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Displaying items by tag: Tim Severin

When the Courtmacsherry Harbour Boat Club was founded ten years ago, the late Tim Severin - the neighbourhood's own legendary sea adventurer and explorer of international renown - found himself in several roles at the inaugural gathering. Naturally, he was listed as a Founding Member. But he was an Honorary Member too. He was also Guest of Honour. And he was the CHBC inaugural speaker as well.

Severin – who died at home near Courtmacsherry on December 18th age 80 – had in his time given very high-powered talks to organisations of the calibre of the Royal Geographical Society in London and the National Geographic Society in the US on such topics as his "voyaging archaeology" re-enactments of classical mythology such as Jason and the Argonauts, and Sindbad to the Far East.

But in Courtmac on that first meeting of the little club a decade ago - as fellow CHBC founder member Norman Kean of the Irish Cruising Club Sailing Directions recalls it - all they were interested in hearing about was his 1976-77 breakthrough re-creation of the supposedly-mythical voyaging of St Brendan the Navigator in an oversize traditionally-built currach, sailing from Ireland to the Scottish Hebrides, the Faroes, Iceland, Greenland and eventually to North America at Newfoundland.

At the time in the late 1970s, it made a remarkable impact. It showed that the kind of boat technology which would have been available to Brendan the Navigator when he was supposedly making his extraordinary voyages around 512-530 AD could have provided a boat capable of crossing the North Atlantic east to west.

Tim Severin at home in his beloved West CorkHis own man, and something of an enigma with it – Tim Severin at home in his beloved West Cork

But at that very special little Courtmacsherry meeting in 2010, Tim Severin made a remarkable admission. He said that it was lucky that the Brendan voyage was his first major ocean-going project.

For if he'd contemplated undertaking it after gaining the seafaring experience of the Jason voyage and the Sindbad expedition, he would have reckoned that a cold water voyage with ice risk in a 36ft slip of a boat whose oxhide skin could be sliced by the smallest ice floe was impossibly dangerous, and he'd have turned his attention elsewhere.

Yet in contemplating the lifepath of Tim Severin, the Brendan voyage was a seminal event which simply had to be achieved before anything else could fall properly into place. Though quite where that place might be could be vague enough. For although he seemed quintessentially English living quietly around Courtmacsherry and Timoleague, he had an Irish passport and citizenship for at least the final thirty years of his long life. Yet he was the fourth generation of his family to be born in India where his father was a tea planter, while in one interpretation, the name Severin has distinct Balkan connections.

Be that as it may, as a "colonial brat" he excelled so much at school in England that he was able to take a gap year travelling with much enjoyment across the US before taking up a place at Oxford where, in one of the long vacations, he teamed up with a couple of fellow students – one of them Stanley Johnson, father of Boris – to re-trace on motor-bikes the route of Marco Polo to China.

Under-pinning the scheme was a project whereby a friend would write a book about it all. But his efforts being rejected by the publisher, somehow Severin himself ended up becoming the author, and with the publication of Tracking Marco Polo in 1964 – possibly his most straightforwardly entertaining book, but then none of his other ventures involved Stanley Johnson - the first seeds of Severin's career were planted.

Courtmacsherry in high summer. On such a day in 1970, Tim Severin stopped by for a pint – and stayedCourtmacsherry in high summer. On such a day in 1970, Tim Severin stopped by for a pint – and stayed

Yet it didn't go completely smoothly at first either professionally or privately, and around 1970 he arrived in West Cork seeking escape and a cheap place to live. Some say he was travelling in an ancient Volkswagen Beetle, others say he was back-packing and hitching. But either way, on one of those days of high summer when West Cork slumbers as only West Cork can, he wandered into the pub in Courtmacsherry where two or three afternoon pint men were escaping the glare of the sun, and felt his cares slip away.

He was a man of few words, reticent and reserved rather than shy, but it wasn't long before he found himself asking how you might rent or even buy a house in this place.

Three voices responded as one: "Which house might you be thinking of buying?" Within minutes, Tim Severin was on his way to being a resident of the Courtmacsherry area, with his only change of address in the years ahead being an eventual move a few miles up the road to Inchy Bridge close inland of Timoleague, where he and his wife created their ideal homeplace while prudently supporting it with a little complex of holiday cottages which were always there to provide income if his latest in a series of remarkable expeditions failed to meet its financial targets.

This was always a possibility because Tim Severin was very far indeed from being a successful showman-explorer in the contemporary 24/7 communications style. If a camera was being used, he much preferred to be behind it rather than on screen. So for someone who so cherished his personal privacy, he was maybe in the wrong line of business altogether.

For although his commitment to life in West Cork was such that he readily agreed to open maritime art shows and talk to the Glandore Classic Boat Summer School and speak at the inaugural meeting of the Courtmacsherry Harbour Boat Club, it was the silent solitary technical challenges of these mythological re-enactments which most interested him, rather than publicly performing after they'd been completed.

It was some time after he'd settled in Courtmacsherry that the notion of the Brendan voyage began to develop, and he planned each step with much thought. Logically, if you wanted to build a large currach, then first choice would surely be to seek out a traditional builder in the currach heartlands in north Kerry at the Maharees, or further north in Connemara.

But he'd put that noted boat designer Colin Mudie (he did the design for the re-creation of the Dunbrody at New Ross) to work on the project in drawing the lines, and as they wanted to be totally traditional in using greased oxhide rather than the tarred canvas universally used in both Kerry and Connemara, they reckoned that what was needed was space in an established boatyard where they could experiment without getting bewildering input from many experts. And thus did Tim Severin find his way to the overall boss of Crosshaven Boatyard, the one and only Denis Doyle.

The building of the Brendan currach in Crosshaven Boatyard offered a very special olfactory experience"Just follow your nose" – the building of the Brendan currach in Crosshaven Boatyard offered a very special olfactory experience

Crosshaven Boatyard was of course only one of The Doyler's many business interests, but as he'd already built Francis Chichester's much-liked Gipsy Moth V there in 1970, he'd a taste for something special and unusual. He and Tim Severin had dinner together to assess each other and discuss the possibility of a yard accustomed to wood building to the highest international standards taking on the construction of an oxhide traditional boat using almost prehistoric technology, and those two very different men got on so well that within weeks construction was under way in Crosshaven.

For six months a supposedly semi-secret section of the yard stank to high heaven with the smell of oxhide and other ancient and extremely organic substances. Thus it was the most enormous relief to all involved when the Brendan currach was launched, and they could see about restoring that much-loved traditional wooden boatyard aroma.

Brendan launching at Crosshaven in 1976Brendan launching at Crosshaven in 1976. In a remarkable historic conjunction, the Strand Farmhouse beyond on the shore in Currabinny had only recently become Ron Holland's first proper design studio

Meanwhile, the Brendan juggernaut was gathering pace with sponsorship from the National Geographic and – curiously enough – The Reader's Digest, such that for someone of Tim Severin's retiring nature, it must have been a monumental effort of self-control to endure the huge circus around the seemingly fragile boat's departure, which was from Brandan Creek immediately west of Mount Brandon on the north coast of the Dingle Peninsula.

The Brendan currach free at last, at sea off Brandon Creek at the start of the voyage.The Brendan currach free at last, at sea off Brandon Creek at the start of the voyage.

But once on their way, he became himself. Observing Irish crewman Wallace Clark – who was aboard for the section to the Hebrides – finding frustration in a period of very slow progress, he smiled gently and quietly remarked: "We all now have to think ourselves back into a pre-mediaeval frame of mind. We may have an objective. But we don't have a schedule - in fact, we've no concept of a schedule."

Thanks to the gradual prevalence of this mindset, the Brendan voyage was eventually successfully completed, albeit with some experiences of real life-and-death hazards. The theory was proven, and the fame was established such that though The Brendan Voyage was Tim Severin's seventh book - and there were to be many others that followed it – increasingly it is this one achievement which defines him.

Tim Severin in 2016 with the Brendan in Craggaunowen Heritage Centre, Kilmurry, Co Clare.Tim Severin in 2016 with the Brendan in Craggaunowen Heritage Centre, Kilmurry, Co Clare.

And while Tim Severin may have gone from among us, both the currach and the words and music she inspired live on. The Brendan currach is preserved at Craggaunowen in County Clare, while three years after the voyage was completed, the sublime orchestral music of The Brendan Voyage was recorded for the first time in 1980.

Written by Shaun Davey - whose childhood summers had been spent in and around boats at Cultra on Belfast Lough - it was the first time the traditional uilleann pipes had been blended with an orchestra, with the pipes played by the late Liam O'Flynn in a convincing style which made them the little boat, while the orchestra became all the elements in which she sailed.

Part of The Brendan Voyage by Shaun Davey

Today, it's more popular than ever. As for the man who filled the key role in its inspiration, Tim Severin continued writing to the end, his final works being historical novels which explored the relationship between Ireland and the Vikings, and of Spanish-Irish seafarers in a continuation of his special relationship with his adopted home. Ireland was good for Tim Severin, and Tim Severin was very good for Ireland. His was a long and fulfilled life which touched the lives of many people, and our thoughts are with his family and friends.

WMN

Published in News Update
Tagged under

A famed adventurer who crossed the Atlantic by currach in a journey inspired by the story of Brendan the Navigator has died at the age of 80, as RTÉ News reports.

Tim Severin set out in 1976 on the epic 7,200km journey in a hand-built currach from Co Kerry, via the Hebrides in Scotland, the Faroe Islands, Iceland and Greenland to Newfoundland in Canada.

It marked the first of a series of recreations of voyages inspired by legendary events — which included sailing from Oman to China by dhow in the vein of Sinbad, and following the odysseys of Ulysses and Jason and the Argonauts.

But Severin’s connection to Ireland remained as he made his residence in West Cork, where he died peacefully at home.

Published in Historic Boats

We may be an island nation, but are we a maritime people in our outlook and way of life? It could be reasonably argued that we most definitely aren’t. On last night’s Seascapes, the maritime programme on RTE Radio 1, Afloat.ie’s W M Nixon put forward a theory as to why this should be so. It’s based on a premise so simple that you’d be very confident somebody else must have pointed it out a long time ago. Yet despite Nixon’s notion being in the realms of the bleeding obvious, even with the aid of Google we cannot find any other commentator or historian making a straightforward suggestion along these lines, but will gladly welcome proof to the contrary.

Why aren’t we Irish one of the world’s great seafaring people? After all, we live on one of the most clearly defined islands on the planet. And it’s an island which is strategically located on international sea trading routes, set in the midst of a potentially fish-rich sea. Our coastline, meanwhile, is well blessed with natural havens, many of which are in turn conveniently connected to our hinterland by fine rivers which, in any truly boat-minded society, would naturally form an integrated national waterborne transport system.

Yet the traditional perception of us is as farmers, cattle traders and horse breeders of world standard, while the more modern view would include our growing expertise in information technology and an undoubted talent for high-powered activity in the international aviation industry. Then too, there is our long-established standing in the world of letters and communication and the media generally. Yet although there are now encouraging signs of a healthier attitude towards seafaring and maritime matters, particularly in the Cork region, for most Irish people the thought of a career in the global seafaring and marine industry simply doesn’t come up for consideration at all.

So why is this the case? I think the basic answer could not be simpler. The fact is, nobody ever walked to Ireland. The prehistoric land-bridges to Britain had disappeared before any human habitation occurred here. Our earliest settlers could only have arrived by primitive boat, and that was only ten thousand or so years ago. But even then, boats were still so basic that the often horrific seafaring experiences would have generated the pious hope of having absolutely nothing further to do with the sea and seafaring for the passengers, once they’d got safely ashore. And that attitude was handed down from one generation to the next.

While the south of England, with its land-bridge still connected to continental Europe, had experienced quite advanced human habitations for maybe as long as 400,000 years, Ireland by contrast was one of the very last places in the temperate zones to be taken over by human settlement, and those first settlers must have come by boat of some sort.

So even in terms of the relatively brief period of human existence on Earth, the settlement of Ireland is only the blink of an eye. Thus in talking of “Old Ireland”, we’re talking nonsense. Ireland is a very new place in terms of its human history. Yet although we’ve only been here ten thousand years, all the archaeological research points to the relatively rapid development of a complex society with some very impressive monuments being built in a relatively short period, and by a society which had become highly organised and technologically advanced within a compact timespan.se2Newgrange in County Meath - 5000 years old, and eloquent evidence of the sophistication of Ireland of the time

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Newgrange’s location close to the River Boyne (top right) is a reminder that while basic river transport had become quite highly developed, in this era Irish seafaring was still in its earliest and most primitive stages despite the people’s ability to undertake the advanced calculations used in the construction of Newgrange.

So these were not a people who were just passing through. The earliest Irish were determined to make something special of their new home with some colossal and impressive sacred buildings and structures. To some extent this reflected the possibility that they were totally committed to creating a meaningful life in Ireland perhaps because they saw themselves as now marooned on it.

This sense of being marooned would have become embedded and emphasised in the compact family and tribal groups which very slowly spread across the island as a basic farming and hunting people. The inherited memories of the horror of the voyage to attempt to reach Ireland, in which many lives must have been lost at sea, would have been passed down from generation to generation, and we can be sure that the potential hazards of such an enterprise would lose nothing in the re-telling and embellishment of the ancient stories around the family hearth.

In other words, the longer your people have been in Ireland, then the greater would be your inherited sense of the risk in seafaring. Put another way, you could say that the very earliest Irish were not a seafaring people because the very earliest Irish mammies were absolutely determined that their sons were not going to seek a living on the dreadful sea. In the way of Irish mammies, they made sure that everyone knew this, and they have continued to do so to the present day.

If this emphasis on the adverse effect of inherited unhappy memories seems to over-state the case, consider the circumstances of the ancient people of the Canary Islands. When the Spanish voyagers first discovered the Canaries at a time not so very distant from Columbus’s voyages to America, they thought initially that the islands were uninhabited. It was only later that it was discovered that the highest mountain regions were home to an isolated people who were distantly related to the Berbers of North Africa.

In the remote past, these mountain people’s ancestors had somehow – possibly unintentionally – made the 62 mile voyage across from Africa. It is only eight miles further than the shortest distance between Wales and Ireland. But the seas are significantly warmer, which you’d expect to be a favourable circumstance for encouraging further voyaging. Yet having finally struggled ashore, those first Canary Islanders were very soon distancing themselves from the sea and seafaring.

se4The Shepherd’s Leap (Salto del Pastor) of the Canary Islands. The earliest islanders in the Canaries turned their backs on boats and the sea so completely that they retreated away from the coasts and went to live in the mountains. There, they developed a unique way of life including this primitive pole-vaulting – now a traditional sport – in order to descend cliffs or traverse ravines

Any small enthusiasm they might have had for boats soon disappeared completely, such that they now have no shared knowledge or memory of boats at all. And up in the mountains, their most remarkable talent is the ability to pole vault down into or across the ravines – the Shepherd’s Leap - in order to travel about in their vertiginous homeland, which was seen as preferable in every way to the real dangers of seafaring.

In a Thomas Davis lecture for Seascapes a dozen or so years ago, I discussed the specialised nature of those whose primary interest in the early days of Irish settlement lay in seeing seafaring as a viable way of life. So relatively rare were such people that I reckoned at the time that this talent for exploiting the diverse wealth which the sea offered would provide them with useful survival mechanism for themselves and future generations of their families.

But I now realise that I got it totally wrong. Absolutely the opposite must have been the case. Once you and your people had got safely to Ireland in the first wave of settlers, the seafaring was still so basic and consistently dangerous that having nothing further to do with it was a much better way of ensuring the continuing survival of your genetic stock, whereas producing a family of would-be sailors could see the end of the line in a very short few years.

Although the popular view in Ireland is that our earliest ancestors must have sailed direct from Iberia, it seems to me that Western European seafaring would have been so primitive in those days ten thousand years ago that the first settlers must have voyaged across in nondescript vessels from the most easily reached part of the nearby British land, which is the large island of Islay off southwest Scotland.

As it happens, DNA testing on the current population of southwest Scotland indicates that they too have significant elements of our Iberian stock. Thus there is a shared gene pool, and the earliest Irish most likely came by the easiest route from Scotland, whose people in turn had travelled overland from Europe via England.

If that seems a bit hard to take for those of us who like to think that we’re essentially a Mediterranean people left out in the rain, that we’re essentially a formerly seafaring race who came directly by sea from our ancestral homelands in the Basque region, be consoled by the fact that many centuries later Scotland itself was to undergo conquest by invaders from Ireland of the Scoti tribe, who gave a new name to a country formerly dominated by the Picts.

However, that was very much later, when seafaring technology had greatly advanced, and people could regularly sail across the waters between Ireland and Scotland with some confidence. But when the earliest land-starved pioneers were contemplating crossing to Ireland from Scotland, they would have first looked for the shortest route. The absolute shortest distances between Scotland and northeast Ireland is in the North Channel between the Mull of Kintyre and Fair Head in County Antrim. There, the straight line distance is barely a dozen miles, yet you are facing one of the most tide-riven, roughest and coldest sea channels in Europe. And should you make it safely across, the landing at the nearest point on either side is decidedly difficult.

Further south, the shortest distance between the Mull of Galloway in southwest Scotland across the North Channel to northeast County Down is only 20 miles, but here again in early times the landings were inhospitable on either side, and the tides could be ferocious in their adverse impact.

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The crossings between Scotland and northeast Ireland which would have been faced by the earliest settlers. While the shortest distance between Kintyre and Fair Head to the east of Ballycastle is just over 12 miles, and the distance between Portpatrick and the nearest part of County Down is barely twenty miles, the entire North Channel between Rathlin Island and the Mull of Galloway is tide-riven, notoriously rough, and with the coldest sea temperatures on the Irish Coast. The earliest voyagers in very primtive boats would thus have had a better chance of a safe crossing, with more options as to their ultimate landfall, by setting off from Port Ellen in Islay, and having avoided the notorious tide race to the southwest of the Mull of Oa, then shaped their course to wherever the winds suited to make a landfall between Inishtrahull and Rathlin. The oldest human settlement in Ireland is at Mount Sandel near Coleraine. Plan courtesy Irish Cruising Club

But if you approached the Scotland-Ireland passage from the mainland of Scotland to the northeast, gradually working your way southwestwards through the southern Hebrides and gaining some seafaring experience with short inter-island hops until you were strategically placed at the natural harbour of what is now Port Ellen on the south shore of Islay, then the prospects were better. You might have still been all of 25 miles from Ireland, but it was a more manageable crossing. You had much greater choice in your possible destinations in making an Irish landfall, as you’d the entire Irish coast from Fair Head to Malin Head to aim for.

In reasonable weather, you could see where you were going, and with prevailing westerly winds there’d be a good chance it would be a relatively easy beam reach if you happened to have a primitive sailing rig, though the likelihood is the early boats were paddled, or rowed in primitive style.

Whatever the method of propulsion, there’s no disputing that one of the oldest sites of human habitation in Ireland is right in the middle of this northern coastline, at Mount Sandel on the River Bann in Coleraine. Yet no matter how much research and archaeology has been undertaken at Mount Sandel and at other ancient sites, no evidence of significant Irish human settlement has been found which goes back any further than ten thousand years.

As it happens, it was ten thousand years ago that mankind first developed the genetic mutation that enabled our ancestors to digest dairy products. But another five thousand years were to elapse before the first cattle were brought to Ireland to find that the place might have been invented for them, and cattle became a source and a measure of wealth. This new socioeconomic development pushed the sea and any form of seafaring even further down the social scale as a viable career option. Who would think of being a fulltime sea fisherman in a land noted as flowing in milk and honey? And even though water transport using rivers became a significant part of Irish life – notably in Fermanagh where the Maguires were to have a water-based mini-Kingdom - the sea was still viewed with suspicion, while the consumption of fish – whether from salt water or fresh – was regarded as socially inferior to eating meat.

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Mediaeval map of Ireland. It’s just possible that the island-studded inlet shown on the west coast is the Maguire-ruled Lough Erne, but more likely it is Clew Bay given prominence through Grace O’Malley.

It was only with improvements in seafaring technology and the general seaworthiness of ships that later generations and new groups of settlers might have brought a more positive attitude towards the sea. Then there was a period of about 1200 years – rudely ended by the first arrival of the Vikings around 795AD – when Ireland was remarkably free of invasions, yet enough marine technology had developed in the island for a brief flowering of Irish seafaring with the extraordinary voyaging of the Irish monks.

It has been argued by some scholars that there was no such person as St Brendan the Navigator. But undoubtedly there were great seafaring monks, and those of us who say that if it wasn’t St Brendan then it was somebody else of the same name will occasionally make the pilgrimage across from Dingle to rugged little Brendan Creek close under the west slopes of Mount Brandon on the north shore of the Dingle Peninsula, and wonder again at those Irish men of limitless faith setting out from this sacred spot into the great unknown in light but able boats.

But as it was seaborne asceticism which they sought rather than wealth, it was seen as a highly specialized and rather odd interest when most of the people were much more readily drawn to epic tales of profitable cattle raiding.

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Details of Tim Severin’s oxhide “giant currach” with which – in 1976-77 - he showed that the supposedly mythical Transatlantic voyages of St Brendan the Navigator were technically possible. The St Brendan - which with Denis Doyle’s encouragement was built in Crosshaven Boatyard in 1975-76 – is now on permanent display at Craggaunowen in County Clare.

Then came the Vikings. Say what you like about the Vikings - and everybody has an opinion – but the reality is that their longships represented a quantum leap in naval architecture development. They brought state-of-the-art voyaging in versatile ships way ahead of anything seen before. Yet in time the Vikings were in their turn sucked into the Irish way of doing things, and far from turning Ireland into a seafaring nation, they seem to have literally burned their boats and set up home ashore, gradually absorbing the negative attitude towards the sea of their new neighbours, and taking on board the inevitable anti-seafaring attitudes of their new mothers-in-law

It wasn’t immediately as simple as that, of course. For a while, Ireland was the focal point of the Vikings’ sea trading routes along the coasts of western Europe, while Dublin had the doubtful distinction of being the biggest slave market in the constantly changing Viking western empire, which wasn’t really a territorial empire in the traditional sense, but was more a sphere of active influence and commercial and raiding activity. But it was undoubtedly a major centre which was totally dominated by all Viking activities, including ship-building, and the return to Dublin in 2006 of the 100ft Sea Stallion of Glendalough, a re-creation of one of the biggest Viking ships ever built (in Dublin in 1042), was a telling reminder of just how much Dublin had been to the fore in Viking life, while this video is a timely reminder of the great project completed in Roskilde ten years ago.

Inevitably, people of Viking descent were becoming a significant element in the Irish population, and even today we would naturally expect someone called Doyle to have something of the sea in their veins. Yet the Irish capacity for absorption of newcomers into the old ways of thinking has worked here too. The most common Irish surname today is Murphy. It means sea warrior. While those of us with maritime interests in mind would like to think it referred to an ancient tribe who went forth from Ireland to do successful battle on distant seas, we know in our heart of hearts that the Murphys are descended from warriors – mostly Vikings - who came in from the sea.

In time, they were enticed into domesticity by comely maidens who in due course became the formidable Irish mammies who prohibited any seafaring by their sons. Indeed, so far are most Murphys removed today from the sea that in some parts of the world the name is still a patronising nickname for the potato, something which is useful enough in its way, but its only maritime link is through fish and chips.

After the Vikings and then the Normans – who were really only Vikings with some slightly less rough French manners put on them – subsequent invasions were English-dominated, and the growth of British sea power was done in a manner which made sure that any Irish role in it was strictly of a subservient nature.

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Rockfleet Castle in County Mayo, reputed deathplace of Grace O’Malley in June 1603. She was everything she shouldn’t have been, and in heroic style. She was Irish yet a mighty seafarer in command of her own ships, and a woman, yet a ruthless ruler of power and wealth who could combat men on equal terms.

Of course there were local heroes who tried to oppose this, the most renowned being Grace O’Malley, the Sea Queen of Connacht. But even when people of English descent tried to establish a separate Irish seafaring identity, as happened with the merchants of Drogheda, their aspirations would be slapped down by the dominant power and control from the government in London and the influence of the merchants of Bristol.

However, the government only had to look the other way for a moment before there was some local maritime enterprise was trying to flourish, and in the late 18th and early 19th Century the North Dublin smugglers, privateers and pirates of the little port of Rush in Fingal, people like Luke Ryan and James Mathews, were pace-setters in Europe and across the Atlantic, striking deals with Benjamin Franklin among others.

Depending on the state of international hostilities, sometimes their privateering trade could be quite open, and in Dublin the Freeman’s Journal of 23rd February 1779 reported that “we find the little fishing village of Rush has already fitted out four vessels, and one of them is now in Dublin at Rogerson’s Quay, ready to sail, being completely armed and manned, carrying 14 carriage guns and 60 of as brave hands as any in Europe”.

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A late 19th century privateer, built for speed. When times were good for privateering, the little port of Rush in Fingal could provide a flotilla of these craft, which at other times could be kept hidden in the Rogerstown Estuary

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The Admiral from Mayo. Being press-ganged by the Royal Navy was one of the many career-changing events which resulted in William Brown from Foxford becoming the founder-Admiral of the Argentine Navy.

But the majority of Irish seafarers were employed only in the humblest roles afloat, and often through the activities of the shore-raiding involuntary recruitment drives of the press gangs of Britain’s Royal Navy, However, this could produce some wonderful examples of unexpected consequences. The most complex was William Brown, of Foxford in Mayo, who had somehow risen to be a Captain in the American merchant marine when he was press-ganged into the Royal Navy, and after many vicissitudes, he ended up as a merchant in Buenos Aires. There, thanks to his unexpected acquisition of experience in naval warfare by courtesy of the Royal Navy, he became the founder of the Argentine Navy and an Admiral, as one does…..

Then there was the 18th Century Patrick Lynch of Galway, …….according to some stories, he was press-ganged. Be that as it may, the family made their fortune eventually in South America and a descendant, Patricio Lynch, owned the ship Heroina which played a significant role in Argentine history. The family continued to prosper in many directions, such that one decendant was Che Guevara, while another is the yacht designer German Frers, whose own pet yacht (which he gets little enough opportunity to use, as he is so busy designing boats for others) is called Heriona in honour of the family’s complex historic links through the sea with Ireland.

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Yacht designer German Frers sailing his personal 74ft sloop Heroina in the River Plate. The boat is named in honour of the historic ship which belonged to his ancestor Patricio Lynch.

But while a very few of the young Irishmen press-ganged by the Royal Navy may ultimately have prospered in unexpected ways, the vast majority most definitely didn’t. Most came to a horrible end, while those who had managed to escape the press gangs’ clutches, together with the rest of the bulk of the native population, were reinforced in their inherited distrust of seafaring in any form.

Thus although we may now feel pride in the fact that the world’s first recreational sailing club was established with the Water Club of the Harbour of Cork in 1720, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that those great Munster landowners and merchants who founded it were partly doing it subconsciously just to show how very different they were from the ordinary run of Irish people in their attitude to the sea.

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First instance of the “have nots” and the “have yachts”? The establishment of the Water Club of the Harbour of Cork in 1720 was a remarkable achievement, but if anything it emphasised the fact that the vast majority of Irish people had no enthusiasm or capability for the sea. Courtesy RCYC.

As for the official attitude when the Irish Free State finally came into being, its was so painfully sea-blind that we still need to draw a veil over its attitude, only noting that the first significant voyage under the new Irish ensign was made by one of that much-maligned class, a yachtsman. This was the great venture round the world south of the capes by Conor O’Brien of Limerick with his little Baltimore-built Saoirse between 1923 and 1925.

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Conor O’Brien’s Saoirse departs Dun Laoghaire on her world- girding voyage on 20th June 1923.

O’Brien was to find Ireland so stultifying in its outlook after his return that he sailed away to live elsewhere, and we have to accept that for several decades the official approach reinforced the notion that being interested in the sea is un-Irish. So if we hope to change this attitude which still lingers today, a useful first step is to accept that for many of us, being non-maritime is the most natural thing in the world – we’ve had it instinctively from the very beginning, it’s in our handed-down and repeatedly-instilled inherited memories from the time when our most distant ancestors struggled ashore from battered little boats somewhere on the north coast, knowing that many others had died, and would die, trying to do the same thing.

Far from trying to pretend that this attitude doesn’t really exist, surely a much better way is to accept that it does, but that we’ve researched a perfectly valid explanation as to why this is so. Thus the way forward for Ireland to fulfill her maritime potential is to realize why this attitude is there in us, and take mature steps to offset it.

The fact is, in dealing with the sea, the Irish people have never had a level playing field. We’ve had to live with it and our inherited memories of being on it in very adverse circumstances. Unlike continental land dwellers, we have had no choice in the matter - we don’t see the sea as somewhere excitingly new with endless possibilities, we see it only with inherited distrust. And the determination of the current wave of walking migrants from the Middle East into Europe to attempt the sea crossing at only the narrowest part is further dreadful evidence of this.

But in another area of human endeavour, we’ve shown that we can do the business in competition with other nations. When aviation began to become part of everyday life a hundred years ago, it was unknown territory for all mankind. In terms of getting to grips with flying, it was a level playing field for all.

Yet here we are now in Ireland, an island in the Atlantic which is playing an extraordinarily active and central role in many aspects of aviation management and development, and certainly punching way above our weight. Looking at what we have been able to do in the air, it is surely time to look again at what we might do with the sea if we can look at it from a fresh perspective, and adapt the same can-do energies of the Irish aviation industry to the business of seafaring.

It’s time and more to shake off the old fears of the sea, while always maintaining a healthy respect for its undoubted power. That is best done by being in the vanguard of maritime technological development. And down around Cork Harbour, they’re doing that very thing. It’s just possible that, despite our ingrained anti-maritime attitude, we are beginning to view the sea in a more healthy and positive way. And it’s from our great southern port that we’re beginning to get inspiring leadership as the sea beckons us towards fresh opportunities.

So what, if nobody ever walked to Ireland? So what, if our distant ancestors had a very cold, very wet and very rough time getting here? It’s time to move on. Time to get over it. Time to start seeing the sea in a sensible way.

se14
The little ship that carried the maritime hopes of a new nation. Conor O’Brien’s Saoirse in dry dock, showing the tough little hull that was able to register a good mileage most days in the Southern Ocean while still sailing in comfort. Yet when he returned to Dun Laoghaire in 1925 to complete his voyage with a rapturous homecoming reception, Conor O’Brien was soon to find that beneath the welcome there was increasing official indifference in the new Free State to Ireland’s maritime potential.

Published in W M Nixon

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