One of Ireland’s leading traditional boat authorities, Dr Criostoir Mac Carthaigh, editor of the monumental and authoritative Traditional Boats of Ireland (Collins Press 2008), is giving the Sligo Field Club’s monthly lecture on Friday November 20th. His topic will be the specialised skills and unique traditions of the boat-building and seafaring McCann family of the ancient natural port of Milk Harbour.
At Milk Harbour, which is the sheltered water behind Dernish Island on the sandy north Sligo coast midway between Grange and Cliffoney, the McCanns built – and continue to build, with Johnny and Tom McCann now at the heart of the business - boats for customers from a wide area, and the family are also noted for their ability to sail their boats in the exposed waters of the greater Donegal Bay area.
One of the more intriguing aspects of their work is that they may have been the most southerly constructors of clinker-built craft on Ireland’s west coast, so much so that anyone from Mayo or Galway who decided on clinker construction would have to make his way north to Milk Harbour.
Until proper piers were constructed at places like nearby Mullaghmore, Milk Harbour was the main trading port on the long stretch of exposed coastline between Sligo and Ballyshannon, and its importance was such that in 1776 the noted Scottish cartographer and master mariner Murdock McKenzie included a detailed plan of the entrance to Milk Harbour in his chart of the Donegal Bay area.
Milk Harbour as surveyed by Murdock McKenzie in 1776 – definitey not to be used for navigation in 2015……
The first noted seafaring McCann in the area was Johnny Rua McCann who, in the early 19th Century, made his living carrying cargo in his 28ft yawl from Killybegs to tiny ports on the Donegal and Sligo coasts. One of these was Milk Harbour – also known as Milk Haven - and it was there that the McCann clan eventually established their permanent base and set up a boat-building operation which continues to the present day.
And although Milk Harbour may have conceded the leading local harbour role to Mullaghmore, the place itself is a charming away-from-it-all spot with an anchorage much appreciated by discerning cruising visitors and locals alike.
The Lecture is at the Sligo Education Centre in the Institute of Technology Campus, Sligo, at 8.0pm on Friday November 20th. Any queries to Paul J Allen, Hon. Sec. Sligo Field Club, tel 085-7561024
Criostoir Mac Carthaigh at Kilrush aboard the “re-created” Shannon Hooker Sally O’Keeffe, ne of the many traditional Irish boat projects in which he has been involved. Photo: W M Nixon