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16 October 2014
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Working lives...
Kilkeel Boat Buider

Bill Quinn is a retired boatbuilder who owned a yard in Kilkeel for over fifty years.


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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 with the 'Nancy' - a launch he built for the Belfast Harbour Commissioners in 1955
Bill Quinn
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.

Bill Quinn & Harry Mackintosh
Bill Quinn & Harry Mackintosh
A lifetime's work

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 working life.

The ribs of a skeleton boat are examined before the outer planking is applied
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 'Northern Lass'. Seen here in 1952, this was the first boat that Bill Quinn's boatyard made
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.

Native woods such as Larch and Oak were used as these could be sucessfully bent into curves by a process of steaming.
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.
listen Listen - steaming wood

(from left to right) Bill Quinn - builder, Tommy Ferguson - fishing officer, John Campbell - boat owner and Albert Annett - engineer
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.

(from right to left) Jimmy Rickard of Geal Linn, Bill Quinn and an unknown islander who spoke no English
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.

A fishing boat close to submerginf under the weight of the catch
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..
listen Listen - recovering vessels

Commemorative stone to the lives lost at the sinking of Ferry Steamer, 'SS Connemara', lost in 1916
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.

listen Listen - The sinking of the Connemara...

listen Listen - Slanes Castle...

Kilkeel Harbour in the late 1800's
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.
listen Listen - Susperstitions

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.
listen Listen - Early building methods

Cadgers selling fish in Kilkeel village in the early 1900's
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.
listen Listen - Cadgers

Kilkeel Harbour in 2002
A view of Kilkeel harbour and fishing fleet taken in 2002.

Walter Love on Radio Ulster

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.

listen Listen to Bill Quinn's Stories on Love Forty

Another "working lives" story also based around a Co.Down Shipyard is that of Patrick Durkin from Warrenpoint. Click here to read it....

Your Responses...

JEAN KERR - July '08

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.


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 living there.

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 me homesick.




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