The Mysterious Joys of Currach Building
By Donal Mac Polin
Why would anyone want to build a currach, an obsolete old-fashioned ‘skin-boat’ made from little other than cheap timber, raw hazel rods, canvas and tar?
I’ll begin the answer by explaining a few things. A currach is a traditional Irish
‘skin-boat’ i.e a boat with a wood frame covered with a ‘skin’ of tarred canvas. It was once common all along Ireland’s coast and has been in use for millennia. Colmcille sailed to Iona in one and ‘Port an Churaigh’ (The Port of the Currach) is still there to this day.
I began building currachs (specifically the Dunfanaghy currach from the town of the same name) in the course of researching a book on Ireland’s traditional boats. In Dunfanaghy in West Donegal I met one of the few surviving old currach-builders/fishermen, the late Jim McElhinney. He encouraged me to try constructing a currach and with details taken from his boat and some photographs, I built my own currach in 2000. I wanted to build one because I had studied the cultural history of boat-building and understood the unique place of the currach within this tradition. I had also seen the great documentary film ‘Man of Aran’ directed by Robert J. Flaherty in 1934, and I never forgot the image of the currach-men fighting for their lives in an Atlantic storm. I also knew that monks had travelled in currachs long ago to Iceland and Iona. What a chance to build one, to row it and perhaps to help keep alive a tradition that was dying slowly in the brutal economic reality of the 20th century.
When people saw my currach and how simply it appeared to be made, some asked me to show them how it was done. Since then I have instructed and helped groups from Los Angeles to Norway and Cork to Mayo to build currachs. These groups of people have included cancer survivors, stroke victims, unemployed people… even teachers and computer nerds! Many had no practical skills at all but learned as they got more involved in the project. As we worked together friendships were formed and a strange collective affection developed for this emerging creation taking shape under our hands. With raw hazel for ribs it fights the builders all the way until it is bent finally to our common will. It remains ‘alive’ till the last sap has dried from the once living timber!
Old primeval instincts, I believe, surfaced as people saw this most elusive object gradually take shape and ‘come to life’ in our hands. Boat-building has always had a strange mystique attached to it and the boat-builder commands the same sort of respect as the blacksmith did in olden times. To build a ship and take to the water is as old an instinct as that experienced by the first travellers who gazed upon a river or lake and turned over their skin-covered dwelling to discover that it floated and could bring them new places: escaping their land-bound existence by travelling on the surface of the water!
What happens as the currach is being built has delighted me endlessly. People work together on a project which is much more exciting (and potentially dangerous!) than making a bookcase or a coffee-table. A boat is a symbol of a kind of freedom that too few experience. Working with bending hazel or rough timber puts people back in touch with the old forgotten ancient skills of working with wood and nature… skills much needed in this new cyber universe where we are quickly losing touch with nature and the great pleasure of ‘making’.
So, mysterious things do happen. The currach becomes a catalyst for all kinds of other more social, more personal, more communal, more mysterious, experiences. No one today builds a currach to go fishing…but there are all kinds of fishing! All of this may sound like old hippie, ‘new-age’ nonsense but don’t judge until you bend and tie down a raw hazel rod to form a boat’s rib and then feel it as it hits a wave and takes you out to where you might meet your fears, or experience an excitement you had forgotten in your safe urban life!
Donal Mac Polin is an artist, author and boat-builder. Traditional Boats of Ireland is a book and online project www.tradboats.ie where you can learn more about Ireland’s rich maritime and boating heritage.
For Cultural Currach Building retreats in Ireland call Claire on 0873134568 or check out Meitheal Mara, Cork’s Community Boatyard: www.meithealmara.ie