A Currach or Curach is a type of Irish boat with a wooden frame, over which animal skins or hides were once stretched - nowadays canvas is more usual. It is sometimes anglicised as "Curragh". The construction and design of the currach is unique to the west coasts of Ireland and Scotland, with variations in size and shape by region. It is referred to as a naomhóg in counties Cork and Kerry and as a "canoe" in West Clare. It is related to the Welsh coracle, but can in fact cover far larger craft than the Welsh version. The traditional all wooden rowing boat found on the west coast of Connacht is also called a Currach or Currach Adhmaid "wooden Currach" Its style of construction is very similar to the canvas covered Currach. A larger version of this is known as a Bád Iomartha.
Historically, the currach was used both as a sea-fishing vessel and also as transport along rivers and coastal waterways. The currach was first mentioned in writing at around the time of Julius Caesar, who reported seeing sailed ocean-going currachs roving the North Atlantic. Later, in the sixth century, it is possible that Saint Brendan made the first (recorded) transatlantic voyage to The Americas in a currach (a recreation of this alleged voyage was successfully completed by Tim Severin, in 1978 to show that it would have been possible, by sailing a leather currach from Ireland to Newfoundland). His book; The Brendan Voyage details this trip as well as the construction of a curach in great detail.
- "The curach or boat of leather and wicker may seem to moderns a very unsafe vehicle, to trust to tempestuous seas, yet our forefathers fearlessly committed themselves in these slight vehicles to the mercy of the most violent weather. They were once much in use in the Western Isles of Scotland, and are still found in Wales. The framework [in Gaelic] is called crannghail, a word now used in Uist to signify a frail boat." (Reference: Dwelly’s (Scottish) Gaelic Dictionary: Curach)
We understand that a currach of decent size was a highly seaworthy vessel. It was not, however, able to withstand a clash with another ship, as the rawhide hull would easily tear. So the currach was driven off the Atlantic seas during the Viking age.
Currach is also used in the Gaelic languages to denote a marshy place, such as Currie (a suburb of Edinburgh) and "The Curraghs", an area of the Isle of Man, best known for its wildlife park. The name of the boat in the Irish language derives from its typically unsteady state in heavy seas.
Types of currachs
- The Achill Island and Inishbiggle Currach ( see drawing )
- The Aran Island Currach ( see drawing )
- The Belderrig ( Mayo ) Currach
- The Dunfanaghy/Sheephaven Currach
- The Innishkea Island Currach ( see drawing )
- The Kilkee ( West Clare ) Canoe ( see drawing )
- The Kerry/Cork Naomhóg
- The Rosses Paddling Currach ( see drawing )
- The Tory Island Currach
- The Boyne/Bann River Currach
Currently there are few full-time currach builders. Of notable exception are Meitheal Mara, who build currachs and train in currach building in Cork. They also organise currach-racing.
Jonnaí Jimmí MacDonnacha of Carraroe, Connemara is a builder of excellent currachs. Jonnaí Jimmí has been one of the finest champions of currach rowing down the years. There was a DVD with an accompanying handbook released in 2005 The Canvas Currach, where you are treated to Jonnaí explaining every aspect to the craft of canvas currach-making. It's part 3 of a series entitled Na Saora Bád.
As of January 2005 there is a community based initiative ongoing in West Clare called, not surprisingly, West Clare Currachs. They plan to build and then train racing crews in the summer of 2005. A community group on Lough Neagh LNBHA have been making more than ten Kerry naomhóga, Dunfanaghy and Tory Island currachs. There is also an unknown number of currach-builders in the other counties on the western seaboard who build occasionally. In the small village of Fahamore,near Castlegregory,co kerry, Kerry currachs are still being built by Monty o'leary and his son Micheal.2,3 and 4 man canoes are made to order and scale models are available.These kerry boats can be specified with the traditional sail as well as a special hull adaptation to allow outboard use.
Monty O'Learys model of St Brendans Currach - see www.dinglecurrach.com for more information
St Columba is said to have used a currach.
- "On a day, at the end of two years from his arrival on Iona, Columba goes to the beach, where his craft of wicker and cowhide lies moored, waiting the use of any member of the community of Hy whose occasions may call him away from the island. He is accompanied by two friends and former fellow-students, Comgal and Cainnech, and followed by a little escort of faithful attendants. Taking his seat in his currach, he and his party are rowed across the sound to the mainland." (Wylie)
This would have been ideal for traversing the large number of sounds, lochs, marshs etc that he would have had to cross. Although currachs had a reputation for not being seaworthy, at the time, it would have been more suitable and safer to travel by water than land.
St Beccan of Rùm may have lived on the island for four decades from 632 AD, his death being reorded in the Annals of Ulster in 677. He is known to have been conservative on doctrinal matters, although surviving examples of his poetry suggest a passionate personality. He wrote of Columba:
Currachs in the River Spey
In the Statistical Account of 1795 we read of
- "[a] man, sitting in what was called a Currach, made of hide, in the shape, and about the size of a small brewing-kettle, broader above than below, with ribs or hoops of wood in the inside, and a cross-stick for the man to sit on. . . . These currachs were so light, that the men carried them on their backs home from Speymouth."
The Spey currach would thus seem to be similar to the Welsh coracle in design, due to being used on a fast flowing river, rather than the open sea. But twenty years earlier, we read of bigger ones, in Shaw's History of the Province of Moray (1775):
- "Let me add, as now become a Rarity, the Courach. . . . It is in shape oval, near three feet broad, and four long."
A more detailed description can be found in 1780 Scottish court records:
- "The currach contained only one man in working it, whereas the floats require two men and oars; and the man in the currach paddled with a shovel, one end of the rope being fixed to the raft, and the other tied to the man’s knee in the currach, which he let loose when there was any danger, the currach going before the raft."
Spey currachs were used in the timber trade there, which is thought to be the direct ancestor of that in the north west USA, and west Canada. in 1822, Ainslie's Pilgrimage etc says:
- "The river taking a sudden bend, broadened and deepened into a wheel, on the breast of which a salmon cobble, or currach swam.
- "Hence curracher, a man who sat in a currach and guided floating timbers down the Spey."
These may well have survived into twentieth century; there is certainly a reference to a "currick" in the Banffshire Journal in 1926.
- Rixson (2001) op cit pages 21-25.
- "Tiugraind Beccain" in Clancy, T.O. and Markus, G. eds. (1995) Iona- The Earliest Poetry of A Celtic Monastery quoted by Rixson (2001) op cit page 25.
- Ainslie, H. Pilgrimage etc (1822)
- Banffshire Journal (18 May, 1926)
- Dwelly, Edward Faclair Gàidhlig agus Beurla
- Shaw, L History of the Province of Moray (1775)
- Session Papers, Grant v. Duke of Gordon (22 April 1780)
- Statistical Account of Scotland (1795)
- Wylie, Rev. J.A. History of the Scottish Nation, Vol. 2 (1886)
- Monty O'Leary Traditional Currach builder in the Maharees County Kerry
- An Meitheal Mara - voluntary organisation of currach builders and racers
- Naomhoga Chorcai - Traditional Currach Rowing club in Cork City
- Keeping Tradition Afloat: Currach Racing in Philadelphia
- Philadelphia Regatta - Women's Racing
- Philadelphia Regatta - Men's Racing
- Lough Neagh Heritage Boats - Voluntary organisation building traditional boats and currachs
- Baton Rouge, LA - Connemara, Ireland Currach Project
- Irish International Currach Association
- General currach info ( Irish-based only) and building information
- Curragh racing team in Pittsburgh, PA