Irish Currach Club of Milwaukee
The mission of the Irish Currach Club of Milwaukee is to enhance and foster the nautical heritage of Ireland in the Midwest and to promote the culture of currachs and currach racing in North America.
Written records of the currach date from 100 BC. Early Gaelic accounts speak of large ocean-going sailing vessels roving the North Atlantic. One of these legends contests that St. Brendan, an Irish monk during the Middle Ages. was the first to discover America – in a currach.
Historically the currach was used for fishing, transportation and rescue along Ireland’s west coast and the rivers. Currach racing started as fishermen were returning to shore with the day’s catch and the townsfolk would gather to cheer on their crews.
Currach racing was introduced to this country in the mid-80s when a group of Irish-born rowers in Pittsburgh decided to start a currach club. In 1984, Pittsburgh became the first team of the North American Currach Association. By the time the Irish Currach Club of Milwaukee was established in 1989, the conference was primarily an East-Coast organization with teams in Pittsburgh, Annapolis, Albany, Philadelphia, and Boston. Teams in Columbus, Cleveland, Iowa, and New Orleans would later join, although none are still around.
Limerick native Tadhg McInerney and Dublin native John Gleeson founded ICCM because they wanted the currach to be part of Milwaukee Irish Fest. Pittsburgh’s Mulkerrin brothers built and brought a boat for the new Milwaukee team to race at the 1989 Irish Fest. The ICCM fleet of currachs has since grown to five in racing condition, three of which club members have helped build.
Each year, ICCM hosts its regatta on the Saturday of Irish Fest. There are nine to ten races of one to four rowers in women’s, men’s and mixed competitions. On Sunday, the club organizes the St. Brendan’s Regatta between local policemen and firemen to commemorate the 1892 Third Ward Fire that decimated Milwaukee’s Irish community.
Both days of racing draw large crowds to see this traditional sport of the coastal areas of Ireland.
In addition to its work at Irish Fest to promote the currach tradition, the club participates in Celtic events throughout the year to educate the community on the culture of the currach and the sport of currach racing.
A currach is a wood-framed boat traditionally covered with animal skins and coated in tar. Today, modern currachs are covered in canvas and coated with black oil paint. The thin wooden ribs forming the frame of the boat are traditionally made of ash or oak. The keel-less boat can ride large ocean swells and skim up shallow rivers, sits high on the water and is very maneuverable. Each regatta includes at least one buoy turn, requiring a 90- or 180-degree turn.
The oars are made of strong, yet light woods, like pine or ash. The oars, two per rower, are eight- to ten-foot-long blades that do not widen into a paddle at the end, providing balance and maneuverability while propelling the boat forward, slicing through choppy waters when necessary.
Currach styles and sizes vary by region in Ireland but are standardized for racing in this country according to specifications set by NACA. Boats are 25 feet long and the bow does not rise up from the water level, unlike those used on the ocean.
Rowing a currach is different from sculling a shell or any other row boat. ICCM racing boats have four fixed seats and two 8- to 10-foot oars per seat. Rowers start the pull leaning forward and engaging the muscles in the legs and core, lean back, keeping their arms straight until breaking the elbow to push the oar handles down and begin the stroke recovery. The oars should skim just below the surface so they don’t get caught in the water, thus disrupting the rhythm of the rowers.