#tallship – The first Bantry Longboat ever built in the Midlands will go sailing on the Shannon at Banagher in County Offaly. It will be some sight when it does, bringing involvement with the Atlantic Challenge which organises international competition of these boats, to what can fairly be described as Ireland's greatest river system.
If that major event should itself be held in future years on the Shannon, what a great occasion it would be.
I met some of those who built it the Banagher Longboat at the Glandore Classic Boats Summer Maritime School where one of them, Noel Ryan, told me that it took 5,036 man hours. Another of the group, Willie Kirwan, added that they would have "done it quicker if we were tradesmen, but we were all learners without experience, so we had a lot of tea breaks! If we were tradesmen we would have been quicker, but we enjoyed it and we have a fine boat."
They have indeed and those who built it will be testing it out in August. "We want to make sure it goes well, we wouldn't want any embarrassment," said Willie jovially, "but we are sure it won't sink, though we will have to learn about the skill of rowing and sailing this boat."
Indeed they will. I had the pleasure of sailing in the Bantry Longboat which was built in Bantry a few years ago. When it sailed on a reach it could reach a pretty quick speed and I found it was the skill of the crew in balancing the boat which kept it upright. You needed to be lively, as the longboat doesn't have a keel.
"We learned a lot, new things every day, building a boat can be tough and demanding but it is definitely enjoyable and rewarding when you see it finished," Noel said.
They have a lot of pride in their boat which was built with as the West Offaly Bantry Bay Longboat Project, originally a Men's Shed initiative with support from Offaly Local Enterprise Development Company, West Offaly Enterprise and County Offaly VEC, the latter of whom apparently thought the job might be done in three months!
The boat has led to the formation of the Midlands Atlantic Challenge Club, which intends to organise involvement with schools, youth, sports and corporate groups.
Twelve countries are members of the Atlantic Challenge organisation – Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Great Britain, Indonesia, Italy, Russia, USA, Ireland and Northern Ireland are separate members.
The original longboat, also known as an admiral's barge, was built in Brest, France, over 200 years ago. The boat is similar to the Captain's gigs used at that time by the navies of France, Sweden, Russia, Spain, Sweden and the USA. When the French Armada arrived off the South/West coast of Ireland in 1796 it ran into a gale and, through lack of leadership, decided to return to France. But the longboat from the vessel which Wolfe Tone was aboard, while trying to establish communication with other ships, was blown ashore in Bere Island and the crew were captured by British forces. This boat is preserved in the National Museum at Collins Barracks in Dublin. Built in1790, it is the oldest surviving vessel of the French Navy.
So, what have these Bantry Longboats got to do with whether Ireland should have a tall ship?
Hal Sisk, legendary figure in the traditional boats sphere and a man never reluctant to take and express a different view and to advance that, even if controversial, was also speaking at the Glandore Summer School in his role as sailor, author and yachting historian, on the topic: 'The origins of the sport of modern amateur sailing.'
Hal advanced a different view about the thrust of sail training than Ireland having a tall ship for the purpose:
"To get people out on the water, in a team concept, providing physical exercise and with international competition, all of that could be achieved with an alternative of a fleet of 30 Bantry Longboats, several of which have already been built in Ireland. There are 35 worldwide and a fleet of them in Ireland would provide, at dramatically reduced cost, what a sail training ship delivers in sail training."
Building The Banagher Bantry Longboat
I put it to him that this would exclude the role of international representation which, for example Asgard had done well and, in modern terms, requirements to provide for disabled trainees.
Bantry Longboat Fionbarra
"I acknowledge what you say, but these boats have fantastic international competition. They are all built the same wherever they are, whereas in the race of sail training ships, it is pretty much based on handicap, it is not a race between identical boats. The Bantry longboats provide this, they come together every few years in international competition and have been built far away, in Indonesia, Russia, for example. You would get true, fair, international competition. They don't fly the flag in a spectacular way in international representation terms as Asgard did for example or as does a beautiful square-rigged tall ship, but there always was an alternative in the replacement of Asgard after she sank.
The Banagher Bantry Longboat
Willie Kirwan And Noel Ryan - Banagher Boat Builders
The Oldest Vessel Of The French Navy - The Original Bantry Longboat In Ireland's National Museum
"Ireland could have bought a steel-hulled topsail schooner for about €2m, or so and have her for that function, but I would argue that, as against the building of a new tall ship we could build a fleet of Bantry Longboats. We must also remember the cost of maintenance and operation of a tall ship, crewing and health and safety requirements. But a fleet of Bantry longboats would be out on the water far more often probably and could be built for maybe a million and would provide more use for more trainees and the cost, against that of a sail training ship, would not be just very much less, but substantially less by my calculations."
Hal has sent me statistics to make his point - that actual use and benefits in providing sail training and general seamanship for many more young people would be at much less cost for a fleet of 30 Bantry Longboats compared to a tall ship and would be of much greater benefit.
"Bantry Longboats could be spread around the country, built locally and therefore also building on town and parish pride and maintaining coastal traditions also. It is a historic boat, authentic, distinctive, with that huge international competition dimension."
The case Hal Sisk makes is interesting, while at present efforts continue through what was formerly called the 'Pride of Ireland Trust' now changed to the 'Atlantic Youth Trust,' to build a new Irish tall ship, the concept design for which has been completed. The name change followed consultation on both sides of the Border, after which it was decided that 'Pride of Ireland Trust' did not represent the views of all stakeholders and "therefore did not represent the ethos of the organisation, so in order to create a name that has a true sense of neutrality, a strong maritime focus, a sense of adventure and one that carries weight in America, 'Atlantic Youth Trust,' was chosen as the name to offer unique Youth and Cultural Development opportunities, to help the island reach its maritime potential and to create a flagship that will represent the island on an international platform," amongst other aims.
I will be interested to hear response to the views of Hal Sisk.
THE GOVERNMENT IS HOLDING €3.8m. IN ASGARD COMPENSATION WHICH IT SHOULD RETURN TO THE MARINE SECTOR
It remains a blot on the maritime reputation of this island nation that the €3.8m. insurance paid for the loss of Asgard was put into general Government funds by former Defence Minister Willie O'Dea, rather than being held for the specific purpose of a replacement national tall ship, even if that would be provided outside of Government.
I was never impressed by the administration of Asgard during my years as a national marine correspondent. I expected far more commitment and determination in support of the maritime interests of this nation. When Willie O'Dea appeared to confuse 'vehicle' and 'vessel' in his answers on a radio interview about the sinking of Asgard, then refused several attempts by me to get an interview with him about his decision in regard to giving the Asgard insurance money to the State and other decisions he made when the equestrian requests of the Army for horses, were considered more important than Asgard, I realised that the Limerickman who declares on his website - 'Working for You' - did not show much commitment to working for the national tall ship. I offered to go anywhere, anytime, to interview him, but through his officials, he always found a reason not to be available.
Whether for Bantry Longboats or for a tall ship, it is my view that there is €3.8m. in State funds which is morally due to either project and the Government should acknowledge and provide that.
No less is required of the Government of an island nation.