|Curragh Regatta Churns Traditional Waters
By John F. O’Brien, Jr.
friendly enemies in the water. This is not a pretty sport – it’s hardcore,
hand blisters, butt blisters … It’s the competition and tradition."
— Chrissy Mulkerrin, Pittsburgh
Curragh Team, one of 11 Mulkerrins active in curragh racing in Pittsburgh,
making up one of the oldest clubs in the U.S.
According to ancient legend, and his own writings, called The Navigation,
the Navigator took his curragh, 10 explorers and provisions for 40
days and eventually found America. First landing at Newfoundland, which
is almost directly due west of his homeland in Kerry, St. Brendan then
allegedly journeyed south to Florida, the Bahamas and then around the southern
tip of the U.S. into the Gulf of Mexico.
This was approximately 500 A.D., almost 900 years before Christopher
Columbus left Spain to do the same. There are references to curragh boats
as far back as 100 B.C.
The curragh (sometimes spelled currach) is a hardy but light boat frame
of wood, usually oak or ash, covered with canvas, often painted with a
black oil paint. Originally, animal skins were used instead of the canvas.
With length of 25 feet and weight of only around 250 pounds, it moves under
guidance of long oars of about nine feet in length, but taper to only about
one inch at the water end.
This lack of a blade is to prevent catching on rough Atlantic waves.
Sails are also be used on a curragh, but not in these races. The light
weight of the curragh allows them to ride on top of the waves, rather than
fighting through it. Yet it is so strong that is can, and has, crossed
Mostly used as a fishing vessel on the west coast of Ireland, curragh
racing became a sport when speed became a necessity for the fisherman -
first one in each day got the best price for his catch. Naturally, the
competitive spirit led to boasts on who was the fastest and curragh racing
was born. The boats, in various modifications depending on locations and
use, are still used for fishing, transportation, rescue and, of course,
racing. NACA uses a boat modeled after the Naomhog curragh, noted for its
sleek lines and outstanding seaworthiness.
U.S. teams are part of the North American Curragh (Kure uh) Association
(NACA). Teams from Pittsburgh, Boston (two teams) and Albany joined the
Milwaukee team this year to compete in the Irish Curragh Club of Milwaukee
Regatta, held annually at the Milwaukee Irish Fest at the Henry Maier Festival
Grounds on gorgeous Lake Michigan. Other clubs include Annapolis, Columbus,
New Orleans and Philadelphia and new clubs are being researched for South
Bend and Cleveland, among others.
Each club hosts an annual regatta, with team points awarded for finishing
in the top four. Six to 10 races are held at each regatta. Total points
for the team are then used to determine NACA Cup Champion at the end of
the racing year. Any ties are broken by whichever team placed higher at
the other clubs’ regatta.
Race length ranges from one to two miles, about 12 to 15 minutes each
and are held in multiple categories; four men, four women, three men and
one woman, two of each and then combinations of two and one rowers. On
the full load (four person) boat, the two at the ends do the steering while
the two in the middle are called jrs or juniors (for "just
row, Stupid"). All four steering would get the boat in a great speed –
going in circles.
The reality of curragh racing, the reason so many get involved and stay
involved, is the competition and the camaraderie. Practices are usually
three times per week, when the weather allows, often early Sunday mornings
and two evenings. Family and friends follow the teams and as soon as the
race is over, all adrenaline is gone and the friendships grow.
"We’ve had a lot of adventures," recounted Margie Mulkerrin, of the
Pittsburgh club. "We raced in Hurricane Bertha in Albany (on Saratoga Lake)
about six years ago."
Her cousin, Chrissy, is endlessly teased about driving a curragh into
a bridge abutment when she tried, too late, to correct her course for a
larger opening under a narrow bridge. The race finished, then others
came back to rescue her. Priorities, you know.
Originally hailing from Connemara. Chrissy and Carolyn, father, and
Margie’s uncle, Pete Mulkerrin, used the curragh in daily life and also
played Gaelic football before coming to the U.S. in 1968. He continued
to play football in the US for many years after with the Pittsburgh Roger
Casement’s Gaelic Football Club.
Mulkerrin (pronounced Mul Kern) family is very typical of all the
racing teams, in their following of Irish traditions, in sport, active
involvement and passing on those traditions to the rest of the family as
well as the next generation. They do it for the love of their heritage
and the love of curragh racing.
2005 NACA Schedule:
June 4th – Philadelphia
July 9th – Pittsburgh
July 30th – Columbus
August 20th – Milwaukee
August 27th – Boston
September 17th – Albany
October 1st – Annapolis