Ship shape: Inside Ireland’s last traditional boatyard

In an era of fibreglass, Hegarty’s Boatyard in Co Cork is operating in a fast disappearing world

On a cold winter's day in West Cork, with the midday sun glinting from an icy-blue sky, Liam Hegarty surveys his workplace and says he feels proud to be part of a rich tradition, albeit one that is dying. He and his brother John run Hegarty's Boatyard in Oldcourt, 5km outside Skibbereen, on the banks of the River Ilen.

It is the last surviving traditional wooden boatyard in Ireland. The subject of a new photographic book by Kevin O'Farrell, the boatyard is full of great big hulks of wooden boats in various states of refurbishment. The boatyard faces the ruins of Oldcourt's medieval tower house that once belonged to the sea-faring O'Driscoll clan.

In an era of fibreglass boats, Hegarty is operating in a world that is fast disappearing. Once, traditional boat building took place all around the coast, but Hegarty’s Boatyard is out on its own now, miraculously still doing a steady trade, and enabling the revival of the once-lost West Cork mackerel yawls.

The boatyard was established by Liam’s father Paddy in 1948. He had worked as a shipwright in Skinners of Rathmore until it close down and he decided to go out on his own. Liam left school in the 1970s at the age of 16 to work in his father’s business. His 24-year-old son, also called Paddy, is currently undergoing a four-year apprenticeship at the yard, ensuring that the business will remain in family hands for a third generation.

Altogether, there are four full-time men working at the boatyard, including Teddy O’Donovan, father of the O’Donovan brothers Gary and Paul, who won Olympic silver medals in rowing. Contractors come and go, hired by the boat owners to carry out fitting and electrical work.

The main customers are fishermen in need of maintenance on their trawlers and work boats. “They can be fellows with nothing to very well off people… In this line of work, you have to be adaptable and go for whatever opportunities come along,” Hegarty says.

“We do a bit of work on ferries as well, and there can be big refurbishment jobs for people who bought their boats a while ago. Lots of boats came from France over the years. We build wooden boats occasionally.”

One of the biggest jobs they have worked on over the years was the rebuilding of the Ilen, Ireland's last wooden ocean going trading ketch. The 56ft vessel, designed by Ireland' s first round-world yachtsman Conor O'Brien and built at the Fisheries School in Baltimore by the "legendary" Tom Moynihan in 1926, spent 70 years transporting goods, sheep and people around the Falkland Islands. The boat was returned to her native shores in 1997, thanks to the efforts of graphic artist and sailor Gary Mac Mahon.

It took more than 10 years to raise the funds for the rebuild, which was completed in 2018 at Hegarty's Boatyard with the help of trainees from the Ilen School of wooden boatbuilding in Limerick, local sponsors, volunteers and agencies including Focus Ireland, Brothers of Charity and the Irish Wheelchair Association. "It was a once in a lifetime job," Hegarty says. In December, the project received the Industrial Heritage Association of Ireland's Award for "Best Restoration of 2019".

Before the recession, Hegarty's Boatyard also worked on the Cill Airne, a boat built in the 1960s to take people out to the liners in Cobh. A group of investors in Dublin had purchased the boat from the Maritime College in Ringaskiddy, and over 12 months, Hegarty's Boatyard did a lot of timber work refurbishing the decking. The ship now has a restaurant, a maritime-style bar and deck seating, and is moored on the Liffey Dublin outside the Convention Centre.

At the moment, the Saoirse is being rebuilt in one of the large sheds – a former grain store – at the boatyard. It's hoped the boat will be ready for the Wooden Boat Festival in Baltimore in 2021. "She was the first boat to take the tricolour around the world in 1923," Hegarty says. "A private individual owns the Saoirse now. She's nearly a new boat now. She had been wrecked in Jamaica. Bits of her came back as a flat pack." What was the Saoirse doing in Jamaica? "Probably nothing too good. She was trading. Of what, we don't know. We won't go there," says Hegarty enigmatically.

While the bulk of working boats in Ireland are now made from fibreglass, Hegarty says they have been lucky. “We’ve been busy enough in the last number of years.”

Hegarty still has some of his father’s old tools. “Nowadays, you don’t have the hand drill. You’re using batteries and electric drills. But I’d still use hammers, chisels and saws.”

Has he built yachts? “We’ve built a few, mostly based on traditional sailing boats. Years ago, when I had more time, I built a few yachts for myself. Someone came along and bought them. I haven’t built for myself for the last 25 years. I don’t go sailing much anymore.”

Hegarty's Boatyard by Kevin O'Farrell is published by Ilen River Press. An exhibition of photographs of traditional wooden boats, including those at Hegarty's Boatyard and the men working there, will go on tour in April. The exhibition will open at Uilinn: the West Cork Arts Centre, followed by the Gallery of Photography in Dublin, the Hunt Museum in Limerick, the Garter Lane Arts Centre in Waterford and Down Arts Centre in Northern Ireland. It will then go to the UK, starting at the National Maritime Museum in Cornwall.