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The weather has come good and on Tuesday morning we carried the Curach with its pristine skin of Calico, out of the dark shed and into the glorious sunshine for its first coat of tar.

The tar sourced from Liver Grease Oil and Chemical Co. was boiled for some time then painted over the entire skin and left to dry. The varying qualities of tar available these days means that drying time is a bit of an unknown but by the afternoon of the next day, she was ready for her next coat. We boiled the tar a little longer this time, stirring intermittently and waiting for the smoke to turn green. This coat went on easily but the Calico on the left hand side of the boat began to sag and loosen. This was a cause for concern, as not having tarred a Curach before, John and I were skeptical as to whether the skin would regain its tautness as it dried. However, we left it to dry for a day and thank fully it regained its original shape….for a moment we were both entertaining the possibility of taking off the skin entirely and beginning again – a chore that neither of us would have relished and which would have set us several days behind schedule.

The third coat is now on, we have identified a few holes but these have been closed easily, demonstrating the endlessly repairable nature of these combined materials.

The weather has now broken again and we wait for the next dry slot for the fourth and fifth coats to go on. As each layer is applied, the boat looks ever more Curach like, slowly turning into one of the black slugs, mussels or beached whales (which ever you prefer) that are a regular feature on many an Irish beach.

The runners have been cut as have the ribbons. The launch date has been chosen and it won’t be long before the first plunge!

The transom, gunwale and thwarts are painted Pacific Blue.

Calico measuring 7m x 2.45m covers the entire hull.

The Curach looks almost bridal with its Calico veil.

The ribs will not be visible for long. The tar will completely impregnate the Calico, rendering the hull opaque and waterproof.

The Calico is stretched taught over the hull and tacked onto the frame using 13mm copper tacks. Only one cut is made at the bough, allowing the material to taper. You need small fingers for this....

A few weeks ago, I made a 12 day visit to Ireland. I met so many people and did so much during this short time that on my return, I felt as if I’d been away for weeks. As the homeland of the Curach, I could not have left without seeing how mine shaped up and hoped I would catch a glimpse of one abob the sea or a Loch, but as it turned out, I saw much more than that!

I was invited by my neighbour and life long friend Caitriona Miles to visit Ireland where she hails from. Although I had visited Belfast fleetingly, this trip promised to show me many of the contrasting faces of contemporary Ireland.

I wasn’t disappointed, from Cushendoll in the North, down to Newscastle, then onto Skerries and Dublin, I was impressed by the warmth of the people I met, the natural beauty and cultural hub that the Island presents.

Whilst in Dublin we attended the opening of an exhibition dedicated to the books of Henri Matisse, this is the first time that this exhibition has come to Europe and is on show in the Chester Beatty Library. The library itself was a particular draw during my stay as Caitriona is perhaps one of the last people who can say that they have worked with the American industrialist and book collector, Chester Beatty, who bequeathed his internationally significant collection of manuscripts, books and artefacts to the people of Ireland.

After a few days in Dublin, I then travelled onto Galway by myself, where Caitriona’s daughter Roisin Miles met me. We then travelled to Letterfrack in Connemara on the West Coast where she lives and is based as a textile conservator. Roisin has a workshop space in the centrally located Conservation Letterfrack workshop and it was here that my Curach hunt began.

It seems that everyone in Connemara knows someone that builds Curachs but pinning down exact names and places proved a little tricky at first, fantastical names like Blaze and descriptions of a man with a very ruddy face and pointy nose were all we had to begin with… but this proved enough!

After a few messages left on various phones by local lady, community radio broadcaster and workshop administrator, Janet O’Toole, it was not long before the stars aligned and I met my first Curach builder, John Wallace. John kindly came to the workshop and we spoke at length about my Curach and the ways in which he went about his own. By and large he thought we were doing a brilliant job of the Curach. John’s own Curach’s differed in the following ways:

  • He would not have used any Oak on the bow – only Deal
  • The stringers would have been placed closer together, so that the hull would have effectively been planked. He would have been transporting all sorts of equipment including animals, so sand and debris would collect between the stringers – adding to the weight.

In John’s opinion, the only hurdle we would face would be in sourcing the tar.

Later that afternoon, we met with Martin Hession from Renvyle.

Martin pictured at his workshop in Renvyle.

Martin is a carpenter and Curach Builder, and in 2010 he undertook a written assignment as part of a larger course with the aims of finding out what the status of the traditional Curach in North Connemara, who the main Curach builders are and if the tradition can be preserved. Martin kindly lent me a copy of his findings. It appears that many of the Renvyle boat builders including Martin’s father have passed away, leaving Martin as the only remaining Curach builder between Renvyle and Killary. However, his conclusion inspires hope for the Curach as he notes that renewed interest from various groups and rowing enthusiasts (like myself`) is rising, with the aim of rekindling the ancient tradition.

‘’I believe the Curach will continue to be a part of our seascape long into the future.’’  Martin Hession

Martin goes onto suggest that workshops to teach Curach building should be established in Connemara, much like those already operating in Clare and Cork.

Martin’s advice to me was similar to John’s, however, he also advised to add a second layer of hessian to strengthen the hull. This would seem like good advice but this is the first time I have heard of anyone doing this. Like John, Martin also advised that we attach the Canvas hull in sections, starting at the bow. The sections would not have to be sewn together as the tar would hold them – this goes against the design that we have been working to so far but is interesting to consider.

The next day we visited Martin’s workshop with stunning, uninterrupted panoramas over the sea. Although he had no Curach under construction, he kindly offered me the following images of his work.

Connemra Currach in the process of being sheeted out.

Freshly tarred Connemara Currach.

View of currach bough, after tarring.

The late Paddy Hession, Currach Builder, surveying his handywork, c.a. 1984.

The last boat builder we met was Donal Greene from Cashel in South Connemara.

Donal Greene pictured alongside his first boat.

Donal and his family are Irish speaking and have lived in the same house in Cashel for the past 200 years, however he is the only boat builder in the family. The community’s harbour and pier are only a short walk from his house and he is almost able to use it like it was his own.

Donal builds and repairs boats of all shapes and sizes, including the massive Galway Hooker, and amongst the collection of projects in his yard, we found an Orkney Yole – the Yole was given to him gratis on the understanding that he would resurrect it to its former glory.

steaming device

steaming tube made from rubber lining

During our discussions, Donal explained that the methods of Curach building are different in the North and South of Connemara and that he would himself add the Canvas skin in one piece – a tried and tested method necessitating a few carefully placed nips and tucks. This is the method that I am going to apply.

Donal’s mantle piece is heaving with trophies from Curach rowing competitions that he has won. Rowing a Curach demands exceptional teamwork as, lacking a tiller, the boat is steered using variations of pressure between the port and starboard. At its best this can be achieved using nonverbal communication. Donal tells me that it takes almost three years to attain this level of intuitive response amongst the crew.

None of the builders we met would rove the copper nails as we did, they would have simply beaten them over against the grain. We were advised by all to use tar that needs heated first and were given various methods of checking that the tar is hot enough. The smoke must not turn green and I must not paint the outside of the hull before covering it with Canvas as this may stop the tar from adhering to the wood.

My final words of wisdom from Donal were to launch the boat on a Friday or a Sunday afternoon, anytime else would be bad luck….he wasn’t able to tell me exactly why this was but I am not going to tempt fate…

Turlough Curachs

The next day we visited Turlough Park in County Mayo. The museum there houses the Irish Folklore section of the National Museum. The museum’s exhibition displays some examples of Curachs, however,  Dr Seamus MacPhilib­ – Curator of Transport / Agriculture / Boats and Fishing / Business and Archives granted us permission, to see the museums expanded collection of Curachs that are away from regular public viewing in the museum’s vast storage house.

From specially commissioned Curachs to the oldest known Curach in any collection in the world, the storage house was a veritable sweety jar! The 15 Curachs display a clear cross section of building techniques, ranging in size, shape and finish.

Aran Curach bow

Yet despite the variations from county to county, the essentials are all there. Of all the Curachs on display, the one most like my own was in fact the oldest – with the exception of the roving, the construction was almost identical – a truly enduring design. This very old Curach measures 5.76m at its longest, 1.15m at its widest and about 60cm high. The curach came into the museum in 1928 as its registration number indicates: F1928:421 but it is believed to be much older. According to MacPhilib,there is very little information on file about how it came into the museum. Its from one of the Aran Islands but they don’t know which one.

My Curach build had been a long process hampered by awful weather this winter but this trip to Ireland has reinvigorated my passion. Since returning, I have ordered the paint for the Gunwale and thwarts – I’m going for Pacific blue. The Canvas has been ordered and I’m waiting to hear about the tar. According to Martin, we are 90% there, so with one last push, hopefully we will be looking at a launch date in early August!

Special thanks to Roisin Miles, who drove me the length and breadth of Connemara and who now knows more about Curachs than she could ever have imagined!

And thank you to John Wallace, Martin Hession, Donal Greene and Seamus MacPhilib for your time and encouragement – I will endeavour to make you proud.