“ROWING in this race is just another challenge for us to go through together, to trust and support each other and to remember what is important in life... to enjoy it.”
This Saturday, Elaine Moynihan, her sister Sinéad and friend Katie will take part in their first ever competitive boat race: Ocean to City — An Rás Mor.
They will compete in the flagship event of the Cork Harbour Festival in a Dunfanaghy currach which they have built themselves. The three young women, originally from Cork’s northside, will not be alone on the long distance race however, but will have a fourth team member cheering them on.
Building the currach, named Spioraid na Saoirse, has been a labour of love. It was built in celebration of the life of their close friend, and Katie’s sister, Saoirse Mc Shane, who passed away in 2011.
Elaine recalls Saoirse’s vitality and energy; “She loved to celebrate and to party. She had such a kind heart and saw the best in everybody. Saoirse loved life and lived it to the fullest.”
Speaking of the preparation the three rowers are now making for An Rás Mor, Elaine says: “We always say it’s like four of us are in the currach: Myself, Katie, Sinead and Spioraid na Saoirse — The Spirit of Saoirse.”
Elaine, a mother of two young children, has a great love of the sea. She travelled extensively before settling in Garrettstown, Co. Cork, ten years ago. She always enjoyed surfing and being in the water and became interested in currachs when she brought her daughter, Síog, on rows with Naomhóga Corcaí, on the River Lee on Saturday mornings.
When she first experienced rowing a currach, it sparked a new passion for Elaine.
“When I first rowed, it was like being in a deep meditation. My spirit felt free, my heart was happy and my soul felt connected.”
From here, a desire to build her own boat grew. Inspired by a dream she had of Saoirse in May, 2013, Elaine was motivated to combine the goal of building the currach with celebrating the life of her sadly missed friend in one venture.
“I had a dream where Saoirse told me to make the currach and launch it on her birthday, which is on September 22, and so it began.”
At the time of Saoirse’s passing, Elaine and her daughter were living with Sinéad, her husband and their child. At Saoirse’s wake, they invited Katie and her two daughters to move in with them.
“It was a busy house but we all helped each other through a tough year of grieving,” Elaine remembers.
By 2013, Sinead and her family had moved house, while Elaine, Katie and their children remained.
Inspired by Elaine’s dream of Saoirse and working in their own shed, the two single mums were about to turn a dream into a reality.
Elaine, a photographer, bought a book on how to build a Dunfanaghy currach and consulted it for information on the materials and measurements required to make the boat. Having gathered some tools and borrowed more from friends, Elaine and Katie set to work. They collected hazel rods from local woods and bought some hardwood and spruce from the co-op. Elaine notes that building a currach is relatively inexpensive, with the canvass being the most costly item. This expense was a surprise gift for Elaine.
“When I went to collect it at Meitheal Mara, my friends had all amazingly paid for it for me as a 30th birthday present.”
Enlisting the help of family and friends, the building of Spiorad Na Saoirse became a community venture.
‘There were days when lots of friends would turn up to help and it was like a currach party,” Elaine laughs.
“Although building a currach had been my dream, I couldn’t have done it without Katie’s unending help and support. We would spend whatever moments we had working on the boat and Sinéad would help out after work.
“There were many times, especially coming up to the launch, that we’d spend the night working on the currach, sometimes only getting an hour of sleep before getting up to take the kids to school.”
After four months of dedication, Saoirse’s friends and family had built a boat to capture her vivacious spirit.
“Spioraid Na Saoirse was definitely built with a lot of laughter, a lot of tears, but mostly with a lot of love. It is a soul boat built on sisterhood and connection.”
The currach was launched on September 22, just in time to celebrate Saoirse’s birthday.
“Literally on the morning of the launch, we were still carving the oars.”
Saoirse’s birthday celebration has now become an annual event on the boat.
“Every year, since she was built, we go to Lough Hyne. It is so beautiful there at that time of year which, makes it even more special to celebrate Saoirse. We bring champagne and cake and sing happy birthday to Saoirse, rowing in the magical phosphorescence.”
The story of Spioraid Na Saoirse doesn’t end here however. On Mother’s Day this year, Elaine, Sinéad and Katie went to see a documentary,Voyage de Camino, about a group of people rowing to Portugal in a currach and a new vision for their own beloved boat was formed.
“It was an amazing documentary and straight after Sinéad registered us for An Rás Mor... I honestly thought she was crazy!.”
Spioraid na Saoirse was at this time in need of some repair. Finding time to keep the currach seaworthy was often challenging. Elaine’s son, Séalaoch, was born with kidney problems, resulting in him requiring many surgeries and a great deal of extra care. But the magic of Spiorad na Saoirse took over once again and, somehow, the three women found time to get her back in the water.
The re-launch gave both the boat, and Elaine’s spirit, a rebirth.
“Getting out to train for this row has awakened my spirit again. I’ve had a tough few years with my son being unwell and rowing in Spioraid na Saoirse brings peace to my soul. Rowing with my amazing sister and friend brings me so much joy and delight to my heart and spirit. I feel so blessed to have Sinéad and Katie in my life — we support each other on and off the water.”
Racing in Ocean to City — An Rás Mór is a new chapter for Spioraid na Saoirse. With their shared passion for the sea, the crew are taking this opportunity to raise awareness and funds to help protect our native kelp forest, which is so important for our sea and coastline. It is in danger of being mechanically harvested within their locality. You can find out more and donate at www.bantrybaykelpforest.com.
The currach is currently docked at Sandy Cove, allowing the three friends to train for the race whenever possible.
“We’ve been juggling work and mammying duties to get rowing at least twice a week and we’re loving every minute of it.”
Elaine says building Spioraid na Saoirse together was such an amazing and heart expanding journey, that they now believe anything is possible. Speaking of the big race she laughs: “We sometimes even joke that we could win it!.”
Sometimes, the crew wondered if taking part in the race would ever become a reality,but they spurred each other on.
“Sinéad’s motto for rowing in the race is — just keep smiling, so we’re getting plenty of practice at smiling and laughing.”
Saoirse is very much with Elaine, Sinéad and Katie at the heart of the venture.
“When we are rowing it feels like we are rowing as sisters, all in the same boat. It feels like Saoirse is rowing with us. She’s smiling at every oar-splash along the way and we can hear her saying whooooooh!”