Downpatrick retiree Francy Morgan has always been a jack of all trades, but his latest creation takes a few hits.

his grandfather built a 25ft river barge on a budget of under £2,000, entirely from pallets and other recycled materials.

The blue and red ship was named Hockaninny after a game he played with his classmates seven decades ago.

Francy (80) recently tested her barge on Lough Neagh and was delighted to see her innovative ballast system working perfectly to keep the boat afloat.

He has seven children, 12 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, and many of them have come to cheer him on.

“He’s always building something,” smiles Francy’s wife of nearly 60 years, Patricia (78).

“His mind is always spinning. He never stops – even when he’s lying down I can see he’s thinking and planning his next project.

“In 1994 he took six weeks off and drove a wheelbarrow around Ireland to raise money for Save the Children. He got around £9,500.

“He may have been retired since the age of 65 but in reality he never really stopped.”

Francy’s projects stem from a lifetime of experience as a skilled craftsman. He left school at 14 and first worked for a furniture manufacturer, before turning to construction.

His credits include a 12-year stint building exhibition stands for Guinness and a period running his own company – Set-up Stage Scenery – creating stage sets for the likes of Lyric Theatre, Grand Opera House and Ulster Hall in Belfast, and various secondary schools for their plays and productions.

In 1989 the family bought an abandoned house in Downpatrick and Francy spent three years renovating it. He and Patricia lived there for 16 years, before converting an adjacent former stable into the cozy cottage where they now live.

“I do everything myself,” he says. “Electrical, plumbing, plastering and masonry – everything. I reuse and recycle as much as possible; for example, in our chalet, I used bricks from an old arch to make the chimney and hearth.

Francy first fell in love with boats on a sailing holiday with Patricia on Lough Erne around 25 years ago.

“We left in this boat for three days and he just caught the virus,” says Patricia. “The first boat he built was a rowing boat – we called it Pallette – but when he tried it in Lake Castlewellan it was very wobbly. He only went in the water once. one time.

Francy experimented with other boats – buying a few used boats to convert into river barges before realizing they weren’t suitable for her needs. One was sold and the other was turned into firewood.

When he had the idea of ​​building his own barge from scratch three years ago, he first made a 25-inch scale model to test his design ideas.

The Hockaninny then became the containment project for Francy, who spends hours every day in her studio.

“The ballast system was my own invention,” Francy explains. “I built the hull and drilled 34 three-quarter inch holes in it to intentionally let in some water.

“Inside the hull, there are airtight containers. Using water as ballast with these containers makes the boat float. Then the water runs out once I pull the barge out of the water, which means it’s light enough to carry on a trailer in the back of my car – which I also made myself -same.

The Hockaninny is a four-berth houseboat, equipped with a galley and toilet.

Francy estimates he’s used around 250 industrial-size pallets, along with packing crates and aluminum scrap, which he scavenges from scrapyards and businesses in and around Belfast.

“Some places have to pay to get rid of their pallets – they love seeing me coming,” he smiles.

As for the houseboat’s unusual name, Francy says ‘Hockaninny’ means ‘a piece of junk used for fun’.

“When I was 10 I was a pupil at St Gall’s School in Clonard, West Belfast, and they took around 50 boys on holiday to Dundrum,” he recalls.

“We didn’t have much to do, just a pitch to play on. One day we pulled an old bed frame out of a hedge. He was missing a leg, so he wobbled, and this old bed became our toy; it was our bus, our rocket, our boat or whatever we imagined.

“There could be 20 boys on the top bunk and the other 30 trying to tip it over to knock them off.

“On the second day, one of the boys shouted ‘all aboard the hockaninny’ and the name stuck. It was our coined word for that piece of junk that gave us so much pleasure and it has stuck with me the whole time.

Francy now hopes to reunite with some of her old classmates from all those years ago and take them on a trip on the Hockaninny on Lough Erne next summer. He is also currently building a boathouse next to his cabin to protect his pride and joy from the elements during the winter.

And Francy is far from done, his brain is overflowing with ideas and he is already planning his next creative projects.

“My next construction project will be to make a wind turbine out of recycled pallets, to help people generate electricity to power their homes,” he says. “Energy bills are going up, but there’s so much energy in the world around us that we haven’t tapped into it.

“I also want to spend next summer sailing through Ireland in the Hockaninny and writing three books.

“The first will be about creating stage sets on a shoe string, the second will be called ‘You Can Do It Yourself’ to show people with no experience how to do things, and the third will be a book of fiction about a story that came to me in a dream.

“When other people see pallets, they see firewood. But when I see pallets, I see furniture, buildings, boats and windmills. I just think of everything I could build.