Riches of Clare: The Clare Currach

Clare Champion, Friday, August 30, 2002

The Riches of Clare exhibition at the Clare Museum charts the county's history over 6,000 years. In the latest article examining the items of display, J J Mc Cormack writes about the Clare currach…

Between the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the River Shannon on the other, Clare has had a long marine association. From the wrecks of the Spanish Armada to tourists arriving by boat at Kilrush, Clare has seen vessels of all shapes and sizes. One type of craft that has been a consistent sight along the coast of Clare, down through the centuries, is the currach.

The origin of the currach is lost in the midst of time, but the traditional construction of these boats has changed remarkably little over the centuries. Although the frame of the boat was traditionally made of wood, the general scarcity of this raw material in coastal areas required the use of animal skins attached to the frame, to make the currach buoyant. In more recent times, the availability of tarred felt material replaced the leather, that was once used.

Generally, deal was used for the oars and gunwale (upper edge of the side of the currach). Oak was used for the frame, while elm and sallywood were also used in currach construction. Although a finished currach could reach up to 18 feet in length, be up to 4 feet wide and 3 feet deep, these vessels are remarkably light and manouverable and could be easily beached.

There are numerous regional variations in the currachs to be seen on the Western Seaboard of Ireland. The boats of Clare are considered similar to those to be seen on the Aran Islands, although one difference is the addition of a board, known as the Bulwark, which envelopes the sides and stern preventing nets from snagging the tholepins.

While most currachs have copper nails keeping the laths and ribs secured, the currachs of Sheephaven in County Donegal traditionally used rope, but nowadays nylon is used to do that job. The currachs of Innisboffin are considered to be midway between the most primitive example of the currach and those from Kerry, which are considered to be the most advance version.

The currach is an extremely versatile vessel. According to Seamus Mc Philib of the National Museum of Ireland, they were specifically used for long-line and lobster fishing. They were also used for transporting goods from Galway Hookers moored off Aran Islands in times past, while it was the norm for farm animals to be towed behind currachs when they were being transported to and from the mainland.

However, such craft were not only used on the sea. It is recorded that in 1602, O'Sullivan Beare, the Irish chieftain, had the presence of mind to quickly assemble currachs to cross the Shannon in order to escape from the Earl of Thomond who was in hot pursuit of him and his army.

Click image to view details in the Riches of Clare Exhibition

In more recent years, in his Handbook of Irish Antiquities" (1891), William F Wakeman tells us that in ancient times "There is every reason to believe that the currach, or cot formed of basket-work covered with the skin of the cow, horse or deer, was in use amongst our lake dwellers".

The currach is not only a practical vessel, but also a symbol of Ireland familiar to tourists all over the world. This has given the boat a romantic image that may have its origins in the 19th century, and their owners were quick to exploit its potential.

According to the Lisdoonvarna Handbook of 1876, a writer commented in reference to the currach and their owners at Liscannor "…the boatmen are very civil and obliging to sporting ladies and gentlemen who honour them with their patronage and silver".

Hanging from the ceiling in the Water section of the Riches of Clare exhibition at Clare Museum is a currach, made in about 1940 in Quilty. This example also shows the resourcefulness of the more modern builder, as an old bicycle tyre has been flattened and nailed onto the stern gunwale, acting as a protective buffer. Originally, owned by Paddy O'Donnell of Liscannor, this currach came to Clare Museum via Jack Garrihy of Doolin.

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