independent

Tuesday 15 October 2019

The ancient art of the coracle

In the 1930s this paper also ran an occasional Forgotten Days where such pictures appeared like early members of the Drogheda Brass and Reed Band, Drogheda from old photographs, sailing ships on the Boyne and views of sites now built over by factories and houses. One such picture (December 24, 1938) show a Boyne Coracle in use by salmon fishers at Oldbridge. The c

Today photographs for ‘Times Past’ is a weekly feature in our local paper, and the series has proved to be most popular with readers of the Drogheda Independent and attracts much attention.

In the 1930s this paper also ran an occasional ‘Forgotten Days’ where such pictures appeared like early members of the Drogheda Brass and Reed Band, Drogheda from old photographs, sailing ships on the Boyne and views of sites now built over by factories and houses. One such picture (December 24, 1938) show a Boyne Coracle in use by salmon fishers at Oldbridge.

The caption says it was taken ‘about 45 years ago’ and shows James and Maurice Craven, Patrick Coogan and Michael O’Brien, using the hide covered boat.

Looking on from the river bank is a Miss L Reynolds. The following accompanied the picture, presumably written by Joachim Casey, editor and his brother Peter (of happy memory), who later succeeded him as head of the paper and served as editor for many years until his illness.

‘Michael O’Brien, an old man residing in one of the cluster of cottage’s which forms the remnants of the old village called Oldbridge, near Drogheda, has just discovered that he is the only man in Europe who can make a hide covered coracle or curragh, and also that the river Boyne, beside which his family have lived for untold generations is the only river in Ireland on which this type of boat is still in use.

This revelation was made to Mr O’Brien within the last few weeks when Dr Mahr, of the National Museum visited Oldbridge for the purpose of interviewing the person who had kept alive the vanishing art of coracle making, as well as with the intention of having a specimen built for the museum.

This was ultimately done by O’Brien who was assisted by his son and another young man named Philip McCormack, both of whom take a live interest in the old man’s unique skill which they are anxious to acquire.

‘While the coracle was being built, Dr Mahr and Mr Stephens of Trinity College took photographs at various stages as well as a film of the entire process, while a detailed description of the work given verbally by Mr O’Brien was recorded by means of a dictaphone.

O’Brien said he learned how to make a coracle from his father, who had been taught by his grandfather. It was made with hael rods, willows and cowhide and when he finished was a round-shaped curragh, measuring five feet eight inches in length, and four feet at the widest part.

Coracles had always been used for salmon fishing on the Boyne, he said, but they have grown scarcer and scarcer each year, and the fishermen around Oldbridge were the only people using them on the river. He remembered being told by his grandfather that coracles were used on the river since the time when the Cistercian Monks were in possession of Melifont Abbey.

He also said that the hide covered curragh had become extinct along the West Coast of Ireland some eighty years ago. On some rivers in Wales he believed that hide was still used for covering coracles but these are a longer type of vessel, more in the style of a canoe.

‘Mr O’Brien felt delighted that his son and the other young man named McCormack were anxious to learn to make coracles, and said that they are rapidly acquiring the necessary knowledge and skill which would be the means of preserving this quaint fishing antiquity of our most historic river, the Boyne.

‘As to Mr Mahr’s visit to his cottage, O’Brien said: “He came in here with some kind of a machine called a dictaphone and put it on the table.

Then when I told him all about the coracles and how to make them, he twisted something on the side of the machine and told me to sit down. In a few seconds the thing began to talk to us, and it told us all I was after saying about the coracle.

Then a few days later he brought me up to Dublin and showed me a picture of myself making the coracle from the very beginning to the very end.” “Bedads,” concluded Mr O’Brien. “You’d want to mind what you’d be saying and doing these days, with all the quare machines that’s going.”’



There is a fine Boyne Coracle on display in Millmount Museum which was made in Oldbridge and donated by Mr Joe Tiernan, The Locks, in 1965.

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