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
The tangible benefits that woodcraft, boatbuilding and sailing offer people is becoming increasingly obvious, and funding from local and national agencies is still forthcoming. “Participation in the workshops involves an entry into an amazing, yet anciently familiar, world of our inheritance,” says Brother Anthony, a monk at Glenstal Abbey. “To see the wisdom and strength of an oak tree, normally a terrestrial creature, slip easily and naturally into a ship that sails the sea, is to sense the wisdom and delight that runs through all things.”
The Ilen School and Network for Wooden Boatbuilding, Roxboro, Limerick, ilen.ie
Eddie Hutchinson and Maunza Heidtke, Dingle Peninsula
The culture of naomhóga (west Kerry currachs) died on the Dingle Peninsula when the last fishing currachs were replaced by trawlers 25 years ago. A few relics were left rotting on the shore, reminders of a harsher, poorer age. No one could have predicted what has happened since. From mid-May to mid-October each year, scores of children and adults gather three or four times a week at piers, carrying the upturned boats on their shoulders as their ancestors did.
Crews from Dingle, Dunquin, the Maharees, Ballydavid, Bandon and Ventry compete at regattas against teams from Clare, Galway, Wicklow and Dublin. In west Kerry the revival was spearheaded by two people: master naomhóg-builder Eddie Hutchinson and cabinet-maker Maunza Heidtke from Dortmund, Germany.
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“There was no one at all making them when I started,” says Hutchinson, who has since taught scores of people how to build naomhóga, even transition year students in Dingle.
“It’s important to keep the tradition going. There are now a lot of young lads that trained here for three years. I’m glad to think someone will be able to do it when I’m gone.”
Heidtke started working with Hutchinson in 1989, building six naomhóga for their club, Cumann Rámhaíochta Corca Dhuibhne. She didn’t want to see the tradition dying and felt it was important that the young people had something to get involved in. There were 15 members in the club back then, there are now 150 and it’s increasing.
“It’s good for the children,” says Hutchinson. “A safe non-contact sport, better than being out on the streets – way more healthy. We start them age seven.”
Hutchinson can build a boat for €2,000, but that hardly covers the work involved. “It’s a thing you do because you want to keep it alive,” says Heidtke. “It’s the same with the rowing in the club. The teaching is all voluntary. You’d never seek to make profit out of it. It’s a tradition. It would be sad to see it go.”
Boats are only made on winter evenings; summer is for race training. The work of passing on the skill is informal. “People who are interested just call by the shed. It’s not straightforward since there’s nothing written down. It’s mostly by instinct.” As Hutchinson puts it, “It is the only boat in the world that’s made without any drawings or prints. No two are the same. We don’t do them by ruler or measurements, but by the eye. That’s the way it’s always been done.”