Musician Glen Hansard had never rowed any distance before he stepped into a naomhóg or Kerry currach in the Basque fishing port of Pasaia in May.
Some 31 days – and several renditions of Óró Mó Bháidín – later, the Frames and Swell Season musician had navigated 600km of the northern Spanish coastline.
“It was a total vagary, an odyssey, an epic adventure . . . but thank God we had our instruments with us,” Hansard says.
Fellow musician Breanndán Ó Beaglaoich had enlisted him as a late replacement in the crew for the final leg of the Camino na Sáile or "camino by sea" – a three- summer voyage from Ireland to northern Spain that this newspaper has been tracking since 2014.
The expedition – nicknamed Naomhóig na Tinte, or "naomhóig of the tents" – completed its final leg into the Galician port of La Coruña on June 23rd, and the currach was brought by road to Santiago de Compostela, where it was carried through the streets for a celebration Mass on June 26th.
Film-maker Dónal Ó Céilleachair, who documented the adventure for TG4, points out a certain synchronicity to the landing: this year is the 800th anniversary of the first historically recorded pilgrimage from Ireland to Santiago.
“Santiago is a beautiful place – I was here about 15 years ago with [Scottish-Irish band] the Boys of the Lough,” Ó Beaglaoich says. “ It is a city with such energy and happiness, as people have walked here from all over the world.”
“They come in on bikes, on foot, some limping, so when we walked the naomhóg down the street, they just stopped, and the significance of what we had done sort of hit us then,” he says.
"Then we tried to ram our way into the cathedral. We were like fecking pirates who had been sleeping in doorways and out in tents, and we were 2ft inside when the security men stopped us," he says. "So we left the naomhóg outside, and I got out the accordion and we marched in to the tune of Tonn Chliodhna."
After the Mass, which included readings as Gaeilge, friends and supporters who had travelled from Ireland, including members of the Camino Society Ireland/ Cumann Cairde Naomh Shéamais in Éireann, hosted a big party.
The hand-made, wooden-framed, canvas-covered boat Naomh Gobnait had set off in May 2014 from the river Liffey to test the original sea route taken by coastal dwellers centuries ago on the northeast Atlantic rim.
Participants with Ó Beaglaoich were Kerry poet Dómhnall Mac Síthigh (Danny Sheehy), Kilkenny-based artist Liam Holden, who built the naomhóg with Mac Síthigh and Dingle peninsula stonemason and folklorist Breanndán Ó Mhuircheartaigh. London-based lecturer and photographer Anne Burke joined for some days on the first leg, off the English coast.
The initial plan had been to follow, and then extend, the course set by four west Kerry oarsmen more than half a century ago, when musicians, singers, stepdancers and storytellers Maras Cháit Chanair, Peaidí Sheáisí Ó Cearna and Seán Ó Criomhthain from the Blasket islands took a currach across the Irish Sea, along with Tom Mhic Gromail from Cathair Scuilbín.
Support in the ports
L'Odysséé des Irlandais, as French newspaper Le Télégramme described it, attracted a lot of interest in French and then Spanish ports. Fishing communities were particularly supportive.
“Breanndán Ó Beaglaoich had told me that it wasn’t so much about physical fitness, but about having an older head to cope with the endurance,” Hansard says of his recruitment. He was asked to stand in for Ó Muircheartaigh after the latter was offered a six-month job just before the third leg this year.
“I realised what that meant when I was out there. An older head knows there is no short cut, and that you are at sea for as long as it takes to get the boat back in,” Hansard says.
"Danny Sheehy told us that there was only one rule on the boat: no moaning. And there really is something in that, because if there is negative energy on board, it slows the boat down," he says, laughing.
They had just three days of easterlies when they were able to sail along the rock-strewn cliff-lined coastline, which was “sinister” in spots, according to both Sheehy and Ó Beaglaoich.
“You could make out faces, animals, all sorts of features in a rock which is said to have inspired Gaudi in Barcelona,” they say.
“Glen was great. He went through hell but he stuck it out,” Sheehy says. “He was composing songs out at sea, and singing, and he really revived our energy.”
Ó Beaglaoich adds: “Initially, we couldn’t but compare him with Ó Muircheartaigh, who had exclaimed one day at sea, ‘To think I gave up the dole for this!’
“By contrast, Glen was getting calls from all over the world about tracks on records, including one from McDonald’s.
“The only advice I gave him was that you feel every emotion in your body: the highs and the lows.”
“But actually having him there was like bringing Shergar to plough a field . . . and he learned to become an oarsman and to speak Irish and sing Irish songs and know the way of the sea and leave the other Glen Hansard at home.”
The oarsmen carried an outboard engine for safety, losing it at one point in a swell and replacing it after a social media appeal. “Thankfully we didn’t have to use it, as fatigue is not an emergency,” Ó Beaglaoich says.
They would wake at 6am, be on the sea by 7am and try to get into port – marinas made landings easier – by early afternoon. They would then pitch camp and cook a meal, get out the instruments and play.
“Our motto was to go to the centre of each town,” Ó Beaglaoich say. “That’s after the proverb, ‘Muna bhfuil agat ach gabhar, bí i lár an aonaigh leis’ – as in, if all you have is a goat, go to the centre of the fair with it.
"We went to Finistère and spread my brother's ashes; my brother John dropped dead just over a year ago," he says. "As brothers, we were in boats, and competed in tugs of war together.
“ It was lovely to think of John and know he had heard the sound before: the swish of happiness when you rowed without effort. You would be rowing back to a time when you were stronger.
“A woman from Portland, Oregon, who I have known for 15 years and who can’t fly, gave me a medal to carry,” Ó Beaglaoich adds. “ I will post it back to her, along with the tiny little jar that had John’s ashes, filled with holy water from the cathedral in Santiago.”
It was a wrench to leave the naomhóg, which is being stored in a Galician garage. Its crew plan to return next summer for three weeks "to celebrate our good health" – and perhaps to think about a further row south, to Morocco.
“When people see a yacht, they see a yacht, but when they see a naomhóg it is almost human. There is a humility about it,” Ó Beaglaoich says.
“And the sea is like the human mind. It can be as rough, as cruel, as unwelcoming, as devious, as deadly as anything you’ll ever encounter. You learn something about yourself very quickly that otherwise might take a lifetime.”
Hansard says his hands are not as sore as he had anticipated, perhaps because he plays the guitar. What struck him was the restorative power of the sea, and the generosity and warmth the group encountered. Along the way he lost some weight and a big bushy beard, which he shaved off in La Coruña.
“It shows that if you set out with a good intention, the world gets right behind you.”
Camino na Sáile, a three-part Anú Pictures production – in association with Phoenix Films – of the voyage, will be broadcast on TG4 in spring 2017. It was commissioned for TG4 by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland.