As an island, the sea is never too far no matter where in Ireland you might be. And generation after generation, we have crossed it in search of adventure and fortune. Wanderlust is one of our Irish gifts along with charm and humor. Maybe it explains our cultural value on hospitality. We are wanderers, visitors, newcomers all around the globe. And when we stay put in Ireland, we still head out to the sea. Fishing is a deeply rooted part of Irish culture and commerce. Our grandparents and great-grandparents regularly travelled back and forth across the Irish Sea by ferry for work.
Considering that we cross and fish in the sea in boats and that we travel through this island by way of rivers and canals by boat, it makes perfect sense that traditional boats are symbols of Ireland seen on many Irish gifts. But not just any random boat can symbolize Ireland. Two distinct traditional boats stand out as visual representatives of our seafaring heritage, the currach and the Galway hooker.
The currach boat is the one seen in images of two or three men carrying an upside-down boat above their heads. The front end curves upward. Modern currachs have a flat back end to accommodate an outboard motor. Traditionally, this boat is made of animal hides stretched over a wooden frame, but today canvas is normally used instead of leather. Although small, the currach boat is versatile and sturdy. It is used at sea and on lakes to haul seaweed and turf, and is native to the rugged western coast where it has been used for 2,000 years. The currach is strongly linked to the Aran Islands. Legend has it that St. Brendan the Navigator crossed the sea to Newfoundland in a currach.
The Galway Hooker
This boat traditionally sports a striking deep red sail that sets it apart on the horizon. Just 50 years ago, they were dying out. But a group of locals got organized and got busy. They learned the skills to hand-make these colourful boats with native white oak and larch, and the boats with the stunning sunset red sails are making a comeback. Designed specifically for conditions in Galway Bay, these sailboats are not normally seen elsewhere – except in photos and on Irish gifts. Visitors to Galway can see the Galway Hooker boats at festivals or in the Galway City Museum.
Ireland’s seafaring heritage is the basis of many Irish gifts from Aran knit sweaters to all kinds of decorative items featuring images of traditional boats such as the currach and the Galway Hooker. Many of us outside of Ireland think first of the ships that brought our relatives from Ireland to new lands in North America or Australia, but boats play a much bigger role in our heritage than that. Our boating roots stretch back to St. Brendan the Navigator, Grainne O’Malley the pirate and Richard Joyce, the Galway fisherman who designed the Claddagh ring.