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Irish Boatbuilding Tradition In Arklow Is A Spider’s Web

12th January 2022
Hal Sisk’s 1991 replica of the 1663 Arklow-built catamaran Simon & Jude outperforming the Bantry Boat Unite in the mouth of the River Liffey
Hal Sisk’s 1991 replica of the 1663 Arklow-built catamaran Simon & Jude outperforming the Bantry Boat Unite in the mouth of the River Liffey Credit: W M Nixon

It’s said that when the experimentally-minded William Petty, the compiler of the Down Survey in Ireland in the 1660s, decided to build his very innovative Simon & Jude catamaran in 1663 for testing in Dublin Bay, the decidedly odd vessel was actually constructed in Arklow. This meant the machine’s debut at Dublin – when she conspicuously outperformed a couple of notably high-performing craft – came as a complete surprise. But if she’d been built in Dublin, it would have become part of the fashionable social round in the city to go and observe the work in progress – an unwelcome distraction.

The success of the original Simon & Jude was replicated to everyone’s satisfaction in Dublin Bay by Hal Sisk in 1991 in a timely reminder that William Petty was a man of many parts. And there’s no doubt that he was also one very smart operator. His land surveys revealed that there was a very choice area in the far southwest of Ireland around a place known as Neidin – The Little Nest – which Petty promptly claimed as his own, and re-named it Kenmare after the Kenmare Bay, as it’s at the head of that inlet.

A model of the hugely-innovative catamaran Simon & Jude of 1663.A model of the hugely-innovative catamaran Simon & Jude of 1663.

But while he was at it, he re-named the inlet the Kenmare River. This meant that he now owned all the fishing rights the whole way down to the Atlantic, whereas if it had continued to be officially recorded as Kenmare Bay, he would only have owned the fisheries close along each shore. 

Originally it was called Kenmare Bay, but by ensuring that it was officially re-named (by himself) as the Kenmare River, William Petty secured excusive fisheries rights all the way to the AtlanticOriginally it was called Kenmare Bay, but by ensuring that it was officially re-named (by himself) as the Kenmare River, William Petty secured excusive fisheries rights all the way to the Atlantic

So the fact that he may have used Arklow to have his Simon & Jude built shows that even in the 1660s, when Arklow harbour was little more than the shallow and shifting sandy estuary of the Avoca River, the place already had a notable boat-building tradition that continues to capture the maritime imagination, and manifests itself in a complex spider’s web of weird associations today.

Thus when marine historian and record-keeper Ian Whittaker in Scotland enquired the other day in search of photos and images of some Tyrrell built-boats including the 1954-built 31ft Bermudan sloop Sinloo of Arklow and the 1935-built 35ft gaff yawl Failte II, it sent the linkup wheels spinning.

The attractively robust Jack Tyrrell-designed and built yawl Failte II of 1935. She was last reported in France some years ago under the name of TideripThe attractively robust Jack Tyrrell-designed and built yawl Failte II of 1935. She was last reported in France some years ago under the name of Tiderip

For Sinloo is currently a restoration project of which we hope to carry a more detailed update shortly, while Failte II – an attractively robust vessel built for that noted muscular Christian the Reverend Vandelaur (Kilrush links of course) - was last reported in France under the name of Tiderip.

But once you let connections start to take over, you’re trapped. For although Sinloo was built for the Horsman family of County Wicklow, by the 1960s she was owned by Professor John Kinmonth, and in a cruise of southwest Ireland in 1966, he mentions in his log that between Union Hall and Knightstown, the crew included his schoolboy son Fred.

Sinloo of Arklow, designed & built by Jack Tyrell in 1953-54, is currently under restorationSinloo of Arklow, designed & built by Jack Tyrell in 1953-54, is currently under restoration

That same Fred Kinmonth is now a corporate lawyer in Hong Kong, where he has been noted as the campaigner of some very hot offshore racers called Mandrake. But he has maintained his links to West Cork, and it is he who has commissioned the building of a replica of Conor O’Brien’s world-girdling Saoirse, which - all being well - will be launched by Liam Hegarty and his team from Oldcourt Boatyard for her build Centenary this year.

Jack Tyrrell’s profile plan of the 1954 Arklow-built SinlooJack Tyrrell’s profile plan of the 1954 Arklow-built Sinloo

And just to close the circle in the meantime, when Conor O’Brien was pressed for the inspiration for the archaic yet effective shape of his design for Saoirse’s hull, he said that it was partially based on a noted fishing ketch of the 1860s which had taken his fancy. That ketch was of course a creation of Tyrrell of Arklow.

Conor O’Brien’s Saoirse – while largely based on his own ideas, he did admit that he drew some inspiraton from the lines of a renowned Arklow fishing ketch of the 1860sConor O’Brien’s Saoirse – while largely based on his own ideas, he did admit that he drew some inspiraton from the lines of a renowned Arklow fishing ketch of the 1860s

WM Nixon

About The Author

WM Nixon

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William M Nixon has been writing about sailing in Ireland for many years in print and online, and his work has appeared internationally in magazines and books. His own experience ranges from club sailing to international offshore events, and he has cruised extensively under sail, often in his own boats which have ranged in size from an 11ft dinghy to a 35ft cruiser-racer. He has also been involved in the administration of several sailing organisations.

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