As a land-locked county, Kilkenny is hardly known for its maritime industry. But a road sign (‘Welcome to County Kilkenny’) just outside New Ross, confirms that I am in Rosbercon, as I arrive into a boat yard on the along the Kilkenny-Wexford border.
This boat yard is where the famous Dunbrody famine ship was rebuilt in 1998. After that, everything was taken out.
The Dunbrody is visible directly across the water from the boatyward, docked by the museum building. Nearby, the Ros tapestry is also housed at Priory Court on the quay.
Alex Kelly oversees the ‘Rising Tide’ programme, which promotes social inclusion through joint activities, events and training. She is also passionate about sailing and boat construction, having started off in the sea scouts as a young child.
She is enthusiastic and informative, and puts her paint brush to one side for a moment to whisk me around the boat yard – the grand tour.
“We are very strong at engaging the community,” she says.
“There were plenty of applicants. Initially, we interviewed 27 people but could only take 14.”
In all, 12 participants are now on the course. They range in age between 22 and 58.
As I arrive, one participant, Mark Griffin, is applying the first coat of paint to an Optimist – a small, single-handed sailing dinghy. In the workshop, there are two almost-finished Optimists (overseen by Declan Barry and Michael Dunne) and one larger skiff (under the supervision of Tony McLoughlin).
Mark is one of the students who has worked on the boats from scratch. From New Ross, he is the ideal candidate for what Rising Tide does.
In the past, he worked on the building sites, and when that ended, a local shop. But in the teeth of the recession, that shop too closed its doors.
“I had never done anything like it,” he says.
“I could definitely see me keeping it on as a hobby when it finishes.”
The students work in the boat yard on Monday and Tuesday of each week. It is part of an exchange programme with Wales. Across the water is the MITEC School of Boatbuilding and Marine Engineering in Pembrokeshire. In Rosbercon/New Ross, it comes under the remit of the local JFK Trust.
“A lot of [students] come from Kilkenny – Paulstown, Thomastown, Rosbercon,” says Alex.
“Most wouldn’t have previous experience in boats.”
The students recently travelled to Milford Haven for a week-long exchange with Pembrokeshire College, which partners them on a similar boat-building course. Several of the Irish students subsequently applied to attend marine engineering and boat-building courses there.
The concept has grown from a cot-building programme run by Kilkenny Leader Partnership (KLP). KLP has been instrumental in funding the project in its current incarnation.
Many of the programme’s participants were in the middle of trade apprenticeships when the recession struck. They lost out as a result. The programme allows them to complete their apprenticeships.
“I like doing the fibreglassing, mixing poxy,” says Mark.
“We learnt about mixers and measures, different types of matting. My favourite was building the skiff. The timber was cut in a local saw mill.”
In the big shed, some students have been working on the Joanna Mary, which is in the final stages of its restoration. The students having been learning ‘caulking’ – filling the gaps and sealing the boat’s joints.
Alex says the plan now is the sell the two skiffs as soon as they are fully completed. This is a new development for the course – it will be the first time there has been a commercial aim.
An ancillary aim of the Rising Tide programme is community regeneration – with a focus on maritime identity, maritime heritage and the coastal environment.
Over 600 people used to be employed at the boat yard – it was one of the region’s biggest employers, and the sense of loss when it all ended haunted the local community for years. Alex also feels that the development of the ring road has not been good for the tow.
But regeneration is certainly happening at the boat yard.
Michael and Stephen Keogh, originally from Glenmore, are running it – and with some success. There are at least 50 boats there, and there is a definite feel of life and activity.
“We came here in 2007 and set up a small yard,” says Martin.
“There was nothing here, just a field of grass. KLP have seen something in it, and they have supported us and taken us under their wing.”
Recently, KLP provided a grant to purchase large sea gates, which now enable large boats to be accommodated in the dry dock. Two large lifting cranes are also in operation, alongside a new dry dock and pontoon.
“When I was a teenager in New Ross, you could walk from one job to another, employment wasn’t a problem,” says Michael.
“Now the shipping has gone. But what is good is that there is now investment in a marina; people have realised that the river is an amenity to develop.”