At most Irish waterways sites, you’re lucky if there is any activity of the sort you would have found in the nineteenth century. You may find swimmers or anglers or jetskiers or pleasure-boaters, but you won’t often find ferries or freight-carriers. If there is any such activity, it is at a very much lower level than it was in the past.
Crovraghan is different: it has more carrying than it did in the nineteenth century. You’ll need the satellite view: on the map, Google has managed to lose the islands that give Crovraghan meaning.
Lewis (1837) and the Parliamentary Gazetteer (1846) ignore Crovraghan altogether, save that the Gazetteer mentions it amongst the seats. The said seat, Crovraghan House, is shown on the Ordnance Survey maps; the ~1840 map (Historic 6″) shows a small quay nearby but the ~1900 (Historic 25″) does not, though it does offer a well and a disused lime kiln.
Sometimes there would be a big pram-bowed lighter used by the islanders to ferry sheep or cattle across; their horses were swum behind the island craft, the curious ‘gandola’. This is a long narrow boat, flat-bottomed, curving upwards at bow and stern; fitted to slide joyfully at low tide down the long hard banks of mud, and be pushed up laboriously, with oars jammed athwartships to act as levers, on the other side. There were a dozen islands within sight of the house, the largest inhabited by three to six families each; keeping much to themselves, and, by long inter-marriage, regarded by the mainlanders as ‘quare’. But all their stores had to be procured from the mainland, and cattle sold there, and they had to go, whatever the wind and tide
— ‘To feastings, and to christenings, and to Mass’
— with a long muddy walk after they had moored their boats.
Darina Tully explains, in Clare Traditional Boat and Currach Project 2008 (Clare County Council) what happened when the islanders moved to the mainland:
Formerly most boats worked out of Kildysert as it brought the Islanders closer to facilities and the shops. As the Islanders moved to the mainland and with the use of the motorcar the boats are worked now from the piers and landing places closest to the Islands.
Sarah Halpin and Gráinne O’Connor, in the Clare Coastal Architectural Heritage Survey (Clare County Council 2008), date the quay to 1910–1930 and describe it thus:
Remains of old quay reconstructed in staggered phases. Rebuilt with modern concrete and mortar blocks c. 3.5metres in height. Slipway located to west of quay. Gated animal holding area on top of quay. Still in use by farmers transporting stock across to Inishcorker Island …. Not marked on 1st edition but marked on 2nd edition. Slipway is covered in seaweed but still in use by local farmers. Located beside tramway. This quay is a testament to the ongoing importance of agriculture and the sea as a means of income to locals.
I think they’ve confused the first and second editions of the OSI maps and I don’t know what they mean by a tramway (perhaps I missed it).
David Walsh’s Oileáin [Irish for Islands] is invaluable to anyone interested in getting up close to anything around the Irish coast or in estuaries. Written for sea-kayakers, it is available free of charge online; a print edition is due in 2011 and deserves support. Writing of embarkation points on the Fergus estuary, David says:
There is really no convenient embarkation point on the E side at all. There are two only on the W side.
Most central is Crovraghan Pier R278-601, a small working pier, busy during the working day. When the tide is suitable, there will be many cars left at the pier by farmers commuting to their islands. It is well sheltered by Illaunbeg 100m offshore, fast deep water filling the channel. A pleasant spot for campervanning. The slipway being steep, the amount of mud to struggle past at LW is limited. Certainly it is always open at neaps, and possibly springs. The channel is then always open to N/S. The flow is very fast. The pier is reached from a signposted crossroads 2km N of Killadysert on the main Ennis road.
Even in February, when I visited, the number and size of the vessels moored at Crovraghan was evidence of the continuing importance of the islands to the agricultural economy of the area. I might mention that there are security systems too; I do not intend to describe them here.
At first I saw only the gandalows, tied close to the shore.
I dare not try to differentiate between the different types of gandalows, but this next boat may be the one Darina Tully describes as “the last known complete example of a type once numerous”: a Shannon estuary cot. This is a smaller version of the pram-bowed carvel-planked cattle-carriers described by T R Henn. It is round-hulled; length 18′ 11″, beam 63″, depth 23″; it has twin thole-pins for each oar.
Nowadays, cattle are carried on cattle-lighters; there were three (small, medium and large) at Crovraghan. They are built, Darina Tully says, by “laying down a large rectangular platform and then attaching the side boards.” They draw only 9″ when empty.
There’s tradition and continuity for you.