Boyne coracle, 1928

 

A History of Ireland in 100 Objects: When people first came to Ireland, about 9,000 years ago, it was almost certainly in skin-covered boats. There are images of such coracles (or curachs, as they have long been known in Ireland) on stone panels at Nineveh in Iraq from about 700 BC.

Medieval Irish sources describe St Colm Cille going into exile and St Brendan going on a fabulous sea voyage in similar hide-clad boats. When Michael O’Brien made this coracle for salmon fishing on the River Boyne, in Oldbridge, Co Meath, in 1928, he was carrying on an immemorial tradition. Its basket-like wooden structure tightly sealed in leather harks all the way back to the island’s first inhabitants.

Ireland had been, over the previous century, a place of traumatic upheaval: land wars, famine, mass emigration, the emergence of industrial Ulster, the shift from Irish to English as the vernacular language. Yet it also retained elements of an extraordinary continuity.

The new Irish State tended to exaggerate that continuity, romanticising life in isolated communities, especially on the Aran and Blasket Islands, off the west coast, as the essential repository of authentic Irishness.

The subtle and complex accounts of their lives given by islanders such as Peig Sayers and Tomás Ó Criomhthain were pasteurised into official texts for the State’s main cultural project: the revival of the Irish language as the national vernacular. Robert Flaherty’s 1934 film, Man of Aran, added a layer of timeless myth, not least to the curach itself, which featured centrally in its dramatic scenes of islanders battling against the sea.

Much of the reality, especially poverty and emigration, was winnowed out of this ideal of a noble and ancient culture. (The ironies came home in 1953 when the Blaskets were evacuated and most of the islanders went to live in Springfield, Massachusetts.) The attempt to revive Irish as the everyday language – perhaps always doomed in a society where one in two people would emigrate – failed. Some official policies, such as censorious attempts to stamp out traditions of holding dances in houses and at crossroads, damaged the real folk culture.

And yet there was something genuinely remarkable about the degree to which aspects of an older culture retained their vigour. The Irish language outlived predictions of death. Traditions of oral storytelling, exemplified by Sayers, persisted at least into the era of television. Irish music in its different forms, from dance tunes to slow airs to the distinctive, haunting tones of sean-nós singing, continued to sound out not just in Ireland but in Irish communities abroad. (It was somehow typical of Irish culture that the main body of dance tunes was the one collected by the Chicago chief of police Francis O’Neill.) Ancient religious practices, centred on holy wells and holy mountains, carried on, albeit in Christianised forms.

None of these forms was static: no living culture ever is. Each was open to periodic “revivals” that were in fact reinventions. What mattered was that they survived even the potentially stultifying embrace of officialdom. They did so because people still had a use for them and could adapt them to their own times.

It is estimated that about 400 curachs are still in use in Ireland, most of them now made of fibreglass skins in an ancient shape. Like so much of Irish culture, they are the same only different.

Thanks to Séamas Mac Philib

Where to see itNational Museum of Ireland – Decorative Arts and History, Collins Barracks, Benburb Street, Dublin 7, 01-6777444, museum.ie

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.