3. Boats and Bays

Boats and boatbuilding in a vernacular style were common on Achill in the 19th and 20th centuries, though the resources for their construction were not; Achill has few trees and is vegetated, instead, primarily by bog. Two types of vessels in particular, curraghs and yawls, were integral to island life, particularly in acquiring fish for sustenance and for communicating with the mainland (Hornell 1937a; 1937b; 1938a; 1938b; Ní Ghallchóir 1997; Kilbane 2001; Cunnane et al. 2008; Mac Cárthaigh 2008; Meide and Sikes 2011; Meide and Sikes 2014, 118-25). Shore fishing appears not to have been common and is not mentioned in archival accounts, despite the fact that mackerel, pollack and other coastal species are among the most popular in historic discussions and were caught on hand-lines from boats. Vernacular boat types were agile, with the ability to launch and land in a variety of conditions, which is particularly significant on Achill, where a rocky shore predominates and rough seas are common.

In the early 19th century, Achill had an estimated population of just under 4000 people; among these were reportedly 282 men fishing from 52 rowing boats, an average of 5.4 fishermen per boat (Fisheries Inquiry 1836, 91). The same report, however, suggested that for every boat in use, another was derelict, an issue primarily attributed to the absence of nets (Fisheries Inquiry 1836, 82). From this, it could be interpreted that most islanders primarily depended on potato crops and milk from their cattle, but that a small portion of the population had access to fish. Alternatively, it is possible that, as in landholding and agricultural labour, fishing may have been undertaken in groups, making contributions to local diets whenever possible, which appears to be supported by the number of fishermen utilising a single boat.

Figure 3
Figure 3: Foreground: two Achill yawls with cargos of turf. Background: a curragh is towed by a Galway hooker. c. 1890s (Image credit: Lawrence Collection, courtesy of the National Library of Ireland. Further permission is required for reuse.)

On Achill, curraghs changed in form and construction from the late 19th through the early 20th century, indicating a change in use: while earlier vessels were rowed, with single gunwales on lightweight wooden lattices, construction moved to a stronger double-gunwale and continuous inner planking. This change made the Achill curragh a heavier craft more appropriate for hauling heavy cargo, such as large amounts of turf, shell-fish, or seaweed, which may have allowed islanders to exploit areas previously too treacherous to access by foot (Figure 3). The change also allowed for inshore net fishing, potentially a more efficient undertaking than other methods and may have increased the potential for islanders to get goods to market and increase trade with the mainland. Further changes to these craft occurred in the mid-20th century when the basking shark industry briefly flourished on the island (Mac Cárthaigh 2001; Martin 2002; Michael Gielty, pers. comm. 2004) and include a shorter length with a square transom to accept an outboard motor more easily. Many of the changes to style and construction resulted in a less agile vessel: while vernacular boat types were able to land in a variety of environments, newer vessels required piers or docks, few of which were available on Achill until the late 19th and 20th centuries, except on the island's east coast at Bullsmouth and Achill Sound (Nangle 1847a; 1848).