Pushing the boats out
As the sight of upturned currachs being carried to the water’s edge returns to Ireland’s coast, the revival of traditional boatbuilding is maintaining a link to the handcraft of our ancestors
Meitheal Mara founder and traditional boatbuilder Pádraig Ó Duinnín at their workshop in Cork city. Photograph: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision
Traditional boatbuilding in Ireland seemed destined to go the way of butter-churning and scything – too time-consuming and labour-intensive for the current age.
Certainly the building of currachs had almost ended 25 years ago, yet now everything has changed again. Who could have predicted a Red Bull Currach Race on the Lee in 2011?
The sight of rowers carrying long, black, beetle-shaped boats to the shore is again becoming a regular occurrence along parts of our coast as community teams train to compete in regattas. There are now 50 currachs in Cork city and a growing fleet in East Wall in Dublin.
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The revival is largely down to a few inspired boat-lovers who dared to see things differently, believing that boatbuilding is precisely what is most needed today. We speak to some of them:
Ilen School and Network for Wooden Boatbuilding, Limerick
“It’s not really about building boats at all,” says Gary Mac Mahon, cofounder – with Brother Anthony Keane – of the Ilen School and Network for Wooden Boatbuilding in Limerick. “It’s about working with your body and with tools and creating a convivial, hands-on environment in this very disembodied world.”
The Ilen School, in the former Krupps factory in Roxboro, was established to restore a unique piece of Irish maritime history, a 56-ft ketch called Ilen, Ireland’s sole surviving large coastal trading vessel, first launched in 1926.
Mac Mahon rescued the ketch from its purgatory in the Falkland Islands and invited volunteers to come and help with the restoration. The satisfaction they felt was immediate: there is a tactile pleasure from working with wood, which is further heightened once you take the vessel out on the water. It sparks something within us – communities have been building boats for millennia and its demise has left an absence that for some is hard to fill.
The ketch is still being restored, but the Ilen School is now also building traditional sailboats, rowboats, currachs and Limerick gandelows. They offer regular day and evening classes, as well as diplomas in wooden boatbuilding and even masters’ degrees, but the heart of their work is with people who are marginalised and disengaged – providing a place where they feel valued and content.
The shipwrights and facilitators try to avoid a hierarchical or proscriptive approach. Participants are free to set up their own project at any point and will get help only if they want it.
“It’s unlearning as opposed to learning,” says Mac Mahon. There is no specific focus on training people for jobs, rather, the school wants to help people carve out a role for themselves and realise that being unemployed need not be demeaning.
Even calling Ilen a school is inaccurate: it’s more a community in which learning happens if you wish, but camaraderie and team-building are just as important.
The best way to understand, they say, is to drop in and get involved. Workshops are open to everyone. “We have people with physical difficulties, with all sorts of challenges, but we are not a refuge for the broken,” says Mac Mahon.
“It’s just that everyone else is busily trying to get through the Armageddon and keep their lives together.”