‘The boatyard was behind our home. We walked out of our door and into the water’

The McDonald brothers are the last of a line of boatbuilders – and subjects of a new play

The oldest tool at McDonald's Boats is an adze, which is used for shaping and smoothing wood. Neither Philip nor Brian McDonald knows exactly how old it is. Given that the family business goes back to the 1750s, and the brothers are the sixth generation to make boats in Greencastle, Co Donegal, it could be pretty old indeed.

“You watched and learned,” says Philip, describing growing up, and into the family tradition. “The boatyard was behind our home. We went out of the back door and walked into the boatyard, we couldn’t miss it. And we walked out of our front door and into the water.” Did he ever think about doing anything else, I wonder? “When you’re brought up on the shoreline, you just fall in to it,” he says. Although reticent by nature, his quiet voice and soft Donegal accent is frequently on the edge of shading into humour.

Rich with timber and tools, the workshop is both timeless and gently thriving. Things had gone next to silent during the recession, but a revival in fishing and interest in the Foyle punt from rowing clubs means there's more than enough work for the pair, together with their cousin, Bernard Barr. It helps that the McDonalds are renowned as some of the finest boat builders in Ireland, as well as beyond our shores, a fact pointed out by Róise Goan, whose theatre company, the Local Group, is making a play with, and about, the McDonalds – called, appropriately, Foyle Punt.

An evolution from the traditional Drontheim, which itself had roots in the Viking ships that plied and plundered Irish shores in the eighth and ninth centuries, the Foyle punt was once the workhorse of the fishing communities around Lough Foyle, and races would be held for the fishermen to let off steam. Regattas led to standardisation, and now the Foyle class punt is a graceful racing dinghy that cuts through the waters with ease, moving with the stretch of the rowers’ arms.


The Foyle punt

Alongside the adze, the tools have changed very little. The Foyle punt, originally developed by the McDonald family, is still hand-built, with tools gathered over the generations. But now, Philip (61) and Brian (64) are the last of the line. “That’s the way we ended up,” says Philip. “My brother and I, we have two girls each, they’ve gone in to their own careers and there’s nobody to step up.”

When the girls were younger, their fathers, experts in woodwork, made them things, “cots and the like”, says Brian, slightly shorter, but as blue-eyed and gently spoken as his sibling. “A cot is a lot easier to make than a boat.” It’s difficult not to imagine a sense of sadness, of something lost; but the overriding impression is actually of a family at home with change. It’s a practical sense of acceptance that perhaps comes with spending hours working with your hands, shaping materials, creating small but miraculous craft.

The brothers have also been boatbuilding over the winter with the local Men’s Shed in Moville, but the work in the boatyard itself is a mixture of repairs and making. “It would take about eight to 10 weeks to build a boat from scratch,” says Philip. “But we’re sitting here on the pier and you get calls to go out and repair boats, and then the fleet would come in. The wear and tear is something,” he continues, describing the speed and force with which the lobster and crab pots are pulled.

‘Fast and furious’

"They're fast and furious, the crab fishermen," he says, asking if I know the TV show Deadliest Catch. "We're the smaller version of that. The fishermen, they all watch it. There was one episode where the crab pot was the size of a wardrobe – ours are more like shoeboxes. So they tried it up in Malin Head. It did work, but they couldn't get it into the boat.

“Lots of the younger fishermen, they wouldn’t want a wooden boat,” he continues. “They’re hungrier, they want things that are easier to maintain. Wooden boats want TLC all the time.” Does he think about retirement? “McDonalds don’t retire,” he says. “We fade away.”

But from endings and back to beginnings – I’m intrigued to know where they start. Brian takes up the story: “You’re looking, basically, at a tree. Still with bark on it. You have to shape it, and you have to know how to spot a good one.” A great deal of Irish timber is force-grown now, so the wood is softer. You need hardwood, like a Norwegian spruce. Once it would have been Irish larch and oak. The hardest part is getting it set up. “If you don’t get it at the start it doesn’t work. A lot of it is done with the luck of your eye, that’s something you grow into.”

Philip and Brian still have paperwork from the 1900s, when the family came to Donegal, rowing across the sea from Scotland, fleeing war in a boat they had built themselves. “Around the turn of the century, a boat cost one pound per foot,” says Brian. So a 16ft boat would have cost £16. Now it’s more like €8,500,” he pauses to think. “But that pound would have bought you an awful lot more back then.”

“We’re a quiet family,” says Philip. “That’s why it’s hard for us to take on board, all this stuff, being interviewed . . .” And the play? “Ahh, that’s going to be something different anyway,” concludes Brian.

Foyle Punt takes place on piers across Sligo, Donegal and Derry from July 11th, beginning at Rosses Point, Sligo, as part of the Cairde Festival, and ending at Bunbeg Pier, Donegal, on July 22nd for the Earagail Arts Festival