+3531 6313822 nationalich@chg.gov.ie

Traditional Seine Boat Building, Fishing and Racing

Location South and mid-Kerry coastal regions
Categories Social practices, rituals and festive events, Traditional craftsmanship, Oral traditions and expressions, including language
Keywords Seine boat, racing, fishing, regatta, Portmagee, South Kerry
Contact organisation Portmagee Seine Boat Experience, Portmagee Regatta Committee, South-Mid Kerry Rowing Association, Dr. Críostóir Mac Cárthaigh, Director, National Folklore Collection, UCD

Short Summary

A seine boat is built in the carvel construction method. It is distinctive from a great many other similar sized boats which are generally of clinker construction owing to Norse and Scandinavian influence rather than the southern and western European style of boat building evident in the seine boat.

Seine boat fishing was in operation from the early 17th Century while seine boat racing at regattas throughout South Kerry has been a feature of the tradition since the 19th Century.

Background information

From the early seventeenth century, growing numbers of carvel-built rowing boats fished the large pilchard shoals that frequented the south west coast of Ireland. Operating in pairs, they fished with highly effective seine nets, trapping the pilchards in their thousands. There was a lucrative market for selling these pilchards in France, Spain, Portugal and Italy, but their appearance was sporadic and, by the early nineteenth century, the large shoals appear to have deserted the coast for good. The seine nets were then adapted to fish other species, especially mackerel and salmon. Mackerel fishing was an important local industry in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In later years salmon was fished with seine nets but had effectively ceased by the 1970s.

From spring through autumn, hundreds of seine boats (each attended by a smaller boat – the follower) operated out of the many small coves and creeks in the Iveragh peninsula of south Kerry and neighbouring parts of west Cork. The seine boats ranged in size from 25ft to 34ft, with a maximum beam of 7 feet. Propelled by up to twelve oarsmen on double banked oars, they carried a helmsman or ‘Captain’ and sometimes a ‘Hewer’ or fish spotter in the bow. The smaller follower carried a maximum of six oarsmen and a helmsman.

Seine boat racing at regattas throughout south Kerry has been a feature of the tradition since the 19th century, and a vibrant tradition of seine-boat racing continues in the South-Mid Kerry region to the present day. Teams from several different coastal towns and villages compete in six-oar (twelve man) seine boat races. Success in seine fishing depends on the ability of the large crew of oarsmen to produce sustained bursts of speed, urged on by their Captain. Racing was a natural by-product of this rowing culture, with challenges between seine boats from neighbouring villages a frequent occurrence.

The racing model has evolved out of a trend among seine fishermen to request ever-lighter boats from boat builders, to gain an advantage at regattas. Understandably, boat builders were reluctant to comply as the more a boat was trimmed, the greater the chance of an upset. The sides of the racing boat are taken up sharper to achieve better lines for rowing, the capacity and stability of the boat being considerably reduced as a consequence. Today the rules governing traditional seine boat racing are regulated by the South & Mid Kerry Rowing Board. Seine boats are restricted to 34ft overall length and 6ft 3inch beam. The modern racing seine boat is essentially a trimmed and lighter version of the working boat.

The exceptional tradition of using double-banked oars (where two men pull on a single long, heavy oar) to propel the boat has been maintained since the early 17th century to present, calling to mind the method of rowing the Galley ships of the Middle Ages or the ancient Trireme of the Mediterranean.

Practice and practitioners

There are a number of traditional rowing clubs based in the South-Mid Kerry coastal region and all have various levels of interaction with Seine Boats by either hosting Regattas within their own communities during the Regatta season and/or providing a Seine Boat Crew to compete in the various regattas. The Regatta Season is held during the summer months when the weather is good enough to allow the races to be conducted safely and also allow spectators an opportunity to view and support their respective crews as the battle it out along the Wild Atlantic coastline.

Rural depopulation and an ageing demographic have meant that this tradition is under constant threat with fewer communities able to field a Seine Boat and crew. The fifteen communities and clubs that are traditionally involved may be considered the key practitioners of the sport and tradition. These clubs are;

  • Killorglin RC
  • Callinafercy RC
  • Cromane RC
  • Kells RC
  • Over The Water RC
  • Caherciveen RC
  • Sive RC
  • Valentia RC
  • Portmagee RC
  • Knockeen RC
  • Ardcost RC
  • Glen RC
  • Ballinskelligs RC
  • Waterville RC
  • Caherdaniel RC
  • Templenoe RC
  • Sneem RC

The modern practice is particularly unique in that each oar of a Seine Boat is pulled by two oars men. Twelve oarsmen in each boat pulling six oars, 3 oars to the port and starboard sides of the boat. The crew is completed by a thirteenth person who is the coxswain (Captain) of the boat and crew. There are traditionally up to twelve locations suitable to host regattas during the summer racing season.

In terms of boat-builders, there are only a handful of people in the region with practical experience and knowledge of building and repairing a traditional wooden Seine Boat. Many of the boats currently used by crews have lasted decades and the original builders have since passed away. There is therefore limited time to capture this skill and knowledge before it would be required to be reverse engineered in order to understand the boat building techniques involved.

A number of academics have also researched and written about the Seine Boat and are a key link in maintaining accurate records necessary to capture the historical reality of this unique heritage. In addition, video records of the races over the past thirty years have been captured, with many earlier races captured in VHS format. 

Development, transmission and safeguarding

The main practice and tradition of this activity is passed down through the various members of rowing clubs still able to put a seine boat and crew in the water to race during the regatta season. Participation has dwindled over recent years, a trend to be counteracted if the sporting tradition is to stay alive.

The craftsmanship in building such vessels and the many techniques involved in building the seine boats have been passed down from generation to generation on mostly an informal apprenticeship basis.

Seine Boats possess a distinctive set of Irish language terms to describe both the construction, handling, and associated equipment and techniques. There is a rich store of oral tradition and historical records documenting the social history of the boats, the fishing and the racing recorded from coastal communities in the region. From an academic perspective, much research and logging, including digital recording of old records relating to seine boat fishing etc has been captured and archived. Much of this is preserved in the Irish language. A substantial body of work has been done in capturing this data.

Rowing clubs have traditionally designed and built their own individual and unique trailer systems for transporting their Seine Boats to Regattas around the South-Mid Kerry coastal region. The Seine Boats in particular are quite heavy and often take more than just the crew to lift the boat back onto its trailer, particularly after a tough race. The sense of community and sportsmanship when crews and competitors help each other with this task is a unique and unspoken tradition.

The ancestry of the boat and its unique and enduring history, and the rich tradition and record of the people who worked it, distinguishes the craft in heritage terms. It evolved from a highly effective fishing craft, collectively owned and operated by individual village communities throughout the peninsula, to its role as an exceptional racing boat. The Seine Boat, powered by its large crew, is exceptional among Irish and European vernacular open rowing boats for its remarkable speed. This aspect in particular contributes to dramatic and exciting regattas, bringing together the various coastal communities in a celebration of local identity and great physical endeavour.

Contact organisations

Portmagee Seine Boat Experience

Portmagee Regatta Committee

South-Mid Kerry Rowing Association

Dr. Críostóir Mac Cárthaigh, Director, National Folklore Collection, UCD