Thursday, October 17, 2013

"The Boyne Currach" -- A Review

The Boyne Currach: From beneath the shadows of Newgrange, by Claidhgh (I understand it's pronounced "Clive") O' Gibne has received quite positive reviews. (Here's one, by Wade Tarzia.) I'm disappointed that I can't add to them. I find the book gravely flawed and seriously wanting.

The Boyne is a river in County Meath, Ireland, running generally toward the east and entering the Irish Sea north of Dublin. The river's common fishing boat was the currach, a small, nearly round leather-on-frame craft that in most of the British Isles is known as a coracle. (O' Gibne addresses the naming controversy.) The large landowners along the Boyne used to jealously guard their exclusive rights to fish the river, maintaining their own small fleets of currachs and hiring men to fish for salmon with seine nets. As O' Gibne tells it, in spite of privately-employed wardens and monitoring by the local police, poaching by private currach owners was widespread (but we'll make no puns -- none! -- about poached fish).

The Boyne Currach describes this local history. It also delves into the history and mythology of skin-on-frame craft in general; the history and folkways of the Boyne Valley; the ancient history of the Celts and Ireland; and the history of modern currach preservation efforts. There's a chapter (just one) on how to build a Boyne currach; another about the Boyne Currach Centre, which O' Gibne founded and maintains to perpetuate the craft of the craft; and a section about the Newgrange Currach Project, referring to an entirely different form of currach (the more familiar boat-shaped type, somewhat similar to Tim Severin's Brendan) which O' Gibne had under construction at the time of the book's publication.
Boyne currachs, 1848
(All images from The Boyne Currach. Click any image to enlarge)

This great variety of material is, in my opinion, one of the flaws of The Boyne Currach: it attempts too much in its 164 pages and loses coherence along the way. I would have liked more detail on the boatbuilding methods for both the types discussed. O' Gibne's description of the building process for the coracle-style currach is confusing and perfunctory (especially concerning leather tanning), and he merely glosses the construction of the larger boat-shaped vessel. There are, however, enough excellent photographs and (perhaps) enough usable illustrations so that one could build a coracle-style currach by referring to them and perhaps gleaning sufficient tidbits from the text to supplement them.
In this 1910 photo of a Boyne currach, the gentleman in the bowler hat is J.P. Holland, inventor of the first practical submarine. 
In addition to its historical photos and illustrations, The Boyne Currach contains sketches by O' Gibne. These, though, are often mere decorations, and even among those that attempt to be informative, many are full of distracting, nouveau-Celtic imagery and other New-Agey psychedelia and therefore lacking in clarity.
Purportedly showing to how twist willow rods to make the rope that supports the seat in a currach.
When it comes to the history of currach folk on the Boyne, O' Gibne is indiscriminate, mixing history and anecdotes about fishing and poaching with irrelevancies about milking cows and riding bicycles. These decades-old bits of gossip may be of interest to local residents who recognize their neighbors' great-grandparents in them, but they're of little value to readers whose primary interest is the boats themselves.

Most significantly, The Boyne Currach needed an editor. The language is often idiomatic or just plain unclear, the organization disjointed, too many of the how-to explanations are sketchy, and the content frequently drifts off-topic. I find this inexcusable in a book that was peer-reviewed, as its publisher, Four Courts Press, claims all its books are.

I understand that this is harsh, and I take no pleasure in slamming what was a sincere and worthy effort. O' Gibne's research concerning the historical use of the Boyne currach is worthwhile to historians and students of folkways. His dedication to learning traditional currach-building skills and perfecting his own is commendable, and the boats he builds are lovely in the way that simple tools and antique technologies can be. That he has taken his love for the currach and turned it into a vibrant cultural-and-boating organization (The Boyne Currach Centre) is admirable. Thanks to O' Gibne, there are now many boaters campaigning their home-built currachs on the Boyne and elsewhere, and that's just flat-out wonderful.

The Boyne Currach is not entirely lacking in value. As noted, it contains much that will be of use to historians, and its historical photos and illustrations are quite revealing of the currach's construction and use. It is, however, difficult to read and lacking in the clarity and detail that could have made it much more useful to boatbuilders and boat history enthusiasts.

NOTE: I know The Boyne Currach is well-liked by some of my readers. I welcome opposing viewpoints in the Comments.


  1. I take on board all of your criticisms but some fail if you think of the audience for the book. If you want to go into leather tanning in connection with skin boats then wouldn't you have already read the Brendan Voyage?

    The local chit chat isn't always easy to follow but for me it adds to the book.

    Construction details are adequate but no one as far as I know builds the saggy looking baskets of the old illustrations but he comes close. My own "Boyne" built by Peter Faulkner seems to be a much tighter boat but that is one of the charms of coracle and currach boating.

  2. I think that an adverse reaction against the idiomatic writing style will depend much upon the kind of reader one is -- not "good or bad reader" but rather "enjoys idiomatic or digressive style or does not" :-) Wooden Boat Magazine also published a review of this book in last issue (October 2013?)