If you’re having trouble processing the full implications of the fascinating new portmanteau ministry which has emerged this week from the formation of our latest government, not to worry. You’d be on your own if you weren’t a little bit bewildered. But as it happens, sailing folk can be of good cheer. When we look at it calmly, there’s good reason to believe that it was all put together in order to meet the needs and achievements of one of the best-known boats in Ireland, the Clondalkin community-built 43ft Galway hooker Naomh Cronan, a classic bad mor or big boat.
Naomh Cronan is in the news this week in any case. After 23 years of great sailing, good racing and some impressive voyaging from Poolbeg in Dublin Port, it’s the end of an era. She has joined the western trek of traditional craft, and is now within the remit of Badoiri an Cladaig, - the Claddagh Boatmen - in their traditional base at the mouth of the River Corrib in the heart of Galway City.
In that picturesque harbour, there used to be a huge fleet of traditional tanned-sail craft at a time when Clondalkin was still mostly just fine farming country, the only nautical connection being the Grand Canal heading west through meadowland from Dublin Bay towards the River Barrow and the lordly Shannon.
So that’s fine and dandy, say you, but what’s this about the new do-everything Department apparently being specifically assembled to meet the historical and present and future needs of the Naomh Cronan? Well, it’s all here in the fresh-minted Department’s title. And we ask our many overseas readers to bear with us, but this really is the name of the Hydra-headed administrative machine which has emerged from the undergrowth of political backroom wheeler-dealing in recent days.
It’s called the Department of Media, Tourism, Arts, Culture, Sport and The Gaeltacht. Seriously. In one of the most sports-mad nations on earth, the greatest passion of the majority of the population seems to be ranked fifth in priority in a wide selection of interests and specialities each of which might well - in a more detailed society - be worth a Department of its own, though we would concede that maybe Arts & Culture might go together in one.
But in any case, all is not as it initially seemed a few days ago, when the new setup was first announced. For as it happens, it may actually be three Departments in one. When the new conglomerate was revealed at the beginning of the week, it had just one Minister, who is a senior member of the Cabinet. But when the supporting Ministers of State were announced later in the week, two of them were allocated areas of interest across the new Department, which made it a much more positive and potentially productive arrangement.
But how on earth is it that this complex new multi-functional department seems to have been created precisely with the story of the Naomh Cronan in mind? Let us count the ways:
MEDIA: Check. Ever since her construction started as a project inaugurated by Muintir Chronain under the auspices of Aras Chronain Ionad Cultuir (the Irish Cultural Centre in Clondalkin, West Dublin) all of 27 years ago, Naomh Cronan has been an item of media interest ashore and afloat, her creation and vibrant existence being of interest both in themselves, and as an exercise for trainee communicators and other media wannabees.
TOURISM: Check. The evocative dark and distinctive sails of the Galway hookers slipping through the myriad waterways of Connemara and Galway Bay may be the ultimate iconic and eternally-remembered vision for visitors to the west - to l’Irelande profonde - yet from her East Coast base of 23 years, the Naomh Cronan has managed to become an Irish eastern ambassador with a western flavour at traditional sailing festivals in Scotland, the Isle of Man, Wales, England, Brest and Douarnenez in France, and all along the east and south coasts of Ireland too, from Belfast Lough to Glandore.
ARTS: Check. Naomh Cronan was an inspiration for painters and sculptors even before she went afloat, and under sail she has become a continuous source of fresh creative ideas. She brings music with her wherever she goes, indeed for many she is a floating moving symbol of Irish music and dance.
CULTURE: Check. Naomh Cronan could be nothing else except a quintessentially Irish boat telling us what we are and who we are, with the natural expressiveness, creativity, camaraderie and co-operation of her builders and crew translating effortlessly into action as needed, without undue fuss or superfluous seriousness.
SPORT: Check, and check again with emphasis. Racing a bad mor of the Galway Hooker tradition is not a sport for the faint-hearted. Yet although the hottest competition of the traditional boats is to be found in Connemara with stripped-out racing machines, even the Naomh Cronan with her cabin and sea-going accommodation can give a good showing of herself. She was has won several trophies over the year, a particularly memorable performance being put in at the annual Howth Lambay Race of 2013 when – with Paddy Murphy of Renvyle in West Galway, a one-man Irish dance troupe, guesting as helm – Naomh Cronan took second in the classics division despite much more modern-type boats in the competition.
THE GAELTACHT: Check. The Irish-speaking areas in their time-honoured and usually scenic locations may be most readily associated with Gaeltacht ways and language, but in West Dublin people really have to work at it to build up and maintain a living tradition. In Clondalkin and the area around it, they’ve achieved a remarkable level of success in Gaeltacht projects with much use of the language, with the Naomh Cronan being one of its symbols.
There you have it. All the boxes are well and truly ticked. So how is it that this ultimate expression of a fine ideal has now taken her departure from a community and an area and a port where she meant so much?
Well, life moves on. The situation that made Naomh Cronan fit in so well in her times has now changed. When she was built, there were several restored Galway Hookers of the bad mor type based on the East Coast, and their racing at places like Poolbeg and Portaferry and Howth was simply tremendous.
However, maintaining such boats is labour intensive - and hard labour at that - and key people got older. But perhaps most crucially of all, the Dublin to Galway motorway opened, the magic road to the west, so magic that it made it possible for people from Clondalkin and other places in west Dublin to get to the “true” hooker sailing areas on the Atlantic seaboard almost as quickly – and certainly with much less traffic hassle – than they would experience in getting to harbours in the Greater Dublin area.
So it soon got to the stage that the only bad mor in commission on the east coast was the Naomh Cronan of the Dublin Bay Old Gaffers Association at the ever-hospitable Poolbeg Y&BC, to which her crew had a fierce loyalty. But as time went on, increasing prosperity mean that people who in times past would have sought their sailing on the Naomh Cronan began to think of having boats of their own. And sunshine cruising holidays, with charter boats in places like the Greek Isles, also came up on the agenda.
Thus while Naomh Cronan had been great for her times in Dublin, in Dublin, those times were irrevocably changing, whereas in the west a new dawn has ben rising for traditional boats. The opportunity for a neat transfer of Naomh Cronan’s ownership - or more properly her custodianship - from Clondalkin to the Claddagh was there to be taken at exactly the right time.
But before looking to Naomh Cronan’s future now that she has become a welcome arrival in the west, we must acknowledge the enormous contribution made by those far-sighted and dedicated people who – 27 years ago – set about bringing this much-loved vessel into existence, and that at a time long before there seemed to be a government department entirely devoted to helping them fulfil the dream.
When Michael Heffernan and school headmaster Stiofan O Laoire and other key people in the Irish cultural movement in Clondalkin in West Dublin suggested to the likes of Gerry Keane and others in 1993 that Muintir na Chronain in their neighbourhood should add an extra focus to its activities by building a fully-fledged bad mor in the heart of their West Dublin community, it was something of a leap into the unknown. And that can be seen in this As Gaeilge 1996 RTE vid of the building underway, interviewing Michael Heffernan – even if you don’t have the cupla focal, it’s worth watching for the atmospherics alone here
For sure, the population of Clondalkin includes many talented carpenters and other craftsmen whose skills could be re-directed into such a project. But with this ultra-traditional type of boat, there were those who said that building such a craft needed to be done in a place with a long boat-building tradition. And notwithstanding the Grand Canal going through it, and the River Liffey not so very distant, Clondalkin as a boat-building centre didn’t tick any boxes at all..
But they persisted, and were given a boost by the late Joe Murphy of the renowned Ringsend boat-building family, who created a set of hull lines and building details of the standard hookers as they are today. They make for a fascinating comparison with the line drawings which were published by naval architect Dixon Kemp as taken off a champion hooker in 1891. For in 1891, the rudder was less radically raked than it is today, a continuing development which one might have thought has impaired the boat’s steering characteristics.
But as those who know the very small harbours of Connemara have pointed out, in their heartlands the hookers have to dry out in ports with only very small areas of clear sand between rock. Thus for the boats to dry out in comfort at low water, the shorter the keel can be made relative to the boat’s size, the better, for it means you get more boat for your confined berth thanks to the increasing tendency over the years to give the rudders this ferocious rake with the shortest possible length of keel.
Joe Murphy designed the hull and rig with some lovely drawings, but it was left to the folk in Clondalkin to shape their own coachroof and the accommodation they required. In those days, computer-generated imaging was still in its infancy, and the three-dimensional design challenge to provide the optimal accommodation was best done with work in progress.
It was such a clearly-defined and almost exotic project, with something to show for their efforts almost as soon as work had begun, that the building of the Naomh Cronan (she was named for the neighbourhood saint from the time of Ireland being “The Island of Saints & Scholars”) seemed to acquire its own momentum, with useful advice readily forthcoming from the many – experienced boatmen and boatbuilders among them – who wished the project well.
Admittedly it took four years to complete the build, but by this time the shared experience had created such a dedicated and friendly team within the cultural community within its own larger community, that it was almost with sadness they realized the building experience was nearing completion.
Soon, the big boat would be taken away to Dublin docks for launching, and though it was expected that in some winters she’d be back for maintenance work in her birthplace in Clondalkin, the focus inevitably was shifting elsewhere, and quite where and what that elsewhere would be was anyone’s guess.
But basically, the focus afloat from 1997 became Poolbeg, where a highly visible mooring in the River Liffey right beside the busy road to the Eastlink Bridge kept Naomh Cronan in the public eye, while her increasing appearance at sailing festivals near and far provided celebrity status all along the Celtic fringe, with useful experience-enhancing offshore sailing experience in between.
This busy sailing programme had come about through Paul Keogh, an energetic, focused and affable young man who joined the building team in the final year or two of construction and then proved the ideal person to become Naomh Cronan’s skipper, sailing manager and general keeper-of-the-show-on-the-road.
He has been in a leading role ever since, with Naomh Cronan actively sailed for 23 years. But he is nothing if not a realist, and by the time 2020 was upon us, he and other key figures were accepting that Naomh Cronan was reaching the stage that she needed major work to be done, and they had to look seriously at the expressions of interest from the Claddagh boatmen.
A central role in the changeover was filled by Donal Greene, a boatbuilder from Carna in Connemara who teaches woodwork in a school in Meath, and almost as a sideline is a genius with qualifications in computer work. The Naomh Cronan had discovered this when their big mast needed replacing, and Donal produced drawings and then did the new-build work to international standards.
With this link to the West and a high availability of talent in the COVID-19 shutdown, Donal Greene was able to provide Naomh Cronan with a major re-planking job in Malahide shipyard in the healthiest possible open-air conditions during that exceptional period of dry weather which mocked the rest of us in April and May. And with full survey requirements complied with, the easing of Lockdown last weekend saw Peter Connolly and Peter Carpenter of Badoiri an Cladaigh travel to Malahide for an inspection and a formal meeting with the Naomh Cronan team, followed by the signing of documents which saw the much-loved vessel transferred to the custodianship of the Claddagh Boatmen for the princely sum of €100.
It will take a while for it all to sink in, but the process has been aided by efficient logistics ever since, with Kennedy Haulage’s majestic boat-moving low loader sweeping into Malahide Boatyard on Wednesday afternoon. Many of the Naomh Cronan Clondalkin team are accustomed to working with heavy equipment, but even they were impressed by the crisp way in which Malahide Boatyard and the Kennedy setup moved into smoothly co-ordinated action, which saw their beloved bad mor transformed into just another handy little load ready for easy movement westward.
By 4.0pm, it was a case of: “The dogs bark, but the caravan moves on”. Naomh Cronan was gone from Malahide, and soon gone from Dublin too, without a thought of sentimentally swinging by Poolbeg or through Clondalkin, gone west and comfortably into Oranmore at the head of Galway Bay that evening.
Naomh Cronan was launched into the waters of the west at the quay at Galway Bay Sailing Club at Rinville on Thursday morning and had her mast stepped before the day was out. This weekend will see her being sorted while the new planking takes up, and then all being well on Tuesday she’ll sail across the upper reaches of Galway Bay and into The Claddagh to begin the latest chapter in a remarkable life story.
But meanwhile, her former sailors on the east coast won’t be at a loss for things to do around boats. While in Malahide working on the ship, Paul Keogh discovered that a hefty big sailing cruiser in the yard, fibreglass built and needing work done, but exuding character nevertheless, was very competitively for sale. Having done his duty and more with wooden construction and its maintenance in his many years with Naomh Cronan, he personally bought the boat in Malahide. For the foreseeable future, the Devil will not be finding work for idle hands.
However, the links with their former ship haven’t been broken entirely, with Paul Keogh and others becoming Trustees of Badoiri an Cladaig with a standing invitation to re-join their former ship at any time. Nevertheless, we are undoubtedly looking at the very clear end of an era.