A lost craft: coracle building on the Boyne

The construction of coracles is not an occupation that one immediately associates with the River Boyne but it is a tradition that stretches back over hundreds of years. It was a tradition that caught the eye of Irish photographer Frank Stephens whose collection of over 2000 lantern slides (TCD MS 10842) captures a disappearing lifestyle in Ireland in the opening decades of the 20th century. He photographed scenes of everyday life, particularly on the Aran Islands (see previous post http://www.tcd.ie/library/manuscripts/blog/2016/07/frank-stephens-a-photographic-archive/). Stephens was obviously acutely aware that he was witnessing the dying days of pre-mechanised labour.

Michael O' Brien staking out the base of the coracle.

Michael O’ Brien staking out the base of the coracle (TCD MS 10842/1/224).

In this 1930 series of images Stephens records the building of a coracle on the River Boyne by Michael O’ Brien (b. 1853), the last of generations of coracle builders based at Oldbridge, Co Meath, a townland at the furthest tidal reach on the River Boyne near Drogheda. The Abbey of

Interweaving the withies through the stakes (TCD MS 10842/1/226).

Mellifont owned the lands and fisheries at Oldbridge up until the dissolution of the monasteries in 1539. In 1366 a judgement was registered against the abbot of Mellifont for erecting a weir at Oldbridge thus obstructing navigation on the river ‘where boats called corraghs … had liberty to pass constantly free from Drogheda to the bridge at Trim’.

TCD MS 10842/1/231

TCD MS 10842/1/231

Skin-covered boats have been in use in Ireland since the earliest period of civilisation. The design of the lightweight coracle, eminently suited to fast-flowing rivers, was tailored to meet the specific conditions where it was used. The Boyne coracle was made with hazel rods, willows and cowhide to form a steep-sided oval bowl. Willow was sourced from the river islands at Oldbridge. The boat was rowed with a short paddle of larch which allowed the boatman to manoeuvre the boat with one hand while the other arm was free to handle the salmon net. Two coracles worked in tandem dragging the net downstream stretched across the river until a fish was caught and then each boatman gathered up the ends of the net and the two coracles were brought close together to secure the fish.

The Irish Times (31 Jan 1931) reported on a specimen coracle built by Michael O’ Brien for the National Museum of Ireland. The work was photographed, filmed and recorded by Frank Stephens and Dr Adolf Mahr,

TCD MS 10842/1/232

TCD MS 10842/1/232

then keeper of antiquities at the National Museum.  O’ Brien’s coracle when finished was ‘a round-shaped curragh, measuring 5’8” in length, and 4’2” at the widest part’. These glass plate slides are an evocative record of the last craftsman from a family tradition building a Boyne coracle.


Felicity O’ Mahony

Good things always come in trees

Because of its historical significance as the spot where a famous conversation took place, there has been much interest in the media recently regarding the felling of a tree on the corner of Leeson Street and Appian Way in Dublin 2.  For many who passed it every day its loss will probably have more of an impact on their consciousness than its presence.  And so it is with the trees that grow on the grounds of Trinity College; they are possibly not sufficiently appreciated until they are to be cut down, moved, or simply pointed out.  A case in point is a Sorbus (‘Joseph Rock’) in Library Square, which was felled in January 2016 as it was nearing the end of its life.  A superb view of its striking autumn leaves had previously been afforded to the lucky few who had access to a second-floor window of the west end of the Old Library.

Sorbus ('Joseph Rock'), Library Square, November 2014

Sorbus (‘Joseph Rock’), Library Square, November 2014

The same view after tree felling, January 2016

The same view after tree felling, January 2016




Much thoughtful planning and expertise is required for the maintenance of the 600 or so trees on campus, which are looked after by the College’s Grounds and Garden staff in consultation with the Grounds and Gardens Advisory Committee.  It is this team who ensure that the grounds always look their best for the students, staff and visitors who walk through campus every day.

Account for garden expenses, including the purchase of cherry, abele and poplar trees, 10 February 1705 (TCD MUN P 4/10/15)

Account for garden expenses, including the purchase of cherry, abele and poplar trees, 10 February 1705 (TCD MUN P 4/10/15)

Records in the College Archives demonstrate that College authorities have long shown a healthy interest in the grounds and gardens of the Trinity.  There are documents from as far back as the seventeenth century that refer to gardens, gardeners, trees and plants.  For example, a document from the Bursar’s office dated February 1705 relating to the College garden account refers to £4-2-0 due to Philip Walker for cherry, ‘abele’ and poplar trees.  Other financial documents testify to the variety of trees and plants that have been planted over the years, including hollies, hornbeams, beech trees, elms, firs, sycamores, limes, oaks, poplars, honeysuckle, lilac and sweet briar, and make reference to the diverse locations – including Liverpool, Edinburgh and Jamaica –  from which trees, plants and seeds were imported over the years.


Gardener’s bill for fertiliser (‘mold’) for elm trees ‘sett at the front of ye College’, 21 November 1717 (TCD MUN P 4/22/17)

There has clearly been a structured approach to the landscaping of the grounds from an early period.  A document from 1708 refers to a payment of £7-2-10 for 500 beech trees for the Physics Garden hedge, and another from 1717 refers to money owed to Nathaniel Hall for ‘[t]horns for ye long walk’.  Such records help to give some idea of the appearance of the campus over the years; there are reference to elms planted ‘at the front of College’, to a ‘large elm’ in ‘front court’, and to black Italian poplars and beeches for hedges in the Botanic Garden.

From the names of some of the gardeners and suppliers, it would appear that they were born for their profession: in 1717 Joseph Twigge supplied elms and firs for the grounds; John Greenwood received £2-6-6 for beech trees and shrubs in 1811, and, according to a late seventeenth-century job application (complete with testimonials), a certain John Greene was seeking work as a College gardener.

While the majority of the records in the College Archives relating to TCD grounds and gardens are of a financial nature, there are also some photographs, maps and plans directly or indirectly relating to gardens and greenery.

Photographs ostensibly of buildings and other features on campus inevitably include trees and grass as background or foreground to the subject, and therefore are an important source for the study of the botanical history of the college over the last 150 years.

The ‘TCD MUN P 4’ series contains financial documents known as ‘Bursar’s vouchers’, which relate to money owed to staff, tradesmen and merchants for labour and goods.  They date from the early 17th to the mid 19th century, and many relate to gardening activities.

Contact sheet of photographs of the area between the Arts Building and the back of the 1937 Reading Room. Includes an Oregon maple on the south side of the 1937 Reading Room, which was felled in 1991 due to Dutch elm disease. Pre-1991. (TCD MUN MC 310)

Contact sheet of photographs of the area between the Arts Building and the back of the 1937 Reading Room. Includes an Oregon maple on the south side of the 1937 Reading Room, which was felled in 1991 due to Dutch elm disease. Pre-1991. (TCD MUN MC 310)

The ‘TCD MUN MC’ series within the College Archives contains maps, plans, photographs, postcards and drawings of the College and its environs.  The subjects of the photographs and drawings include buildings and other architectural features, sculptures and open spaces within the College.  They also include trees; you just have to look out for them …

Ellen O’Flaherty



Further reading:

Jeffrey, David (ed.), Trees of Trinity College Dublin [with notes by D.A. Webb] (Dublin, 1993)

The Team Behind Trinity’s Trees’: Trinity News and Events. (22 September 2014).

Saving Frederick May

Frederick May (second from left) with Ina Boyle and Aloys Fleischmann, 1938.The reputation of composer Frederick May (shown here, second left) has just received a major boost. A key piece of his work, the long-lost Symphonic ballad, has been unearthed from the archives in Trinity College Library by Dr Mark Fitzgerald. It received the full National Concert Hall treatment this September.  A public lecture about his research will be given by Dr Fitzgerald in Trinity on Monday at 18.30. The story of Frederick May’s life, as a musician and an outsider – being  gay, Protestant, and Republican – casts new light on narratives of Irishness and modernity in Irish culture.

Continue reading

Galbraith’s Account of the Foucault Pendulum Experiment in Dublin

In 1851, Léon Foucault amazed the world by demonstrating the rotation of the earth using a simple pendulum. As the earth spins, the swing-plane of a pendulum turns around. Within a month or so, the experiment was repeated in Dublin by two Irish scientists, Joseph Galbraith and Samuel Haughton, both fellows of Trinity College and both members of the Royal Irish Academy.

Engraving in L’Illustration of Foucault’s pendulum in the Panthéon, Paris

Engraving in L’Illustration of Foucault’s pendulum in the Panthéon, Paris

Galbraith kept a diary, which is now in the Manuscripts and Archives Research Library (TCD MS 3826). The entries for the months April to July, 1851 give us a day-by-day account of the activities of Galbraith and Haughton. The first relevant entry is for 17 April, recording that the two scientists were in Ringsend with Wilfred Haughton, Samuel’s cousin. Wilfred was Chief Engineer of the Dublin & Kingstown Railway, and the engine factory beside Grand Canal Basin, with its lofty roof, was an ideal location for the experiments. The pendulum length was 35.4 feet or 10.8 metres.

Following preliminary testing, six experiments were carried out, each lasting between 15 and 30 hours. The azimuthal angle of the pendulum, that is, the angle between the swing-plane and a north-south line, was recorded every 20 minutes, requiring one of the team members to be present throughout each experiment. The precession of the pendulum occurs slowly, taking well over a day to complete a full circle.

TCD MS 3826 diary entry for 17 April 1851

TCD MS 3826 diary entry for 17 April 1851

There are about 25 diary entries relevant to the experiments. They detail who was present during various periods. In the final experiment, a full rotation was achieved in a time of 28 hours and 26 minutes. The theoretical period is 28 hours and 21 minutes, not far from the observed period. According to an article in the Philosophical Magazine, “Messrs Galbraith and Haughton have pursued their research with all imaginable precautions”. Their impressive results confirm this assessment.

A full account of the experiments appears in the Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, Volume 116C, pages 1-15. Appendix A of this report contains a list of all the relevant entries from Galbraith’s diary. A copy of the report is available online.

Peter Lynch, School of Mathematics and Statistics, UCD


  • Lynch, Peter, 2016: Replication of Foucault’s pendulum experiment in Dublin. Proc. Roy. Irish Acad., 116C, 1-15. doi:10.3318/PRIAC.2016.116.03. (PDF: http://mathsci.ucd.ie/~plynch/Publications/PRIAC.pdf)
  • Manuscripts and Archives Research Library, Trinity College Dublin, TCD MS 3826, Diary of Joseph Galbraith for April and May 1851.



Thomas Moland’s 1730 maps for the earl of Mountrath

House, bawn and mill: Castlecoote, County Roscommon (From Map 11)

From Map No. 11: House, bawn and mill: Castlecoote, County Roscommon

Thomas Moland was a leading land surveyor in Ireland during the early eighteenth century. His career included work on an official survey together with private commissions, some of which involved the mapping of landed estates. In 1730, Moland prepared ‘A Booke of Maps’ for Algernon Coote, the earl of Mountrath. Characteristic of Moland’s work, this large volume contains a range of material of local history interest, most notably a series of thumbnail images of houses and towns that provide rarely-documented architectural detail.

Continue reading