Maritime Cork: The Cork connection to the foundation of the State

Maritime Cork: The Cork connection to the foundation of the State
Eoin Ryan alongside the Free State C1 vessel, the first fishing boat registered in County Cork by the new government.

The first fishing boat registered in County Cork by the new government after the Treaty was named Free State C1, because officials would not allow it to be named in Irish.

The boat is part of the maritime and fisheries history of Ireland. Free State C1 fished for 70 years out of Ballycotton on the East Cork coastline.

I saw her in West Cork on the water’s edge in Hegarty’s Boatyard at Oldcourt, her name in white lettering on the bow of a green hull, with a yellow stripe. Free State C1 caught my attention, seeming to be in the colours of the national flag, the Tricolour and its history is as unique as its name.

It was told to me, standing alongside the boat, by Eoin Ryan, whose grandfather was Johnny O’Riordan from Ballycotton where the family lived. Johnny's brother, Michael had been Commanding Officer of the IRA Ballycotton Company during the War of Independence, “which had been somewhat to the detriment of the family fishing enterprise.”

“After the formation of the Free State, Michael appealed to the new Administration for financial support for the purchase of a new fishing vessel. It was a time when people were trying to get back to normal life. 

"He and his brother, Johnny, were granted a loan by the new Ministry of Fisheries and, at William Skinner’s yard at Rathmore, Baltimore, during 1923 had what was described as an auxiliary motor sailing boat built. 

The Free State C1 vessel at Hegarty's Boatyard in Oldcourt.
The Free State C1 vessel at Hegarty's Boatyard in Oldcourt.

"They got the first loan to buy a fishing boat ever given by the Irish Government. The cost of the boat £350 was a considerable investment at the time when the average labourer’s wage was 15-18 shillings a week.” 

The boat was 33ft. on the water line, 35 ft. overall, built of larch plank on oak frames.

Her planks were laid together so closely that no caulking was necessary to make her watertight. The sail plan was that of a cutter with a large mainsail, job and foresails. The latest development in tractor vaporising oil engines was used in a Kelvin Poppet Valve 15/13.

“She was built with the fine lines of a sailing cutter and wasn’t typical of the fuller-hulled vessels of those days. She was a fine boat to sail, sometimes surprising yachts by overtaking them with her turn of speed."

“The new boat was registered in the Port of Cork in January 1924. It is said that Johnny’s wife, Annie, wished to call her Stát Saor but the Administration of the time did not accept an Irish language name. The name Free State was agreed upon and she was duly registered with the number C1. 

She is unusual in that she also had registration with the former British authorities.” 

Free State C1 was brought from Baltimore to Ballycotton. Capital repayments were made and the boat generated significant income so that a second boat was purchased, St.Ann, which Johnny fished, while Mick O’Riordan and his son John continued to fish the Free State down through the years.

“They were disciplined fishermen. You could set your watch bv the Free State’s departure from her moorings each morning. They favoured trawling in the early days in the shallow sandy bays of Ballycotton, Youghal and Power Head. Herring drifting was lucrative in the Winter months and latterly, they turned to lobster fishing. The Free State was a focus of attention in Ballycotton Harbour when she returned in the evening with her catch.” 

The boat also helped escapees from the Russians when Mick and his son, John, were trawling in June of 1951 and encountered the Seewolf, a German vessel with 15 people on board. They had escaped from the Russian zone in Germany months previously and were in need of assistance. The Free State towed them to Ballycotton for much-needed food and water.

As fishing evolved the Free State became unviable as a commercial venture and was sold to Pottery owner Stephen Pearce in Shanagarry and the tonnage transferred to a larger vessel. 

Pearce took her back to Hegarty’s Yard in Oldcourt not far from where she was built, intending to restore her, but this never came to pass. The boat came back to the O’Riordan family through Brigid, an employee of Pearce’s. The Heritage Council of Ireland Traditional Boats Project has recorded her with 3D laser scanning technology.

When he took up residence in Baltimore Eoin “dreamt of restoring her.” 

Three years ago, to mark the centenary of 1916, an exhibition about her in Baltimore raised a lot of interest.

Free State C1, of historic importance, is in need of restoration says Eoin. What a great project that would be.

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