Jimmy Furey – Roscommon’s master boatbuilder leaves a wonderful legacy

Jimmy Furey: Born March 29, 1926; died June 20, 2020


Jimmy Furey, who has died at the age of 94, was very probably the finest boatbuilder of his generation. He was also a man strong-willed enough to do what very few others ever do – live life totally on his own terms.

Almost entirely self-taught, Jimmy painstakingly clinker-built over 20 Shannon One Design (SOD) dinghies between the early-1970s and mid-2000s. Clinker building (or lapstrake) is an incredibly intricate discipline involving the precise overlapping of planks (or clinkers) of wood from the keel up. So complete was Jimmy’s mastery of the form that most – if not all – of the craft he built are still slicing through the Shannon some 50 years after they first left his workshop.

Like his four siblings (brothers Jack and Paddy and sister Mary all predeceased him, while sister Kitty survives him), Jimmy was born and raised in a tiny stone cottage on the banks of Lough Ree.

Paddy served as a merchant seaman during World War Two. Jack migrated to England and raised a family. Mary and Kitty each got married and raised their own families just up the road.

Jimmy on the other hand found all the sustenance he needed in boatbuilding amidst the beautiful surroundings where he lived for all bar the last few months of his life. As a result, Jimmy and his canine companions (almost invariably black or brown Labrador Retrievers called ‘Jet’ or ‘Brownie’) never felt the need to venture very far from home.

While still a young man, Jimmy made his living as an eel fisherman, subsequently supplementing his income by first repairing and later constructing rowboats. In 1972, he was asked to build the racing dinghy that eventually became SOD 107. Given the extraordinarily stringent measurements such competitive craft must satisfy, and the fairly rudimentary tools available 50 years ago, moving up to building SODs was quite a leap. Happily, it was a move Jimmy made with his characteristic lack of fuss.

While always refreshingly unsentimental about the boats he’d built, a picture of the SOD he subsequently made for himself – No. 108 – remained displayed on the press in his cottage until his death.

When not hard at work sculpting and peat-smoking inch-perfect larch clinkers in the lean-to shed that doubled as his workshop, Jimmy loved nothing more than to craft incredibly detailed scale models. Several of them have gone on to win accolades – such as a Duke of Edinburgh’s Gold Medal – or go on permanent display in places like the Greenwich Maritime Museum. So exacting was the work involved that each tiny recreation would take up to three times longer to build than an actual full-sized boat. Jimmy once told a fellow boatbuilder that an exquisite scale model of a Viking longboat required the securing of some 3,000 minute nails and rivets.

Jimmy loved nothing more than to craft incredibly detailed scale models. Several of them have gone on to win accolades

Like almost all Irish people of his generation, Jimmy grew up in an era when children were taught little more than the ‘3 Rs’ – reading, writing and arithmetic. With hardly any in-home entertainment beyond perhaps a wireless, people back then relied on ‘ramblers’ – visiting neighbours and friends – for their news and gossip.

For the remainder of his long life, Jimmy’s other great pleasure remained chatting to any modern-day ‘rambler’ fortunate enough to be welcomed into his home. And, boy could Jimmy chat! Refusing to allow his lack of formal education to hold him back, Jimmy was a voracious reader and could – and frequently did – converse for hours on any topic under the sun.

The Shannon One Design Association’s (SODA’s) website defines the character of Shannon One Class boats as being: “a lot of fun, in which conviviality, wit, character and friendship are on a par with the high quality of the racing”. Their site goes on to add that “individual boats seem to develop their own idiosyncrasies to complement the eccentricities of those privileged to sail them” – or in Jimmy Furey’s case – proficient enough to build them.

With many youngsters joining older sailors in taking to the waters of Lough Ree and Lough Derg each weekend of every new sailing season, Jimmy Furey’s boats will continue to excite and delight all who sail them for many, many years.