Sea-soaked. Salt-burned. Callused blisters on palms of big strong hands. When three weathered Kerry men and one Kilkenny companion strolled up the Liffey with packs on backs a few weeks ago, heads turned a little, sensing mischief.
It was from here at St James’s Gate in Dublin, two-and-a-bit years before, that Kerry writer Dómhnall Mac Síthigh and his three companions lowered a west Kerry naomhóg into the river and set out in the company of several other craft on a Camino na Sáilte or “camino by sea”.
The destination then was Dublin Bay and Dún Laoghaire for the night, but the plan was to reach Douarnenez in Brittany and then Spain the following year.
Mac Síthigh is a seasoned sea adventurer who first rounded this island in a traditional naomhóg, or Kerry currach, with Ger Ó Ciobháin in 1975. This far longer route was far more ambitious, linking the coastal dwellers of the northeast Atlantic rim in a wooden-framed and canvas- covered craft Mac Síthigh built with Kilkenny-based artist Liam Holden.
The recruits were Holden, musician and fellow Kerry man Breanndán Ó Beaglaoich, and stonemason and Dingle peninsula folklorist Breandán Ó Muircheartaigh. London-based lecturer and photographer Anne Burke also joined up for some days on the coast of Cornwall.
The initial idea had been to track 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.
“We’d been talking about the camino on land, and someone suggested it would be so interesting to do it by boat,” Mac Síthigh says. “Given that we all believe that it must have been done before, centuries back, we thought it would be no harm at all to test that out.”
And so they rowed, sailed and navigated a course that hugged the southeast coast of Ireland and then took them to Wales, Cornwall and France. Their naomhóg, Naomh Gobnait, was fitted with mast and sail but no keel and its light design allowed them to glide over the swell.
Shadowing them for the latter part of that first leg in 2014 was yacht Ar Seachrán, owned by Dublin engineer and adventurer Paddy Barry. They took an engine, GPS navigator, satellite beacon and flares for safety.
“We camped in Cahore, Co Wexford, and waited for the right weather, and we had 23 hours of rowing across the Irish Sea, which was a bit of a slog,” says Mac Síthigh. Naomhóig na Tinte (naomhóg of the tents), as it was called, built up quite a following as the crew progressed.
“We would arrive in to harbours, and find ourselves being offered all sorts of hospitality, and people welcomed us in a way that you might not find if you were in another type of boat,” says Ó Beaglaoich. The irony of this was not lost on them, even as the forced migration of thousands fleeing conflict and economic hardship, with often fatal consequences, was already becoming a political issue on the Mediterranean.
They wintered Naomh Gobnait in Douarnenez. Pledging to return, they sailed back home with Paddy Barry and began planning for the next leg.
Three to four summers
They had calculated the entire trip to Santiago in Spain should take three to four summers. On May 22nd this year, the four took the ferry from Rosslare to Roscoff, and were reunited with their boat. Setting a course south along the French coastline, winds allowed them to enjoy a bit more sailing and a bit less rowing. Once again, they experienced the warm hospitality of the coastal French.
“We went into places where they had never seen a naomhóg, and we were weatherbound for five days in La Rochelle, one of many ports where large and expensive yachts rarely if ever move,” Ó Beaglaoich says. He had taken his worst accordion with him. It was just as well, as the watertight bags their gear was packed in were punctured by the naomhóg’s nails.
They witnessed wonderful sunrises and sunsets at sea, and fish “took pity”, Mac Síthigh recalls, by jumping in to the boat. Sometimes they had to catch the tide by the light of the moon, when magical “méirneáil” – the Irish word for phosphorescence – coated the surface of the sea.
“From Bordeaux we went inland along canals and rivers, where the lock sensors couldn’t recognise the naomhóg design,” Ó Beaglaoich says.
“Nobody troubled us or asked us to move on, nothing was ever taken from us – perhaps because we had nothing much to lose,” he says. “At the same time, I’d have a huge respect now for people who regularly sleep rough.”
"L'Odysséé des Irlandais" read the headline on a top-of-the-page report in French newspaper Le Télégramme. They were also recorded on film by cameraman Bob Kelly for a three-part documentary directed by Dónal Ó Céilleachair for RTÉ.
Mac Síthigh kept a diary in a hand-stitched notebook, and there were frequent short postings on Facebook. Ó Muircheartaigh’s own record of progress was the number of candles he lit in churches en route. Holden, the artist, notes that there’s a “certain energy that you draw from when you are involved in something like this”.
There was only one slightly scary moment that they remember – or will admit to – when they were caught in a current in port. For the most part, Naomh Gobnait's high stern protected against following seas, and the craft floated like a cork over Bay of Biscay swells.
As they approached the southernmost French border, they were reminded diplomatically, but firmly, that they were in Basque country, not Spain. They were struck by how closely tied French and Basque people are to life along and beyond the shore. “What is it about us in Ireland that we have lost so much of that,” says Ó Beaglaoich, as he recalls the seanfhocail “fan ón dtráigh is ní báfar tú: stay away from the sea and you won’t drown”.
Age was not an impediment to the challenge, he believes, for the demands were as much psychological as physical. “I’m 59 and I don’t think I could have done this when I was a younger man,” he says.
After five weeks and 800km together, for the second summer in a row, are the four still the best of friends?
Again, Ó Beaglaoich has the response: “It’s like being on a music tour, when the fourth week is the most difficult as people are really getting on your nerves. But you know you will survive it because the fifth week is very close . . .”
Naomh Gobnait has been wintered in a maritime museum in Pasaia. Albaola Faktoria Maritime Basque, as it is known, is in the process of building a replica of a 16th-century whaleship, the San Juan. The museum's founder couldn't have been more welcoming to the Irish men.
Next year, with blisters well-healed, they will be back to complete the final 700km leg to Santiago de Compostela.
“ ‘Out of our minds’ was what some people said of us, but you need a bit of that to do a ‘turas’ like this,” Mac Síthigh says. “If you were fully sane, sure you’d do nothing at all.”