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Navigating the Wild Seas: Celtic Currach Boats | Celtic Cultural Minute

Irish Currach Club of Milwaukee

It's summer, a time when our thoughts turn to the seaside, the sunny beach, the warm sand; but in many of the Celtic lands, the sea is a wilder thing - a source of food, danger, storms, stories, and myths. We're going to go down to the Celtic seas this month.

Let's start by exploring some traditional handmade Celtic boats. Perhaps best known as the beloved currach of Western Ireland and Scotland, a rowing a boat that's usually wood-framed and once was covered in animal skins, though nowadays it would be canvas and black tar. Traditionally both a sea boat as well as a vessel for inland waters, it varies in size and shape by region, and it's a work horse of a vessel. In the past up to our own day, the small, reliable currach has been used for fishing, ferrying, and transporting goods, as well as somewhat startled cows and sheep.

It's called a naomhog, literally "the little holy one" or "little female saint" in Counties Cork, Waterford, and Kerry, and it's related to the small Welsh coracle boats.

Now, the design itself is an ancient one producing a sturdy, light, and versatile vessel that men could carry on their backs if need be. Earlier versions were often wicker frames, woven like wonderous baskets and then covered with stretched animal skin.

It's often said that Saint Brendan the Navigator, born in Ireland in 484, actually discovered the land of America long before Christopher Columbus. There's a Latin account of Saint Brendan's legendary voyage that includes a description of the building of a native, ocean-going boat that sounds much like a currach. Using iron tools, the monks made an iron-ribbed, wooden vessel, covering it with hides cured with oak bark. Tar was used to seal the seems, and a mast and a sail erected in this case. And the author notes that this is all in keeping with the custom in those parts.

And in Scotland in the 600s, Saint Becan writes of Saint Columba of Iona, "In scores of currachs with an army of wretches, he crossed the long haired sea. He crossed the wave-strewn wild region, foam flecked, seal filled, savage, bounding, seething, white-tipped, pleasing, doleful."

The islanders of the wild West of Ireland, from the Blasket to the Arans, were assiduous builders and users of the currach, and currach races among the islanders are popular to this day. Many a visitor to Inishmore or Inisbofin treasures a photo of a line of currachs flipped over in the grasses alongside the beach and basking in the rare summer sun, like sleek black seas.

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.
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