Ireland’s currach boats, lightweight elongated dinghys used in medieval times by lobstermen and farmers ferrying their livestock to market, are rapidly becoming an underground sporting fixture in colorful Cork City. The rowing style owes its resurgence to the members of Naomhóga Chorcaí, a local organization determined to buoy the Emerald Isle’s ancient seafaring culture, which recruits new currachers every week through a grapevine of emails and chats.
After kitting-out at the beautifully maintained Shandon Boat Club on the banks of the River Lee, rowers loft their four-man timber vessels down to the bank, where they are joined by a mix of team leaders, ocean-racers, and fellow newbs. All and sundry climb into currachs crafted by Meitheal Mara, a cooperative workshop where woodworkers hew closely to age-old boat building traditions – though ox hides have been replaced with nylon.
Though it is often compared to canoeing, currach is closer to classic boating in that rowers use two stick-like oars at the same time. The narrow oars themselves are weathered perfectly for Irish seas so they don't snap as veterans an visitors navigate one of two routes through Cork's unpredictable, heavily tidal waters. The downstream route takes voyagers east along the estuary of Cork harbor, where egrets, salmon, otters dart in and out of the surf as Blackrock Castle – a fortress built in the 1600s to protect the city from pirates – looms in the distance.
The upstream route requires that rowers heave and hoe in military unison, an effect only achieved after a session with one of Naomhóga’s lead oarsman. The instructor, Finbarr, briefed our crew at length on the appropriate technique and terms, many of which were shouted in the original Gaelic. A few miscues later we skimmed up the Lee graceful as could be. Neither wind nor a rain upset the remarkably stable currachs.
Because Cork, which takes its name from an ancient word for “marsh,” is itself an island city, rowers frequently get the opportunity to slide under many of the town’s twenty nine bridges. If this trip is a qualifies as alternative sightseeing, what inevitably follows is as traditional as can be. Rowers drop their oars at Lapp's Quay downtown and head to a pub for a pint. Two things to keep in mind: Cork locals drink Murphy's, not Guinness, and paddling an ancient boat doesn't get any easier with a buzz.
More information: Cork City is a three hour drive south from Dublin. Five mile sessions with Naomhóga Chorcaí cost from $13, while longer events including coastal races can be checked out on the organization’s website. For an outdoorsy base in Cork, try renting a far-flung farmhouse or traditional cottage in the county.