Currachs in literature
An extract from J.M. Synge's "The Aran Island's" pp. 97-8. Dublin and London, 1907.
We set off. It was a four-oared curagh, and I was given the last seat so as to leave the stern for the man who was steering with an oar, worked at right angles to the others by an extra thole-pin in the stern gunnel.
When we had gone about a hundred yards they ran up a bit of a sail in the bow and the pace became extraordinarily rapid.
The shower had passed over and the wind had fallen, but large, magnificently brilliant waves were rolling down on us at right angles to our course.
Every instant the steersman whirled us round with a sudden stroke of his oar, the prow reared up and then fell into the next furrow with a crash, throwing up masses of spray. As it did so, the stern in its turn was thrown up, and both the steersman, who let go his oar and clung with both hands to the gunnel, and myelf, were lifted high up above the sea.
The wave passed, we regained our course and rowed violently for a few yards, when the same manoeuvre had to be repeated. As we worked out into the sound we began to meet another class of waves, that could be seen for some distance towering above the rest. When one of these came in sight, the first effort was to get beyond its reach. The steersman began crying out in Gaelic "Siubhal, siubhal" ("Run, run"), and sometimes, when the mass was gliding towards us with horrible speed, his voice rose to a shriek. Then the rowers themselves took up the cry, and the curagh seemed to leap and quiver with the frantic terror of a beast till the wave passed behind or fell with a crash besides the stern.
It was in this racing with the waves that our chief danger lay. If the wave could be avoided, it was better to do so, but if it overtook us while we were trying to escape and caught us on the broadside, our destruction was certain. I could see the steersman quivering with the excitement of his task, for any error in his judgement would have swamped us.
We had one narrow escape. A wave appeared high above the rest and there was the usual moment of intense exertion. It was of no use, and in an instant the wave seemed to be hurling itself upon us. With a yell of rage the steersman struggled with his oar to bring our prow to meet it. He had almost succeeded, when there was a crash and rush of water round us. I felt as if I had been struck upon the back with knotted ropes. White foam gurgled round my knees and eyes. The curagh reared up, swaying and trembling for a moment, and then fell safely into the furrow.
This was our worst moment, though more than once, when several waves came so closely together that we had no time to regain control ofthe canoe between them, we had some dangerous work. Our lives depended upon the skill and courage of the men, as the life of the rider or swimmer is often in his own hands, and the excitement of the struggle was too great to allow time for fear.
I enjoyed the passage. Down in this shallow trough of canvas that bent and trembled with the motion of the men, I had a far more intimate feeling of the glory and the power of the waves than I have ever known in a steamer.