The Camino de Santiago (or Way of St. James) is an internationally renowned ancient network of pilgrim routes stretching throughout France and Spain that finally comes together in the north-west Spanish town of Santiago de Compostela, at the tomb of St. James (Santiago in Spanish).
For centuries, thousands of pilgrims have carved their path along the Camino, many Irish among them, some choosing their own way through the network of walkways while others travel with groups and tours in organized trips.
While some walk, and other cycle, a group of Irishmen took it upon themselves in the last few years to become the first group to row the Camino. Taking up to six weeks each summer since 2014 to complete a leg of the pilgrimage, they finally reached Santiago de Compostela this year after weeks of spending dawn to dusk out on the ocean, coming to shore to rest at night.
Not only that, but the men traveled in a boat named a currach, also known as a naomhóg in Co. Kerry (meaning little saint or holy one), a boat designed over 1,000 years ago, and the type of boat believed to have been used by St. Brendan when he set off from the Irish coast in 575 AD and reached Newfoundland in Canada.
Speaking to Máire Moriarty, broadcast journalist, barrister, and creator of Chat Splat, one of the adventurers Breanndán Ó Beaglaoich shared the amazing tale of experiencing the Camino in a way no other person ever has and the incredible magic of a journey taken in a naomhóg.
Put together by two members of the crew, Liam Holden and Danny Sheehan, Ó Beaglaoich and his companion rowed from Ireland, to Wales, to Brittany, down the Bay of Biscay, and on to Santiago de Compostela over the course of three years, in a journey he describes as “pure magic”.
From the lessons the naomhóg taught them, to the beauty of the silence of the boat as it cuts between the waves, Ó Beaglaoich tells that only one wave ever entered the boat, despite only a piece of leather and some tar standing between the two rowers and the water, highlighting the incredible skill of those who developed the boats so many years ago in creating such a sturdy vessel without the technology we have to aid us today.
Unique to the west coasts of Ireland and Scotland, the currach/naomhóg is a type of Irish boat with a wooden frame, over which animal skins of hides were once stretched although canvas is often now used. It has traditionally used both as a sea boat and as a vessel for inland waters.
And it wasn’t just the rowers who found the journey humbling as they entered harbors such as La Rochelle in which million-dollar yachts were overlooked by passersby for the character of their small little boat, many of the people in the towns along their journey would “stop as if we were carrying a whale” amazed by what the Kerry musician and storyteller calls the “personality” of the boat.
“It’s taken six or seven weeks to come ashore again [mentally],” Ó Beaglaíoch admits.