Northern Ireland

Lough Erne's historic cot race to begin again

The boats will take part in a race at the Crom Estate on Saturday
Image caption The boats will take part in a race at the Crom Estate on Saturday

A race involving traditional wooden boats has taken place on Lough Erne for the first time in more than a century.

Cots were once the main mode of transport around the Fermanagh lakelands.

In the early 1900s they brought people, livestock and goods across the water.

Now Lough Erne Heritage, which was formed last year to revive interest in the history of traditional boats, has built and launched two new cots.

The boats took part in a race at the Crom Estate near Newtownbutler on Saturday.

Image caption The cots were launched on Lough Erne on Friday

The group's chairman Fred Ternan said cots have been used on Lough Erne for "possibly 2,000 years" and that they were once as familiar a sight in the area as cars on roads today.

"All the activity and all the life around the lough depended so much on boats and obviously the boat builders were an essential part of it as well," he said.

"There are a number of fundamentals in a cot's design - the bottom is flat and the two ends slope up and each of those sections is roughly the same size.

Image caption The boats took three months to build by volunteers from Cavan Town Men's Shed

"Originally when the cots were built, the bottoms were made first and then planks were put on the side and then the crutches were made from bent branches and they were found on trees and cut off and put in to support the structure."

The two new cots took three months to build by volunteers from Cavan Town Men's Shed, including Peter O'Hanlon.

Image caption Cots were once the main mode of transport around the Fermanagh lakelands

"Through building the cot, we're learning age-old traditions - 100 years old or more," he said.

"We're learning how to work the wood, understanding how boats are built, how specifically cot boats are built which were specific to the Erne.

"We're learning all new skills, but they're so old, but they're new to us - it's fabulous."

Bert Robinson from Lough Erne Heritage said they used specifications on a drawing of a cot that was used on Upper Lough Erne by Bernadette Began, the former principal of Wattlebridge Primary School.

Image caption Launching the cots on Friday

Mr Robinson said she told them it was a very stable vessel in the water.

"She went across as a young girl with her father to land which was across water," he said.

"They milked the cows on the farm across the water and they took the buckets of milk across every day and made sure that they didn't as much as spill one drop of milk."

The new cots were launched by Lord Erne, whose family have lived in Crom Castle and have a long association with the boats.

Lord Erne said the two new boats were "wonderful".

"Growing up at Crom, living at Crom, we've known nothing else but the Lough Erne cot," he said.

Image caption Bert Robinson of Lough Erne Heritage inspecting work on the new cot

"My sisters got married from it, we took my late father over for his funeral in it in December, so it means a lot and it's lovely to see it being reinvented."

Fred Ternan hopes to reintroduce cot racing on Lough Erne.

"With the two cots now that we have built we will be able to demonstrate cot rowing or pulling as it's known, how they can be brought in ashore and goods put on to them, how they can be used for racing, because the cots actually were raced and there were regular cot regattas for racing."

On Saturday, Lough Erne Heritage recreated what is known as the "famous cot race" that took place at Crom in 1856.

The winners turned down the prize money on offer and instead asked Lord Erne to help arrange the return of their parish priest.

Image caption It is hoped that cot racing will become a regular event on Lough Erne

Fr Clarke had fled to America after being told he was going to be arrested for officiating in a mixed marriage.

Lord Erne was able to get the charges dropped and the priest came back to serve out his days in Newtownbutler.

Now that their boat building project has been completed, Peter O'Hanlon said the Cavan Town Men's Shed would have to come up with a new project.

"You spend all this time and put a huge amount of energy into actually building the boat and that's where the fun is and the craic is and the slagging and all the rest, and then you see the boat in the water and it's brilliant.

"But then it's finished, so where to next?"

When asked whether they would build another cot he laughs: "Possibly, or maybe two!"