January 12, 2012
The currach is as identifiable with the green, green shores of Ireland as the harp, the shamrock and the IMF bail out. And while no longer needed as a means of survival Danny O Flaherty has committed the last 20 years of his life to reviving the popularity of the boat. First by forming Coiste Lar Na gCurrachai (Central Currach Committee), with the objective of promoting currach racing in Ireland and then by forming the Celtic Nations Heritage Foundation, who host the annual World Cup Currach Regatta in his adopted home of Louisiana.
Like many Irish Americans, he has never really gotten over the country of his birth. Leaving his home in Ardmore, Co Galway in 1967, his journey has taken him first to London, then Chicago and then all over the Unites States as a member of The Irish Minstrels, a traditional Irish folk group with whom he recorded two albums. He settled in New Orleans in 1984 but often looked back at the country he once delighted in.
As Ireland established herself on the European stage in the early 90s he became dismayed by what he saw. Interest in our national tongue and music was dissipating and his beloved currachs, from which he derived so much pleasure as a youth, were close to becoming obsolete. In an effort to keep the tradition alive he got together with some other currach enthusiasts to form Coiste Lar Na gCurrachai in 1994.
“Before we set up the Coiste, there were only two counties — Galway and Kerry — rowing in any kind of regular fashion,” Danny says. “So our objective was to establish set rules and dates for regattas and to encourage other counties and regions to row.” Currach clubs began to spring up all along the western seaboard from Donegal to County Cork and a points system was devised to encourage regular activity. “You get a certain amount of points for coming first, second, third and fourth,” says Danny “and the more you compete the more points you pick up.”
Competition is fierce and missing even a single regatta can make all the difference between winning and loosing. In the past competitors were known for getting a little dirty on the water. “Everything was foul,” says Michael King, chairman of the Coiste. “People would obstruct the boat behind them if the thought it was going to over take them, they would flick oars out of the water, that kind of thing.” So they introduced rules and a referee who sails alongside the currachs in a speedboat to make sure that everything is in order. He also keeps those back on shore informed of what is happening out of their eyesight via radio.
There are 12 senior men’s, four ladies and six junior teams competing nationwide. About 80 people in total. They race every weekend at different events along the western seaboard using four standard currachs, provided by the Coiste. “Each club pays an annual levy of €200 to rent the boats,” says King, “which are fully serviced and used only for racing”.
The type of race differs from bay to bay but typically four currachs row to a distant buoy, round it in a particular fashion and pelt it back to cross the finish line first. There is a certain technique involved since if you don’t slow down as you approach the buoy you’ll shoot past it and if you don’t go round it the right way you have to go back and try again. “You have to understand about winds and tides and all of that as well,” says King.
There are four heats with four teams in each race with the top two qualifying for the semi finals from which the four finalists are chosen. The Regattas in Ireland take place between May and August, though the temperamental Irish weather can see the season dragged out until September, with teams training all year round.
“We take the boat out three times a week between February and May and twice a week when were in action” says Eileen Quirke, a childcare supervisor from Kerry. “We take two boats out so we can be in a racing situation, set out courses, conduct sprints and work on endurance and co-ordination.”
When the weather gets too rough they use the treadmill and the rowing machine and it takes a major commitment from all involved. As well as the training they have to commute along the western seaboard almost every weekend in their continual search for points.
“Basically you’re social life is doomed for the summer” says Leah O’Sullivan a 33-year old playschool teacher who rows with the West Clare Currach Club but is originally from Clondalkin, Co Dublin. “There is no drinking and no smoking and you have to watch what you eat.” Quirke, who has been rowing for over 30 years, has noticed that people have gotten a lot more diet conscious of late. “Before we would just eat the regular stuff and hop in the boat for a bit of fun. Now we eat high protein, high-energy diets. Pastas and a lot of supplements.”
The sports gear is simple but needs to be durable. “Even having a pocket in the wrong place can totally throw you” says Quirke. So it’s tracksuit pants, tight tops and a boot with a heel in it. The tracksuit has to be made of a particular material “or you’ll end up with a backside that looks like it came off of a meat slicer,” says Quirke. By the end of the season their hands are also covered in calluses.
To encourage regular attendance the male and female teams with the most points at the end of the season win an all expenses paid trip to compete against their American brethren at The World Cup Currach Regatta in Louisiana. Last year both the male and female champions hailed from Galway, succeeding the reigning champions from Kerry and Clare. Because of the economic troubles, The Celtic Heritage Foundation which organises the regatta was unable to afford the price of the flight in 2009 so they worked extra hard at raising the funds to bring both sets of winners to the Regatta in 2010 (Due to injury the Clare team were replaced on the trip by their runner ups who also hailed from Galway).
“We underwrite all the expenses,” says Danny. “We don’t get any help of the tourism board, who are only too willing to put currachs into their publicity shots.” It costs the Celtic Heritage Foundation around $15,000 between airfares, transportation and other added costs and they are relying on the charity of the people of Louisiana and Lake Charles to house the competitors. “The Hilton in New Orleans used to put people up for the week but because of the economy they’re unable to do that any more.”
The recession has had a larger effect on currach racing stateside than it has had here. “Everyone is sitting on their wallets,” says Pat Clarke who is the captain of the Pittsburgh Irish Rowing Club. “We used to be heavily sponsored by construction companies but the economic crash killed that dead.”
While the only real expense in Ireland is your lifejacket and your dues, in America it’s a far costlier sport with each club having to rent a marina, buy their currachs and trailers and shell out for travel. “The nearest race to us is Columbus,” says Kristen Scheuing, the Milwaukee captain, “and that’s over seven hours away.”
Ironically, organised competitive currach racing began in The United States before starting up in Ireland when economic migrants in Boston began competing against fellow immigrants in Annapolis and New York City in the early 80s.Pittsburgh joined soon after, then Albany and by 1982 there were seven teams who bandied together to form the North American Currach Association. It established conformity in the sport, standerdising the boats and setting dates for the regattas.
Their season runs from June to September with each club hosting a regatta. While the winners are presented with little trophies and medals the main focus is on attaining bragging rights. “It’s a small group but we see each other seven times a year,” says Scheuing. “It’s supper competitive. Even if we are all a little older, we might not all be in the best of shape, we all want to get out there and kill the other side.”
Danny has spent 25 years encouraging a strong Celtic revival in the Southern states but his efforts were dealt a serious body blow when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. “A lot of the people who were involved left and we cannot contact them. They may have moved to Seattle, Washington, Georgia permanently. So we need to attract new blood to the sport. But trying to interest people in a cultural event is very difficult when they are trying to rebuild their homes and their lives.” Danny spends much of his time fundraising and forming separate committees to ensure that the sport remains visible in America.
Although there are no set figures, he estimates that there are over 1,000 people actively involved in Currach racing around the world. “The game plan we had in the early ’90s is working,” Danny says. “But we’re still behind in our efforts of getting the youth involved. We need to get children out in the boats. We need to pass the torch on to future generations.”
He hopes that the Irish Government will give the Coiste some funding in future so that they can implement a programme educating school children about their Celtic marine heritage. “We’re not just a group of people getting together and rowing a boat. We’re making a conscious effort to keep our language, music and all parts of our culture alive.”