The Boat-builders:

Boat Building Family's
Boat Building Family’s

Danny Gleeson described how the Gleesons migrated from the Bantry area to the Castlecove area pre the 1840’s and have been building timber boats in Skehanagh since the 1850s. Starting with Tom Gleeson, the craft was passed to James and from James to Dick and Davy. Danny is a grand-nephew of Dick and Davy. The Gleesons built an average of twelve boats per year. These boats ranged from 18 to 28 feet in size. Danny outlined how his grand uncle Dick and Davy were commissioned by Kenmare Rowing Club to build Swallow 1 as a four oar racing boat. Swallow 1 was unbeaten in its competitive racing career. In 1937 the Gleesons were commissioned again by Kenmare Rowing Club to build a four oar boat. This boat was named the Pirate. On foot of the success of Swallow1, Danny Gleeson was commissioned to build Swallow 2, for Sneem Rowing Club. Swallow 2 also enjoyed much success for Sneem.

In 1988 Danny Gleeson together with his sons, James and Dan, built a 32 foot Viking type Longship which was commissioned by Michael O’Brien, Killarney. The design plans
came from Scandinavia and it was built from native oak. It had the capacity for 25 to 30 passengers.

In the interviews, Danny Gleeson explained the history regarding the confidentiality of the designs, how the families never shared information about their designs, and would never hire a relative from a competing boat- family. They knew how to protect their intellectual property long before the term was invented. However the Gleesons were the first to break the mould when Mikey Donnelly and Michael Fenton, both members of boat -building families joined them. He explains about the sourcing of and the type of timber used, the sourcing of other materials used and the local suppliers such as Matthew O’Connell Hardware Store in Caherdaniel, Galvins in Sneem, Arthur’s in Kenmare and O’Connells in Caherciveen. He tells stories about the customers, the launching of the boats and how the Gleeson business of boat – building developed. He shares the fun that he and his grand -uncles had with some of their customers from West Cork at Flaherty’s public house in Castlecove, when the customers came to collect a newly built boats.


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Michael Fenton, boatbuilder, was born in Brackaharagh South/ Reen and now resides in Lower Liss. Michael learned his craft as a boy, initially from his cousins Mike Fenton, Brackaharagh /Reen and Tom Fenton Caherdaniel. His grand uncles, Pat Fenton, aboat-builder,migrated to Urn in West Cork because he beleived there wre too llmany engaged in the craft around Castlecove /Caherdaniel. He serviced some of those cutomers around Allihies and Dursey who came to have their boats build in Castlecove or Caherdaniel. Michael Fenton joined Danny Gleeson and worked with him for 6 years. In the recorded conversation he acknowledge the contribution of his cousin Mike Fenton and the Gleesons for helping him understand the concept of developing the design, and forming the shapijg the timers into the boat. He explained that all the boats built locally up to the 1970 in the area were rowing boats. His cousin Mike Fenton mainly built lobster fishing boats,ranging in size from 16 to 25 feet. Michael Fenton has built timber boats ranging in size from 16 to 25 feet, seine boats, 4 oar boats, lobster fishing boats and leisure boats. He explained how important the feedback from the fishermen and other boat users is, to adapting and improving the design and the building of the next boat.
Michael outlined the employment generated in the area from seine boat fishing between the 1920s and the 1950s. During those years there were 9 seine boats with a crew of 13 and 9 followers each with a crew of 7, giving a total of 180 crew members fishing for herring and mackerel employed between the White Strand, Rath and Derrynane. These were supported by the 11 boat building families, the coopers who built the barrels used to transport the herring to markets in the US from Westcove pier where women cured the fish before they were put in the barrels. The mackerel were boxed and taken to Cahirciveen, from where they were transported to the fish market in Dublin and sold on wards. During those thirty years there were between 200 and 300 people gainfully employed in building and repairing timber boats, coopering, fishing, curing fish and supporting business at the hardware shop and sawmills.


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In the recorded interviews, Michael describes the timbers and other material used, where they were sourced, and the tools used. He explains the methods of transporting and launching timber boats. He explains the advent of outboard motors, the transition to trawlers, the introduction of fibre-glass technology and the challenges brought about these changes. After the 1950, the seine boats used for fishing were adapted for racing,and then specifically designed for racing. In 1972 Michael was a member of Caherdaniel Rowing Club which competed and won the four oar boat rowing competition in Portmagee. In 2009 Michael Fenton built a timber seine boat, “Seoid na Mara” won the All Ireland Seine Boat competition at Whitegate Co. Cork. The winning crew was Noel Donnelly, Declan Sheehan, Darren Casey, John O’Shea, Cian Boland, Thomas O’Carroll, Shane O’ Donoghue, Mike Turner, Paudie O’Keeffe, Paul O’Sullivan, Christopher Fenton, Peter Hussey, Cox Dan Casey and transport manager Patrick Grady.

Michael Fenton built 2 four oar timber racing boats,one in 1983 and the other in 2010.
Michael Fenton’s recorded conversation includes the record catch of 52,000 fish, caught by a seine and follower off White Stand. He also mentions the loss of his relative
Pats Fenton and a friend at sea, and how the bodies were recovered by using sheaves of straw to identify the location of the deceased.


The interview with Sean O’Shea his wife Patsy, from Rath and Michael Donnelly Caherdaniel described the context within which the boat building families operated. They described the interrelationship between boat building, the coopering and making of the barrels in Rath. In lower Rath most families spoke only Irish and obviously conducted their business through Irish. Sean described the different branches of the boat building families. Sean recalled how Partner Galvin, brother of Murt , gained fame as a traveling boat builder in South Kerry. Photographic evidence exists of a seine boat, called the Roving Swan, which Partner Galvin build and which was refurbished by a local group in Ballinskelligs in 2013. They gave an excellent description of the 18 families fishing out of Rath and Lambs Head. This confirms the information from the other interviewees about the density and vibrancy of the fishing industry in the catchment area from Castlecove to Derrynane. Initially the seine boat followers mainly fished for mackerel out of Rath and Lambs Head. Mackerel fishing was only done at night. Moonlight would catch the phosphorous on the mackerel skin and glow in the dark, thus identifying the location of a shoal.
Pasty outlined that as times changed, salmon licenses were introduced. The Roche family were awarded the first salmon license. They explained that infrastructure was poor up to the 1950s. The road system on the Ring of Kerry was difficult, and electricity and telecommunications non existent. Motorized transport changed all of that. The first lorries and vans made a great difference to the local population. Supplies in and out became much easier and helped the commercial trading in the area. Boats could be transported safely to customers from Kenmare to Cromane and fish could be transported to the markets. At the conclusion of his conversation, Sean O’Shea shared a story about two young men involved in a race between seine boats returning from a night of fishing who lost their lives due to exuberance in the competition , and how their bodies were discovered using sheaves of straw.


Michael Donnelly boat building was born in Ballycarnahan, Lambshead road. He now resides in Cooomnahorna. His grandfather Crohan Donnelly, born in Reen na Ratha, was a boat builder and he passed the craft to his sons Jim and Mikey, who in turn passed it to his son Michael. Crohan built timer boats for fishing, leisure and working boats, ranging in size from sixteen feet to thirty feet. He also built a seine boat. Crohan Donnelly was commisioned in the 1930 to build a thirty four foot timber boat, by the Earl of Dunraven who had a home in Derrynane. This boat called Tig ar Lin, (house on a lake) had a mast, a sail and was later adapted for an engine.It was used for fishing and leisure by the Dunraven family. During the second world war Tig ar Lin was contracted to the Irish Goverment by the Earl of Dunraven. It was used for fishing during the war years. After the war years the boat was returned to the Dunraven family in poor repair. Jim Donnelly who had a lifelong friendship with the Earl of Duraven was asked to repair it,which he did,and Tig ar Lin was used for some years afterwards for leisure purposes. It was eventually sold to fishermen in Courtmacsherry.
Mickey Donnelly worked for some years for Danny Gleeson,boatbuilder, Skehanagh and Tom Fenton boatbuilder, Cahirdaniel. Mickey Donnelly built timber boats for fishing and recreational customers, and also for his family’s use. His boats were built from oak and elm. When describing the process of building a boat from oak. Michael recalls that his father used to leave the keel in a drain, so that it seasoned by the water running through it for up to six months. He described how his father made and adapted saws and other tools. During the recorded conversation, Michael described in detail the process’s of building timber boats, the sourcing of timber and other materials. He recalled how his father worked in building construction to supplement the income from boat building. He also recalled his first memory of attending a regatta in Dingle with his parents, where a Caherdaniel crew tied first and, attending the local regattas at Glenbeg. He described the fun that he had when crewing in an annual rowing competition for a cup presented by the Earl of Dunraven.


James White is the grandson of Jimmy Andy White, and son of Michael White from Reen Cross, Brackaharagh. Born in 1853 Jimmy Andy White built seine boats for some of the local fishing families. James recalls hearing how Jimmy Andy built the boats in the open air up to the 1940s. The oral history describes the competition between the boat -building families in protecting their design, the building process and customers. James recalled how his father Michael refused to share the design of a boat with his brother Paddy in case it got into the hands of competing opposition.

Michael White built 8 to 10 boats per year, building the frame from elm and oak and planking from deal. Michael and one other man assisting, built a boat in 6 weeks
Timber that could not be sourced locally was purchased from Arthu’s in Kenmare.

In addition to his local customers he had customers in Kenmare and Cromane. James recalled the pride that Michael had in his tools. Michael ceased boat building from the 1940s to the 1960s. During those years he continued to run the family undertaker business, a local shop, and developed a traveling shop between Castlecove and Loher.
Michael resumed boat building. In the late 1960s Lord Dunraven commissioned Michael White to build and 18 foot fishing boat. Some of the timber used in the boat came from the Dunraven Estate in Derrynane. This boat was adapted to accommodate an out board engine.

James White used some of Michael Whites records to illustrate the impact of price inflation on the cost of buying a boat in the 1970s.