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Let’s Make an Irish Currach!

Happy St. Patty’s Day! In the best tradition of craic, we’ll take the scenic route to talking about Ireland.

Julius Caesar was in Spain and unexpectedly needed a bridge. It was spring and he was in civil war against Pompey the Great, ally of Senate traditionalists. He was trying to outmaneuver Pompey’s armies when melting snow flooded the Sicoris River (now the Segre), trapping his troops with currents and swamps. Famine and disease set in. Caesar gave some of his men a novel command: quickly make wicker and leather boats. These were clearly not Roman ships, but Caesar’s little flotilla brought in men and supplies, they built the bridge, and drove his enemy away.

The boats Caesar’s troops made were knock-offs of the Irish currach, which he’d seen plying what today we know as the English Channel. These craft enabled trade between Ireland, Britain, and the continent. He marveled at their efficiency, describing them as being constructed “from the lightest wood.” Once again Caesar’s careful attention to detail and embrace of innovation paid off, this time in a victorious Iberian campaign.

The currach dates back perhaps thousands of years before Caesar. Contemporary currachs are generally rowers’ racing boats, longer and slenderer than their fishing boat antecedents. Their ribs are now most often made of thin plank wood and the “hides” are tarred canvas. Ireland has notably used the end of the island’s historic poverty to become a leading voice for the famine-wracked and refugee peoples of today, and more joyfully to revive its arts, language, and cultural heritage. Currach building and racing is perhaps the most prominent nautical expression of this renewed flourishing.

On this St. Patrick’s Day 2017, let’s commit to making a currach from sustainable and recycled materials by May of 2018! Sooner? It also happens that May 16 is the feast day of Brendan the Navigator, who many Irish believe crossed to America by currach long before other Europeans. HarborLAB makes ancient boats from cultures around the world. Last year we made one from bound phragmites reeds, inspired by boats made in Ethiopia and the First Nations of the Americas.

There’s practical value to this project as well. Being lightweight, a currach would be easy to raise and lower at the GreenLaunch. It would be suitable for Newtown Creek exploration because it would cause minimal water contact, and could carry research equipment. A rowboat would be excellent for students because an introduction to rowing could lead to sculling, a scholarship sport. And of course Western Queens has a large, enthusiastic Irish community! We have woodworkers and other craftspeople and artists too!

Friends to the north at Yonkers Paddling and Rowing Club made the construction of a coracle, a rounder wee cousin to the currach, their winter project.

YPRC coracle under construction. Photo by Patricia Slaven.

A line from the poem “An tlascaire” by Maidhc Sé reads, “Nothing but a smooth, tarred canvas between him and eternity. . .” Well, less forebodingly there’s nothing but a few weekends of work between us and learning adventures aboard a currach!

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