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Kinvara’s Tradition-Celebrating Cruinnui na mBad Is Becoming Symbolic Of Change

16th August 2023
Job done. It is 1973, and the bad mor Mhaighdean Mara is heading back to Connemara from Kilronan in the Aran Islands, after discharging what is believed to have been the last sail-carried commercial cargo of turf for the islands
Job done. It is 1973, and the bad mor Mhaighdean Mara is heading back to Connemara from Kilronan in the Aran Islands, after discharging what is believed to have been the last sail-carried commercial cargo of turf for the islands Credit: Leo Daly

When the late Tony Moylan and his friends got together 44 years ago to inaugurate the Cruinnui na mBad at Kinvara in order to celebrate and help the preservation of the traditional sailing boats of Connemara and Galway Bay, most of us were living in a world of very different attitudes. 

Central to the early Kinvara gatherings was the way the traditional boats had brought welcome cargoes of turf from the bog-rich northwest shores of the bay to the region’s fuel-starved coastal areas. In those days, the stripping of turf for domestic heating from the diverse multiple habitats which constituted the carbon absorbing-bogland was regarded as natural and sensible.

But the little-known fact that the sweetly-burning turf was notably carbon-intensive was far outweighed for the few who were aware of it by the nostalgia-inducing effects of its distinctive curling blue smoke emerging from cottage chimneys, the quintessential aroma of classic western life.

An Tonai, winner of 2023’s “turf race” from Connemara to Kinvara, is maintained in a style which is a long way from the make-do-and-mend working days of the Galway Hookers. Photo: Pierce PurcellAn Tonai, winner of 2023’s “turf race” from Connemara to Kinvara, is maintained in a style which is a long way from the make-do-and-mend working days of the Galway Hookers. Photo: Pierce Purcell

As for the boats themselves, when the last truly commercial cargo of turf to be carried under sail from Connemara out to the Aran Islands was taken aboard the bad mor An Mhaighdean Mhara in 1973, that was to set the tone. For at this time Johnny Healion and a few others were beginning to save the few still seaworthy hookers, and the basic finish of the boats in this gradually growing movement was taken from the unfussy no-nonsense functional style of An Mhaighdean Mhara, as seen in 1973.

COVID HIATUS EMPHASISES CHANGE IN ATTITUDES

But now, a sense of the change in attitudes has been more clearly defined by the hiatus of the two-year pandemic shutdowns experienced by Cruinnui na mBad. With the highly-regarded Dr Michael Brogan as Chairman, the decisions of the Kinvara organising committee carry considerable moral weight. And thus, when they announced the first Covid-caused cancellation, it did more than a dozen government proclamations to bring home to sailing folk generally the true seriousness of the deteriorating situation.

Sea, sails and shore intertwine – Kinvara provides a unique inter-mix.  Photo: Pierce PurcellSea, sails and shore intertwine – Kinvara provides a unique inter-mix.  Photo: Pierce Purcell

Equally, within the configuration of the Cruinnui, the change in environmental attitudes is gradually manifesting itself. Of course,

for many, Kinvara is still really all about the sessions ashore, when seafaring folk interact with the prodigious County Clare cultural wealth in traditional music and song. But afloat and on the waterfront, a new mood is gaining ground, and there’s a new hierarchy of priorities.

TURF AS A CONTROLLED SUBSTANCE?

Turf has, in effect, become a controlled substance. Thus it may be intensely symbolic of the cherished yet meagre comforts of a former way of life, but now – much and all as many of us may find this very difficult to accept – we have to see it in an entirely different way, as something utterly fascinating which is nevertheless globally lethal when widely used for national power or domestic heating.

“Next year, we might be wearing white coats for working with  a controlled susbstance” – Pierce Purcell Jnr presents a piece of nostalgia-laden turf to Paddy Donovan (Acting Harbour Master, Kinvara), wih Event Chairman Dr Mick Brogan (keeping up to speed with results), Donal Curtis and Ann Korf.  Photo: Pierce Purcell    “Next year, we might be wearing white coats for working with  a controlled susbstance” – Pierce Purcell Jnr presents a piece of nostalgia-laden turf to Paddy Donovan (Acting Harbour Master, Kinvara), wih Event Chairman Dr Mick Brogan (keeping up to speed with results), Donal Curtis and Ann Korf.  Photo: Pierce Purcell    

Thus any turf sailed to Kinvara in 2023 was something to be valued in manageable quantities. But another feature of Cruinnui na mBad has moved up the pecking order to replace the former dominant impact of turf in abundance.

RISING STANDARDS OF BOAT MAINTENANCE AND EQUIPMENT

This is the rise to prominence of the sheer quality of preparation and maintenance of the boats taking part. Long gone is slapped-on tar and rough tan-barked cotton sails. In their place are gleaming black enamel topsides, race-prepared bottom finishes, the intrusion of judiciously-placed and immaculate varnish work, and the setting of sails of many types of racing cloth, ranging from what looks suspiciously like black kevlar to expensive-looking special-finish cream, for it seems that the traditional tan bark finish is “only a recent idea of barely a hundred years ago”.

Dublin Bay sailors got something of a shock introduction to the new Western way this summer when Aongus O Cualain and his team trucked their restored gleoiteog mor Blat na hOige from Connemara to Poolbeg in Dublin Port for the visit of the Old Gaffers Association 60th Anniversary Cruise-in-Company, and duly won the race for the Asgard Trophy, setting some impressively competition-conscious sails.

The Best of the West comes East – the gleiteog mor Blat na hOige from Connemara on her way to winning the Asgard Trophy 2023 in Dublin Bay.  Photo: Afloat.ie/David O’BrienThe Best of the West comes East – the gleiteog mor Blat na hOige from Connemara on her way to winning the Asgard Trophy 2023 in Dublin Bay.  Photo: Afloat.ie/David O’Brien

Slicing the waters of Galway Bay – the optimized McHugh was one of the winners at Kinvara Photo: Máire Ní ÉinniúSlicing the waters of Galway Bay – the optimized McHugh was one of the winners at Kinvara Photo: Máire Ní Éinniú

And it isn’t only in the TradBoat heartlands to the far west that the serious boat and equipment up-grades are becoming the norm. In Galway City itself, people like Peter Connolly, Joe Joyce, Colie Hermon and Ciaran Oliver are also very much in the business of optimizing the finish potential of the classic Galway Hooker.

Then too, the traditions of Kinvara are finding an outlet in another character-boat direction, through the interest of the Irish Drascombe Association. Although longtime pace-setter and former International Drascombe Association President Jack O’Keeffe of Cork had to call off his own involvement as late Covid has finally caught up with him, those braving the downpour days which preceded this past weekend’s Cruinnui by cruising towards Kinvara in the very confined comforts of a Drascombe included former Arctic voyaging legend Paddy Barry of Clifden, Mick Corbett of Wexford, Miriam Sheerin, Kim Roberts of Kilrush, Peter McMillan, Ivor O'Shea, and Pearl O'Shea with David Williams of Cong on Lough Corrib co-ordinating flotilla movements.

New take on old style – the flotilla of Drascmbes rafted up off Kinvara CastleNew take on old style – the flotilla of Drascmbes rafted up off Kinvara Castle

Thus to mention Kinvara now and in the future will imply something very meaningful, yet very different from a basic celebration of ancient boats and their carrying of a life-saving yet ultimately controversial cargo.

It’s quite a leap to expect of our comfortably-established mindsets. For who hasn’t spent much of their life assuming that the use of Bord na Mona Peat Briquettes, conveniently bought in the local shop and with the occasional spicing of traditional un-processed turf brought back from Connemara in a sack in the boot of the car, is the most beautifully nostalgic way to heat your urban sitting room on a winter’s night?    

Arctic veteran Paddy Barry and Clifden and Mick Corbett of Wexford aboard their Drascombes at Kinvara. Photo: Kim Roberts Arctic veteran Paddy Barry and Clifden and Mick Corbett of Wexford aboard their Drascombes at Kinvara. Photo: Kim Roberts 

Read also: Tight Contest for Galway Hookers and Gleoiteogs at 44th Cruinniú na mBád in Kinvara

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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