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Belleek Men’s Shed is Busy Building Traditional Lough Erne Cots

21st February 2022
Lough Erne Cots - Liam Boyle (left) and the West Island Cot builders
Lough Erne Cots - Liam Boyle (left) and the West Island Cot builders Credit: John McVitty.

There’s a great buzz of woodworking activity in the Belleek Men’s Shed and on West Island in County Fermanagh. But this is no ordinary woodworking – this is the building of traditional Lough Erne Cots.

The Cot was originally a burnt-out log or a hollowed-out tree. It was later concluded that all watercraft referred to as cots had their origins as log boats. These dugout canoes only ceased to be used as transport when the great oaks ran out as the forests were cleared.

They have left their name to their successors, the flat-bottomed Lough Erne Cot with ‘rising ends’ which was used by the people of the river Erne system for about one thousand years. It could be pushed ashore meaning people and animals could walk on and off easily. This was the original landing craft, a simple design still used by armies all over the world. They are known as Lough Erne Cots as they are different from any of the other cots in Ireland.

A Cot ferry from the1800s Photo courtesy Fred TernanA Cot ferry from the1800s Photo courtesy Fred Ternan

Lough Erne Landscape Partnership (LELP) was keen to save heritage skills such as boatbuilding and Fred Ternan of Lough Erne Heritage suggested that they support cot building. (Cots are easier to build than clinker-built boats). So, two groups were set up to build four new cots; the West Island Cot Heritage Group on Belle Isle estate on the northern tip of Upper Lough Erne headed up by Andrew Cathcart whose father was a boat builder. There Fred Ternan guides the work, overseen by Liam Boyle who a few years ago was the first man in 50 years to build a Lough Erne Cot, and in Belleek on the River Erne on the Fermanagh-Donegal border where Leo Slevin leads the Belleek Men’s Shed in the construction.

The last working cot, built in 1958 by Fred Ternan's cousin, that carried cattle, turf and hay on Lough ErneThe last working Cot, built in 1958 by Fred Ternan's cousin, that carried cattle, turf and hay on Lough Erne

Both groups are using a Lough Erne Heritage design drawn up by Fred Ternan based on a 1950s sketch by a teacher, Miss Beggan of Wattle Bridge primary school for her family cot. Fred arranged for the two groups to take part, sourced the wood and provided technical advice for Belleek and arranged for Liam Boyle to support the builders on West Island.

The remains of the last cot which worked on Lower Lough Erne. Owned by Eddy Armstrong for the transport of cattle (it could carry 12 or 14 cows) into the 1980s and possibly 90sThe remains of the last Cot which worked on Lower Lough Erne. Owned by Eddy Armstrong for the transport of cattle (it could carry 12 or 14 cows) into the 1980s and possibly 90s

The idea is to recreate the famous Cot Race which took place at Crom on Upper Lough Erne, in 1850s.

In his history of the Lough Erne Cot or coite in Irish, George Morrissey tells a fascinating tale of this craft developed as the mode of transport best suited to carry man, beast, machines, and goods between the shores and islands of Upper and Lower Lough Erne in County Fermanagh of which a map will show has vast amounts of lakes and rivers. The Erne system is the third-largest in Ireland. Morrisey tells that it has been travelled from as far back as the Stone Age, through the times of the O’Reilly‟s of Breifne, the great medieval chieftains O’Neill, O’Donnell and Maguire, the incoming Scots and English of the plantation and the Irish fleeing the Great Famine.

Cots were involved in the building on Upper Lough Erne of the Lady Craigavon and the Lady Brookeborough bridges in 1933 which ironically turned out to spell the end of Ferry Cots. However, large cots were and still are needed. One activity during World War 11 which the Five Ton Cot was used for was smuggling across the border into the Republic of Ireland. Sulphate of ammonia for sugar beet fertilizer was taken across and on the return the cot was loaded with piglets sedated with Guinness to keep them quiet!

Before the roads and rail system the River Erne was the transport highway for all goods travelling the length and breadth of Lough Erne. Ballyshannon at the mouth of the River Erne in Co. Donegal, was the local port, so goods including fish, coal, stone, timber, various building products, etc, had to be transported via Belleek. That, along with the movement of people, goods, and animals over and back to the islands on Upper and Lower Lough Erne, the Cot would have been the vehicle of choice.

The Belleek cot build story began in 2017 when the village was approached by Fred Ternan to see if they would be interested in running a regatta for Lough Erne Cots there as part of a heat, with the winners going on to take part in a final later in the year in Enniskillen. The Belleek regattas in 2018 and 2019 were also heats with the winners going on to the final in Enniskillen. Lough Erne Heritage’s regatta at Crom on Upper Lough Erne in 2016 was the start of its Cot racing events and there were other heat winners throughout Fermanagh. Knockninny, at the southwestern end of Upper Lough Erne hosted a regatta in June 2019 (also a heat with the winners going on to the finals in Enniskillen) which coincided with the 150 years from the last race that took place there. In 1891 at the Knockninny Regatta it was written “20,000 or 30,000 people on occasions of this kind come to see the Boat and Cot racing”.

The original sketch on which Fred based the design of the cots now being builtThe original sketch on which Fred based the design of the Cots now being built

Leo Slevin is delighted with the Belleek Men’s Shed progress; “The Lough Erne Landscape Partnership were very impressed with the events and building a traditional Cot boat in Belleek was mentioned. This led to a conversation about setting up a ‘Men’s Shed’ which came to fruition in the Craft Village. The next task was to secure funding to run the Men’s shed. We were successful in obtaining grants from the Policing & Community Safety Partnership Community Cash. With valuable assistance from Fermanagh Trust we also got a grant from Callagheen Wind Farm”. He continued; ”We were now in a position to re-open the conversation with LELP with the intention of building indigenous Lough Erne Cots. Along with another group in West Island (Belle Isle), we secured funding for the necessary materials and tooling for the project through the LELP Community Engagement and Farming Fund funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and Fermanagh and Omagh District Council. The aim of our build is to re-develop the Fermanagh Cot”.

Lough Erne Regatta notices from 1883 and 1888Lough Erne Regatta notices from 1883 and 1888

Belleek Men’s Shed started Cot building in late October 2021. They will be used in all future Belleek Regatta beginning in summer 2022. The community will be involved in the story of the Cots by visits to the local schools, taking groups out for trips on the river and attending information events. The National Lottery gave funding for securing the premises and buying tools. This also included the purchase of a Kiln to preserve the skills in the locality of the pottery making that ‘exists in the DNA’ of the people of Belleek.

Leo Slevin (4th left) left) with the cot builders of Belleek Leo Slevin (fourth from left) with the cot builders of Belleek Photo: John McVitty

The Cathcart family has been associated with Lough Erne and the surrounding islands for the past three centuries. The present Cathcart family now lives on West Island. Growing up and being reared on the shores of Lough Erne, it was only natural for the Cathcarts to be involved in boat building and commercial fishing, especially as they lived on various islands. One of the activities the family was involved in was when during WW II huge parts of the plantations were cut down for the war effort and they towed the tree rafts to Enniskillen.

Oak or Larch tree was used for boat building. The tree trunks were towed to Enniskillen, and then transported to the sawmills by horse and cart. After being planked the planks were loaded onto a boat and rowed back upstream (no engines then) to the West Island. One of the earliest records of Cot Racing was written in 1842. The Cathcart tradition of building Lough Erne Cots continues today with Eric’s son Andrew Cathcart building a 22-foot cot with the West Island Heritage Group.

Both groups have about 80% finished with the painting to follow and it is hoped that both will be launched at the end of May in Enniskillen.

Elmarie Swanepoel, Lough Erne Landscape Partnership Programme Manager, is pleased with the progress. "We are delighted to be supporting, through funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund and Fermanagh and Omagh District Council, this wonderful community-led project. This project provides members of the community the opportunity to learn new skills, work together as a community and ensure that the unique skill of cot building on Lough Erne is kept alive for future generations."

Lough Erne Cot racingLough Erne Cot racing Photo: LEH

And Fred Ternan of Lough Erne Heritage says “With all of this going on I am hopeful that other groups around the Lough might get involved. Lough Erne cots are distinct from all the other cost in Ireland. and may have a European heritage. Similar craft from Roman times have been unearthed on the continent and their earliest origins may be from when planks were first able to be sawn. With the publicity gained so far regarding these ancient craft and continued exposure regarding the current cot build and planned launch of the four new cots, the story of Lough Erne Cots will reach much further afield”. He continues; “The local Fermanagh and Omagh District Council recently built one of these cots under my guidance and it might possibly be on the water to accompany the new Lough Erne Cots. Maybe someday we will see a rebuild of one of the largest used in the past which were 55 feet long. There is the potential to have nine or ten Lough Erne Cots of varying sizes on the water on the day of the launch at Enniskillen Castle The launch is being organised by Lough Erne Landscape Partnership with the support and advice of Lough Erne Heritage who is one of the partners within LELP”.

Cot Builder Pat Keown of Belleek Photo: John McVittyCot Builder Pat Keown of Belleek Photo: John McVitty

Betty Armstrong

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Betty Armstrong

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Betty Armstrong is Afloat and Yachting Life's Northern Ireland Correspondent. Betty grew up racing dinghies but now sails a more sedate Dehler 36 around County Down

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