Emerald Isle

The Lurgan Canoe

Ancient treasures and wonders of Ireland, mysterious gems and gold, lost creatures and Irish wonders

The bigger they are, the better they float

The Lurgan Canoe is one of the earliest boats found in Ireland, dating back four and a half thousand years, made from a single mighty oak tree felled when the first metalworkers began to arrive. This was a time of upheaval, mystery, magic, and wonder, old orders tottering and collapsing, the end of the age of the God-Kings of Ireland with their ponderous megalithic tombs, and the dawn of an era of shimmering copper, bronze and gold. Strange beliefs and faiths surged across the lands and oceans of Europe, and new sciences and arts followed them closely.

This enormous vessel measures over fourteen meters or forty feet long, and over a meter in width. Although it's not clear how it was made, archaeologists favour the idea that it was cut-and-pecked into shape rather than using fire. There are several raised ribs of wood along the length of the canoe which may have been used for internal divisions, perhaps for cargo, or seats for the rowers, and several small holes.

One fascinating idea is that the holes were used to attach outriggers or even another canoe to this one, forming a very large and very stable vessel capable of travelling across oceans. This would have been powered by oars and muscle since there doesn't appear to be any sign of a mast or sail attachment.

The imagination soars to think of these powerful vessels surging across the North Atlantic, the lakes and rivers of Ireland, manned by ancient travellers with cargoes of hides, grain, wine or rare metal, their families and perhaps even livestock aboard. We can only stand in wonder at their courage and audacity in challenging the forces of nature, in an age only whispered of in our oldest mythology.

The amount of effort involved in constructing a boat of this size tells us it wasn't used for mundane purposes like fishing, but may have been a vessel of war, perhaps used for raiding and transporting warriors or people of status. The bog where it was found was, at the time of the canoe being shaped, a small lake, so it would also have to have been carried to a larger body of water for use, which speaks of a sophisticated and well-organised society with strong divisions of labour.

The canoe has another story to tell us too - one of an Ireland where oak trees of such magnificent size grew in abundance! The country was much warmer and drier than it is today to allow trees of this size, at least two meters wide, to grow.

The Lurgan canoe is not the only one of its kind and two others have recently been found in the same area, suggesting perhaps a boat-building industry in the Chalcolithic west of Ireland. A partial boat has been found in Carrowneden in Co. Mayo and a more complete vessel was found in Annaghkeen in Co. Galway. This might also indicate why the Lurgan canoe was not fully finished, the builders were interrupted by some disaster in their work, but others were finishing similar vessels so they just left the Lurgan canoe behind as not worth the effort.

It was discovered in 1901 by a man named Patrick Cohen, whose family still live in the area, as he sank a drain into a bog. At first thinking it to be a coffin, he dug it out and was astonished at his discovery. It was purchased from him for £25 in the name of the Academy by Sir Thomas Esmoncle, and shortly afterwards the museum sent workers to laboriously haul the craft through the bog and to Milltown railway station, and from thence to Tuam, where it lay for almost a month, and "nearly all in the town paid it a visit of inspection, the great majority taking away chips of it as souvenirs".

It filled three rail wagons and when it got to Dublin it was transported to the museum on specially-linked, horse-drawn carts. There it was treated for its preservation. It was as white as new-hewn oak when first discovered, but quickly darkened to black after being exposed to the air for a short time.

Lurgan bog is close to the location marked on the map below!

Ancient Treasures of Ireland

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