To mark World Maritime Day on 28 September, I gave an online, illustrated talk that detailed the National Museum’s work on a planned traditional boat gallery. I am very grateful to Dr Wes Forsythe, Senior Lecturer, Centre for Maritime Archaeology, Ulster University for getting in touch with me after the talk to share with me the important work recently undertaken by the Madill Archive Project. In this latest post on Traditional Boats of Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way, Dr Forsythe details the work of the Madill Archive Project which was based on the work of Harry Madill, largely in Ulster and Connacht.
The Madill Archive Project, Dr Wes Forsythe
Ireland has been described as a cultural crossroads in European boat-building traditions, employing a wide range of types and techniques down the centuries. In recent decades many of our traditional forms have given way to more modern boats using very different materials and manufacturing techniques. Growing up in the small fishing town of Portstewart in Co. Derry, Harry Madill spent much of his youth around the harbour and boats became an obsession. He went on to build his first boat aged 12. When asked where he learned the skills, it was common practise he recalled to ‘ask the last person who built one’. Harry trained as an engineer and became a weekend sailor but realising that traditional craft were becoming obsolete and abandoned, he set out to discover, describe and draw the last remaining craft around the northern coasts of Ireland, from Louth to north Mayo. His draughtsmanship skills came to the fore as he recorded boat lines and he brought his engineer’s eye to the documentation of build techniques.
Nevertheless, Harry realised ‘it’s more than feet and inches and boat lines. It’s who built them? Why were they built? How were they used? Why were they used, and the social commentary about the places they were used’. So, he augmented his work by interviewing boat builders and fishermen with direct experience of handling, modifying and working these vessels. The result is a decades-long attempt to capture and record the last traditional working craft and the men who manned them.
The boats surveyed by Harry reflect the dominance of two traditions – the skin boats now largely confined to Donegal and the wooden clinker-building tradition of overlapping planks. The latter were a Viking introduction, maintained by the later Medieval Irish and reinvigorated in recent centuries. They include the drontheim (the name a corruption of the Norwegian port of Trondheim), punt and salmon coble. Making contact with other specialists in these craft such as Dónal Mac Polin, Harry eventually made a major contribution to Críostóir Mac Cárthaigh’s seminal publication The Traditional Boats of Ireland.
In 2019 Harry donated his primary archive to the Centre for Maritime Archaeology and we quickly realised its value. The Madill Archive Project was established to catalogue and digitize the collections of drawings, reports, photographs and interviews, all of which were transferred to the Public Record Office in Belfast (PRONI) for professional care. The project exhibition ‘Strakes and Skins’ was launched at PRONI in June 2023 and appeared at five maritime festivals over the summer.
The legacy of Harry’s work is a wonderful resource for anyone interested in traditional craft. However, it also has a living legacy exemplified by the drontheim Elizabeth. Having spent its working life out of the north Antrim port of Ballintoy, the boat was in an unsalvageable condition by the time Harry recorded it. It was decided that a local traditional boat group would take a mould of it. To date no fewer than 17 fibreglass copies of Elizabeth’s hull have been produced with the wooden components (e.g. floors, gunwales, thwarts and masts) finished by the community. The work continues to be relevant to the new generation of traditional boat-builders. Orlagh Thompson from Co. Down recently completed a Foyle Punt as part of her final year boat-building course at Albaola in the Basque Country. She returned to Harry’s lines drawings to loft the craft in preparation for cutting timbers, finding that 3D scanning technology had missed some vital details.
The Madill Archive can be accessed via PRONI’s website. The Madill Archive Project is a collaboration between Ulster University, the Public Record Office (NI), National Museums and Galleries NI, Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs and Ulster Maritime Heritage. It is supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.
My sincere thanks to Dr Wes Forsythe for contributing to Traditional Boats of Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way.