Some of the least known boats in Ireland are those small flat-bottomed craft known as ‘cots’ that fish the upper reaches of tidal estuaries. While found on most Irish rivers, the use of cots is particularly strong on the rivers of the southeast
Double-ended Slaney River cots. Photo Darina Tully
A few hundred cots are still used to fish the tidal stretches of the Slaney, Nore, Barrow, Suir and Blackwater rivers, each of which has its own distinctive style of cot. In a century that has seen dramatic changes in technology, traditional cot fishing has hardly changed at all. The cots are mainly used in the pursuit of salmon by snap, draft and, up to 2006, drift netting. They are also used to a lesser extent for eel fishing, reed collection and tending stake weirs.
The working day of the cot men is dictated by the ebb and flood of the tide and the life-cycle of the salmon, just as those of coastal fishing communities. The historical context of the cot salmon fisheries is interesting in that it was the Magna Carta of 1215 that ensured the rights of ordinary people to pursue fishing in tidal waters and estuaries.
Their ownership and legal history of the rivers is complex. Most river fisheries have been controlled since medieval times by religious foundations and major landowners, including the State. After much dissent among the populace, The Magna Carta decreed that those sections of rivers in the kingdom of Britain and Ireland privatised up to the death of Henry II in 1189 had legal status, but that no more could be made private.
The Slaney Cots
Wexford has a long tradition of building flat-bottomed boats, including gabbards, lighters, and the seagoing Rosslare cots. The Slaney salmon cots are the smallest of this type. The traditional type is double-ended, and a small number of these are still in evidence; however the working draft-net cots have changed over to a transom stern, even though outboard engines are not used when actually fishing. The older double-ended design can still be recognised in the present-day racing cots.
Draft netting uses a large purse seine net that is carefully folded into the stern. One man on shore holds a warp attached to the end of the net while, as the boat sweeps out in a long arc, the net pays out freely. Up to this year, 75 boats were licensed for salmon draft-net fishing from Enniscorthy to Wexford harbour.
Recent buyouts however have reduced this to around 60. The remaining boats are on a set-aside scheme, to try and restore salmon stocks to the river. A number of cots are also used for eel fishing, shellfish gathering and wildfowling.
Cot racing has grown in popularity on the Slaney with clubs in Edermine, Killurin, Ferrycarrig, Maudlinstown and Saltmills. Slaney cot crews are also keen participants in the Irish coastal rowing championships, and some take part in the East Coast Skiff competitions, the Ocean to City race in Cork and the Thames Great River Race.
The Nore, Barrow and Suir cots
These cots are mainly engaged in an ancient form of fishing called snap netting. Each river has its own variation of a long narrow, canoe like boat. It is said that as far back as 1290 the Normans licensed the cot men to fish at Mooncoin and Carrick-on-Suir at a cost of one penny per net. It is accepted that snap netting goes back to antiquity and it is possible that it was a form of fishing used by log–boats, the predecessors of the cot.
The cots work in pairs. They start paddling in tandem with the net stretched between the two boats. One cot man controls the paying out of the net, while both paddle to keep the cots on a straight course while drifting with the tide. A sense of rhythm and timing is essential for the pairs to work effectively. The cot men display great skill and dexterity to ‘snap’ the net closed quickly, trapping the salmon by quickly drawing the two boats together with their single paddles.
There are a few local variations on the boats, depending on the builders, but the double-ended cot typically measures 17ft to 18ft length overall and has a maximum beam of 40 inches. They have a flat bottom with slight rocker, and the sides are planked clinker style onto fine frames called ‘brongs’, giving a long, narrow, canoe like boat.
The Blackwater cots
In 1798, Crofton Croker, in his Researches in the South of Ireland remarked that ‘a boat, sharp pointed both at bow and stern, somewhat resembling a canoe, attracted our particular notice.’ The cots he witnessed were very likely part of the Blackwater salmon snap net fishery.
The Blackwater cot is constructed differently to those of other rivers in the southeast. It is long, narrow, round hulled but flat bottomed. The boat is of clinker construction onto notched frames, and has distinctive sheer fore and aft. The style of building onto notched frames is quite old. One could almost mistake them for Norwegian Faering style boats.
There are very few cots left fishing with most of the salmon licences withdrawn or now on set-aside. A few licences are still operational under the large estates along the river.
While preserving traditional forms of fishing, the river cots of the southeast are also a focus for the continuity of a great range of traditions within their communities. They are a catalyst for the transmission of knowledge and awareness of the rivers, fishing, boat building and associated crafts, and the oral traditions associated with the fishery.
The revival of cot racing in many places has strengthened community involvement in the boats and the rivers. Nevertheless, the continuation of these traditional inland fisheries, like that of their coastal counterparts, is under severe pressure from many sources.
The term ‘cot’ refers to small, open canoe-like boats used on many Irish rivers and lakes. It derives from the Irish word coite, meaning a log boat (often referred to as a ‘dugout canoe’). Cots were once in evidence on most major salmon rivers, but while there are still small numbers of cot-type craft in evidence elsewhere, principally on the lower River Shannon, the main area of present-day use is the South East.
In his survey of the literary evidence for cots in the Middle Ages, A.T. Lucas concluded that all watercraft referred to as cots had their origins as log boats. Literary evidence shows us that cots were a persistent feature of inland water transport.