Boat project aims to help Galway gain city of culture status

Lost boatbuilding skills providing buoyant hope in docklands

A project within the Galway docks, focuses on the restoration and revival of the galway hooker boats.Video: Daniel O'Connor


When a Connemara-born construction worker began building his life’s dream in an abandoned spice factory down by the Chicago river, friends back home thought he was “glan as a mheabhair” – clean out of his mind.

Yet it was thanks to the self- belief of Steve Mulkerrins that the largest Galway hooker ever built was not only completed, but sailed several thousand miles “across the pond”.

“All you can do is throw her in and pray to the man above,” says Mulkerrins, who had never built a boat before. “Out there, you find religion very quick.”

Finding a lot more than that when weighing anchor, Mulkerrins and crew sailed the Naomh Bairbre through the Great Lakes, down the St Lawrence Seaway and across the Atlantic via the Azores in 2006.

The white Wicklow oak craft was more than up to the crossing, and a flotilla of some 40 vessels was there to greet it on the home stretch from Aran’s Gregory’s Sound to Leitir Móir.

More than eight years later, the 14m (47ft) Naomh Bairbre is the focus of feverish activity down in Galway docks, where a team from Bádóirí an Chladaigh, the Claddagh Boatbuilders, has been working on its refurbishment.

“It will be back in the water in July,” Peter Connolly of Bádóirí an Chladaigh forecasts. “There could be kids sailing it for years to come.”



Mulkerrins has leased the vessel as his contribution to a project that aims to influence Galway’s bid to become European capital of culture in 2020. As Connolly says, the city may not have a large opera house by the time culture city judges come to visit in 2016, but it will have some magic on water: a sleek fleet of at least five craft under sail, with another two to come.


Ever since Dubliners Denis Aylmer and Johnny Healion revived interest in the turf-carrying Galway hooker in 1976, the wooden craft with signature “tumblehome” hull has been synonymous with Connemara and Kinvara, host to the annual Cruinniú na mBád regatta.

However, as Connolly says, the craft was fished from the Claddagh in the 19th century, until it was gradually displaced by larger and more efficient vessels.

The sight of several hooker hulls languishing on the Claddagh quay wall a few years back was enough to light the spark. Connolly and some like-minded enthusiasts have since been working to reclaim what they regard as the Corrib estuary’s birthright, in partnership with boatbuilders in Rosmuc and beyond.

Their determination to revive skills that had almost vanished in the city area has drawn support in diverse quarters, from former minister Éamon Ó Cuív to Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton, who launched one of their vessels at the Volvo Ocean Race Galway stopover in 2012.

Visiting sailors on that occasion included crew attached to several Arab racing dhows, who were guests on a maritime cultural exchange which involved sending Coilí Hernon’s hooker Nora Bheag to Abu Dhabi.


Employment scheme

The Bádóirí an Chladaigh community employment scheme is currently engaged in building several different hooker types, along with refurbishing the Naomh Bairbre.

The project is not just about boat builds, but about personal development, Connolly says. Some of his team who have had experience of the sharper end of life are now skilling up as shipwrights, sailors and navigators, absorbing that alongshore language of foredecks, forestays, gaffs and gunwales.

“We’ve a great relationship with the hooker association back west which is going to help out on the water,” he adds. He is also working with the Galway City Sailing Club and Galway Sea Scouts, based in the docklands’ Ocean Sports Centre, while some of the keenest supporters are members of the Galway Fire Brigade.

If Connolly’s course is true, the fleet will have almost trebled in five years’ time – some built, some on loan. He sees 14 sets of sails on the water – representing the city’s 14 tribes – as part of Bádóirí an Chladaigh’s global ocean masterplan.