© 2024
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Among the Waters and the Stars: Celtic Boat Building | Celtic Cultural Minute

Manfred Sommer

This week, we leave the boardwalk and the sunblock behind and head for the wilder seas and winding rivers of the Celtic lands to explore the rich tradition of Celtic boat building. We've taken to the sea in Ireland and Scotland and the Kirk, now let's float down the summer rivers and inlets of Wales.

By night, ghostly silhouettes can be seen drifting silently in the moonlight along the River Tywi in Carmarthen, Wales. Always working in pairs, the figures are actually fishermen carrying on an ancient tradition. Using boats known as coracles, a long net is spread to catch salmon and sea trout from the dark waters. For it is only when seven stars can be seen in the night sky that the coracle fishermen deem it dark enough to fish.

Coracles, indeed, have a magic about them. These small, lightweight boats, round or oval in shape, look a bit like a basket or a split walnut shell. Ancient in design, the framework of the coracle was usually of split and woven willow rods, tied with bark. The outer layer, like a currach, was originally animal skin with a bit of tar for waterproofing. Today, tar covered canvases or even calico have replaced those skins.

Now, every coracle is unique. It's designed reflecting its builder and the river that it was intended to be used on. A coracle built for the Teifi River in Wales, for instance, is flat bottomed so that it can negotiate the shallow summer rapids, while a coracle built for the Tywi River is rounder and deeper because it is used in slower, tidal waters.

The woods used in building are local as well, like willow, hazel, and ash. Another mark of a well built coracle is that it can be carried easily on a person's back, as these coracles are usually a one person affair, and that person is usually a fisherman.

In the hands of a skilled fisherman, coracles are brilliant fishing boats, as they hardly disturb the water or the fish at all. They can easily be maneuvered and paddled with one arm while the other holds the fishing net. Coracle fishing is a two boat affair with the net stretched across the river between the two while they drift slowly downstream and the migrating salmon and trout swim upstream. When a fish is caught, each fisherman hauls up an end of the net until the two coracles touch and a block of wood called the priest is used to stun the vanquished fish.

Near Welsh rivers around 200 years ago, a coracle would be found hanging outside almost every cottage door. Today, the number of coracle fishermen are dwindling. But those that remain are determined to see the tradition continue, passed down from father to son. While the UK based Coracle Society uses demonstrations, exhibitions, and the internet to protect, promote, and continue to teach the culture and the skills of a life lived at one with the waters and the stars.

For Celtic Cultural Alliance, this is Kate Scuffle. Sláinte.

Kate Scuffle is the host of Lehigh Valley Arts Salon and the Celtic Cultural Minute on WDIY. She is an administrator, producer, educator, writer and artist in the non-profit/arts communities.
Related Content