh writing in Traditional Boats of Ireland, this;
‘simply constructed craft was used for a variety of purposes in these sheltered waters- picking mussels and periwinkles, cutting and gathering seaweed and fishing salmon in spring and summer. It’s most important function, however was to dredge the rich oyster beds of the bays.’
Our own oyster boat was acquired in 1971 and is over 15 feet long. Like many other oyster boats, it was built using larch and gaps between the planks were filled with oakum, a type of tarred fibre. Larch was a more durable timber and this was important as the oyster dredging season traditionally took place around December. It was seen as a valuable additional income to the local farmers and labourers during the unproductive winter months.
Although the number of boats engaged in oyster dredging has declined, the future looks bright for this local industry as Milo and I discovered at local oyster farm Kelly Oysters where we were given a guided tour.
Kelly’s Oysters have been selling shellfish and oysters from their farm for over sixty years growing them in Galway Bay and then finishing them in their own oyster bed. Their emphasis is on sustainability, maintaining their beds without the need to farm intensively.
Kelly’s Oysters have also been involved in a youth scheme run by Cuan Beo (www.cuanbeo.com) raising awareness amongst children about the marine environment in their local area. In particular they highlight the effect pollution can have on the oysters and other animals that live in the bay.
We said goodbye to Joe and headed back into Galway city for our next stop on our maritime tour; a meeting with the Claddagh boatmen. This group of dedicated boat builders are working towards the restoration and sailing of the local traditional workboats known as the Galway Hooker. We have a Galway hooker, called ‘The Fancy’, in the National Museum NI collection, and it was fortunate that I was able to combine our visit to the Boatmen with another fortuitous meeting! I was once again able to meet with a contact whose family used to sail on The Fancy generations before. He had visited us at the museum the previous year and it was lovely to meet again. As you can imagine much discussion was had by all of us over a hot cup of tea as to how we can work together on future projects (Milo’s contribution to this discussion was hampered by a short snooze).
Clinker built with tarred black hulls and red sails the hookers are instantly recognisable and is synonymous with the western coast of Ireland. Used primarily for fishing, the Galway hooker or bád mór also provided an essential lifeline carrying cargo such as seaweed, turf, limestone as well as transporting livestock and passengers to the mainland from the islands.
The introduction of gas heating and electricity generators on the islands led to a downturn in the need for turf and there was also a marked increase in road transport for the movement of goods. These were just some of the reasons why the post war years saw a decrease in the numbers of Galway hookers around the coast.
By 1970, there were only two active boats remaining, but a revival of Galway hookers participating in regattas in the late 1970’s led to a renewed interest in this traditional vessel confirmed by the founding of the Galway Hooker Association in 1978 (de Bhaldraithe, P., Barry, D. & Scott, D., ‘The Galway Hooker Revival’, Mac Cárthaigh, C. (Ed) Traditional Boats of Ireland, 2008).
Regattas are not a new thing for the Galway hooker community and so it is fitting that this traditional competitive aspect of this working boats life has been resurrected and is growing in popularity.
Peter Connolly and his colleagues showed us around their premises and some of the projects they have been working on including this smaller version of a hooker known as a gleoiteog.
Milo was particularly interested in hearing about how they had approached their various builds as we sat inside one of the completed hookers although his contribution to the discussion was limited.
This fascinating day trip provided us with an insight into the maritime heritage around the Galway Bay area and the exciting possibilities for its future. But with the sun setting across the bay, Milo decided that it was time for a pint and the rest of our holiday.