It’s Sunday afternoon and the currach races at the Inishbofin Maritime Festival are in full flow. There’s a slow breeze blowing in around the ruin of the old Cromwellian barracks and across the harbour.
More than 100 people are on the new pier, with at least that many more again gathered along the harbour wall.
Mick Conneely is playing the fiddle and Michael Cunnane — the chairman of the organising committee — is gathering together the crews for the next race.
Out on the water, the men competing in the four-oared race have rounded the marker at the top of the course. Michael Joe O’Halloran is commentating across the PA system and is urging on the Inishbofin men competing against visiting teams from around Connemara.
The strain of the pull and the splash of the water are framed by the beauty all around. Back to the left is Knock Hill with its A-framed house. Straight in front the glorious sand of Port Beach rises into the headland.
Across in the distance, beyond the entrance to the harbour, sits abandoned Inishark Island, its old stone houses growing back into the land.
The race — and all the races on the day — are fiercely contested. Crews have travelled in from Carna and Carraroe, Rosmuc, and Inishturk, and along the pier, conversations shift between Irish and English.
The shouting of the crowd grows louder as the currachs push through the water and on by the pier.
In the end, the Inishbofin men are beaten into second place and the silver cup will leave the island for the winter.
But that only tells a part of the story. The winning and losing matters in all of the races — but only to a certain point. There is a lot more to this festival than measuring distances between first and second.
Over the weekend, there has been paddle-board racing and kayak racing, organised from the old pier in a way that allows for newcomers to try their hand.
There have been sailing races, too, as the children of the Inishbofin Sailing Club bank and tack across the bay.
The beauty of the island and the relaxed nature of the proceedings does not
disguise the fact that
nothing such as this happens without the efforts of men and women who commit their time to create an event that brings pleasure to so many.
Five new racing currachs — funded by the Coca-Cola Go Thank You Fund — had been put on the water earlier in the week. They had been built over the winter and this was their first competitive outing. The week before the regatta had seen men and women painting currachs and pulling them up and down the harbour in practice.
The people who revived this regatta in recent years have worked hard to make it a success. In doing this they are building on a tradition of regattas on the island that extended back across the middle decades of the 20th century when currachs and púcáns and hookers raced around the harbour and beyond.
Those races — in themselves — were part of a tradition of regattas that extend back centuries of Irish history.
Indeed, the first sporting club ever established in Ireland was a boat club — the Water Club of the Harbour of Cork (later renamed the Royal Cork Yacht Club), which was in existence by 1720, though it is possible that it was active before then.
Alicia St Leger opened her excellent history of that club with a description of their
activities: ‘Wealthy gentlemen in brightly painted and gilded craft manoeuvring in response to signals of colourful flags and to the sound of gunfire were a frequent sight in Cork harbour in the 18th century.’ The club was based on Haulbowline Island in the harbour, close to the seat of the Earls of Inchiquin who were central to its affairs for a century and beyond.
The rules for the club were published and amended throughout the 18th century, being republished in 1760.
Its membership was rooted in the elite of Cork society: a class of wealthy landlords and merchants. By the 1780s the club’s races were being reported in the newspapers, notably the Cork Hibernian Chronicle, with “the lower class of people” coming along to spectate.
The club languished somewhat in the early 19th century but was reconstituted in the 1820s and was thriving to the extent that it was renamed the Royal Cork Yacht Club in 1830.
Naturally, the club was an ongoing opportunity for sport and sociability, while the annual Cork Harbour Regatta was its most high-profile activity. The scale of this endeavour was, by the 1830s, extremely impressive. On the water, there were stewards’ boats and flag boats, while courses were laid out using special flags and buoys.
Special temporary stands were erected on the quays and regimental bands played music all day. A particular portion of the quayside was sectioned off and ‘reserved for those willing to pay for the privilege of promenading there.’ Booths and show-pavilions lined the docks, and the regatta banquet was a social highlight of the calendar in Cork.
The local press noted that when the meal was served, seated were “over four hundred persons, comprising a large number of the aristocracy of the County and City”. The meal, itself, “contained all the varieties and delicacies of the season, served up in the best style, and the wines were in profusion and of admired vintages”.
The story of Cork was eventually repeated around Ireland. The Royal Irish Yacht Club was founded in Kingstown (later renamed Dún Laoghaire) in 1831. It was the first of several yacht clubs founded in Dublin Bay, followed later by the Howth Yacht Club and the Dublin Bay Sailing Club (1884).
The Royal Irish Yacht Club was a thoroughly elitist operation: the club’s first Commodore was Lord Anglesey, who had been a commander of cavalry at the Battle of Waterloo and was Lord Lieutenant of Ireland.
The club was founded in the wake of the staging of successful regattas after 1828 and lent further impetus by Anglesey’s bringing to Dublin of his yacht, ‘The Pearl’. Among its first members was the Duke of Wellington.
Kingstown was also the location for the founding of The Royal St George Yacht Club in 1838 (originally as the Kingstown Boat Club). Across Ireland, other yacht clubs were also emerging as a pastime of the elite.
The Athlone Yacht Club was established at Ballyglass in 1837; it was later renamed the Lough Ree Yacht Club in 1895.
More prestigious again was the Royal Western Yacht Club of Ireland, which was established at a meeting in Kilrush, Co. Clare in February 1832.
This club centred initially on the estuary of the River Shannon, but included members from across the UK. By 1837, its membership stood at 201, with a total of 82 boats. It held regattas in Galway, Sligo, Westport, Dublin and Belfast, kept clubrooms on Grafton Street in Dublin and had a floating house based in Kingstown Harbour.
Like other clubs, the Royal Western regattas opened races for men who were not considered ‘gentlemen’, but membership of the club itself was strictly regulated.
As the 19th century progressed, the story of the elite organisation of water sports was mirrored by ordinary people around Ireland claiming a place in the sport for themselves.
Communities in every coastal county organised formal regattas at which men and women raced for money or silver cups or other prizes such as carriage clocks or suits of clothes.
For many people, such regattas were their introduction to the modern sporting world. One such man was Maurice Davin who began competing at the Carrick- on-Suir regatta — known as ‘The Boat Races’ — in the 1860s, as well as at regattas in Clonmel, Waterford and across the south-east.
Not content merely to row boats to victory, Davin decided to build his own. From 1868 he raced in boats he built himself, first a two-oared wherry and then a 35-ft four-oared racing gig.
He became consumed with the idea of perfecting racing-boats. He designed and built a whole range of craft from canoes to out-riggers — each endeavour backed by his practical experience of working the river and by the technical knowledge learned from the books which he ordered for his house. In fact, he never lost a race in one of his own boats. Davin, of course, was Michael Cusack’s partner in the founding of the GAA.
Since Davin’s time, regattas have been an essential part of the summer sporting and social life of coastal communities all across Ireland. These regattas are a day out with a difference and offer sport in the most beautiful of settings. If nothing else, it gives an excuse — not that one should be needed — to head for the sea. And the glory of Inishbofin last weekend evoked the images of Seamus Heaney’s great lines from ‘Seeing Things’.
Inishbofin on a Sunday morning.
Sunlight, turfsmoke, seagulls, boatslip, diesel.
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