I have taken my little talent – a boy’s paddle-boat, as it were – out on this deep and perilous sea of sacred narrative, where waves boldly swell to towering heights among rocky reefs in unknown waters, (a sea) on which so far no boat has ventured…
There’s something deliciously ‘early medieval’ about rowing wooden boats. No matter how much modern gear you happen to pack inside, there’s nothing ‘modern’ about the act of rowing itself. Of propelling a craft through the water by sheer power of human strength alone. Of pushing backwards from your legs a sweeping oar and seeing it catch and glide through the water, feeling a little surge forward in tandem with the others. Of riding into and cresting waves on the open sea. Of slinking through flat rivers. Of sitting in the bow, bobbing up and down, face forward to the horizon with hands on each side, feeling the wood hum and vibrate.
Wooden boats are most alive when they are moving. No really. You can hear them breathing, whalelike, an excited gurgling sound underneath, like a cistern, as water bubbles flow down the hull in transit. You can literally feel its synchronized heartbeat between the reach and return of the oars twisting and sliding between two thole pins – hard and soft wooden arteries – producing a dull ‘thud-dum’, ‘thud-dum’, ‘thud-dum’. A leathery wooden pulse pumping through the boat. The work of human hands.
It can, at times, get strangely hypnotic. Especially when on the board chatter had died down and people have settled into a good rhythm. The cox has little need to correct or instruct and the only thing left – is the open sea, the repetitive wooden heartbeat and ones own thoughts. My archaeo-imagination being what it is, I am usually transported back in time, to early medieval Ireland – not that hard when one is traversing the eastern Irish coastline in a clinker built craft, passing entire counties and landmarks once viewed in the same manner by seafarers from the north and still enshrined – despite anglicization – with Old Norse placenames.
Or perhaps, even further back, to Sixth and Seventh Century Ireland, when little boats and big seas occupied Early Christian literary imaginations as well as daily realities. Immrama. Navigatio. Peregrinatio. Exiles for God, adrift in the sea, seeking a retreat from the world. Romantic figures like Columba. Adómnan. Brendan. Island hermitages like Iona. Lindisfarne. Inishbofin.
I am privileged to be part of a crew that rows a Cornish Pilot Gig – a traditional, six oared, clinker built craft constructed from elm. 32 feet in length with a 4′ 10″ beam, it also has extra seats for a cox and a pilot. The gigs have a fascinating history, being originally designed for putting pilots aboard vessels in rough atlantic seas off the South West English coast in the 19thC – but naturally were also used for various other activities, such as lifeboat rescue, salvage and smuggling. They are incredibly lightweight yet sturdy, extremely fast and each modern example of the class is based on a single original – the “Treffry”, built in 1838 by William Peters of St. Mawes and still being used today in Newquay.
It is an incredibly versatile boat, sleek, graceful on one hand and yet capable of much punishment and subversion. We’ve reached speeds of 9.6 knots on calm inland rivers and have slogged through heavy swells at barely half a knot. We’ve stood, African style, facing forward, oars in hand, paddling through narrow reed infested canals like something out of Heart of Darkness. We’ve even sat still – six 14ft oars held aloft in favorable winds, like a broken early medieval bone toothed comb – ‘sailing’ with outstretched paddles, averaging 2 knots by simply doing nothing.
Although ‘only’ about 180 years old, I like to think of Cornish Pilot Gigs as organic descendants of the type of versatile and utilitarian craft that would have plied the same coastlines of Ireland, Britain and Scotland, and the various islands in between, in the Early Medieval period. I see similarities in fleeting references within early medieval historical sources. Boat building in pine, oak and bark stripping in the Vita Columbae. Of crews dropping sails at the sight of surfacing whales and taking to the oars in terror. People of eminence, pagan chieftains and holy men, traveling in the bow, the ‘pilot’ seat. Oar blades fighting through the gloop of a mysterious floating horde of jellyfish. Of a similar crew, six members of Iona, lost in a gale in the year 691 AD. Of the insular rowing craft known as the ‘Bantry Boat’ depicted on the Kilnaruane Cross Pillar, Co. Cork.
Some of the most famous legendary tales from Early Medieval Ireland have a contemporary and archaeological reality at their symbolic and metaphorical centres. The Voyages of Brendan, of Mael Dúin, and of Bran, all pinnacles of an Early Irish Christian literary genre known as Immrama, detail multiple crews, gear and equipment for both sailing and rowing long distances. Indeed, the very word Immrama, ‘The act of rowing about’ contains the base Old Irish word for ‘rowing’ i.e. ráma/rám; cf. rámach, ‘pertaining to rowing or oars’; or rámaid, ‘an oarsman’. Going on immram, in the early medieval Irish imagination, let alone contemporary maritime reality, went literally and figuratively ‘hand in hand’ with oars.
From Thursday (11th Aug) onwards – weather permitting – I shall be partaking of my own modern day immrama, out west, island hopping in our little boat along the coasts of North Galway and Mayo. My only certainty is that we will be heading to the island of Inishbofin for a couple of days, in much the same manner as the seventh century Aidan and his rag tag group of Anglo Saxon and Irish followers who left Lindisfarne for the same following the Easter Controversy of 664 AD.
After that, depending on which way the wind blows, maybe Inishturk, Clare Island, Clew Bay, Achill, perhaps even, a dart out to the Inishkeas. All in all, rowing in the wake of early medieval history and ecclesiastical ancestors, seeking a temporary retreat from the world and perhaps an ‘oasis’ on the ‘desert’ of the seas. To see the world of Western Connacht through the prism of early medieval immrama. Or perhaps, nowhere, if the weather has something to say about things (and at the time of writing, its not looking good for a few days).
For me, rowing to Inishbofin, and if at all possible, across to Inishark, is the archaeo-equivalent of my own personal pilgrimage, so to speak. Having been part of a team studying the islands archaeology, history and heritage for several years, I feel the inexorable urge to pay my own tribute to the endeavors of both the nineteenth/twentieth century inhabitants and their early medieval forebears. To get into their minds and written memories. To see the lands and seas as they did, within changing winds and waves, but without the comfort of modern motors. After that, any other island or beach is just an added bonus. Early medieval hermitages, pilgrimage sites, ruins, leachts, crosses, perhaps even, the island of Insola Cethiachus (quite possibly, the earliest contemporary reference to Inishkea) spoken of by my old friend Tírechán.
Should anyone be interested, you can follow my progress (if any), both daily and live, online here (via the ‘activity map’ in MapMyTracks) or follow on twitter for pithy highlights and/or photos. More importantly, should you happen to be in the area and see a bedraggled group of rowers looking miserable and wet – with a head-the-ball standing up in the bow with outstretched arms attempting to recreate Columba calming the seas – then, throw us a rope and/or the price of a hot whiskey. Or something.
And if something untoward happens and I don’t come back at all at all. Avenge me. With a kick ass Immrama saga. Entitled: Cox Hiberionacum.