Rowing back the years

KERRY TRADITION: Regattas provide a vital link with the past for the coastal communities of Kerry as huge crowds gather to witness…

KERRY TRADITION:Regattas provide a vital link with the past for the coastal communities of Kerry as huge crowds gather to witness – and cheer on – a time-honoured tradition, writes MIRIAM MULCAHY

WHEN NIGHT FELL, they walked down to the harbour on the south Kerry coast and gathered at the water’s edge, and if the moon was out, all the better to see the shoals of mackerel they would chase that night.

Thirteen men rowed a Seine boat, and they were accompanied by a follower boat as well, to assist in the casting of the net, and to provide food throughout the long night’s fishing. Nets, weights and balances loaded, oars – long square poles that demanded proficient handling – and they were gone, out to sea, searching for the slivery glint of a mackerel shoal beneath the water.

All instructions were issued in Irish, and once they came upon a shoal, the Seine net was shot over one side of the boat, with the follower taking the rope, and the men rowing fiercely to make the net a circle and trap the shoal. A spotter stood in the prow, firing stones into the water to make sure any stragglers followed the horde. The two boats met, and the rope pulled, making a bag of the net, ready to be hauled back to shore.


ON A BALMY evening in Portmagee, when the air is still sultry from the lingering heat of the day, a huge crowd, locals and tourists, hangs over the bridge. The boats are lowered into the water, the rowers scramble in and take their places, two to an oar, eyes left on the water.

The cox commands them, and they head for the bridge. It takes time for the boats to line up, with much discussion of who’s who: the blue and white of Caherciveen is obvious, and Valentia’s red and yellow, Sneem in red and white.

The starter’s pistol cracks over the still water, and the boats take off, making for the buoy two miles away. Conversation turns to stories of the fine day as the boats recede into the blue distance. Interest sparks up again as they hove into view in a quarter of an hour, and all eyes strain to see who’s leading the field. “’Tis Valentia!” a shout goes up and is answered by hundreds of others, urging their local teams on as they approach the bridge.

Valentia and Sneem skim under the parapets, and the crowd dashes to the other side to see them pass the finishing buoy. The winners are applauded and the crowds disperse; the eight boats row back to the side of the bridge where they will be hauled in. It takes more than 20 men to lift one boat from the water.

Seine boats are carvel-built, wooden boats, more than 30 feet long and six feet wide. The oars are square, meaning they can’t be feathered in the water – making the boats harder to row. Thirteen men will get in and row five miles, two men to each long, square oar, one cox, five miles of back-breaking toil through uncertain seas. They row against neighbouring parishes in a fierce, proud spirit of competition.

Ballinskelligs, Sneem, Caherciveen, Cromane, Portmagee, Valentia, Knockeen – regattas are a huge part of these coastal communities, and the Seine boats are central to their history. Mackerel fishing as an industry has long since died out, but the tradition of using the boats for regattas at weekends was revived in the 1960s when Johnny Mahony of Ardcost, from a renowned rowing family, built 14 Seines.

Regattas were always popular during the summers, with Johnny Reidy, now in his eighties, remembering when “regattas and rowing were part and parcel of the sport in south Kerry for more years than most can remember. The last of the round-oar boat races was here in Portmagee in 1956. ’Twas rowed between the Mahonys of Ardcost, and a Ballinskelligs crew.”

In 1969, the Creation was built in Sneem, so called because “everyone had a hand in building her,” according to James Gleeson. Not to be outdone, Caherciveen rallied by building the Liberator in the early 1970s, named after the town’s most famous son, Daniel O’Connell.

The regattas run from May to September, on weekends, with the Seine boats always last to race. “It’s something to see, 90 or 100 men out rowing on a summer’s evening, you wouldn’t see it anywhere else in the world,” says Denis Daly of Caherciveen. The trophy is called after the man who brought the sport back to life, Johnny Mahony. Crews train twice a week, the races are five miles long, and take about 25 minutes. Leo Houlihan says the weather is immaterial. “Unless it’s blowing a gale, we go out.”

Daly wants to take a boat out one night with a follower and re-create the mackerel fishing. It’s easy to imagine him standing in the prow, searching for the silvery shoal, stones in hand, ready to fire them into the water. Now that would be a sight to see.