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.

I publish a blog each Friday.  If you like this piece or have an interest in the local history or maritime heritage of Waterford harbour and environs you can email me at russianside@gmail.com to receive the blog every week.

My Facebook and Twitter pages are more contemporary and reflect not just heritage 
and history but the daily happenings in our beautiful harbour:  
F https://www.facebook.com/whtidesntales  T https://twitter.com/tidesntales
References:
Mariners Museum.  A Dictionary of the Worlds Watercraft. 2000 Chatham.  London.
Críostóir Mac Carthaigh Ed.  Traditional Boats of Ireland.  2008.  Collins Press.  Cork 


Comments

  1. Great article Andrew. Our prong was based on templates generously made available to us by the Forristal brothers of Mountgarret above New Ross, whose grandfather was a builder of cots and prongs. The prong is a wonderful boat for the muddy stretches of the rivers - its long nose allows the passengers to step ashore on dry land at high water and then slide off the muddy banks when the tide is out. We've got great fun out of our prong in the last couple of years. Incidentally, the other builders were John Murphy and Peter Mulligan.

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  2. thanks for that update Michael, I have updated the blog with the other names. Andrew

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  3. Very interesting.Great work.

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