When the late Tony Moylan cajoled the notion of Cruinnui na mBad at Kinvara into being in 1979, times were different writes W M Nixon. The idea was to celebrate the Gathering of the Boats in the old days, when the traditional boats of Connemara on the great inlet’s northwest shore sailed up Galway Bay as Autumn approached well laden with turf, one of the few commodities in which their area was naturally richer than the prosperous region around the southeast corner of the handsome bay.
This year, they celebrated the memory of Tony Moylan in the best possible way, by making Cruinniu na mBad bigger and better and more varied than ever for its Fortieth Anniversary. And though the weather was less than co-operative with a seemingly endless deluge on Saturday, for the big day – Sunday – conditions gradually relented, and Kinvara came colourfully to life in evening sunshine after the ancient craft with their black or tanned sails had experienced good racing.
Cruinniu na mBad is all about the dynamic interaction between sea and land along Ireland’s Atlantic seaboard, and though the conditions on Saturday saw the emphasis inevitably falling on the landward part of the equation – and the indoor aspect of the landward part at that – there were enough musicians and singers and declaimers of poetry and ancient tales in town to keep the show in the road, even if rain came down extremely heavily with impartial force on both the largest thatched roof in all Ireland – it shelters the Merriman Hotel – and roofs of more prosaic style.
Back in 1979, the digging of turf by hand in the bogs of south Connemara, and then sailing it all the way up the bay, must have seemed one of the most natural and ecologically-sound re-livings of the past you could possibly imagine. But in this hyper-sensitive era, even the burning of humble turf is under scrutiny as a possible menace to our fragile planet, as is the digging of bogs. In the case of Kinvara, it’s something which poses a quandary, for the turf is cut by hand, piled to dry by hand, then moved to be laden by hand onto boats which are sailed by hand – and every bit of it is very hard work if you want to see it as work in the first place.
It’s shared work in a continuum from the land to the sea and back to the land again, and it is nature’s abundant wind which provides the motive power. So anyone who would wish to discourage the Kinvara experience from the turf-burning point of view needs to get a sense of proportion – after all, the Festival itself was promoting the plastic-free ideal as one of its main themes. But in any case we’re talking of turf amounts which are symbolic rather than of significant size, and we’re thinking that the meaning which this annual combination of actions and activities afloat and ashore gives to those involved is something very deep-rooted indeed, an eloquent expression of community.
Certainly it’s something which folk from elsewhere wish to share, bringing in crews and boats of other types from places beyond the sea, interesting boats like the comely Sally O’Keeffe from Querrin on the shores of the Shannon Estuary, a very attractive 25ft community-built cutter which is an authentic re-creation of the sailing working boats which used to ply the waters of the mighty Shannon Estuary.
Also there was the hefty ketch Celtic Mist, research vessel of the Irish Whale & Dolphin Group whose CEO Simon Berrow was on hand with a group of fellow-enthusiasts to spread the message and answer queries while SAR helicopters buzzed overhead and the Galway Lifeboat – crew and boat alike – were keenly represented for the two main days, and talked afterwards of the marvellous sense of community in Kinvara.
Meanwhile, a completely different yet equally appropriate aspect of seafaring was being provided by sea-musician Marieke Huysmans of PianOcean, whose piano was set up on the deck of her Freedom 40 type ketch, which aptly is called Freedom
But inevitably and rightly the attention is mainly on the hookers, which vary in sizes between at least four classes – some would say six – while no two boats are identical, for individuality is the default setting of the west. Presiding over all this was the empress of them all, Organising Committee Chairman Dr Mick Brogan”s giant hooker Mac Duach, which was originally built as a cutter, but at that size her main boom was such a widow-maker that in due course the good doctor made her a more manageable ketch, under which rig she has continued a busy programme of ocean and coastal voyaging and attending western maritime festivals.
The main player in the symbolic bringing in of the turf was the mighty An Mhaighdean Mhara, built by McDonagh of Callahaigue in Connemara a very long time ago, re-built or partially re-built now and again since - as is the way of the west - and sailed with considerable style to Kinvara by Jimmy Mac Donncha aided by Colm Ciaran O Flatharta, and laden with such a pile of turf in what is usually the cockpit that the rest of the crew were finding what comfort they could on the foredeck as An Mhaighden Mhara shaped her course into Kinvara’s long natural harbour, gliding alongside the quay to begin the long and sweaty job of discharging the cargo by hand.
With the many and varied rituals completed or at least set in train, Sunday brought the racing, as hard fought as ever. As anyone who has ever tried to report on Galway hooker racing - whether at Kinvara or one of the traditional events in Connemara itself – there will be as many different versions of what happened during the race as there are people involved, for at times it cannot even be agreed within crews as to what happened or didn’t. Yet when they’re eventually published, there’s a finality about results which sets the story to rest, and we can do no more than publish them as they were – in due course – supplied to us.
Cruinniu na mBad 2019 Results:
Bad Mhora: 1st Tonai, skippered by Ronan O’Brien; 2nd Cailin, sk. Pat Folan; 3rd An Mhaghdean Mhara, sk. Jimmy Mac Donncha
Leath-Bhaid: 1st Norah, sk. Sean Mac Donncha; 2nd Colmcille, sk. Mairtin Thornton; 3rd Antain, sk. Joe Reaney
Gleiteog Mor: 1st Catherine, sk. Paraic Barrett; 2nd Ciarain, sk. John Flaherty; 3rd An Bhantra, sk. Daragh O Tuairisc
Gleiteog Beag: 1st Erin’s Hope, sk. Pat Folan; 2nd Sianach, sk. Ciaran Mac Donncha, 3rd Nora Bheag, sk. Coilin Og Hernon.
The sport over, the sun appeared - and Kinvara partied.