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The Future of the Legendary Galway Hookers

The legendary Galway Hookers are the subject of our monthly interview in which the Chairman of Cumann HúcéirÍ na Gaillimhe, the Galway Hookers Association, Dr. Michael Brogan, talks to Marine Times Deputy Editor, Tom MacSweeney, about the future of these iconic West of Ireland boats and says they are a maritime art, the preservation of which deserves official support.

An Tonai one of the oldest iconic Galway Hookers unloading turf at Cruinniú na mBád in Kinvara

The sight of a Galway Hooker under full sail is a wonderful spectacle, which can lift the heart of anyone with a maritime feeling. To helm one is even more stirring – and demanding. The feeling of power which comes through the tiller is astonishing, as I found on the helm of the MacDuach, the biggest of the Hookers. My years of sailing didn’t prepare me for the surge of power, the feeling of strength, vitality in the boats, which brought sheer enjoyment in steering such a magnificent craft. It took more than me to keep control of the boat. I hadn’t the strength on the tiller. The crew gave me the help needed. It is a memory of sailing which I cherish.

That memory, from many years ago when helming the MacDuach was my reward for performing the official opening of Cruinniú na mBád, the Gathering of the Boats, came back to me as I stood amongst those gathered on the quayside in Kinvara to watch the Galway Hookers arriving at the end of the ‘Turf Race’ at this year’s Cruinniú in mid-August. The race recreates the era when the Hookers transported cargo across Galway Bay. Arriving in Kinvara the crews tossed the turf onto the quayside in the traditional manner, as the big gathering of spectators, locals and visitors, watched and cheered.

Mick Brogan, Dr. Michael Brogan, a native of Kinvara is Chairman of Cumann Húcéiri na Gaillimhe, the Hookers Association and is pictured here with Noel O Tuairisc from Indearbhán Connemara, who retired back home from the United States recently, but every year, while living there, he came back to Kinvara for the Cruinniú. His family have been involved in traditional sailing for generations. Photographed with them above is Glenstal Abbey Monk Anthony Keane, the man I wrote about in the June edition of the Marine Times in regard to the launching of the restored 56-foot trading ketch, ILEN, built back in 1926 for the legendary Irish sailor, Conor O’Brien.

The first Cruinniú was held in 1979, when the driving force of the late Tony Moylan, was credited with the revival of these boats, “which were facing extinction,” Dr. Michael Brogan told me. “Maritime stalwarts backed Tony to preserve a maritime heritage in Galway Bay and that led to the strong revival of the Galway Hookers.”

Popularly known as “Mick Brogan” and Chairman of the Galway Hookers Association, he steered the MacDuach into Kinvara, his native place, to a welcome shouted to all aboard from along the quayside.

I was there, to again ‘do the official opening’- this time from the Outside Broadcast unit of the village’s community radio station, Kinvara FM, which was broadcasting live from the quayside throughout the “gathering weekend.” This has been widened to incorporate all community activities, so that all local marine, sporting and cultural organisations from around Galway Bay and further along the coast were present. These included the RNLI; the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group’s Celtic Mist, on her way back to her Kilrush base in County Clare from a research voyage in Iceland; Cuan Beo, the community movement bringing “land and sea” together’ the ‘Plastic Free Kinvara’ initiative; the Marine Institute and many more.

“Tony Moylan was responsible for changing my life hugely. I should be a proper doctor, playing golf and doing things like that but I find myself travelling around the world with a hooker,” Mick Brogan told me. “Tony got me to buy the MacDuach from Patsy Kelly, a fisherman in Ballinacourty who sadly passed away last year. Patsy was using her as a half-decker. MacDuach was built by Colm Chóil Mulkerrins from Mweenish Carna, whose family are here. She was commissioned for inshore fishing. Anyway I ended up with her as a 45-footer, biggest hooker. It was life-changing thing for me. That was 1987. It has brought me around the world.”

We discussed the strength of the Galway Hooker. “You almost come alive when you helm a hooker,” I said. “They are an amazing boat, the strength and power of them.”

“They are, when you are on the tiller you feel the boat in a real way, as opposed to a wheel. You have a real feeling of the boat,” Mick replied and recalled that there was a time when “I was a younger fellow and I wasn’t allowed to skipper my own boat! The lads from Connemara, Pat Jennings, Johnny Casey and Seamus Breathnach, they would come on and throw me off the tiller and say they were taking the boat for the day and I have seen three of them on the tiller on a bad day, racing out here, just holding onto it with the weather helm.”

He told me about “one of the monks I brought up to Scotland this year,” who said they were very close to the water in the boat but that “you feel very safe in these boats, because you become part of her, you feel the power through the tiller and you have to hold onto her. If you don’t, the boat’s gone from you.”

The Galway Hookers have a long history, which Mick Brogan outlined to me and suggested that they deserved support, particularly a few special ones. “I was one of the people involved with Tony Moylan in 1979. I was born here and I remember the boats bringing turf. We grew up with that, it was part of our heritage. The introduction of bottled gas and better road infrastructure meant that the boats were going to near extinction, there wasn’t any more work for them to do. That was in the 50s and 60s. I remember the last loads of turf being brought in. So in ten years they were declining, so we realised that they were beginning to go so Tony went back to Connemara and asked those great old guys who had the boats, would they bring them once more to Kinvara. He was annoying the hell out of them and they said ‘ok’ they would. Over there he was called ‘the big man with little sense’. But he had good sense. The first time was to be a once-off, but we thought maybe we could do it again the following year and it took off and here we are.

“There are boats which have been used for up to 200 years here. They are not commercially viable, but they are part of our heritage and they are still here. Not being commercially viable is one of the problems. Three of the boats here at the Cruinniú – the Cappal, the Tonai and the Mhaighdean Mhara are owned by the same families for 150-200 years and we should not take them for granted.”

Mick Brogan had a good point there and he went onto explain it effectively, such as the cost of maintaining and continuing to preserve these iconic boats: “The maintenance and keeping up the enthusiasm, if you don’t have a bit of money you can lose your enthusiasm. We can’t guarantee that the next generation are going to do this so we are not sure if this is going to be here in ten years’ time, twenty years’ time or forty years’ time like the way it has been kept going so far.” So, what to do?

Mick had a suggestion: “There should be some recognition for the three boats I have mentioned, they are iconic and there should be some recognition for them, some assistance to keep them going, because if these three boats were not here, this gathering wouldn’t be happening, this revival mightn’t be there. I am confident about that. Without the three families which have kept these boats going, the revival wouldn’t have happened. They maintain the boats in the Winter and then they commit themselves to bringing their boats to every regatta all through the Summer around Connemara. The Bailey family, the O’Brien family and the McDonagh family, every week they do it. Now I am not forgetting the other owners and their boats who keep the Galway Hookers going, they are also great to do so and important and without them these events wouldn’t be possible either, but I am mentioning these three boats in particular because they are iconic and the families give so much time to the maintaining of this tradition.

“The Galway Hooker is the iconic emblem of so many things about Galway and Connemara, which is used in every logo around Galway, but though many use it they don’t give anything back to it and I think that we should not take these boats for granted. They are part of our heritage, they are an art form in themselves, the traditional sailing craft of Ireland, of the West, of Connemara and these craft should be given a similar recognition, for example say like the artists in Aosdána. I don’t know how much the artists get, maybe over ten grand a year and that’s ok, they deserve that. But these people with the Galway hookers, their boats are an art form and I think they should be given a similar type of grant for their artistic work in keeping up the boats, just to help buying paint, anti-fouling, putting in new planks. The old boats were left go for ten years as I said, until the revival and they were nearly gone in that time. Wooden boats deteriorate if they are not looked after.

“It would be lovely if we could get together a group of interested people and put some pressure on the appropriate authorities and highlight to all those who use, admire and benefit from the Galway Hooker as an ionic emblem to ensure that the people who maintain, who keep these great boats going get some type of stipend and support, because if they don’t get some sort of support, it could all fall apart.”

“Surely these iconic boats deserve to be considered as part of the traditional art form of Ireland, which they are in the maritime sense and it is time to recognise that.”

Indeed it is.

An Capall - owned by the Bailey family - was built near Lettermór in the 1860s by Michael Reaney and has been owned by successive generations of the Bailey family since, “a real traditional hooker with that indefinable atmosphere of the past,” she has been described as. The late Johnny had her restored by Colm Breathnach and made up the new sails and rigging himself. The art of making and ‘barking’ (waterproofing) the old calico sails has been passed down the Bailey family.