|Chiefly along the Atlantic coast, from Donegal to Cork
|Maritime, currach, crafts
|West Clare Currach Club
Simply formed of a skin or cloth covering on a light wicker or timber framework, the currach has stubbornly endured since prehistoric times. Its smooth round bottom has no keel to enable it to grip the water but, drawing barely six inches of water, it is highly manoeuvrable and can navigate swells and even rough seas with relative ease. Working in unison, the oarsmen, each pulling a pair of overlapping, thin-bladed oars, can adjust and maintain their course when wind and tide conspire to push the boat in a contrary direction.
The currach is a light, buoyant and adaptable craft that can be launched and beached in the most exposed places. For many coastal and island dwellers of the Atlantic coast, it was the only boat they could afford and has been used successfully to fish, to transport animals and people, for harvesting seaweed and a variety of other purposes. Where once it was made of exclusively natural materials such as animal hide, willow and hazel, since the Industrial Revolution materials like milled timber and machine-woven calico cloth, waterproofed with coal tar, have been used in its manufacture. More recently glass reinforced plastic and other hard wearing coverings have been used. Despite all these innovations and improvements in design, the essential qualities of the currach have been retained.
In the modern period, the currach is most closely associated with Ireland’s Atlantic coast, but it was once more widespread in coastal and inland waters. Outside of this region of Northwest Europe, the nearest equivalent skin boat types are the umiak and kayak of the Arctic Inuit.
A currach is built frame first and the hull is then constructed by turning it upside down. This distinguishes it from virtually every other boat type which are built from the keel up. The final step is to sew and apply a tarred (also bitumen) canvas cover before it is righted. Prior to 1820 the covering was made of animal hide. Construction plans for most currachs do not exist as the skills of the craft has been passed from craft man to apprentice by word of mouth for generations.
Currachs have a rich vocabulary of technical terms associated with their construction and handling, e.g. liúrachs (longitudinal laths that form the bottom and sides) and to ‘pull’ (row) a currach. Comprehensive historical records and oral history document the social history and role played by boats and their coastal communities.
Currachs are stored above the high tide line; tied down to resist wind and storm. All sizes of boats are carried on crews’ shoulder, upside down. It is possible for two strong crewmen to carry a 21 foot boat. The currach itself can carry a half a ton of fish and nets and yet can be lifted out of the tide by the crew.
The most commonly used currach is the 3-hand currach which is 21 foot in length. It sits on the water buoyantly like a sea gull, having a shallow draft. The wind has a strong effect on currachs; a trained crew however can expertly guide these boats on our turbulent coast. The Kerry naomhóg utilizes a small lug sail stepped in the bow in conjunction with a leeboard. Currachs have unusually narrow oar blades which are held hand over hand, an exceptionally effective method of rowing. This enables the oarsman to pull the oar back quickly over the choppy sea; the crew do not need to feather the oar. The lengthy oars also reach out further from the boat, giving it greater stability in rough seas.
This boat with its own unique story and that of the people who worked them makes it stand out in world heritage terms. Its roots are in the North Atlantic skin boat tradition.
This boat is unique in Europe in terms how it is built, how it is handled at sea and its associated rich social history. This social history evolved from subsistence fishing communities living on exposed and dangerous coasts of the Atlantic ocean.
Practice and practitioners
In County Clare the West Clare Currach Club was started in 2004 to help re-establish the building and rowing of our own local fishing currach. This canvas covered currach is distinctive to Clare and its design has evolved with local conditions in mind and at the hand of local craftsmen such as Cully Marrinan. Cully built over 120 currachs in his lifetime and the last boat he built at 92 years is staged in Kilkee and is 60 years old.
Over the last 15 years the club’s members, under the guidance of Kilrush man James Madigan (who learned the craft of currach-making from his grandfather) have built over 30 currachs. These were 2-hand, 3-hand, and 5-hand vessels. In 2018 the West Clare Currach Club built a 4-hand ‘pilot’ currach for Scattery Island which is kept on the island and managed by the club.
In summer, regattas are held at a number of places around the Clare coast, including Kilkee, Kilbaha, Carrigaholt, Doonbeg, Quilty and on the Shannon at Kilrush, Clarecastle and Limerick. These are open to male and female rowers.
Club members have travelled with currachs to participate in Cork’s Ocean to City Race, London’s Great River Race as well as maritime festivals in the Gulf du Morbihan in Brittany. Club members have rowed to the Scottish island of Islay from Rathlin Island as well as organising regular coastal rowing and camping trips to explore other coastal districts and offshore islands.
Coastal communities in Cork, Kerry, Clare, Galway, Mayo and Donegal all engage in similar community building projects involving the revival of currachs. Currachs have featured prominently on national and international television programmes. Indeed, Ireland’s exposed and rugged coastline is better understood through the story of these boats and the people who worked them.
Development, transmission and safeguarding
Racing has been a feature of currach use for many years, with regattas held in many parts of the west coast. The concept of an all-Ireland competition was introduced in the early 1950s as part of the State-sponsored Tóstal events. Each summer a highly competitive league, consisting of teams from western counties travelling to different venues to compete for points, is organised. There is a strong community support and participation by crews of men and women, and boys and girls. It is a very healthy activity that encourages successive generations to learn about and interact with their maritime environment.
While the currach continues to be used to a limited extent for the purposes of inshore fishing, the revival of interest in it arises from the realisation that this ancient craft has considerable potential in terms of amenity and recreational activity besides its intrinsic heritage value. Ireland is fortunate and exceptional in having preserved the skills associated with its construction, its handling, and has recorded a remarkable depth of oral tradition concerning its use. There is an unbroken tradition of usage from prehistoric times to the present, enabling younger generations to learn about and bring forward the tradition.
The craft has received considerable attention in publications, of which the following are just a sample:
• Traditional Boats of Ireland (ed. Críostóir Mac Cárthaigh, Collins Press 2008)
• The Donegal Currach (Donal Mac Polin, Ballybay Books 2007)
• British Coracles and Irish Curraghs (James Hornell, Mariner’s Mirror 1938)
• The Belderrig Curragh and its People (Breandán Mac Conamhna 2010)
A number of national and regional agencies have supported currach-making and training initiatives in recent times:
- The Limerick Clare Education and Training Board, LCETB, have participated in funding and training support
- Leader Programme have provided financial aid to cover the cost of boat materials and instructors
- The West Clare Currach Club has secured FLAG funding from BIM
- The Ilen Wooden Boat Building School, Limerick
West Clare Currach Club