GIVE a man a fish, and you’ll feed him for a day. Teach a man to build a currach, and you feed him for a lifetime.
That may not be how the Chinese proverb goes, but that’s the message from an unusual Cork charity project that saw Cork Community Boatyard Meitheal Mara team up with the Haiti Orphanage Project ESPWA to travel to Haiti with three flat-pack currachs.
Light-weight, easy to construct and repair, and made from materials that locals will be able to source, the Irish currach may have the potential to throw a lifeline to struggling Haitian fishermen.
Cork people may have become accustomed to the distinctive shape of currachs on the Lee in recent years. The traditional Irish boat, made from a wooden frame covered with waterproofed canvas, is closely associated with island life, but boatbuilders Meitheal Mara and Naomhoga Chorcaí, Cork’s currach-rowing club, have been raising the profile of the lightweight craft in Cork’s waters, as well as engaging in some amazing cross-cultural exchanges.
The Caribbean island has been struck with a series of natural disasters dating back to the devastating earthquake of 2010, which killed an estimated 300,000 people and left 1.5 million people homeless.
Cholera epidemics, political unrest, lootings, and a succession of hurricanes: the past seven years have seen Haitian people face enormous adversity in the struggle to rebuild their livelihoods, in one of the poorest countries in the world.
Fishing was one of the mainstays of the Haitian economy before the 2010 quake, which decimated its fleet of small craft.
Meitheal Mara’s workshop manager, Seamus O’Brien, accompanied ESPWA founder, Ballincollig man John Cronin, to Haiti for a three-day intensive boat-building session with young men raised in orphanages backed by ESPWA, 100% of whose funds are channelled to their projects in orphanages and the community.
“Making two currachs in three days is a fantastic achievement,” Seamus said. “We built two and I left the third one there for them to finish. Now the boats are going down to the south, to be used by fishermen.”
Half of the work on the currachs was done in Meitheal Mara’s boatyard at Crosses Green in Cork. Flat-pack currachs may sound like something from an unpopular IKEA range, but the novel approach cut the workload and allowed Seamus to focus on teaching the most vital steps in the building process to the young men he worked with.
Seamus, originally from The Glen, said that the impoverished conditions he witnessed were a shock to behold, but that the resilience and ingenuity of Haitian people was an inspiration.
“They’re starting fresh, producing farmed fish, beehives, eggs and chickens,” he said. “Their fishing was just wiped out entirely; their boats got washed two miles inshore. I saw fellas out on logs with nets thrown over them, which is crazy.”
Water safety gets thrown by the wayside when providing food is the most urgent requirement, but ESPWA and Seamus are determined to provide life jackets and buoyancy aids for their currachs; Meitheal Mara donated eight life jackets and ESPWA is currently appealing for more from Irish donors. Materials for fishing nets are also a priority.
Meitheal Mara raised more than €1,000 for Seamus’ trip, and the money went towards reroofing one of the orphanage buildings in an area called Kenscoff, close to the Haitian capital of Port-au- Prince.
Seamus also went to lend a hand with this project.
“With the money we raised, they could pay 16 locals $70 for a week, which would be a very high wage there, to come in and repair the roof,” Seamus said.
Completed currachs can be used for cargo, transport and fishing. Seamus said the locals were “fascinated by the amount of weight the currachs can carry; they’ll take half to three quarters of a tonne easily.”
Future plans are ambitious; building on the skills Seamus taught, ESPWA are keen to help set up a small-scale boat-building industry, providing an income to boatbuilders and a livelihood for fishermen.
“They need some training and guidance, but after this trip they can work away,” Seamus said.
“What I taught them was like a smaller version of the Aran Island currach but if we could go back and bring a few more people, they can learn to make different types of currachs, too.”
Before he left, Seamus had a heartening moment that led him to realise that the skills he had taught were not only going to be put to use, but were going to be adapted to Haitian ways: “When I left the workshop the boats were black, the original Naomhóg colour. But before I left, I went down one last time. They thought I was gone, and they had one painted blue and one painted red: the Haitian national colours. That was very emotional for me, because I felt like they’re after taking them over and putting their own stamp on them; it was brilliant to see.”
For more information on the Haiti Orphanage Project ESPWA, to donate or get involved, visit www.4haiti.ie