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.
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
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’.
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,
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