The skin boat is one of the oldest, types of boat in the world, possibly going back into Neolithic times. It is not only surviving, but going through a revival. It's history is fascinating and it has played a significant role in the development of human civilization, from the spread of farming to carrying early christian saints all over Europe. It has many cousins around the world, including the Native American birch bark canoe, the ocean going carved boats made from entire tree trunks of the Haida of British Columbia and the skin covered kayak of the Inuit. Julius Cesar described encountering currachs in which the Scoto-Irish made incursions into Britain
Currachs at Sea, 1958 Movie
A short history of currachs.
By the Lough Neagh Boating Heritage Association
© Holger Lönze, 2007
ancient Ireland, boats gave rise to a whole category
of literature: the imrama, voluntary voyages in rowed
boats. Legendary protagonists like Bran, St. Brendan
and Maelduin set out, attracted by some mysterious lure,
to discover magical islands, encountering mythical creatures
and places along the way. The vessel of choice in all
these imrama is a forgotten type of boat, at some stage
in history the most important water craft in Northern
Europe: the skin boat. Welsh coracles are its better
known survivors, but the sea-going currachs of the Atlantic
seaboard of Ireland, are closer in spirit to the vessels
of Bran and St. Brendan. Just a flimsy lattice or basket
frame and a thin, vulnerable skin separate ambitious
sailors from inhospitable and unforgiving seas. And
yet, this fragile vessel has been chosen not only by
legendary mariners, but also countless generations of
fishermen on the most treacherous seas of Europe.
Together with log boats, Gaelic coití, the history of the skin boat reaches back further than any other European watercraft, possibly as far as the Neolithic period. Its early humble origins in the hide-covered basket are still evident in the Boyne River hazel currach in the east of Ireland. As the only seaworthy craft of the time, the skin boat played a crucial role in bringing the first Neolithic farmers to the British Isles. But this was not the only episode where they played an important role in introducing new ways of life. The skin boat was already a popular vessel when early Christian monks entrusted their life to God's hands - and to the fate of their small wicker and skin boats - in order to spread their spiritual message all over Europe. Their stories, and those of their pre-Christian predecessors, fuelled the spirit of the imrama. In medieval annals, skin boats had a reputation for a less spiritual purpose. Cattle raids by the early Irish against Britain were successful thanks to the extraordinary qualities of skin boats. Light, seaworthy and extremely manoeuvrable they also have an astonishing load capacity.
Currachs still have plenty to offer in our time and have great potential to contribute to a sustainable way of life. Like many other craft traditions they are masterpieces of Design for Sustainability. They have a simple but ingenious design concept, use regenerative materials and basic building skills. Lightweight frame and cloth structures are often used for objects for transit, from tents and yurts to early aircraft. While sharing this same design ethos, currachs vary widely between regions. Ranging from 6 to 26 foot in length, lashed wicker frames of hazel or willow exist parallel to timber lattice constructions, while hides have given place to canvas covers, waterproofed with tar and pitch. Materials from local, regenerative resources add to a low embodied energy value and environmental footprint of the boats. Currachs are easily driven by sail or oar and are inexpensive to make and maintain - characteristics that add to their appeal as environmentally sound leisure boats.
With the advent of new technology and economic prosperity in Ireland, many researchers prophesized the disappearance of the currach over the last thirty years. Indeed, commercial fishing currachs along the west coast of Ireland seem to have shared the same fate as the Welsh coracle: their fleets have almost completely declined. Today attention is drawn to their value as leisure craft as they are refreshingly different from the slick and expensive cruisers that dominate - and often pollute - our coastline. Their ethos encourages greater participation in water activities that can otherwise be socially exclusive.
Community groups are forming throughout Ireland to re-kindle local maritime heritage and re-gain community access to the sea. West Clare Currachs in Kilkee, Co. Clare is making six new currachs in an attempt to stop their local boat culture from disappearing. Meitheal Mara in Cork has been building currachs with marginalised youths and adults, an integrative project that has proven hugely successful. On the southern shore of Lough Neagh, the largest inland water area of the British Isles, a twenty strong community project is building a fleet of four Donegal currachs. As there is no historic evidence of skin boats in that area, they will make maritime history introducing currachs to the lough. And currachs still fascinate writers and artists like the well-known Irish language poet and writer Domhnall Mac Síthigh who finds his inspiration in the Dingle naomhóg. The currach's elegant simplicity continues to capture the imagination of all these groups of makers.
As a consequence of its historic and political situation, Ireland's maritime heritage is not primarily linked to a naval history, as is the case in Britain, but rather has evolved from the needs and experiences of isolated fishing communities. Emblematic of this development is this humble and ingenious little skiff that has been cherished by legendary seafarers, countless generations of fishermen and most recently community groups. Contemporary currachs are the latest manifestation of an unbroken, millennia old maritime tradition. And the tradition is anything but dead: the change from commercial to leisure use signifies a healthy progress in its development. The enjoyment of its making and use is beginning to be recognised, while its full potential for a sustainable future is yet to be discovered.
The Voyage of Bran ends "from that hour his wanderings are not known". So can be said of this humble little skiff, the currach.
a Little Skiff by Holger Lönze was published in
Resurgence, Nov./Dec. 2005, No. 233
Hide boat images © Anne Burke 2005
The story of currachs begins with our prehistoric ancestors using implements such as bone needles and flint scrapers to manipulate animal skin. It is fair to assume that the skeleton-built skin boat tradition, one of the four principal roots of boat building, originates in the Upper Palaeolithic period. Historians widely accept that during this period, when hazel and birch was abundant, complex lashed multi-skin and frame structures could, theoretically, have been achieved. Complex basket-framed hide boats, similar to and even larger than the present Boyne currach, were technically possible by using microlith blades during the early occupation of Ireland in the Mesolithic period, about 9,000 years ago. The development of basic joining techniques in the Neolithic period would have allowed the construction of simple timber frames at that time. Woven hurdle making was quite common in the early Bronze Age and so were metal fastenings. However, due to the perishable nature of the organic material used throughout the skin boat, no firm archaeological evidence has been found to date. But historical insight can be gained from the technical development of the boats as well as from literary and pictorial sources. As early as the 3rd century BC, the Greek historian Timaeus refers to 'boats of osier covered with stitched skins' transporting tin from Cornwall to the continent, a trading practice that stretches back into the middle Bronze Age. In his Bello Civili, Caesar writes that the boat hulls in Iberia were made of 'woven withies covered with hides', suggesting that basket making and skin boat-building shared a close parallel development in their early history. Traditional basketmakers in Ireland continue to employ the unconventional technique of constructing large baskets (such as creels) upside down, sticking the uprights in the ground in the desired shape. A similar technique was practised by basketmakers in Cornwall and Galicia. It is also the method used to make the hazel basket-frame of the Boyne river currach. Indeed, unlike their Welsh equivalent, the corwgl or coracle, Irish currachs (with the exception of the Tory Island type, a recent development) are always built upside down, starting with the gunwale. This key element of currach construction, which distinguishes it from almost all other boat types, may be related to the absence in it of a keel. Early, large sea-going currachs may have been fitted with keels, however, as both Caesar's Bello Civili and Adomnan's seventh century Vita St Columba attest, and the very detailed drawing of a currach under construction by Thomas Phillips in 1685 supports this suggestion.
The currach shares its basic design ethos with other objects of material culture associated with human mobility. A few sticks tied together with twine and covered with a sheet of felt makes an effective shelter against the weather, such as the Yurt used by nomadic Kyrgyzian tribes and the hazel-framed tents of Irish travellers used until little more than a generation ago. Rods woven into a large basket and covered with skin or cloth make a boat - our currach. Adding a pair of wings to such a superstructure essentially makes a glider. While this may present an over-simplified picture, a common underlying design principle is certainly evident. Frame and cloth/skin constructions have been an indispensable component of travel on land and sea since Mesolithic times, and in our own time have contributed to man's conquest of the sky. Such constructions are not therefore primitive, transitional concepts, but can be the basis of sophisticated and well-adapted design solutions. Two elements - clearly evident in a currach - are essential for such constructions: a lightweight space-frame or skeleton and a dense and flexible sheet material to cover it - functioning like a skin over a rib cage. Currachs, gliders and tents share the fact that they are extremely light (a 25ft Kerry naomhóg weighs less than 75kg) and at the same time so sturdy as to withstand the forces of nature. They are flexible - moving with and giving way to these forces, reacting with rather than in opposition to them. Flexibility is indeed the secret of the superb seaworthiness of the currach. The gunwale, the latticework of ribs and laths and the canvas seem fragile in themselves, but in combination form a strong, ductile and tensile structure that is able to withstand great forces of wind and wave. Such a combination allows for multi-hide boats of up to 60ft to be constructed, such as in the case of some 18th century Greenland skin boats.
by Holger Lönze from an exhibition catalogue for
the Eden Project, Cornwall, 2004
Image © Anne Burke, 2005
West Clare Currach Club.
This is an umbrella group for 7 local clubs and regatta committees on the Clare Coast. In 2004 it built 6 local fishing currachs of the West Clare design over a two year period involving upto 35 men and women on the Loophead peninsula. All boats are now made available to local regatta goups in Carrigaholt, Kilkee, Kilrush, Kilbaha, Doonbeg Quilty and Coonagh. They are spreading the building skills and getting more interested people out on the water rowing and learning about the rich maritime traditions of West Clare.
Starting in Carrigaholt and moving onto Kilkee, Kilrush, Doonbeg, Shannon, Ballyvaughan and Scariff. Friends of West Clare Currach Club in Yonkers, New York have held fundraisers to help them travel to other regattas and races such as the Great River Race in London,Events in Brittany and the Ocean to City Race in Cork. They are interested in linking with other boat building projects where people are keeping their local boats on the water and all that that involves. They are working on another project Saol Sionna to promote wooden sailing boats on the Shannon Estuary. In the past there were hundreds of wooden sailing boats carrying turf and other goods all around the Shannon and up to Limerick. We would like to bring this tradition alive again and get people back on the water to enjoy the beautiful natural environment we have in abundance. We have the skills to build, beautiful piers and lots of interest; we are currently seeking funding to make it possible. They hope to build a 24ft gaff rigged wooden sailing boat to grace the horizon of West Clare.
Boat built by Cully when he was 94. Owned by Finbar Harte in Kilkee and draw by Holger Lonze.
Excerpts from the book "British Coracles and Irish Currachs", 1936
In 1936 a fine gentleman, named James Hornell, wandered around the coast of ireland documenting the various types of canvas covered boats being used at that time. His book is, in my current knowledge, the most comprehensive description of Irish currachs/naomhogs and is worth the read. Since Mr. Hornell is gone to the great currach in the sky I've taken the liberty of transforming the chapters pertaining to Ireland ( thanks to Donal initial copy of the book ) into PDF format for your perusal right here. Its 3Mb in size so don't try this unless you have a decent internet connection or time to spare.
- Meitheal Mara, the top men and women down in Cork who teach currach-building/racing/eating/drinking/sleeping. The fundamentalists of the currach/naomhog fraternity, these people believe in the holistic healing power of boats. They might be right.
- West Clare Currachs a community based currach/canoe building group who have built 4 canoes over the course of 2005/2006 and are currently racing/training.
- The plans and materials used for building the 3 aran style currachs
- The Lough Neagh Boating Heritage Association are busy at it and have a good site to go with it. Very good details on tarring boats in general
- The Naomhoga Chorcai rowing club, based in Cork City seem busy at the rowing, no building going on apparently./
- I have extracted the drawings from the Hornell book mentioned above which can be seen here. There are drawings of Achill Island Currachs, Aran Islands Currach, Donegal paddling Currach, Iniskea Island Currachs, Kilkee Currachs & Ross-a-dilisk Currachs.