History of Curachs
A 5,000 year old heritage of traditional boats in Ireland.
The Menapian is based on the design of the Kerry Curach, the Naomhóg.
A currach (Irish curach) is a type of Irish boat with a wooden frame, over which animal skins or hides were once stretched, though now canvas is more usual. It is sometimes anglicised as ‘Curragh’.
The construction and design of the curach 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 (lit. ‘little holy one’, ‘little female saint’) in counties Kerry, Cork and Waterford.
Kerry curachs had a reputation for elegance and speed. All were fitted for sailing, with a short mast, without shrouds, stepped in a socket in a short mast shoe.
The curach has traditionally been both a sea boat and a vessel for inland waters. Curachs, when intended for long voyages, were made large and strong, furnished with masts and solid decks and seats.
Curachs in general adhere to a plan designed to produce a sturdy, light and versatile vessel.
The framework consists of latticework formed of rib-frames (hoops) and stringers (longitudinal slats), surmounted by a gunwale.
The outside of the hull is covered by tarred canvas or calico, a substitute for animal hide.
Curachs were used in the modern period for fishing, for ferrying and for the transport of goods and livestock, including sheep and cattle.
By far the greatest part of the water-communication around the coasts and across the seas, as well as in the lakes and rivers, of Great Britain and Ireland, was carried on in the early days by curachs, which indeed were used also in other parts of Europe.
We know that in the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries the Irish sent numerous plundering expeditions to Britain. These voyages were made in curachs.
The boats used by the ancient Irish may be roughly classified as of three kinds:
— canoes hollowed out from the trunks of trees;
— curachs or wicker-boats;
— and ordinary vessels – ships or boats, propelled by sails, or oars, or both combined, as occasion required.
The curach, (connected with Latin corium, ‘a hide’), was the best-known of all the Irish boats.
It was made of a wicker-work frame, covered with hides which were stitched together with thongs.
Some curachs had a double hide-covering, some a triple.
These boats are constantly mentioned in lay as well as in ecclesiastical literature, and also by Continental writers, the earliest of whom is Solinus in the third century.
We have accounts from the Early Christian monks of their journeys undertaken in skin boats, and later accounts of the building and use of curachs including those by Giraldus Cambresis (Gerald Of Wales) in the 12th Century and Capt. Thomas Philips in the 17th Century.
In the native Irish literature, as well as in the writings of English, Anglo-Irish, and foreign authors, there are many statements showing the intercourse and trade of Ireland, both outwards and inwards, with Britain and Continental countries.
Early foreign testimony:
The island was known to the Phoenicians, who probably visited it; and Greek writers mention it under the names Iernis and Ierne, and as the Sacred Island inhabited by the Hiberni.
Ptolemy, writing in the second century, who is known to have derived his information from Phoenician authorities, has given a description of Ireland much more accurate than that which he has left us of Great Britain.
That the people of Ireland carried on considerable trade with foreign countries in those early ages we know from the statement of Tacitus, that in his time, the end of the first century, the harbours of Ireland were better known to commercial nations than those of Britain.
The recent historic period has numerous accounts of curachs by early antiquarians and travellers in Ireland.
The earliest documented consistent information for the numbers of fishing boats in Ireland comes from the 1837 (First Report of the Commission of Inquiry into the State of the Fisheries), which indicates that thousands were in use along the west coast.
‘British Coracles and Irish Currachs’, (Hornell, 1938), gives us an overall view of the curach situation prior to World War ll.
Hornell provides historic information and good descriptions and drawings of the various curach types.
It was the most comprehensive study on curachs ever published, and is still widely quoted today.
The consistency in accounts from the early Middle Ages to the early modern period makes it likely that the construction and design of the curach underwent no fundamental change in this interval.
There is two thousand years of direct evidence of the use of skin boats in Ireland, and maritime archaeologists believe that such a long-standing tradition most probably stretches back to the Bronze Age in Europe.
The flimsy construction of the curach makes it unlikely that any remains would be available for the marine archaeologist, but its antiquity is clear from the written sources.
The Broighter Boat
The Broighter Hoard (1st Century BCE), is probably the greatest find of ancient artefacts of the Irish Iron Age.
It was discovered in 1896 by two Derry men, in a field adjacent to the shoreline of Lough Foyle, Northern Ireland.
In total it contained a model boat, a bowl, two chain necklaces, two rod twisted torcs and a hollow collar, all in gold.
This is a unique find in an Irish context and represents the earliest depiction of a sailing ship from Ireland.
The boat is very unusual for Iron Age Art in that it is not abstract but a beautiful representation of a prehistoric boat complete with mast and oars.
Finely crafted, it measures 18.4 cm long by 3 7.6 cm wide and weighs approximately 85g.
The vessel contains benches, rowlocks, two rows of nine oars and a paddle rudder for steering.
It also included tools for grappling, three forks, a yardarm and a spear.
The Lurgan Boat; Bronze Age dugout canoe
The oldest intact Irish vessel is a huge 15 metre logboat from Addergoole Bog, Lurgan, Co. Galway, Ireland, hollowed out from the trunk of an oak tree around 2500 BC.
National Museum of Ireland (Brioghter Hoard, Lurgan Boat). http://www.museum.ie
National Library of Ireland. http://www.nli.ie
‘A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland (1906): -Treating of the government, military system, and law; religion, learning, and art; trades, industries, and commerce; manners, customs, and domestic life, of the ancient Irish people’; by P.W. Joyce (Patrick Weston), 1827-1914. Publishers: London Dublin Longmans, Green 1906 M.H. Gill & Son.