Húicéir na Gallimhe – The Galway Hooker

By 1970 only two remained, whereas eye witnesses report that they have seen 20 boats in the harbour of Inis Mór, the biggest of the three Árainn Islands and 35 boats sailing out of Conamara.

Conamara is a coastal region in the north west of Galway bay which is situated on the West Coast of Ireland. The Workhorse of the West, the Galway Hooker, was nearly extinct in the early seventies. Once boats built for the local waters of the Galway Bay and Conamara, when transport on roads was too slow or cumbersome and railway transport did not exist.

The bád mór, as the locals call it (big boat) got its name “Galway Hooker” more likely from the Spanish that traded into Galway harbour previous to the year 1588, which at that time was not deep enough to accommodate the bigger Spanish vessels. The Spaniards used smaller boats to clear their freight into the harbour.

Due to early publications, the bád mór as we know it, able to carry 14 tons of cargo, evolved from 1790 onwards from a much smaller 4-6 ton boat, that the locals and the early seafarers used. Turf was transported, along with seaweed, limestone, goods, building materials and consignments of poitín (illicit whiskey) between Conamara, the offshore islands and Galway. The boats where also used for line or net fishing, from which the theory evolved that the word “Hooker” originated in Holland (Dutch hoeker) – wherever it evolved, the local Irish speaking people never use it.

The revival of the characteristic vessel, with its red sails, its short foredeck and the open, tarred hull was initiated just before it very nearly became extinct. In 1966 a 47-foot Hooker called Morning Star was sold to Dublin, Ireland’s east coast. Built in Kinvara about 1890, (rebuilt in Dublin before it went back to the St Macdara Festival in Carna in 1976) in a traditional way and only returned to Conamara for the St Macdara festival at Carna July 1976.

A further factor in the revival then was the first new built boat in probably 40 years: a 23 foot Gleoiteog. A Gleoiteog has the same form as a bád mór but is smaller, it was the main work horse in the nineteenth century as the boatmen could not afford the bigger boat. The third class of the Galway Hooker is the púcán, yet again smaller, still sharing the same form, but a completely open hull and this boat can also be rowed. Púcáns were commonly used for seaweed harvesting.

1978 the Galway Hooker Association was founded with the task of placing the fleet on an organized footing. From there on numerous regattas were initiated and the number in the Hooker fleet steadily increased. Since then the commissioning of new boats and restoration of others has gone hand-in-hand with the revival and expansion of regattas.

Historically the bádóir, the boatman, took great pride in his boat and this has not changed to the present day. The bádóir did most of the boat maintenance himself, but also relied on the boat builder, carpenters, blacksmiths and sail makers. With the downturn in numbers of Hookers in the middle of the 20th century all the affiliated trades suffered downturn as well. Traditionally this was an important part of employment in Conamara. Nowadays young craftsmen like Patrick Connolly from Inverin, who learnt his trade as a traditional boat builder try to keep the Hooker literally afloat and alive.

The current fleet of báid mhóra consists of 25 boats. They are Conamara – Conamara is them. Hooker country is, of course a place but it is much more, it is a way of life, casual and friendly, reserved towards the stranger until credentials are well established.

All images copyright © Dr. Jürgen Bodamer

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