THE CURRACH RACES, SALTHILL
by Tom Kenny
The Currach Races …. An Tóstal …. Rásaí na gCurrachaí …. 60,000 people plus in Salthill ….. Lines of people four and five deep along the prom …. Every vantage point taken …..Specially designed currachs everywhere, up on trailers, sitting on grass verges, at the water’s edge …. Always a crowd of people inspecting them …. The currachs on the sea like tiny insects, indistinguishable in the mist and drizzle …. Mountainy men and island men … Báinín …. Bréidín ….. Beautiful hand-knit Aran croiseanna …. Caps ….. Caps ….. Thousands of caps ….. Women in many different styles of shawl …. Some red petticoats …. Stalls everywhere selling minerals, sweets, fruit …… Many stages erected along the prom hosting sean nós singers, dancers, traditional musicians …. The atmosphere of a massive aeríocht …. Programmes written in the old Irish script ….. Strange accents from Donegal …. Three-card trick men ….. Canoe races between the currach races …. Trawlers marking the race route ….. Kerry accents ….. Canúint Chonamara …. A cluster of bookies at Blackrock …. Bottles of stout and lemonade …. Gaelinn spoken in lilting Cork accents ….. Gaeilge spoken by Aran Islanders who had come in on the Dún Aengus …. A marquee for food at Blackrock … Another for visiting crews …. The Joyces of Inis Bearacháin …. Bands playing at the Ladies Beach and at Blackrock …. Currach men from Mayo, Sligo and Clare …. Commentary on the races blaring from speakers all over Salthill …. A festival dance in the Hangar …. This was the All-Ireland Currach Racing Championship which was first held in 1953 in the Claddagh and thereafter for several years in Salthill. The prom provided the ideal viewing stand, the oarsmen provided the excitement and the crowds provided the atmosphere.
The races were a very serious business, often broadcast on Radio Éireann with Taoiseachs turning up to present the prizes. All of the contests were hard fought by men whose life was the sea and to whom the honour of becoming Ireland’s premier currach crew meant a great deal. Each three-man crew wore distinctive coloured jerseys to distinguish them from the others. The course was two and a half miles long. In 1959, ten crews entered the senior section, the Aran Islands sent one from Kilronan, another from Inis Meán; two were from Clare, one representing Horse Island, the other Scattery Island; two crews came from the Maharees in Kerry and two from Blacksod in Mayo; there was a crew from Carraroe and there was the famed Joyces from Inis Bearacháin. Sadly, pressure of work kept two Donegal teams at home that year. In their heat, the Joyces broke a pin in a rowlock and had to withdraw and in a hotly contested final, it was the Carraroe men who won the trophy. Six crews competed for the Junior All-Ireland Championship. Legends were being created.
In 1957, there was an equally dramatic final as five crews were disqualified for going the wrong side of a marking buoy, and the race was awarded to the Mayo champions, Clare Island.
It was said that Conamara was emptied of people for the day, they came in by boat, by car, by bicycle and by pony and trap. Convoys of buses carried people from all over the country and every train that came into the station was packed. The proceedings always began with an industrial parade of over 60 floats and a number of marching bands.