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


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.

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.”

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.

“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.”

If you want to starting rowing naomhóga, head to the Dingle Marina after 8pm on Mondays, Wednesdays or Fridays, and if you want to learn how to build one, start hanging around Hutchinson’s shed door in Ballydavid on winter evenings. “As long as it’s on our watch we’ll try our best to keep it going,” says Heidtke, “and after us, we hope someone else along will come along.”
Cumann Rámhaíochta Corca Dhuibhne , Dingle Marina, Co Kerry. Search for Dingle Rowing Club on Facebook

Pádraig Ó Duinnín, Meitheal Mara, Cork
Cork city, which had no tradition of west Kerry currachs, now has a thriving culture of naomhóg racing. It’s all down to one man, Pádraig Ó Duinnín, presenter of the TG4 series Muintir na Mara, in which he rowed around Ireland in a naomhóg.

In 1993, while still learning to build currachs, Ó Duinnín was invited to build one at an exhibition in California. The reaction he got made him determined to foster the craft back home. He set up Meitheal Mara as a FÁS community employment project in Cork city to build five naomhóga in 1994. Soon, the Prison Education Service heard about it and sent some young offenders to him.

“You have to ask yourself who the project should help,” says Ó Duinnín. “People that have a lot or those that don’t? It’s a fairly easy answer.”

Since then, Meitheal Mara has run countless FÁS, VEC and other educational and community service courses, teaching traditional skills to a new generation. “The people that we reach are the most marginalised,” says Ó Duinnín, “people who don’t have to engage through ideas, but engage through their hands.”

Cathy Buchanan is now coordinator of 22 full- and part-time Meitheal Mara staff. “In any week we can have up to 120 people here – homeless young people, tourists, people with learning difficulties, aspiring professionals, recovering addicts, hippies, retirees or ex-prisoners. It’s a real melting pot – everyone from asylum seekers to millionaires. There is something very satisfying about working with your hands; starting with hazel rods and shaping them into a boat. We teach groups how to use the boats too – some of whom wouldn’t normally get a chance to take to the water.”

Meitheal Mara has built currachs for museums, for the English National Opera and in 2007 they completed a Bantry Bay longboat that was used on HBO’s TV series, Game of Thrones. They also run the Naomhóga Chorcaí rowing club on the Lee.

“Currachs offer a fresh way of looking at the world,” says Ó Duinnín, “a way of accessing aspects of life that have been eclipsed in recent years. If you’re a young person who has spent time in prison or a lifetime at an office desk, it’s important to be part of a project that produces something positive.

“The experience can shift you from one track to another.”

Meitheal Mara, Crosses Green, Cork. meithealmara.ie

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