The cattle-carriers of Crovraghan

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.

From the quay: Inishmacowney in the distance, Illaunbeg closer

T R Henn of Paradise writes in Five Arches: A Sketch for an Autobiography with Philoctetes and Other Poems (Colin Smythe, Gerrards Cross 1980):

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.

Horses on Illaunbeg



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.


Crovraghan quay (upstream end)

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).

The slipway

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.

The small boats at Crovraghan

Fergus gandalow 1

Fergus gandalow 2

Fergus gandalow 3

Three Fergus gandalows

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.

Shannon cot?

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.

The small cattle lighter

The medium cattle lighter, with bow ramp

The large cattle lighter (bow view)

The large cattle lighter (starboard side)

The large cattle lighter (deck details)

The large cattle lighter (port side)


The large cattle lighter (bow details)

There’s tradition and continuity for you.


8 responses to “The cattle-carriers of Crovraghan

  1. Would u not be better with a lightweight aluminium floor and sides welded into the floor area of the boat than timber floor and a self drive engine in the boat.With Ritchie hurdles at the dock on both sides where the cattle come off at. I am an experienced island cattle grazier. The boats some are pretty primitive.
    The first thing has to be thought of is preservation of life second safe movement of stock,followed by safe handling facilities when one gets to land on both sides

  2. No doubt that might be so, but I suspect that the system you suggest would cost more and could not be made locally. I am not, however, involved in cattle transport myself, so I’m not sure. Thanks for the comment. bjg

  3. Vancouver British Columbia Canada , One of the first farmer settlers in Vancouver “Samuel McCleery” in 1864 traveled by steamer to Eugene Oregon in The U. S. A. and purchased a herd of cattle and drove them back to Vancouver ! They has to cross numerous large rivers using in some cases “cattle carrier barges” and the Irish born farmer in his diary mentions using his own “farm barge” to move 3 cattle at a time , across the Fraser River on April 5 , 1864 ! The Vancouver Archives does not have a photo of the McCleery Farm Barge or where it might have been built ! Did Irish Farmers have the skills build their own cattle carriers in the 1800 s ?

  4. Certainly, although the boats would not necessarily have been terribly elegant and the level of shipbuilding skills would not have needed to be particularly high. See, for example, the drawing “Athlone 1854” on this page. Those are relatively crude vessels, but they are capable of carrying a load (three cattle wouldn’t need a huge vessel). Quite a few people lived on islands on the Shannon and on the Erne, and around the coast, and cattle and other items had to be transported. I would guess, from the name, that Mr McCleery came from the northern part of this island, where there are several bodies of water, inland and coastal, where such load-carriers might have been useful. bjg

  5. Hello,
    I wondered if it would be possible for someone to let me know the source of the images above? We’re very interested in using some of these pictures in a project we’re working on in the Shannon region and would be grateful of any help you can provide.

    Many thanks,

  6. I’ve responded by email. bjg

  7. Excellent information and the photos really bring it alive. The (Shannon cot?) photo has a familar look of the Barrow and Suir Prong

  8. Thanks. I agree about the cot/prong similarities. And there are the narrow salmon cots too: I wonder if the Suir men ever challenged the Shannon men! On cattle-carrying generally, I think there is more to be learned. bjg

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