7TH JANUARY 2003 by Tom Scriven, Cork and Kilnamartry




I do not particularly like being transported on water, it must be something about the loss of control, the motion of the water worries me. I’ve always felt that way and I’m not likely to change. Thus having decided to join the 400th anniversary walk of the O’Sullivan Beare 1602/3 March from Beara to Leitrim, it was decision time ! The organizers had arranged a curragh crossing of the Shannon near Redwood in North Tipperary, at what is believed to be the original crossing point, and I as a ‘core group’ walker, was afforded the opportunity to cross the river in a curragh.


It was an opportunity that could not be missed, and so, on a windswept dry crisp January morning we gathered at the river bank in anticipation. Within the hazel and white thorn trees a local farmer was wintering adult cattle, some of which had horns, a rare sight today. One animal with Whitehead breeding, had one horn pointing up with the other down, thus prompting a comparison to Donal Cam O’Sullivan, who, it is alleged, held one shoulder high. The cattle, with their coats ruffled by the northerly wind, stood in a scene devoid of modern influence, the only blemish being their yellow plastic identity tags.


The crossing point chosen was a bank to bank crossing, with no jetties, embarking steps or modern aids. The 2003 curragh, built for the occasion, was of a size to be rowed by two oarsmen carrying two passengers, one fore and one aft. O’Sullivan Bere’s boat was considerably bigger, as dimensions are quoted in written accounts, however, how and by whom they were measured and recorded is not ! Two boats were built for the original crossing, a curragh in Dursey Island style and a coracle in the Connaught tradition. The timber frames, crafted from riverbank trees with whatever implements were available, were covered with the hides of eleven horses and one horse respectively.

Niall Twomey and I were chosen for the second crossing. Thus fully dressed for the freezing temperatures, (the battery of my camera failed to operate, such was the cold), be-hatted and be-gloved, we waited for our call from the last dry patch of the semi-frozen callow land. The curragh approached on the return leg of the first crossing, with Paddy and Frank, our oarsmen, wearing capes reflecting the garments of earlier times over their life jackets. Using my experience of boyhood days in a West Cork farm, I ran to the bank from one tussock to the next, in a zigzag pattern to the sound of crunching ice. One of our fields at home was wet, uneven and dark-soiled, and thus named "An Manntan Dubh". Changing land ownership and modern farming methods using square paddocks will result in a loss of a great store of local history and folklore.


The northerly wind was even more noticeable at the waters edge. Using deft and delicate footsteps, I boarded the curragh and seated deeply into the bow, with my knees drawn up to my chin. Curraghs have a shallow keel, to avoid contact with rocks or tree roots in shallow waters, this results in a swaying motion with any movement. Thus passengers are required to maintain a low centre of gravity and remain still to avoid literally "rocking the boat"!. I was a collection of emotions, fear of water, anticipation of a great happening, and trusting two oarsmen whose skills I had not yet witnessed. Their performance over the following few minutes dispelled that fear quickly. A solid push from the bank was given, we were underway and my vote was cast !.


Due to the fast flowing southwards current and the northerly wind, the oarsmen stayed near the Tipperary bank and rowed upstream solidly and in unison for a hundred metres. The remaining group on the eastern bank and the welcoming party on the Galway side seemed distant and detached from us. Using great skill and understanding between them, our mariners brought the curragh out to the midstream with its silent deeper waters of Irelands midland counties. The curragh bobbled and creaked and now with my back to the direction of travel, we angled across the Queen of Irish rivers, the distance being judged neatly by our oar-heaving friends. Suddenly, with the Galway bank looming, a decisive call from Paddy prompted a quick shift in direction and we were in Tiranascragh in the province of Connaught. We alighted gingerly, and stooping low as we were advised, we pushed the slim blades of the oars, and thus the curragh, away from the bank. The oarsmen started again with sharp quick strokes of the slender oars to gather speed against the flow to begin the return crossing.


The last few incidents all happened very quickly, and then filled with emotion, we realized we had recreated four hundred years of history. We shook hands, issued congratulations and all fear or thoughts of water was temporarily forgotten. The welcoming party embraced us, more handshakes and welcomes were issued, followed by an invitation to refreshments and a musical performance at the Auld Shebeen.


This Shannon crossing experience was to be the highpoint of our expedition. We had walked for eight days to reach Redwood averaging over twenty miles a day. Seven more days of approximately seventeen miles per day remained, by now we were confident of achieving our aim. Our re-enactment was authentic, walking the historical stages as recorded and crossing the Shannon in a traditional hand-crafted curragh. We experienced great welcomes and enjoyed great hospitality with traditional homemade fare on display. In an age where environmental and animal welfare affairs are coming to the fore, readers will be pleased to note that "Jack", the horse used in the horse-riding re-enactment by Max Fell of Castletownbere was spared, his hide was not required!.