Curraghs or Currachs in Ancient Ireland

From A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland 1906

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CHAPTER XXIV....continued

4. Communication by Water.

The boats used by the ancient Irish may be roughly classified as of three kinds:—canoes hollowed out from the trunks of trees; curraghs or wicker-boats; and ordinary vessels—ships or boats —propelled by sails, or oars, or both combined, as occasion required.

The single-piece canoes were very common, especially in connexion with crannoges, where they were used to communicate with shore. Many of these have in late times been found in bogs at the bottom of dried-up lakes and near old crannoges, varying in length from 50 or 60 feet down to six or eight: and numbers of them may be seen in the National Museum in Dublin.

The curragh (Irish form 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 curraghs 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. They are used still round the coasts, but tarred canvas is employed instead of skins. They were propelled by oars or sails according to circumstances.

Many curraghs were so small and light as to be easily carried on a man's back from creek to creek overland, as Giraldus says the Welsh were accustomed to carry their wicker boats: and as people sometimes do to this day in Ireland.

The mode of constructing curraghs has been described by foreign as well as by Irish writers. St. Brendan and his companions, in preparation for their voyage on the Atlantic, "using iron tools [saws, hammers, chisels, &c.], prepared a very light vessel, with wickerwork sides and ribs, after the manner of that country, and covered it with cowhide, tanned in oak-bark, tarring its joints: and they put on board provisions for forty days, with butter enough to dress hides for covering the boat [whenever the covering needed repair], and all utensils necessary for the use of the crew." Curraghs, when intended for long voyages, were made large and strong, furnished with masts and solid decks and seats, and having the hides tanned.

By far the greatest part of the water-communication round the coasts and across the narrow seas, as well as in the lakes and rivers, of Great Britain and Ireland, was carried on in those early days by curraghs, 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, as mentioned at p. 83 et seq. These voyages they made in curraghs: and Gildas pictures hordes of them as landing from such vessels. Breccán, grandson of Niall of the Nine Hostages, had a fleet of fifty curraghs trading between Ireland and Scotland, till they were all swallowed up in the terrible whirlpool near Rathlin Island, which thenceforward took the name of Coire-Bhreccain [corrie-vreckan], Breccan's caldron or whirlpool.*

Many of the ordinary vessels used by the Irish in foreign commerce must have been large; otherwise they could not have traded with Continental ports, as we know they did (p. 495, below). In the Book of Rights it is mentioned that part of the yearly tribute from the king of Cashel to the king of Ireland consisted of "ten ships with beds," as much as to say they were large enough to contain sleeping-berths. There were, and are, several names for a ship, but the most general is long.

Ferry-boats were in common use in rivers; and they are often mentioned in the Brehon Laws as subject to strict regulations. They were sometimes owned by individuals, and were sometimes the common property of the people living round the ferry. If a church or monastery happened to be near a river where there was no bridge or ford, the inmates kept a little ferry-boat for their own convenience and for the free use of travellers. Pleasure boating parties were usual in those days as well as now: and young folk were just as inclined to indulge in boisterous merriment; of which it would seem the Brehon Law was in a way conscious; for it prescribes compensation in case the boat was injured during a pleasure excursion.

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* This whirlpool, which is still well known, but now called Slugnamara ('swallow of the sea'), lies between Rathlin and the coast of Antrim. It was the original Corrievreckan; but its name was borrowed for the dangerous whirlpool between the islands of Scarba and Jura, in Scotland, mentioned in The Lord of the Isles. See Irish Names of Places, vol. II., page 432.