Northern Ireland has a long and widely known history of shipbuilding. Most people immediately associate boat building here with Harland & Wolff and big ships like Titanic, Olympic and Canberra. At the other end of the scale however there is a rich, and largely untold, history of building sea-going vessels in small boatyards around our coastlines.
Bill Quinn is a retired boatbuilder who owned a yard in Kilkeel for over fifty years. The fishing fleet there - once the largest in Northern Ireland - depended heavily upon him to build and repair the boats it went to sea in. Bill retired in 1995. The picture here was taken in 1955 and shows "Nancy" a launch he built for the Belfast Harbour Commissioners.
A lifetime's work
Bill Quinn & Harry Mackintosh
Bill left school when he was 14 years old and was
looking for work. Any kind of work would do. A chance
conversation between his father and a neighbour
got him a "start" on a Monday morning at Harry Mackintosh's
boatyard in Kilkeel. That was in 1944. He served
there as an apprentice and never left the job, eventually
owning the boatyard himself, employing staff and
running a succesful business for the rest of his
The birth of a fishing boat
Fifty years ago - The complex wooden framework of
a new fishing boat under construction must be carefully
examined prior to the outer planks being attached.
The unique curvature and alignment of each individual
rib is critical so that when the planks are joined
they form a tight fit and leave no warps or gaps
where water could leak into the hull.
The first of many
The finished vessel, the "Northern Lass". Seen here
in 1952, this was the first boat that Bill Quinn's
boatyard made. It is vitally important to ensure
the water-tightness of the hull before a boat sets
for sea. The photograph shows the new vessel undergoing
its first testing in the water by the boatyard.
The watertightness of the hull depended entirely
upon the exact fit of each plank to the next and,
on clinker-built boats, no gasketing would be used
between the overlapping planks. Very few (if any)
boatyards in Ireland or the UK are able to make
wooden boats of this size now and indeed it is quickly
becoming a lost art. Fishing boats are today almost
all steel construction and cruisers and launches
are usually fibre-glass.
Planks in a steam box
Due to the shape of boats there are very few straight
lengths of wood used. Timbers therefore must be
carefully bent into the required shapes. Native
woods such as Larch and Oak were used as these could
be sucessfully bent into curves by a process of
steaming. Planks would be initially cut using a
cambered saw and then each length would be passed
through a steam box for about 45 minutes until it
was soft enough to bend. The plank was immediately
clamped into position on the hull while the wood
was still pliable. When it was properly clamped
into position it was then spiked down permanently.
Throughout Bill's 50 years as a boatbuilder, this
steam process was employed on every boat made or
repaired in the yard.
Out to sea...
After the initial wet testing was carried out and
any alterations made, the boat would undergo various
trials under real conditions at sea. This photograph
shows the 'Margretta' being sea tested in 1960,
having had a new engine fitted. (in the photo -
left to right) Bill Quinn - builder, Tommy Ferguson
- fishing officer, John Campbell - boat owner and
Albert Annett - engineer.
Note the familiar profile of the Mourne Mountains visible in the background. Long before Radar or electronic navigation aids came along, fishermen from Annalong and Kilkeel used to locate their position from known fixed landmarks such as the mountains. By noting where summits and features overlapped and by using a process of triangulation they were able to determine their distance from the shoreline and their longitude.
Delivering a new boat
Perhaps surprisingly, boats made in the Kilkeel
boatyard were delivered to owners and destinations
all over Ireland and many have since found their
way much further afield. The picture here shows
the "delivery team" taking a vessel, the "Eileen
Oge", to Galway in July 1959. This was one of five
boats the Quinn boatyard re-engined for the Geal
Linn organisation. The route they took was
by sea to Dublin, entering the Grand Canal by the
locks at "Ring's End". They then travelled westward
by inland canals and waterways. The journey they
made could not be made today as many parts of their
route are no longer passable. In the picture (from
right to left) Jimmy Rickard of Geal Linn, Bill
Quinn and an unknown islander who spoke no English.
On the job...
Fishing boats must be built to withstand heavy seas
and heavy payloads. They are extremely robust and
enduring. Although it may be hard to believe it
wasn't unheard of for the day's fishing to go so
well that the weight of the catch came close to
the flotation limits of the vessel. The picture
here shows a boat so heavily laden with herring
that the gunnels are only inches above the waterline.
There have been occasions when fishing boats have
actually been sunk by the weight of the fish that
were caught. Serious though such an incident was,
in most cases it wasn't disastrous, as the boats
could still be recovered. A surprising number of
fishermen are non-swimmers however and there have
been numerous souls lost, even close to the shore,
down through the years. Wooden boats naturally want
to float and it is possible with care to re-float
a capsized or sunken vessel that is lying in fairly
shallow water. This was yet another line of work
that fell to the expertise of the boatyard. Bill
tells a short story..
For those in peril...
There have of course been many truly disastrous
seafaring accidents in the area. In 1916, a 460
ton Ferry Steamer, "SS Connemara" left Greenore
on a routine run to Holyhead. and collided with
another vessel, "SS Retriever" in Carlingford Lough
with tragic consequences. Both ships sank and although
the depth of the water was only a few metres, 97
lives were lost. Many of the passengers were on
their way to find work on the mainland, unknown
to their parents and relatives, who never realised
that they'd been lost in the disaster until much
later, perhaps years. Today a commemorative stone
sits in a Kilkeel graveyard. There are two audio
links below. The first is Bill talking about the
terrible tragedy of the Connemara. The second tells
a story about another collision where the vessel,
the "Slanes Castle", was lost but the lives were
saved by a quick thinking deck-hand. Click
Here to read more about the sinking of the
Connemara and Retriever.
Bringers of luck
The fishing fraternity like many others is traditionally
superstitious and certain things are believed to
have strange powers. It was, for instance, considered
to bring bad luck to talk about rats or pigs on
board a fishing boat and fishermen would be very
annoyed with you if you did. Many also believed
the humble seagull to have a special purpose from
beyond the grave.
Today boats are nearly all built with the aid of modern technology. Computer aided designs can re-shape a hull and indicate the exact water-line and project where weight should be distributed etc. Such things seem common and rather unimpressive in this hi-tech age. We consider tools such as power saws and electric drills as fairly lowly basic necessities. Few would tackle even a simple job without them. Things were not always so. Although work for a boatbuilder was not easy in the early fifties when Bill Quinn started out, it was much harder again for previous generations. Many of the modern effort-saving aids we take for granted today had not been thought of. Bill comments on the difficulties faced by the previous generation to his, involved in boatbuilding before any kind of mechanisation or automation was available.
Selling the catch
The whole point of fishing was of course commercial
and the fish had to be landed and sold to the customer.
Today this is a high speed industry and fast-frozen
produce is distributed to processing plants and
retailers around the world in all manner of packaging
and under many brand names. Bill remembers how,
during his schooldays, door-to-door fish sellers
known as "Cadgers" would come around the streets
with herring for sale. If you didn't have money
to pay them they'd readily bargain with other types
of currency such as eggs or cheese.
A view of Kilkeel harbour and fishing fleet taken in 2002.
Bill Quinn on Radio Ulster
Shortly after this story appeared on Your Place & mine Bill Quinn spoke to BBCNI's Walter Love on his Radio Ulster Sunday programme "Love Forty". Bill told yarns with the kind of wit and humour typical of the locality and its people.
Another "working lives" story also based around
a Co.Down Shipyard is that of Patrick Durkin from Warrenpoint.
Click here to
JEAN KERR - July '08
GREAT INFO! I WAS IN DROMORE AND KILKEEL THIS YEAR AND
HOPE TO GO BACK NEXT YEAR - IM TRYING TO TRACE KERRS
AND DOWNEYS FROM KILKEEL AND DROMORE
Pat (was Wray-McCann) - June '08
Beverley McCann - if you want information about the
Wray-McCann family I may be able to help you. Please
contact me at patriciabuonataoldotcom
Gerry Doyle - March '08
Hello Robert J Wilson,
The Wilsons are still going strong in Kilkeel and
Mourne. David is well into his 80s and walks from his
home down to the harbour and home again every day,
weather permitting Robert (Bob) is well into his 90s
and lives in Belfast. That is only two of the older
ones. There are a lot more but they may not be on the
internet. If you want to get in touch with them drop
me a note.
BEVERLY MCCANN - Jan '08
DOES ANYONE REMEMBER THE FAMILY OF DR. HUGH WRAY-MCCANN
IN THE LATE 20s TO THE EARLY 60s IN KILKEEL?
HILDA SULLIVAN NE VANCE - Apr '07
My great grandmother came from Kilkeel her
father and brothers were all fishermen, Her name was
Mary McNaughton she married my great grandfather who
was from Downpatrick, His name was John Vance . There
were Great troubles in Northern Ireland at that time
and my great grandmother who was of a different religion
to John was rejected by his family and his family never
spoke to him again .They went on to have six children.
I am trying to find my family tree but am finding it
hard to do as I cannot find out anything about Mary
Mcnaughton and I dont know if any of Marys family are
left now. I do know that Mary had a sister called lizzy
but that is about it. Any one that could have told me
more about Mary have passed on to a better place now
and I would have loved to have known my ancestors from
Kilkeel and to have felt a part of that beautiful place.
Robert J Wilson - Mar '07
My father's family originally came from Kilkeel. Last
name Wilson. Came over here to Canada around 1916 with
my Grand parents. My Grandfather's brother David Wilson
lived there until his death. Probably still have relatives
There is a story I was told by my father, about the
fishing fleet from Kilkeel during the first world war.
Apparently a large number of boats were out fishing
and a German sub surfaced and ordered all fishermen
out of their boats and into one, which was my dads
Uncles' boat and then proceeded to sink all the others.
My dads Uncles' boat was the only one to return to
port. A case of chivalry on the high sea's during the
war at that time.
I have always wondered if this was a true story or
not. Can you verify if this is a true story?
A S Simpson
I'm looking for a boat named The Nancy and
probably operating in the 1850's
Johnny Byrne - Sep '06
Very interesting piece. It brings back many memories
for me having grown up in the fishing port of Arklow
Co. Wicklow. I was just wondering does anyone know of
any connections between ARKLOW and the fishing ports
of Co. DOWN. In particular I am thinking of my uncles
Johnny and Pat Hickey who fished out of Arklow for over
40 years and would make regular trips to Portavogie
during the 60's .Their boat was named the Ros Aoibhinn.
Also my grandfathers boat Ben Mo Chroi was built in
Portavogie. I would be gratefull for any info or links.
Charles Spinks - Jan '06
Thank heavens I found this site. I was born in Kilkeel
in 1944. My mother, Peggy Gorman married a G.I. and
left Kilkeel in 1946. We have been back many times to
visit her brother and sisters who have now passed on,
my mother is now 86 and wants to take another trip.
I can sit and listen for hours to tales of her growing
up in and around Kilkeel. The last time we were "home",
the house where I was born was still standing, boarded
up, but still there, in Dunavan, up at the top of the
Scrogg Rd, nearly across from Jim Joe Smalls shop. Makes