There is a great buzz of carpentry activity in the Belleek Men’s Shed and on the West Island in County Fermanagh. But this is no ordinary woodworking – this is the construction of traditional Lough Erne beds.
The cradle was originally a burnt log or a hollowed out tree. It was later concluded that all craft called cots originated from log boats. These canoes only ceased to be used as a means of transport when the great oak trees were exhausted as the forests were cleared.
They left their name to their successors, the flat-bottomed Lough Erne Cot with ‘rising ends’ which was used by the inhabitants of the Erne river system for around a thousand years. It could be pushed down, which means people and animals could walk up and down easily. It was the original landing craft, a simple design still used by armies around the world. They are known as Lough Erne Cots because they are different from other cribs in Ireland.
The Lough Erne Landscape Partnership (LELP) was keen to save heritage skills such as boat building and Fred Ternan of Lough Erne Heritage suggested supporting bed building. (Cots are easier to build than clinker boats). Thus, two groups were formed to build four new beds; the West Island Cot Heritage Group on the Belle Isle estate at the northern tip of Upper Lough Erne run by Andrew Cathcart whose father was a boat builder. There Fred Ternan guides the work, overseen by Liam Boyle who some years ago was the first man in 50 years to build a Lough Erne Cot, and at Belleek on the River Erne on the Fermanagh-Donegal border where Leo Slevin leads the Belleek Men’s Cabanon in construction.
Both groups use a Lough Erne Heritage design drawn by Fred Ternan based on a 1950s sketch of a teacher, Miss Beggan of Wattle Bridge Primary School, for her family cradle. Fred arranged for both groups to participate, procured the wood and provided technical advice to Belleek and arranged for Liam Boyle to support the West Island builders.
The idea is to recreate the famous Cot Race which took place at Crom on Upper Lough Erne in the 1850s.
In his story of the Lough Erne Cot or coite in Irish, George Morrissey tells a fascinating story of this craft developing as the most suitable mode of transport for transporting man, beast, machinery and goods between shores and islands. of the Upper and Lower Lough. Erne in County Fermanagh which a map will show has vast amounts of lakes and rivers. Erne’s system is the third largest in Ireland. Morrisey says it dates back to the Stone Age, to the days of the O’Reilly’s of Breifne, the great medieval chieftains O’Neill, O’Donnell and Maguire, the new Scots and Englishmen on the plantation, and the Irish fleeing the Great Famine.
Cots were involved in the construction on Upper Lough Erne of the Lady Craigavon and Lady Brookeborough Bridges in 1933, which ironically proved to be the death knell for Ferry Cots. However, large beds were and still are needed. One activity during World War II for which the Five Ton Cot was used was smuggling across the border into the Republic of Ireland. Ammonia sulphate for sugar beet fertilizer was carried and on the way back the bed was loaded with piglets sedated with Guinness to silence them!
Before roads and the rail system, the River Erne was the transport highway for all goods traveling the length and breadth of Lough Erne. Ballyshannon at the mouth of the River Erne in County Donegal was the local port, so goods such as fish, coal, stone, timber, various building products etc. had to be transported via Belleek. That with the movement of people, goods and animals to and from the Upper and Lower Lough Erne Islands, the Cot would have been the vehicle of choice.
The Belleek bed building story began in 2017 when the village was approached by Fred Ternan to see if they would be interested in holding a regatta for Lough Erne Cots there as part of a round, the winners taking part in a final later. in the year in Enniskillen. The Belleek regattas in 2018 and 2019 were also rounds with the winners in the final in Enniskillen. The Lough Erne Heritage Regatta at Crom on Upper Lough Erne in 2016 was the start of his Cot racing events and there were other round winners all over Fermanagh. Knockninny, at the south-west end of Upper Lough Erne, hosted a regatta in June 2019 (also a round with the final winners in Enniskillen) which coincided with 150 years of the last race there is unfolded. In 1891, during the Knockninny Regatta, it was written “20,000 or 30,000 people on such occasions come to see the races of Boat and Cot”.
Leo Slevin is delighted with the progress made by Belleek Men’s Shed; “The Lough Erne Landscape Partnership were very impressed with the events and the building of a traditional Cot boat at Belleek was mentioned. This led to a conversation about setting up a “men’s shelter” which came to fruition in the craft village. The next task was to secure funds to operate the men’s shed. We were successful in securing grants from the Policing & Community Safety Partnership Community Cash. With great help from Fermanagh Trust, we also secured a grant from Callagheen Wind Farm”. He continued; “We were now able to re-open the conversation with LELP with the intention of building indigenous Lough Erne Cots. Together with another group from the West Island (Belle Isle), we secured funding for materials and tooling for the project through the LELP Farming and Community Engagement Fund funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and the Fermanagh and Omagh District Council The purpose of our construction is to redevelop the Fermanagh Cot”.
Belleek Men’s Shed began construction of cots in late October 2021. They will be used in all future Belleek regattas from summer 2022. The community will be involved in the cot story by visiting local schools , taking groups on river trips and attending informational events. The National Lottery financed the securing of the premises and the purchase of tools. This also included the purchase of a kiln to preserve the local pottery-making skills that “exist in the DNA” of the people of Belleek.
The Cathcart family have been associated with Lough Erne and the surrounding islands for three centuries. The current Cathcart family now lives in the West Island. Having grown up and raised on the shores of Lough Erne, it was only natural for the Cathcarts to become 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 World War II huge parts of the plantations were felled for the war effort and they towed the tree rafts to Enniskillen .
Oak or larch was used for boat building. The tree trunks were towed to Enniskillen and then transported to the sawmills by horse and cart. After being lined, the boards were loaded onto a boat and brought upriver (no engines then) to the west of the 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 22ft cot with the West Island Heritage Group.
Both groups are around 80% complete with the paint to follow and it is hoped that both will be launched in late May in Enniskillen.
Elmarie Swanepoel, Lough Erne Landscape Partnership Program Manager, is pleased with the progress. “We are delighted to support, through funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund and the Fermanagh and Omagh District Council, this wonderful community-led project. This project offers community members the opportunity to learn new skills, work together as a community and ensure that the unique craftsmanship of crib building on Lough Erne is kept alive for future generations.”
And Fred Ternan of Lough Erne Heritage said: “With everything going on, I hope other groups around the Lough might get involved. Lough Erne beds are separate from all other costs in Ireland. and may have European heritage. Similar craft from Roman times have been found on the continent, and their earliest origins may date back to when planks could first be sawn. With the publicity gained so far regarding these vintage craft and the continued exposure regarding the current construction of the beds and the planned launch of the four new beds, the story of Lough Erne Cots will go much further.” He keeps on; “Fermanagh and Omagh District Local Council recently built one of these beds under my watch and it could possibly be on the water to accompany the new Lough Erne beds. Maybe one day we will see a reconstruction of one of the largest used in the past which was 55 feet long. It is possible to have nine or ten Lough Erne Cots of varying sizes on the water on launch day at Enniskillen Castle The launch is organized by Lough Erne Landscape Partnership with support and advice from Lough Erne Heritage who are l ‘one of the partners within the LELP’.