The blessing of the boats

This classic photograph of the Claddagh was originally taken c1890 and was given to us by the National Library. It illustrates just how close the connection was between the thatched village and the sea. Most of the menfolk who lived there were fishermen who depended for their livelihood on the sea, and so a tradition developed which became a colourful expression of ancient local faith.

Each year, on a Sunday in mid-August near the feast of the Assumption of Our Lady, crowds came to the Claddagh Pier for the age-old ceremony of the blessing of Galway Bay and its fishermen. It is about this time of year that the herring season opens, and it is probable that the ceremony originated in the anxiety of the local fishermen to get God’s blessing on their work, and His help in bringing their light hookers and currachs safely home after each voyage. The name of the Dominican Church is St Mary on the Hill, which reflects a long tradition of affection for Our Lady in the Claddagh and which would also explain why the fishermen would plan the blessing to be as close as the tides permit to the Feast of the Assumption.

There are only a few boats left of the Claddagh fleet and they are usually joined by the trawlers that have replaced them as well as an escort of yachts and smaller boats that sail out into Galway Bay after the blessing of nets on the quayside. On the outward journey, the sound of the rosary being said in Irish and the singing of hymns can be heard over the water and occasionally songs like ‘Galway Bay’ and ‘Here’s a Toast to You Claddagh’ lighten the proceedings. In the bay, the ringing of a bell is the signal for the boats to form a wide circle around the brown-sailed hooker, or in more recent years, the fishing trawler that carries the altar boys and the choir from the church, as well as the Dominican priest who presides over the prayers.

The beauty of the ceremony lies in its stark simplicity. A passage from the Gospel of Saint John recalls that scene on the Sea of Galilee when Jesus went fishing with the apostles and told them to ‘cast the net on the right side of the ship and you shall find’. They did as they were told and Peter drew in the net ‘full of great fishes, one hundred and fifty three. And although there were so many, the nets were not broken’ (John 21:6 ).

Then the Benedicite canticle calls on all creation, from the angels in heaven down to the fish in the depths of the sea, to give glory to God. Another Gospel extract, this time from St Luke, recalls the weariness and frustration that gripped St Peter as it occasionally grips every fisherman; ‘Master, we have laboured all night and have caught nothing.’ But at the master’s request, he let down the nets once more and this time they were filled with fish, so that he had to call another boat to help him and ‘the two boats were filled with fish’.

Then the white robed priest says some prayers and calls on Mary, the Star of the Sea, to plead for her children, “When you are tossed about among the storms and tempests of life, look to the star, call upon Mary”. The Magnificat is sung and the sea is sprinkled with holy water and finally, a Sign of the Cross is made over the fishing fields, an appeal to God to bless them and those who fish in them, their boats, their tackle, and all their labours. The boats usually make a short trip around the bay before turning for home.

All of the above is taken from Fr Eustás Ó Héideáin’s book on the Dominicans in Galway. This year the blessing will take place on next Sunday evening, August 23, from the Claddagh Quay.

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