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Traditional Boat Festivals on Ireland’s West & East Coasts This Weekend

10th August 2019
Stately workhorses of the west – the Galway Hookers showcase their highly individual style at the Cruinniu na mBad at Kinvara this weekend in a three day festival Stately workhorses of the west – the Galway Hookers showcase their highly individual style at the Cruinniu na mBad at Kinvara this weekend in a three day festival

After a week of thinking maybe too much about modern and ultra-modern boats contesting the Fastnet Race and Calves Week at Schull, it’s a comforting relaxation to settle gently into contemplation of this weekend’s annual Crunniu na mBad (The Gathering of the Boats) for traditional boats and Irish culture at Kinvara on the west coast, and the championship of the venerable Seventeen Footer class at Howth on the eastern seaboard writes W M Nixon.

Not that the racing, in either case, is a matter of comfortable relaxation. With the Howth Seventeens, it’s the quality of the sport that has kept them going since 1898, unchanged from their original jackyard-topsail-setting design. And with 18 boats in commission this year, the old class is truly fighting fit. That said, the way this weekend’s low pressure area has been behaving, the winds on the east coast have tended to be stronger than in the west, so the Seventeens cancelled their first race scheduled for last night, and start the competition this morning (Saturday).

seventeens at stack2Summertime on the East Coast. The Howth Seventeens Isobel (Conor & Brian Turvey) and Leila (Roddy Cooper) beating into the sea breeze as they approach The Stack at the east point of the island of Ireland’s Eye off Howth. The stack is one of Ireland’s more recent gannetries – the first pair of gannets nested there in 1989, and now the colony is so strong it has spread to the nearby island despite the threat of rats, while a new sub-colony has been formed on a rock on the north side of Lambay six miles away. Photo: Tom Ryan

Cruinnui na mBad is a much more complex affair organised by Dr Mick Brogan and his team, an extraordinary interaction between sea and land which was started by the late Tony Moylan in 1979 – making this its 40th Anniversary – to commemorate and celebrate the fact that in times past, and particularly in August, the traditional Hookers of Connemara would sail right up Galway Bay and into the sweet natural harbour of Kinvara carrying turf.

Kinvara is at the heart of a relatively lush area which is very different from Connemara, and thus lacking in readily-available natural supplies of the traditional fuel. So the voyage there with a useful consignment of winter warmth had a natural harmony, and of course, the safe arrival and discharge of the cargo was something for celebration in the Pier Head bar and other hostelries in the popular little village by sailors and locals alike.

kinvara poster3This weekend sees the fortieth annual Cruinnui na mBad – the late Tony Moylan (second left) was the main mover in founding it back in 1979
These days, the useful motorway from Dublin to Galway, plus the continuing strength of trad-boat enthusiasm in both Connemara and in Galway city itself, has seen a resurgence of life in the traditional sailing boats of the west. The convenience of the motorway means that any Galway hooker enthusiast living in the outskirts of the greater Dublin area can be with their special craft on Galway Bay as quickly as the boat could be reached at a Dun Laoghaire, Poolbeg or Howth harbour berth, and needless to say berthing charges in the west are a very different proposition – indeed, in some of the more picturesque places, the traditional boats should be paid appearance money…….

Certainly, it’s the massed appearance of the Galway Hookers in all sizes which is the making of the Kinvara festival, even if the music and dancing and singing and festivities seem to grow with every year. The time-honoured ceremony of discharging the turf cargo is completed on the quay in the heart of the village today at 4.0pm, while as the tide make towards high water the racing gets underway today at 2.30pm at Parkmore for the Gleoiteog Race, and for the bigger boats at 2.0 pm tomorrow (Sunday), starting and finishing almost in the heart of town.

heavy hooker racing4The Galway Hookers may be the historic representatives of an ancient type, but they are hard raced nevertheless. Photo: Paul Harris
Last year in the four divisions, the winner of the Bad Mor (big boat) Class was the Tonai, skippered by Mairtin O’Brien, while the slightly smaller Leath Bad (half boat) class went to Croi na Cladaigh, built in 2012 in Galway city by Peter Connolly, and raced on the day by the legendary Colie Hernon.

John Flaherty sailing the Gleoitog Mor Naomh Cailin was the winner in that class, while the small boats of the Gleoitog division were led in by Colie og Hernon. All this was only part of the sport afloat, as the seaweed raft racing took place right in the harbour, and simply staying afloat was as important as winning.

seaweed raft4aTank-tested design for a seaweed raft……..Photo Pierce Purcell Jnr
croi na cladaig5 The leath bad Croi na Cladaig (Peter Connolly) was raced by Colie Hernon to the class win in 2018

With this weekend’s volatile weather, several boats from Connemara had already made the prudent decision to get themselves to Kinvara before the current low-pressure system began to do its worst, and as of last night there were already nearly 30 of those classic hulls to be seen at the quay.

As it happens, the low-pressure area itself had filled a bit over the land, but as ever there always a vicious twist or two in the tail in the form of sudden squalls and maybe thunderstorms as the system re-gathers strength over the North Sea. But nevertheless the unusual situation has developed where there may be more wind on the east coast than in the west, so all being well the racing programme will be completed at Kinvara in a westerly today, and a moderate to fresh northwest to north breeze tomorrow

Whatever the outcome, the underlying trend in the Connacht traditional boat movement is healthy, and the latest piece of good news is that the famous True Light, after quietly decaying for a number of years, has been bought by a quartet of new owners, and they’re bringing her to Galway city itself for a complete restoration in the same place as the much-admired Gentle Ann was given new life.

big boats6 The timeless image of the west – boats of the Bad Mor class racing at Kinvara

kinvara summmer7High summer in Kinvara – Dungaire Castle in foreground, and the village itself beyond, with the hills and mountains of The Burren in the distance
With the Howth Seventeens all being based in the one harbour and most owners living almost within walking distance, the decision to cancel the first race last night was not a big deal. So for now we should enjoy some unusual photos of these little boats taken by Tom Ryan who - in addition to a day job - is Assistant Cox’n of Howth Lifeboat, and is also an amateur photographer (using the moniker Stormy Photos) who enjoys finding unusual shots out on his RIB or up on the cliffs in Howth.

It takes a fresh eye to remind us of what an odd and exotic place is the Howth Peninsula, for inevitably we sometimes tend to take it for granted, yet all these images were obtained within a couple of kilometres of where I’m sitting writing this.

seventeens from cliff8 The Howth 17s in close formation – Aura (No 7, Ian Malcolm, foreground) has been winning in Dublin Bay, but the Masseys and Mikey Twomey in Deilginis (No 11, right) have been winning in home waters, while success has also been recorded by Brian and Conor Turvey in the silver-hulled Isobel (No 19), Peter Courtney in the yellow-hulled Oonagh (No 17), and John Curley and Marcus Lynch in the white-hulled Rita (No 1). Photo: Tom Ryan

And as for the Howth Seventeens racing, the word is that Ian Malcolm with the 1898-built Aura has been winning when it involves going south of the Baily, as he topped the class in the VDLR19 Regatta in Dublin Bay and also won in the annual race to Clontarf for the recent Clontarf Y&BC “At Home”. 

seventeens howth head9Hugging the cliffs to beat the tide. As the Clontard Y&BC At Home is held in a tidal venue, the Howth 17s have to push the tide to get there, so they go close in under the cliffs of Howth Head, and then they have the plug the new ebb to get home again. Photo: Tom Ryan

But in home waters north from the harbour, defending champion Deilginis (built 1907, Massey family & Mikey Twomey) has been setting the pace, but well challenged by Conor and Brian Turvey in Isobel (built 1988), Peter Courtney in the 1909-built Oonagh, and Marcus Lynch and John Curley in Rita, another of the original 1898 boats.

Although there seems to be an increase in the use of the Howth Seventeens for day sailing as the young tearaways of yesterday become parents and hope to get their own young children to enjoy sailing as much as they do, it is still the racing which is the cement which holds the class together At 121 years old and still going strong, it’s quite something.

seventeens irelands eye10Still racing where they’ve been racing for 121 years – the Howth 17s with Ireland’s Eye beyond. Photo: Tom Ryan

WM Nixon

About The Author

WM Nixon

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William M Nixon has been writing about sailing in Ireland for many years in print and online, and his work has appeared internationally in magazines and books. His own experience ranges from club sailing to international offshore events, and he has cruised extensively under sail, often in his own boats which have ranged in size from an 11ft dinghy to a 35ft cruiser-racer. He has also been involved in the administration of several sailing organisations.

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William M Nixon has been writing about sailing in Ireland and internationally for many years, with his work appearing in leading sailing publications on both sides of the Atlantic. He has been a regular sailing columnist for four decades with national newspapers in Dublin, and has had several sailing books published in Ireland, the UK, and the US. An active sailor, he has owned a number of boats ranging from a Mirror dinghy to a Contessa 35 cruiser-racer, and has been directly involved in building and campaigning two offshore racers. His cruising experience ranges from Iceland to Spain as well as the Caribbean and the Mediterranean, and he has raced three times in both the Fastnet and Round Ireland Races, in addition to sailing on two round Ireland records. A member for ten years of the Council of the Irish Yachting Association (now the Irish Sailing Association), he has been writing for, and at times editing, Ireland's national sailing magazine since its earliest version more than forty years ago

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