18th November

The skin boat tradition in Ireland

Darina Tully

‘Currach’ or ‘curragh’, a boat peculiar to Ireland especially its western coast, used for local traffic, it is of great antiquity’, (Kemp 1976). A form of skin boat, the currach is still very much in use along the west coast of Ireland.

We have two thousand years of direct evidence of the use of skin boats in Ireland, and maritime archaeologists believe that such a long-standing tradition most probably stretches back to the Bronze Age in Europe. A gold model boat, part of the ‘Iron Age Broighter’ collection on display in the National Museum of Ireland, is widely interpreted as an ocean-going skin vessel.

We have accounts from the Early Christian monks of their journeys undertaken in skin boats, and later accounts of the building and use of currachs including those by Giraldus Cambresis (Gerald Of Wales) in 12th Century and Capt. Thomas Philips in the 17th Century. The recent historic period has numerous accounts of their use by early antiquarians and travellers in Ireland.

 The earliest documented consistent information for the numbers of fishing boats in Ireland comes from the 1837 First Report of the Commission of Inquiry into the State of the Fisheries, which indicates that thousands were in use along the west coast. British Coracles and Irish Currachs (Hornell, 1938) gives us an overall view of the currach situation prior to World War ll. Hornell provides historic information and good descriptions and drawings of the various types. It was the most comprehensive study on currachs ever published, and is still widely quoted today.

Versatile craft

Recent research (within the last decade) had shown around 400 currachs of a dozen varieties can still be found along the west coast, engaged in fishing, leisure and racing. The attraction of the currach seems to be its seaworthiness, economical construction and functionality within the inshore fishery. Also, the vibrant racing scene has become a major focus for the continuity of the currach tradition within many maritime communities.

The Kerry Curragh is locally referred to as a ‘naomhóg’ or ‘canoe’. The naomhóg has a light lath construction with a very distinctive sheerline. A study in 2003 discovered around 100 naomhóg still in use on the Dingle Peninsula. In Clare, the light lath-style currach is found around the Shannon Estuary and southwest coastline, and the heavily boarded Doolin style currach is found along the northern part of the county.

The Aran currach has a distinctive lath construction with a wide transom. Examples can be found in north Clare and south Galway. Recent work on the Aran Islands found about 50 working boats. Each island also keeps a racing fleet. The fully boarded Connamara style currach has various regional forms.

Around 40 are used along the north Galway coast including Killary harbour. This design can be found from Clew Bay to north Mayo including Inishturk, Inishbofin and Clare Island. There are about 60 currachs in use on Achill Island and 20 or so in the Mullet Peninsula. Donegal ― once a stronghold of the currach tradition ― has seen dramatic decline in their use, with the largest numbers found in Tory, mainly acting as tenders.

The distinctive Dunfanaghy type, with its pointed bow and hazel construction, is down to a handful. A few examples can be found around Magheroarty and Bunbeg. The smallest of the working currachs, the Owey Island type, is also down to single numbers.

Racing revival

The Meitheal Mara organisation in Cork has been doing Trojan work in preserving currach boat building traditions and has built numerous boats over the last decade, many of which are now based on the Lee. Initiatives are also underway in Clare and Donegal to revive racing fleets. Traditional craft, such as currachs, are under pressure to survive due to strict licensing laws and modern construction and safety requirements.

While we must develop our fishing and aquaculture industry to provide a vibrant economy along the west coast, the 5,000 year-old heritage of traditional boats needs to be preserved. 

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