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Saturday, November 14, 2015

The Donegal Paddling Curragh

The Donegal paddling curragh -- also known as the Owey Island, and Rosses paddling curragh -- is one of the odder indigenous boat survivals in western Europe. 

Donegal, of course, is a county in the west of Ireland. Owey Island is off its northwest coast, and The Rosses a district toward the southwest. Rossmen and Owey Islanders compete for the distinction as the originators of the type. 

Donegal paddling curragh
Launching a Donegal paddling curragh built by Andy McGonagle for Peter Badge, 1992 (click any image to enlarge)

At first glimpse, the Donegal paddling curragh appears to be a tiny example of curragh, per se -- that is, a heavy type of skin-on-frame, "boat-shaped" boat formerly in common alongshore use in Ireland and popularized in modern times by Tim Severin's reproduction of one for his Brendan Voyage

But as Peter Badge observes in Coracles of the World, the boat is only partly a curragh in the above sense, and partly a coracle. (The issue is complicated by the Irish often calling coracles currachs, as in the Boyne currach, which is clearly a coracle.) Its size -- about 8' LOA -- puts it in the realm of the coracle, as does the fact that it can be, and sometimes is, carried on the back of one man (although its size and apparent weight would make that a far more difficult task than carrying, for example, a Boyne currach or one of the coracles of the River Severn in England and Wales). The last quality that makes it more coracle-like than curragh-like is that it is normally propelled by a single paddler kneeling in the bows with a single T-grip paddle, as shown in the image below.


Donegal paddling curraghs at sea
Paddling Donegal paddling curraghs over the bow.
On the other hand, oars pivoting on single tholepins and a sitting thwart -- features of "true" curraghs -- were added to the design around the middle of the twentieth century, although even boats so fitted continued to be paddled as well. It is, perhaps, fruitless to argue whether the Donegal curragh is a curragh or a coracle. It bears characteristics of both: it is what it is.

Until the nineteenth century, the framework was basket-like, made of woven withies like the Boyne currach, but by the 1930, sawn oak laths were used. In the next photo, the frames appear to be fairly heavy (one suspects they were steam-bent). The frames are neatly mortised and wedged into the gunwales around both sides. 


Donegal paddling curragh
Donegal paddling curragh, set up for rowing. Note kneeling "pad" of hay in the bow, toe brace behind the pad, sawn frames and stringers moritsed into gunwales, and pieced gunwale construction.
The framing of the transom is not clear from the photo, but the tops of either stringers or vertical transom frames are to be seen mortised into the member that runs across the top of the transom. This itself is probably mortised into the gunwales, which extend a very short distance aft of that transverse member.

The forward structure of the gunwales is unusual. The main gunwales appear to end where the sides begin to curve inward. A little aft of that point, curving sections of gunwale overlap the forward ends of the straight sections and make most of the rest of the curve toward the stem. Another gunwale component overlaps the second piece on both sides, forming a kind of breasthook that ties the sides together.

Donegal paddling curraghs were originally covered with hides, but more recently with two layers of canvas or other stout fabric, with a layer of brown paper in between, and waterproofed with tar or pitch. 

Quoting James Hornel, Badges gives typical dimensions as follows: LOA: 8'4" (504cm); beam: 3'7" (109cm); depth 1'8" (51cm).

Whereas most coracles are inland craft, the Donegal curragh was and is used in both inland and nearshore coastal waters. Common uses formerly included, according to Badge, "fishing (particularly for Pollock), cutting seaweed, transporting animals to and from the mainland and shopping!, but that their current use was as inland ferries and for pleasure trips." They would travel as much as two miles offshore in conditions reportedly up to Force 8, but this seems like an exaggeration for such a small, paddle-propelled boat.

The paddler kneeled on a bundle of hay or straw, and braced his toes against a short cross-member fastened in the bottom especially for that purpose. (This can be seen in the third photo.) The recommended posture was a bolt-upright kneeling one -- not sitting back on one's haunches -- with the knees spread apart but with no other contact with the boat's interior. In contrast to typical coracle paddling technique, which is straight over the bow, the Donegal curragh boatman paddled over one side, then switched sides as soon as the boat began to veer in the opposite direction.

Content and photos from Coracles of the World, by Peter Badge.

1 comment:

  1. There were possible coracles of the Donegal or Tory Island type present in the bronze Age, see graves two and three in
    https://www.academia.edu/270172/A_Prehistoric_Coracle_In_Fife

    Grave one's boat remains were the inspiration for our construction of a possible "Bronze Age" kayak.

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