The Waterford harbour ‘barrell boat’

For generations in the harbour here a small and awkward looking fishing craft was a constant feature. Called locally a Prong, it had a variety of uses which probably sustained its use for so long, but the origins of the craft are a mystery and almost now extinct, it is still remembered fondly in the villages and along the waterways where it was once renowned.
John Moran (New York) and for’ad John Joe Heffernan RIP both.  1950’s at Ryan’s Shore
The Waterford harbour prong was for generations a versatile and useful boat. Its primary advantage in the area was that because of their barrel shaped bottom (keel-less) she could slide out across the mudbanks in the rivers and as such gave access to the rivers at any stage of tide. Indeed many say the construction of a prong lends itself more to coopering skills than boat building. They could also float in a cup full of water. Brian Walsh of Hi-Lite TV captured a launch as part of an event in Cheekpoint in 2005.
Although no one knows for sure about the origins, the prong is arguably a descendant of the Norwegian Pramm, a seal hunting boat used in the frozen wastes of the Northern seas to traverse ice fields. Timber built with a transom stern and a distinctive sheer, the major difference is that the pramm/praem was generally clinker built.  The Waterford variety is carvel built. (Locally it is said we changed to carvel bottom to reduce the noise while pooching salmon in the dark) My father had a tale when we were growing up of the first prong coming off a Norwegian schooner.  As he told it, the schooner was moored off Cheekpoint, and the sailors came ashore to the pub.  The locals thought it hilarious as the sailors left their boat in the dock as the tide was dropping. When the sailors emerged from the Suir Inn, the locals were at first astonished, and next very envious of their ability to regain the water.  So much so, my father claimed, a plan was hatched to nab the boat and copy the design.  Fact of fiction we may never know, but it was a good yarn.
Brian Walsh’s video was shot as part of a local initiative to celebrate the Ireland Newfoundland connections of 2005. We also hosted an exhibition of local maritime culture and I also set myself the task of trying to research and write up a local history of the Prong. We succeeded in making it locally avaialble at the time but I have now published this as an ebook and it can be downloaded from Amazon. (It will cost 0.99p which is the cheapest I can make. I had planned to make it free of charge, but apparently that is not in the Amazon business model)
One story that does not feature in the booklet however was one my grandmother told me. In the 1920’s when she was just a child (Nanny was born Feb 2nd 1919) her father went off to Waterford one day with fish to sell in the family prong (I’m fairly confident it is the same boat as photographed in the 1950’s). Later that evening he had not returned and the alarm was raised but as it was dark, little could be done except a vigil was kept through the night in the Russianside. At sunrise the next morning the local boats took to the water and the prong, which were always painted to blend in with the shoreline, was finally spotted. It was found having somehow drifted over the Shelbourne Banks and into the grass on the Campile pill. Fearing the worst they came alongside only to find her father sleeping off the effects of a mighty session. He had rowed out into the river and once the tide caught him, fell asleep in the bottom and allowed the prong to take him home!
A prong off Ryan’s Quay Buttermilk and Nuke in Wexford in the background
The prongs are now almost extinct, but a few remain, including my uncle Sonny’s which is in the National museum of Country Life in Turlough House, Castlebar, Co Mayo. The traditional skills building course in Waterford recently refurbished the prong featured in the video above, Paddy Doherty’s prong, which was paid for by his relatives. And Michael Bance with his pals rebuilt one in Woodstown as a project.

For more information see Traditional Boats of Ireland History, Folklore, Construction. pp 372-378

I also wrote about its use in the rivers previously

My book on growing up in a fishing village is now published.
Details of online purchases, local stockists or ebook store avaiable here

The Prong – curious and unique boat of the Three Rivers

As a child there was many sights that I took for granted in a traditional fishing community such as Cheekpoint.   Sights like men repairing nets, beam trawls laid out on the village green, weir poles at high water mark and timber boats of all shapes and descriptions.  Of the boats, the most curious and interesting was the Prong.  A boat, shaped like a halved bottle and with a hull akin to a barrel, which every fishing family in the village had once owned.
Michael “Spud” Murphy & Chris Doherty rowing
Paddy Doherty’s Prong 2005
The uniqueness of the Prong, was that unlike the other boats, it didn’t possess a keel.  The lack of this meant that although hard to handle to the inexperienced, it would sit upright when grounded on the typical mud banks on the estuary.  It also allowed the Prong to move on the mud. Essentially the Prong was a boat that could be launched into the river at any time of tide once sitting on a mud bank. This made it ideal in areas upriver from Ballyhack and Passage East and all the way to New Ross on the Barrow and Waterford on the Suir. (Above these the cot reigned supreme).  In uses the Prong was versatile.  It was a fishing boat, a work boat, a transport vessel and used for social outings, and originally came in all manner of sizes.
A Prong in the City early 20th C
via Paul O’Farrell WHG
In the eighties the Prong was a diminishing craft.  As much because of the decrease in men fishing as much probably as men who could repair them.  One man who fished until he retired was Paddy “batty” Doherty who daily went to his eel pots throughout my childhood and it’s Paddy launching his Prong from below the lower quay at Cheekpoint that I recall the most.
Via Andy Kelly on Cheekpoint FB site
Animal transportation at Little island early 20th C
Typically the men would walk out through the mud, retrieving the anchor and mooring line as they went.  The Prong was then rocked to break the grip between hull and mud.  This done the bow was turned until it faced the river and then the men, or man in Paddy’s case, would sit astride the gunwale near the stern and push off.  The Prong would slide down the mud bank and enter the river with a splash.  The mud was washed off the boots before they were brought aboard and then away to fish.
My gran uncle Willie Moran retired from New York in the late eighties and I still recall that conversation one day between Paddy and my Father on Ryans shore, as Willie effortlessly rowed the Moran Prong up to Moran’s Poles with a boat full of driftwood.  “Begod” said Paddy with some respect, “the yanks couldn’t take the river out of that man”
Moran’s Prong 1950’s
I once asked my Father about the origins of the Prong.  He had a tale that the first Prong in the harbour came from a Norwegian sailing ship. The crew were at anchor at Cheekpoint and came in to gather shellfish to eat.  They landed the Prong, and the tide went out, to the amusement of the locals. A crowd gathered to laugh at the Scandinavians, but mouths fell open when the sailors stepped aboard and pushed off to the River.  The value was immediately realised. My Father of course in typical fashion went on to relate how they planned a way to separate the Norwegians from their craft, but he was probably telling me a yarn.  It may all have been, but I like to think there’s a grain of truth to it, as there inevitably was in any story he told us.
Paddy Doherty’s Prong was patched up by Pat Moran in 2005 as part of a cultural exchange with Newfoundland.  We managed to get two other Prongs to make a launch re-enactment and race which was kindly recorded by my friend Brian Walsh of HiLite TV.  It still gives me a lift to see it, and I would dearly love to see it done again before too long.
A prong in the foreground of this interesting scene SS Rathlin
aground at Little island.  Via Tomas Sullivan W Martitime page
When researching the Prong in 2004 the closest boat internationally that I could find was called a Prame.  Chatham’s Dictionary of the Worlds watercraft gives about two pages to boats of the same or similar name. Although Scandinavia is included as a place of origin, so too is Holland, the Baltic, France, and as far as the Balkans.  Most accounts describe a similar boat, although many are clinker built.  Again, in Cheekpoint is an old story that some of the earlier Prongs were clinker built, but were discarded because they made to much noise when fishing at night.  Interestingly, I came across an account of the Cheekpoint Regatta recently in the Munster Express of 14/9/1895 which lists the winners of a Praem race! Of the name used in the area of the Three Sisters, I can only imagine that it is a phonetic derivative of the original.

Blessing of Boats Cheekpoint 1930’s, note very large Prong

A booklet I edited in 2004 was referenced and used in the Traditional Boats of Ireland specifically in a section dealing with the Traditional Boats of Waterford Estuary.  In recent times a successful effort was made by Micheal Bance, John Gossip, John Murphy and Peter Mulligans to build a prong. Again Brian Walsh was on hand to record it.  More on the Woodstown Prong building here.  And most recently again, the Connolly family, who inherited Paddy Doherty’s prong have started to have the boat restored.  My Uncles, Sonny Doherty, Prong now resides in National Museum of Country Life in Mayo.

Prongs, punts and yawls were a hallmark of Waterford harbour.  They have died out as the uses, and the men who used them, have.  They were culturally significant, if not unique and to loose them from the water is to my mind a heritage loss.  We’ve now started to realise the value of our churches, graveyards and built environment, Hopefully the value of our fishing communities in the harbour will be too.

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Mariners Museum.  A Dictionary of the Worlds Watercraft. 2000 Chatham.  London.
Críostóir Mac Carthaigh Ed.  Traditional Boats of Ireland.  2008.  Collins Press.  Cork