Article published by The Western People
NOTE: I have had a longstanding interest in currachss traditional Irish boats. In 2015 together with friends I organised a small festival in Co. Mayo called Féile na Saoirse ( www.feilenasaoirse.wordpress.com ) there is a very rich and deep cultural heritage surrounding these traditional boats their various local vernacular expressions in different parts of Ireland and also, the songs and traditions that surround them. I grew up on stories of my own grandfather Seamus Philbin and his prowess in storm and danger on the wild atlantic. Clearly there is much more to be written about these beautiful craft — the following article was inspired by Currach na Sceirí and their boat building enthusiasm with Shane Holland at the helm.
Sea currach making was one of thirty traditional crafts to receive official recognition in 2017 when Ireland ratified the 2003 UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. For thousands of years, the knowledge, craft and skill of building and sailing currachs has been an integral part of the Irish story, particularly in the west of Ireland. Before the advent of fossil fuels and outboard engines, our traditional Irish currachs played an essential role for adventurous Irish monks and generations of fearless fishermen who braved the wild Atlantic ocean.
Award winning designer, Shane Holland, whose father hails from Killala, Co. Mayo leads a group of enthusiastic currach builders and sailors in Skerries Co. Dublin known as “Currachaí na Sceirí“. Shane is not the only currach builder of Currachaí na Sceirí with Mayo roots. Tony Moran, a Killala man, went to school in Lacken and Knockmore-born Finbarr got his first taste of sailing as a boy out on Lough Conn with his dad. Shane Holland also remembers sailing off Lacken as a child.
Shane‘s father, John Holland, now aged 91, was born in Killala to William Holland and Leena who ran Killala Post Office, a post now occupied by Shane‘s cousin Donie‘s wife, Marie.
Since Shane has got involved in building currachs, his father, John has been sharing memories from his youth, recalling the fun of Killala currach races. As a twelve year old, he would have travelled with the lads from Belderrig on turf lorries. Those were days before tarred roads. It was quite an adventure for Shane‘s dad, especially when those lorries would get stuck!
As a child Shane remembers seeing currachs being tarred by the shore in hot summer sunshine and stacked up by the dozen like bee hives. Returning thirty years later, as a sea kayaker, he was struck by the fact that these currachs were no longer to be seen and the need for a revival. In 2015, the National Museum of Ireland sought project proposals to celebrate the 1916-2016 Centenary. Shane pitched a project to involve researching and building a traditional currach which would then travel around the country. Although shortlisted, Shane‘s proposal didn‘t win yet he was undeterred.
Together with Currachaí na Sceirí group it was decided to build a currach on their own. To learn the craft of currach building, Shane joined expert currach builder Claidhbh ‘O Gibne who is based on the Boyne river in Co. Meath. Clive is well known as the builder of Bovinda a large animal-skin
currach to prove that currach-based skin boats could have been used to bring the stones up the Boyne river five thousand years ago to build Newgrange. A Tory island currach found rotting in a garden in Drogheda was their first project and, once restored, this was then launched in the sea off Donegal.
Currachaí na Sceirí then went on to build their first currach together as a group in 2018 following Shane‘s unique design, rooted in the west of Ireland boat building traditions. Their boat incorporates styles of west Clare, Galway and Achill featuring a high prow for the Atlantic waves. During lockdown, a Dunfanaghy-style currach was added to the Skerries currach fleet.
While Shane takes the approach of adapting and re-designing – making improvements where he can, Dunfanaghy Currach builder, Donal Mac Polin is circumspect in reflecting on this fragile tradition; “I am a purist who wants to keep the Jim Mac Elhinny version of the Dunfanaghy currach alive – I am the last serious authentic Dunfanaghy currach builder and when I‘m gone, that‘ll be the end!“ One wonders, how many currach builders continue to ply their craft along the western coast today whose skills may die with them. For Mac Polin, as with Shane Holland, the beauty of the craft itself and the particularity of the design are certainly something worth saving.
“These are old human skills teaching people to make something themselves they can use in the sea“ Mac Polin muses, “that‘s a phenomenal thing to give to people. Today, its not about the boat, its about the boat as a catalyst for bringing people together and teaching about sustainability and a different way to relate to the environment, the sea, and one another.“
Shane has shared his currach plans with enthusiastic currach builders in Tipperary and Cork, encouraged that people are building currachs and that there is a revival around the country.
On June 26th next, Currachaí na Sceirí will host the “Three Island Challenge“ in Skerries, Co. Dublin – inviting other currach rowing clubs to celebrate Ireland‘s unique maritime heritage, take to the water and test their skills.
This year‘s Three Island Challenge has to stay under 100 people in line with government restrictions, yet there are great hopes for the future developments including the proposed visit of traditional Breton boat, the St. Eflam, which plans to join next year‘s Challenge.
Shane also hopes for a stronger Mayo contingent in future: “we were trying to talk Mayo based crews into coming to Skerries but there was not much of a response – hopefully we can look to next year!“
While at home in rural Ireland a currach may be a rare sight to behold today, we cannot forget that there is a strong diaspora of currach racing around the world. Currachaí na Sceirí had a recent visit from “Currach Queen“, Anne ‘O Driscoll of the Boston Irish Currach rowing club who is a champion rower in Boston and Rosmuc. Due to the Viking influence in Skerries, the Irish based Swedish consul has also taken an interest and are inspired by the Skerries currach phenomonon – traditional viking boats may yet join the Three Island Challenge in future years.
Currachaí na Sceirí currently have their sights set on building a Mayo style currach. “It feels fragile in Mayo as a tradition, it is important for us to breathe life into it.“ says Shane, “it is down to a handful of people to keep it going“. Mayo has a number of key regional currach types including the Belderrig currach, the Achill island currach and the currach of Iniskea island. Mayo based author Breandán Mac Conamhna has published a comprehensive overview of the Irish currach tradition in the Irish language, “Curaigh na hÉireann a stair agus a scéal“ . Yet, rather than being consigned to history, one feels that this rich Mayo tradition of building and sailing currachs may have much life in it yet; adventures to be remembered, and stories to be shared. These boats are symbols of the resilience, skill and tenacity of generations of west of Ireland people and a key part of our Irish heritage – one not to be forgotten.
Donal Mac Polin observes: “They delighted in their own skills of handling the boats, they had great pride in their skills, competing and testing those skills. These intangible skills don‘t translate today. Yet, if you like trad you can‘t make a fiddle – but you can make a currach!“
If you have experience or knowledge of the craft of building traditional currachs of Mayo, Shane Holland would love to hear from you: firstname.lastname@example.org. Old drawings, photographs or rough plans are all welcome and these can be dropped into Marie at Killala post-office.