The boat-builder’s heritage

This is an article I wrote in 2002.

I’m never quite sure about heritage. I know it’s generally a Good Thing, but it’s often difficult to feel any connection to ruined castles and abbeys and big houses and so on. Old boats and locks are easier because you can see them in action and appreciate what they do: there is still some life in them. And I felt the same sense of connection, of living heritage, when I stood inside a small shed on the Inner Lakes above Athlone.

John-Joe Quigley's boatshedJohn-Joe Quigley’s boatshed

You’ll see the shed in the photo. It’s small and low-sized, with a Belfast Truss roof and double opening doors; I had to stoop to get in. When I saw it first, there was a wooden lake-boat inside it, a workbench down the right-hand wall and just enough room to walk around the boat. It was fairly dark, but low windows gave very good light along the bench. There were tools and guides and wood in the roofspace and along the wall above the bench – and lots and lots of sawdust.

Inside the shedInside the shed

The benchThe bench

The shed was built by one Peter Quigley around the time of the Famine (1845–1848). He had served his time in Belfast and returned to the Inner Lakes to build what we now call lakeboats, and I was shown around by his great-grandson, John Joe Quigley, a fourth generation boatbuilder, still using the same small shed.

Making use of spaceMaking use of space
The lakeboats of Peter Quigley’s day had a lower freeboard than their modern equivalents: in the days before outboards, a lower boat caught the wind less. The boats were used for fishing and as a means of transport between the islands and around the inner lakes.

MoreMore tools
Peter’s son was Henry: we know that he got married in 1895. He was a boatbuilder and a carpenter: he made his own tools, including a large number of planes that are still usable today. He worked on boats for Lord Castlemaine at Moydrum Castle near Athlone; he also built some bigger boats including a predecessor of the Shannon One-Design (SOD) sailing boat, with a squarer centreboard.

Some of Henry Quigley's planesSome of Henry Quigley’s planes

Henry’s son Thomas (1901-1989) devoted himself mostly to carpentry but continued to do a little boatbuilding. Thomas’s son John Joe, the present incumbent, served his time with his third cousin Peter Quigley of Killenure (their great-grandfathers were brothers), building lakeboats and SODs, then worked at Portaneena until, four years ago, he started up his own business – or rather businesses, for John Joe actually has five separate activities.

Tools on the wallsTools on the walls

Perhaps the most remarkable is the making of wooden oars: he produces ten pairs a week. Two short pieces of deal are glued and clamped to either side of a longer piece; the oar is shaped with a bandsaw before being planed. Although power tools are used, the oars are really handcrafted.

An adzeAn adze
John Joe also builds and repairs lakeboats. Working singlehanded, he can build a wooden lakeboat in ten long days. The building starts with the keel and the stem, to which guides are attached: the guides from his great-grandfather’s time are still in existence but they are shorter than their modern equivalents, reflecting the lower freeboard of those times.

A guideA guide

There are eight planks on each side of the boat, lapped as the boat is clinker-built. When the hull has been completed, the guides are removed and the ribs are put in before the gunwales are added. Stringers are put in to support the seats, then knees above the seats, and finally the flooring.


Nowadays, there is little demand for wooden lakeboats: the process is labour-intensive and the components are expensive. However, John Joe also fits out fibreglass boats: he will buy in the hull and fit the timber work. He also repairs boats and rents out lakeboats with outboards.

Awaiting useAwaiting use
The land where the shed is has been in the family for generations, but five years ago John Joe bought some more of the lakeshore, commissioned an Environmental Impact Study and began building Inner Lakes Marina. He now has sheltered mooring space for 30 boats, with good hard standing and power available.

The marinaThe marina

Living heritage: a boat shed now in its fourth generation of use, tools in their third, a craft continued. But the really important heritage is not in the tools or the building: it is in the people, continuing to make a living in their own place.

Boats ashoreBoats ashore

And good luck to John Joe’s son John: he’s building a boat for his Leaving Certificate.

John and John-Joe QuigleyJohn and John-Joe Quigley

20 responses to “The boat-builder’s heritage

  1. Hi Brian,

    good to see you are still around and active. Very interested in this article as my late grandfather was a boat builder by trade in Donegal. The photo of the wall mounted tools brought back memories!

  2. Hi I’m from County Down and my ancestors were fishermen and worked on a lightship. My mother grew up around clinkers and I’m finding it very hard to buy a wooden clinker to take her around the harbour on wee trips. Could you please advise me on how I can purchase one.

  3. Try and put “clinker” in the search field. I got 28 results just now although some are simulated. There is even one in Coounty Down. bjg

  4. Rachel we are just about to finish a 17 foot Co Down fishing skiff of the Newcastle type.When its ready she will be launched at Newcastle harbour were there are a no of clinker built wooden boats

  5. how much would it cost to get a wooden lake boat made

  6. John: I don’t know, but I’ve emailed John Joe Quigley’s phone numbers to you. bjg

  7. hay i need to get my wooden lake boat sorted thres a few holes in it.i live in edgeworthstown and dont kno what to do .please heap thanks a million

  8. There are several people who can repair wooden boats, but it may not be worth it. bjg

  9. Hi – I’m looking for source for some green oak for ribs for lakeboat – Can you advise ?

  10. I don’t myself know where to get it, but it’s being used in the Seol Sionna build and if you contact the folk there they should be able to tell you where they got their supply. bjg

  11. thanks a lot – will check that out

  12. Would jon joe be interisted in running a course on clinker boat building?

  13. I don’t know, but you could try ringing him at Inner Lakes Marina. bjg

  14. Just have to leave a message here – John Joe has repaired many boats for me and supplied many a set of Oars – some how they have the habit of growing legs – even when locked to the seat ( A sign of the times we live in) !!.
    He is a real gentleman and very reasonable, and a very skilled craftsman.
    Quigleys’ boat shed / repair shop is a fascinating place – one on the Midlands wonders . long my it survive . .
    @Ronnie Chism – count me in :)

  15. Thanks, Peter. bjg

  16. Hey there was looking for a number for John Joe need to get a row boat repaired don’t suppose anyone would still have a number for him thanks mick burke

  17. Mick: the most recent number I have for him is this one. bjg

  18. No bother will give that a go thanks again

  19. Hi John Joe

    I am interested in hiring a boat for pike fishing.

    Please send me details .


    Chat later

  20. This man is a master craftsman .all work carried out to the highest quality. Great man to talk to and has incredible knowledge of all aspects of boat building. Good luck to his son john to continue a wonderful tradition of boat building

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