One of the most enchanting attributes of Ireland’s west coast is the long and rich maritime tradition of the Wild Atlantic Way. Down through the centuries, the Atlantic Ocean has provided a living for its people, many of whom worked as fishermen and farmers, living off the land and sea.
But to work with this wild ocean requires craft and skill. Fishermen had to design and build boats suited to unique local needs where crashing sea and rugged coast collide. This fine craftsmanship can be traced back through the centuries, but you can marvel at modern examples of these beautiful boats; they’re dotted all along the bays. Or if you fancy a maritime adventure, see them in action at the many boat races, festivals and regattas that regularly take place. Here, we meet three boating enthusiasts from the Wild Atlantic Way, who share their stories, passion and determination to keep the legacy of the Yawl, Currach and Galway Hooker alive and kicking.
The Galway Hooker
This sturdy model with its distinctive red sail is native to Connemara, and was developed specifically to suit the rugged bays of the Galway coast. Built using native white oak and larch, it’s a strong and hardy boat. Peter Connolly is part of a community boat club in Galway, the Claddagh Boatmen, who work together to restore the boats, ensuring they’re a visible part of this stunning coastal landscape. “We originally formed in the 1980s”, Peter explains, “but the big project we took on in 2008 saw us buy a 21ft boat, restore it, and get it sailing. We then went on to build a 32ft model; the first to be built in Galway since the 1920s.” Peter is keen for the skills around boat-building to be celebrated, and passed onto younger generations. “We want to stop the decline in both craftsmanship and the sailing of the vessels,” he says. “We run a sail-training programme too, so everyone who works on the boats learns how to sail as well. Our aim is to make the boats as visible as possible for the public, and to get as many visitors on them as we can. The feedback has been fantastic so far. We have two boats up and sailing now, and we expect to have a boat with a passenger license very soon.”
For Peter, the boats are an iconic part of the close-knit community he grew up in. “Here in Galway city, you see the symbol of the Claddagh ring and the Galway Hooker all around the place. We’re trying to make that real and active – to bring it alive. You can go to Venice and take a boat up through the heart of the city. Here, you can come right up into Galway Bay and see the boats – they’re such an amazing sight, and an iconic symbol of Galway.” Indeed, one visitor to these shores was recently astonished when he saw one for the first time. “We had an Egyptian consultant out last year”, Peter recalls. “He couldn’t get over the fact that there’s not one piece of mechanical equipment on the boat! Everything is handmade and authentic, and our role is all about keeping that alive.”
Want to see a Galway Hooker up close?
You’ll find stunning models in the bay; look out for those eye-catching red sails. Peter is also a skipper (captain), and can regularly be found out on the waves! As he mentioned, he’ll have his passenger license shortly; keep an eye on the Boatmen’s site for details. If you’re in the city, be sure to also make your way to the Galway City Museum, where an impressive full-sized, black-sailed model hangs from the ceiling. Custom-made by traditional craftsmen from An Cheathrú Rua (Carraroe), the boat is called Máirtín Oliver in honour of the last King of nearby Claddagh village, who fished the area in a Galway Hooker. We also recommend you check out Crinniú na mBád (the Gathering of the Boats). Set in the stunning seaside village of Kinvara in County Galway, this annual August event sees the streets come alive with music, dance, and of course, a host of exciting boat races in the harbour!
The Currach is probably the best-known of the Wild Atlantic Way’s iconic boats, with slightly different versions native to the counties of Donegal, Kerry, Clare, Galway and Mayo. Traditionally, this small, curved rowing boat was made by placing animal hide cured in a special mixture of plant life over wooden slats. Tar was then painted over the boat, to seal the places where the skins met. Today however, canvas and resin are sometimes used as substitutes for animal skins and tar. Traditional Irish musician and Currach enthusiast Danny O’Flaherty was born and raised in Connemara, County Galway, emigrating to the USA in 1970. He’s passionate about his Irish heritage, and fondly recalls his early days in the west of Ireland; “Growing up in the 1950s on the Aran Islands, I used to fish with my uncle in a Currach”, he says.” At one point, it was actually the main form of transportation for people. We used it in many different aspects of life – we’d bring turf across the lake in it too.” The Currach is steeped in history and mythology, with a huge amount of craftsmanship involved in its construction. “Currachs have been around for over 2,000 years”, Danny explains. “St. Brendan sailed to Newfoundland in one back in the sixth century; they’re a part of who we are.”
Image Credit: @tomas_feeney
Danny feels it’s important to keep the old Irish traditions around the Currach alive as we move forward into the modern, digital age. “Growing up in Connemara, I didn’t see my first lightbulb until 1962!”, he laughs. “Instead, we’d all sit around the fireplace and listen to fishermen singing Gaelic songs. I was brought up in the Gaelic language and I have a real grá [love] for it. People who emigrated have kept Ireland as their home in their hearts. Life is about balance, I think you can balance the old and new in anything – no matter what culture you come from.”
Danny has not only written a song, ‘Cedar & Oak’ about Currachs, he also owns several of his own. “I have nine Currachs at my house in Texas”, he smiles. “The first thing we did during Hurricane Katrina was save the Currachs – we brought them into O’Flaherty’s pub in the French Quarter!” He’s keen to preserve the legacy of these beautiful boats, and was involved in the establishment of the ‘World Cup Currach Regatta’ in Louisiana. “The idea of the World Cup was to bring attention to who we are and what the sport of Currach racing is about,” Danny explains. “The Gaelic language is being kept alive too – the Irish have different ways of communicating and telling stories. Around maritime life, it’s important that all these things blend together.”
See a Currach for yourself
Though they’re no longer the main mode of transportation, the Currach is cherished and celebrated by the people of the Wild Atlantic Way, many of whom still use them to fish and haul seaweed. The skill that goes into building one really has to be seen to be believed! This rich tradition is certainly thriving; see for yourself at the annual Baltimore Wooden Boat Festival (taking place each May). Or, pay a visit to Meithéal Mara; a community boatyard in County Cork that specialises in traditional Irish Currachs. The June Ballina Quay Regatta festival in County Mayo is another wonderful opportunity to see local boat enthusiasts showcase their skill, with lots of quayside entertainment taking place on dry land.
The idyllic and tranquil island of Achill off the County Mayo coast is also home to its own unique boat. The Yawl is a two-masted wooden sailing craft with a solid hull which, like the Currach, was built to suit the coastal landscape. Historically it was used by locals to fish, transport seaweed, and of course, navigate this stunning terrain. Today, the area is home to a vibrant sailing tradition, with races and regattas regularly taking place. Jerry Cowley is a founding member of Cumann Bádaoirí Acla (Achill Yawl Club), and explains the origins of this beautiful vessel. “It’s a very old boat”, he begins. “They reckon it’s based on the Viking longboat, as the original Yawls were pointed at both ends, and built in the carvel (Northern European) style. The sails were made of calico; the women used to lay out the fabric on the floor of the meeting hall in South Achill and sew them together. The outside of the boat is very smooth, and like the Currach, tar was used to seal the gaps. It glided through the water more easily, and at 17 / 18 ft long, was light enough to be pulled into the shore by a couple of men.” Yawls still remain an integral part of the Achill community, culture and language. “At one time, every house in Saula (north Achill) had a Yawl”, says Jerry. “In fact, ‘Saula’ is a variant of ‘sail’ in Irish, so really the village is named after this way of life!”
Climb aboard a Yawl!
Today, Jerry is involved in Cruinniú Bádóirí Acla (Achill Yawl Festival); an annual series of races that run each weekend between July and September. “The event brings the rich Achill traditions of the Yawl into the future”, he says. “It’s so lovely and unique to the area, it’d be such a shame if it was lost. On the boats you’ll find women, men and children of all ages; everybody sharing the experience and passing it down. We send a céad míle fáilte (hundred thousand welcomes) to anybody interested in sharing our culture. This year, we’re going to have an intensive two weeks of racing during the summer, where visitors can come on board and experience the boats. We’ll have race fixtures and details on our site. If people are interested in going out on the Yawl, it’d be preferable if they had some sailing experience, but not absolutely necessary. They’d be a part of the crew for the race, and get right into the excitement and compete. Being first over the finish line is very invigorating indeed!”
So what are you waiting for? Whether you’re an experienced sailor or fancy an amateur maritime adventure in breathtaking surrounds, the Wild Atlantic Way is the place to be. Head out into the elements to some of the festivals, regattas and events mentioned, or admire these stunning crafts as they bob proudly in the coastal water.