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Rowers keep an Irish tradition alive on waves

Members of the Boston Irish Currach Rowing Club train together in the waters off the Quincy Yacht Club at Houghs Neck.

Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Members of the Boston Irish Currach Rowing Club train together in the waters off the Quincy Yacht Club at Houghs Neck.

QUINCY — On most Tuesday and Thursday evenings, a group of men and women can be seen rowing traditional Irish boats in the waters off Houghs Neck. From afar, the vessels, called currachs, look like large black canoes, and their oars look like long, wooden sticks.

Barry Chin/Globe Staff

The men and women of the Boston Irish Currach Rowing Club practice near the Quincy Yacht Club in Houghs Neck for their regatta Sunday at Carson Beach in South Boston.

The men and women belong to the Boston Irish Currach Rowing Club, and from March through September the club’s 25 members are a familiar sight at the docks beside the Quincy Yacht Club, where they launch their boats and hold practice sessions in the bay.

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On Sunday, the men and women will compete in a regatta in South Boston, where they will race against teams from all over the country. The club members hope to win the North American Currach Association championship and bring home the NACA Cup for the second year in a row. Races start at noon at Carson Beach.

Established in the early 1970s, the Boston Irish Currach Rowing Club was the first of its kind in the country, started by Irish immigrants who longed to row currachs like back home. Four decades later, the club is still going strong.

“The heartbeat of rowing is in Boston,” said Joe McDonagh, 36, who hails from Connemara, a region on the west coast of Ireland.

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McDonagh cannot imagine rowing anything but currachs.

“Not if you gave me a million dollars,” he said.

The Quincy resident has been a member of the rowing club since 2001, served as its president for many years, and makes his own currachs.

To McDonagh and other enthusiasts, currach racing is a unique sport that not only promotes physical fitness and camaraderie but also Celtic maritime heritage.

The currach might be considered something of a novelty in America, but its history in Ireland goes back more than 1,000 years. The vessels were traditionally made of a wooden frame covered with animal skin. Today’s currach builders use canvas that is covered by tar or marine paint, according to McDonagh.

The boats are not available commercially. They must be made by hand, and building one takes patience and skill because it can be painstaking work, requiring a lot of time and effort. It is a craft McDonagh has mastered over the years; he said he gets requests from all over the world but is retiring from currach building.

Currachs used in racing seat up to four rowers and must meet specifications: 25 feet long, 42 inches wide, and 14 inches deep.

McDonagh has those measurements nailed down: “No drawings. No dimensions. It’s all up here,” he said, tapping his temple.

The frame of the boat is made of wooden “ribs.” McDonagh steams and bends the wood and makes adjustments as needed. Once this wooden “skeleton” is shaped and assembled, the canvas is stretched over it tightly like a drum. McDonagh walked over to a currach and flicked his finger on the outer surface.

“See? It’s like a tent,” he said.

McDonagh likened the smooth shape of the currach to a mackerel.

“There’s no keel on it,” he said. “It goes with the waves.”

Wooden pins on the side of the currach keep the oars secure and in place. The oars are made of pine, but unlike a traditional oar, they are long and slender and do not have a wide paddle at the end. The peculiar design is believed to have originated on the west coast of Ireland, where the waters are notoriously choppy and rough. With skinny oars like these, “the blades don’t get stuck in the water,” said McDonagh.

The oars are so long that rowing with them can be complicated for the uninitiated. The handles overlap, so rowers must rotate hand-over-hand. Mess up, and knuckles can get pinched. Blisters and bruises are common.

“It’s all about the rhythm,” said Caomhan Keane, 24, of Quincy, the club’s newly elected president.

Keane is one of the more experienced rowers in the club. He used to row currachs as a boy in Ireland and used them to haul in seaweed. He said he enjoys racing with the club.

“I love it,” he said. “It’s a great bunch of guys and girls.”

His cousin, J.P. Keane, 33, of Braintree has also been rowing currachs since childhood. He is originally from Connemara, where “we used to cut seaweed for a living.” He has introduced his 7-year-old son, Jonathan, to the sport.

Many of the other members were newcomers to the sport when they joined the club.

Donna McCrorey, a 40-year-old occupational therapist from Rockland, joined in 2003.

“I decided to give it a try,” she said. “I love being on the water. It’s pretty addictive.”

Maureen Mannion, 25, joined three years ago.

“My dad used to do it,” she said.

Egan Nerich, vice president and treasurer of the North American Currach Association, said many people have never heard of currach racing.

“A lot of people don’t know what it is,” said Nerich, 60, of the Annapolis Irish Rowing Club. “It’s a weird rowing style.”

He said that, because of the long oars, the currach is a “really cool multipurpose boat” that requires “a tremendous amount of work” to build.

The inspiration for the Annapolis rowing club actually came from Boston, when a group of Hub rowers put on a demonstration for the Annapolis Ancient Order of Hibernians.

“That’s how we found out about rowing,” said Nerich.

The Annapolis Irish Rowing Club began in 1982, and has been growing ever since.

Nerich said the Boston club has been doing well this year, and he is looking forward to the regatta in Boston.

“They’re good rowers, and they’ve got youth on their side,” he said.

The Boston Irish Currach Rowing Club competes regularly against other clubs in the North American Currach Association and was one of the organization’s founding members in the early 1980s. Today it has member clubs in Albany, N.Y.; Annapolis, Md.; Columbus, Ohio; Milwaukee; New London, Conn.; Philadelphia; and Pittsburgh.

The clubs host regattas throughout the summer. Races are usually about 1 to 3 miles long, and the courses can vary. There are events for currachs with individual rowers, three rowers, and four rowers. First-place finishers get five points, second place gets three points, and third place gets one point. The club with the most points at the end of the day is awarded the cup for that regatta.

After each regatta, clubs also receive NACA cup points that determine the champion at the end of the racing season. A club that finishes in first place in a regatta gets 10 NACA cup points, second place gets seven, third gets five, fourth gets three, and fifth place and lower get one point. At the end of the year, the club with the most points wins the NACA Cup.

This summer, the club came in first place at the New London regatta on Aug. 3 with a score of 36 points. On Aug. 17, the club tied for first place with Pittsburgh at the Milwaukee Irish Fest regatta, but lost the row-off. After Sunday, there will be two regattas left, one in Albany on Sept. 14, and one in Annapolis on Sept. 28.

The NACA Cup is again within Boston’s reach.

Anne Driscoll, 58, a Boston rower, said she hopes they will repeat their performance this year and win bragging rights again.

“We’re doing our bit to add to ‘Title Town,’ ” she said.

Emily Sweeney can be reached at esweeney@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney.
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