Curraghs and Coracles of the Wandering Saints
Having researched the stories of the voyages of these early Christian saints, I felt as if I could spend most of my time creating imaginary vessels for their many wandering voyages.
One particularly striking legend is the tenth century Navigatio Brendani (the Voyage of Brendan) which recounts the adventures of St Brendan and his disciples as they set out to discover Paradise. Most likely a religious allegory, it was translated into many European languages and is closely related to the Irish immram genre of sea voyages. It is a rich and mysterious tale full of strange encounters on islands – with singing birds, shining pillars, angry blacksmiths, and even the devil himself. One island, sinking beneath them, turns out to be a whale.
I wanted to explore the coracles in a different way to my first ‘Fragile Boats’ in the Flotilla, and approached the making of them with a contrasting material.
Both of the vessels for Coracle Cybi are carved out of heavy, dense material – Plaster of Paris – which is first cast in a mould.
I chose the technique of carving, as a metaphor, to echo the way that Holyhead’s St Cybi, and fellow Christian pilgrims, carved a way of life from the most extreme places in challenging conditions. The weight of this heavy, dense material was also purposely chosen to convey the weight and solidity of his legacy within Wales.
The black painted hull of ‘Corwgl Cibi 1/2’ / ‘Coracle Cybi 1/2’ represent the dark outer skin of these boats, in contrast with the inner gold, a colour often used in sacral art.
Most of the model boats in maritime museums traditionally use balsa wood as their working, modelling, medium and as I had the perfect block sitting in my studio, I decided to carve and ‘find’ St Cybi’s curragh within this block. I ended up finding three.
With this next set of vessels, ‘Curragh Cybi’ and ‘Cargo Cybi’, I focus on their skill as scribes.
As I was working on these vessels, I was also reading The Brendan Voyage by Tim Severin, who crossed the Atlantic to Newfoundland in 1976–7, to prove that such long journeys were possible even in early times. His descriptions of this journey are extremely vivid.
The balsa wood I was carving felt as if it was made of the leather of the Brendan curragh, the material being so spongy and flexible to work.
For the main ‘Curragh Cybi’, I worked from the references and memories I had from the time when I was artist in residence in Arás Eánna Art Centre on Inis Oírr, Aran Islands. They still use the traditional curragh on the Aran Islands of Galway Bay and it was a familiar sight to see them resting on old Guinness kegs, like black beetles along the beaches.
I kept mine very simple, focussing more on the sculptural form of the boat. It contains just a single set of the oars, true to the original, but in reality there would have been six.
The small ‘Cargo’ vessels revert to the coracle shape, containing scrolls that I made from handmade plant and jute rope fibre.
In reality these scrolls would have been made of vellum and have contained the teachings of and traditions about the early saints. They are precious written remains of a period we know little about, hence the focus I have given to them.
All these vessels are made in my studio in Rhyd, which is below Moelwyn Bach, in the Snowdonia National Park.
Tim Severin, The Brendan Voyage