The Irish Currach, An example of an early fishing vessel.
Invention or Intervention?
PLEASE NOTE; INFORMATION RELATING TO THIS HUB WAS RESEARCHED SEVERAL YEARS AGO, WHILST I WAS STUDYING AT COLLEGE FOR A WRITING PROJECT. Most of the information sourced was via the internet through various sites.
A currach is a type of small Irish fishing boat with a wooden frame, over which animal skins, mostly seal skins or cattle hides were once stretched. Although, in more modern times this has now been replaced with canvas. Unique to the West Coast of Ireland, the construction and design has variations in size and shape. It is referred to as a "canoe" in West Clare and a "namhog" in counties Kerry and Cork.
A friend, MrRaphael McIlhome, has recently told me that the currach was first built from what remained from the times of the Irish Potato Famine. Everything was so scarce, wiped out and destroyed, that the only way forwards was from the intelligence and community spirit of the Irish people. Searching the beach after high tide, became a way of life for so many. Scraping together what pieces of timber that was washed ashore meant the people could be independent again. Most of the farm land in shambles, the people had to re-invent the system of providing for themselves and their loved ones. The ingenuity of the community built the currach's in a hope that trade between the counties would help them through such hard times.
The currach represents one of two traditions of boat and ship building: the skin and animal hide covered vessel and the wooden vessel. The weak construction of the former makes it very unlikely that any remains would have been made available for marine archaeologist, but it's antiquity is clear from written sources. Some of these sources are on the internet.
History divulges the Latin account of the voyage of St Brendan, (the patron saint of sailors) who was born c. 484 in the south west of Ireland. This account tells the tale of an ocean going boat. Using iron tools, the monks of the time, made a thin sided and wooden ribbed vessel: as was the custom then, and covered it with hides which had been cured with oak bark. Tar was used to seal the places where the skins joined to avoid leakage. A mast was situated in the middle of the vessel and a sail supplied, normally of heavy Irish linen or calico taken from the flour sacks, used in the flour mills.
The construction and sailing of a sea going currach of the 17th century was a copy of the skin covered and wooden plank constructed boat of earlier years, and was a portable vessel believed to of been built from wicker. Though doubt has been cast on the accuracy of these boats, they are detailed and represent a valid account of the ocean going currach.
Usually the vessel is some 20' long: although it is not unusual to see smaller vessels, it possesses a keel and a rudder, (adapted from the Irish plank built boat) and with a wickerwork hull, strengthend by ribs, and with a mast a midship. The craft was constructed from the bottom upwards, and with a covering of animal hides added when the vessel was complete.
The mast was supported by stays and the use of double shrouds on each side: the latter descending to an outside shelf which functioned as a chainwale. The forestay is shown passing over a small fork above the yardarm, which supports a square sail. The stern is surmounted by double half-hoops which support the covering. The aim of this design is to produce a sturdy, but light weight vessel. Often men sailing between Islands, would carry their currach on their backs, and hide them out of sight for safe keeping.
Currachs were in the main used for fishing, and for the ferrying of goods and the transport of animals, including sheep and cattle between the Islands. This was extremely important for trade between counties, and once again opened the pathway for recovery from the Irish Potato Famine.
Currachs which were covered in cowhide were still a common sight in the 1840s above Lough Ree in County Mayo. In later years the sightings became scarce, except at the seaward entrance of the River Shannon estuary, in County Mayo.
County Kerry currachs had a reputation for being elegantly built and for speed, all were fitted for sailing, with a short mast without shrouds stepped in a socket in a short mast shoe.
To this date, there are still a few full time currach builders in Ireland. Most of the currachs built today are used for pleasure and can be seen competing in arranged currach races. It is still not unusual to see the old country farmers with a currach on their land. Although, most of them are in poor repair, or have been broken down altogether. Many fisherman still believes that these light weight boats to be far superior to the vessels that they use today. Because of the original shape, believed to be round or oval, they are known to sail a wave very effectively, something which a heavier, larger vessel can not do.
The currach can also been seen in Wales and Scotland, but it is believed that designs and opinions differ to those of the Irish currach builder. It is thought that the original Scottish currach was round in shape, more on the design of a dinghy, but again built from timber and animal hides.