Michael row the boat ashore
When The Anglo-Celt called to visit Michael McCabe last Wednesday afternoon, he was just after returning from Dublin in his car, where he was given a clean bill of health. He told us that one of the doctors remarked “we’ll have to start calling you miracle Michael, you’re so healthy”.
Hail and hearty, the energetic Michael jumps out of bed every morning at 6.30am, has the porridge, and then sets sail on foot to open up the Sheelin Boat manufacturing premises. He tells us that he always has a substantial dinner during the day and just a cup of tea in the evening and never took a holiday in his life.
Michael is still as enthusiastic about the continued success of his boat making business and intent on keeping “an eye on everything” in the factory well into the future.
He took us back to the beginning when his entrepreneurial voyage began, with his wife Peggy his first mate.
“I built the Sheelin Shamrock Hotel in 1960/61. Work started the same day on our hotel as the work commenced on the chapel in Ballyjamesduff,” he recalled.
The hotel premises officially opened in April, 1961, when the fishing was top-class in Sheelin and trout were averaging 6lb in weight.
Michael revealed that the former Managing Director of The Anglo-Celt, the late Willie O’Hanlon and his wife Nuala, were at the official opening of the hotel. “We were great friends for donkeys’ years afterwards,” Michael reminisced.
“I had to put an advert in the Celt – no more weddings for the rest of the summer, due to infux of fishermen to the hotel,” he added.
Michael explained that they ran the hotel very successfully for around 20 years. Pollution started entering the equation in the famed Lough Sheelin in the early ’70s.
There were some difficult times along life’s way and his late wife Peggy developed cancer in the late ’80s. “She was not well from then on. A couple of years later we lost her. As a result I had to shut down the hotel, as she was the key to its smooth operation”.
They had reared a family of three sons and three daughters.
The hotel premises subsequently evolved into the successful Sheelin Nursing Home in the early ’90s.
Then a different career path beckoned. “My son Declan said to me – why not build our own boats and we’ll not have to be bringing in boats?” recalled Michael.
“At the outset to leave the hotel and start building boats did not seem to make sense. I had been buying 20 boats every year to facilitate the anglers coming to the hotel. That is where I got the idea about the boats,” he added.
“I used to purchase all timber boats from the West of Ireland – the day of the timber boat was coming to an end. Fibre glass boats were becoming the rage at the time,” enthused Michael.
The family got grant aid to start erecting a small boat building premises. “In fairness to the IDA, they gave me the green light in the matter of a few weeks. Soon we were employing six to eight men on the construction of the building of the premises and installing the machines,” he said.
Rod licence saga
The next thing to hit the headlines in relation to angling was the 'Rod Licence’ saga and looking back on it from this remove, Michael believes: “It was a godsend that it happened. The IDA found out for me that there was a place in America, which would train our staff in the skills of making boats from fibre glass.
“I availed of that opportunity and I flew to Phoenix, Arizona, to see firsthand what the manufacturing process involved. I took off on a plane from Dublin to New York and then continued on to Phoenix.”
The plant making the boats there was a few hours by plane, removed from Phoenix and was located near the Grand Canyon.
The dynamic Michael who has never smoked and has never missed mass each day for the past 65 years said that the folks in America were “exceptionally good” to him.
“They told me to bring out any staff I wish to have trained. We will provide a house for them to stay in and you can pay for it. We will give them all the training they require completely free of charge – they were working for the firm during training obviously,” said Michael.
Secret to success
He returned home to base and immediately set about organising for five of his team to go out to Phoenix to to avail of the training. “They went out in 1989 and that was in the middle of the Rod Licence dispute. They spent three months training on all aspects of building boats from fibre glass,” he recalled.
“When the five men came back, we scrapped any work we had done with fibre glass and they commenced boat building all in the new. That knowhow led to the success story, that is Sheelin Boats,” said Michael McCabe.
The hull of the boat is made within three hours. The beautiful light oars are made from timber than comes in from Finland and the grain runs from one end to the other without a knot in sight.
Almost immediately Sheelin Boats made a bit impression and when one boat was sold into an area, it was immediately followed by orders for four or five more.
“We made ten boats the first year – 20 the second year – the following year it was up to 40. Then at the peak of the business, we were turning out 300 boats a year,” he said.
When French Anglers came over to fish on Sheelin and anglers from Scotland saw the boats, they started to look for them and the boats are now being purchased in France, Holland and Scotland. “Those countries are very good to us now,” said Michael.
“There are eight of us working there now. I open the factory around 7am and I get up every morning at 6.30am. But I go to bed at 8.30 or 9pm. Thank God I’m in great health at 89 years of age. I was in Dublin today for a check-up. I got a clean bill of health and the Doctor told me not to come back till November next year.”
Michael has an amazing record when it comes to attendance at daily mass. “I go to Mass in some church every day, regardless of where it is. I usually go to mass at 8.30am – you could find me in any church anywhere. In that regard, I think I have a great record. I have never missed a day from Mass in 65 years,” he said.
“No priest has that record. Don’t get me wrong - I’m not a religious fanatic or anything like that – I just like to do that and when we were building the hotel, there used to be Mass on at 6.30am in Kilnacrott and I went to that,” recalled Michael.
“Even when I was in hospital on one occasion having a hip done, I insisted that they wheel me down to the chapel every morning for mass in a wheelchair. I did not want to break the chain of continuity in relation to daily Mass attendance,” he added.
He maintains that his mass attendance turned out lucky for him along the way. When I remark on his pioneer pin in his lapel, Michael makes an illuminating statement. “Even though I was swimming in the drink in the hotel, I saw so much of it, that I adored that pin and still have my confirmation pledge. I never take a drink,” he revealed.
Non smoker Michael also said that he has never taken a holiday in his life. “When I went to America, it was work related. But, that flight never left my heart, and I’ll tell you why, there was not a dry eye on that plane. It was all young people going to America in 1989 – it was a one-way journey for them. They were crying after leaving their loved ones at home.
“In fact that was a heartbreak flight that day. I thought it was a shame on our authorities here, that the cream of our country was going away and they are still going. There were 400 on that plane and 96 per cent of them were lovely young people leaving the country. I think it was a disgrace to any government,” he said.
But back to the business of the day. Not alone are they turning out magnificent lake and sea boats of various sizes in the factory at Aughnaskea, some four kilometers south of the picturesque village of Mountnugent, but they are also manufacturing state-of-the-art floating jetties. You can see examples of these magnificent floating jetties at the Lakeside Manor in Virginia, at the Shannon Key West Hotel in Rooskey and at the National Rowing Centre at Fearns in Cork. One of their jetties is being fitted in Galway at present. They also make lightweight fiberglass tanks for retaining water.
To contact Sheelin Boats Ireland Ltd, call 049-8540101, email firstname.lastname@example.org or log on to www.sheelinboats.ie