Traditional Galway boats

“With her brown barked sail, andher hull black tar,Her forest of oak ribs and thelarchwood planks,The cavern smelling hold bulkedwith costly gear,”

Some lines there from an evocative poem entitled “The Last Galway Hooker” written by Richard Murphy. In 1960, he was writing about the Ave Maria which at that time was one of the few such boats left. “She was old, solid, cow-like from some angles, but strangely beautiful”.

There are four different types of Galway hooker – The bád mór, leathbhád, gleoiteog, and púcan. The hooker is a term associated, like the Dutch hoeker, with hook and line fishing, though some believe the boat is of Norwegian origin, others that it is descended from the English cutter. Its origins go back to medieval times, signifying a small easily handled coastal vessel. The Galway model was a special craft, tailor made by Galwaymen for their waters and to their needs at a time when sail was the principal form of propulsion.

The large boat could carry up to 15 tons. It was built of massive construction in one and a quarter inch larch planking spiked on 6x3 sawn oak frames, centred 12” amidships, and closer forward. There was hardly a flat plank on her. No topsail was carried, and the sail of a 40 footer would run to about 900 square feet of heavy calico, cut, sewn, and proofed locally.

In the early 19th century, the main centre for building such boats was Galway. At the time there was a fleet of 105 sailing craft, 80 rowing boats, and 820 fishermen sailing out of the Claddagh. Some of the great boatbuilding families were the Reaneys, the O’Donnells, and the Clohertys.

These boats were mostly working vessels which served the maritime needs of Galway Bay and the coast of Conamara. They are beautiful and elegant when in full sail. Sadly, the decline in fishing in Galway Bay meant a steady decline in the number of traditional boats, but then, in the 1960s, a dramatic revival began so that today, there are significant numbers of these craft used mostly for pleasure. This in turn has meant the renewed use of many lesser known bays and inlets, and a better understanding of an aspect of our social history.

Our photograph shows the deck of a hooker being loaded with cargo, probably for transporting to one of the islands. Some of the cargo has been covered with a tarpaulin which was weighted down with planks, but you can also see large sacks and crates, a bicycle, and about 40 barrels of beer or stout. Maybe this is where the famous “Tá said ag teacht” advertisement came from. It would appear that the boat on the right was used for fishing purposes only.


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