James Madigan is well-known throughout Ireland for his boat building skills and his role in preserving traditional boat types. I first got to see James’s craftsmanship when I joined up with students and teachers from the Raheen Wood Steiner Secondary School at Lough Derg, Co. Clare in June 2021. The school spent the day rowing beautifully-built west Clare currachs on the lake. Some of the currachs being used were made by the well-known Clare currach building brothers, James and Alan Madigan.
Regattas are perfect occasions to meet individuals and groups involved, at all levels, in the promotion of our traditional boats. An opportunity to meet up with James came last month when the Kilrush Regatta gathered currach enthusiasts from Clare, Galway, Cork, Dublin and Carlingford Lough on the shores of the Shannon Estuary. The regatta’s main event was a tough row of approximately three kilometres from Kilrush to Scattery Island (Inis Cathaigh).
Before the day’s racing began, I met with James at Kilrush Boatyard to talk about all things currach related. Several currachs tied up awaiting their rowers gave ample material for conversation. Beginning with a Scattery Island pilot currach, built by the West Clare Currach Club, James explained the differences between the currachs of the west coast.
A history of the pilot boats is available on the Scattery Island Heritage section of Our Irish Heritage and can be read here. Patrick Galvin is a marine pilot on the Shannon Estuary. His mother’s family hail from Scattery Island and Patrick shared a photo on Our Irish Heritage of his grandfather in a pilot boat, which you can view here.
There are no more examples left of the 24-26 feet long Scattery pilot. James’s grandfather Sinon Blunnie was the last of the commercial currach builders and built Scattery Island currachs in his workshop overlooking Kilrush Harbour. It was in that workshop, with no electricity or running water, that a teenage James learned the craft of boat building from his grandfather.
Conditions in the workshop often made work difficult. Sinon would set a turf fire and place a five gallon drum of tar on it. When boiled the tar would be spread over the skin of the boat to waterproof it. It was James’s role to stir the hot tar, which was a precarious task because aside from tar splashes, if the tar boiled over and made contact with the fire it could cause an explosion. The boiling tar had to be watched cautiously and if it became too animated, a wet cut of carpet kept close to the stirrer would be immediately placed over the drum to contain the tar. Tar is no longer available and that is no harm according to James. He finds the nylon or polyester skin with a bitumen paint to be much better as it lasts longer, it’s cleaner and it’s safer.
While James does not build currachs as often as he did in the past, he is generous with his time and is keen to share his knowledge of the iconic boat. As the currachs were dragged further into the water in advance of the racing, James explained the changes made to the currach design that assist a faster row. The Kilrush currachs are higher and wider, making them more dependable in poor weather. However, those characteristics mean they are not as fast as the Connemara currachs. Metal thole pins have replaced wooden ones and the racing currachs have adjustable foot stretches, where once they were fixed.
In their working days, when used for salmon drift net fishing, the West Clare currach would have required two men. Their modern racing descendants require three men on the oars. The racing currachs originate from the salmon fishing boats. In the absence of any surviving and available traditional Clare currachs, James has agreed to build one for the National Museum of Ireland using the traditional methods and hand tools used when working with his grandfather. There will be more on that project later this year. Before leaving Co. Clare I travelled west to Kilkee where I was informed a number of currachs, old and new, were stored outdoors. A perfect opportunity to add to our growing photo database.
My thanks to James Madigan and to Stephen O’Brien, Pat Casey and Dixie Collins of the West Clare Currach Club.
Sea Currach Making as part of Ireland’s National Inventory of Intangible Cultural Heritage. The contact organisation is the West Clare Currach Club.