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Many years ago I travelled with an American friend through Kinvara. “What’s that smell?” she kept asking, sniffing the air like a fox. “What smell?” I asked. “That one!” she would say, which didn’t help much. We made all kinds of suggestions but nothing was the smell she was looking for. Then we stopped off at Monk’s pub and resturant in Ballyvaughan, just south of Kinvara. She got very excited when she sensed the smell getting stronger, but when she drew near to the open fire her excitement rose. “That’s it! The smell!” she squeaked. It was simply burning turf, and although we laughed, picturing the smell in my mind now takes me back in an instant to the holidays I had in Galway as a child (and which, incidentally, drew me here all these years later). Cruinniú na mBád, “The Meeting of the Boats”, is an annual festival which takes place in Kinvara, Co. Galway around this time every year. The festival commemorates the trade between Connemara and Kinvara in days gone by: the turf, vital for cooking and heating, was cut and dried in Connemara, and brought by hooker, the traditional Galway boat, to Kinvara. The boats were then filled with grain and produce from the South Galway region and sent back to Connemara. The geology of Galway is varied, and the granite bedrock of Connemara resulted in the acid bogs which gave turf but weren’t great for produce, whereas the limestone bedrock of south Galway was much better for growth, but didn’t provide turf. Burning turf makes a very distinctive smell, one of the most evocative elements of rural Ireland. You can access the post by topping up your web wallet with 20 stellar lumen tokens (the price of a stellar lumen is currently [price id=”stellar” fiat=”usd”] ) if you haven’t already done so and then making a micropayment of 2 lumens to continue reading this post Remember: NO subscription required, NO monthly fees, NO personal information, just a new secure micropayment mechanism for content you want to see.
Somehow I’d always missed Cruinniú na mBád. Although I’ve lived in Galway for nearly 25 years I’d only ever really had glimpses of Galway Hookers in full sail, so I was delighted to have the chance to go to the festival last weekend. This is Kinvara Quay just before the festival, which I sketched from the quay wall, with my back to the open ocean:
For the next sketch, I looked across the water to the quay wall, with the colourful buildings behind my back. This is the quay on an ordinary day, with a hooker at low tide in the mud. I swear I did not bribe the swan family with bread crusts to pose.
By the time I settled down to sketch on Saturday, things were livening up. I sat on the opposite side of the quay for the next sketch, on the grass just above the bright red boat in the middle in the sketch at the top. The quay that had been so quiet a few days earlier was filling up with tourists and locals and the warm summer atmosphere was perfect for a spot of sketching.
The tide was rising and the boat race, timed to take advantage of deeper water, began at around six o’clock. Conditions were perfect – a light wind which let the boats zip along, and sunshine so that they would look as beautiful as could be.
It was hard to draw the boats as they raced along, so I made these drawings of boats very fast, memorised their colours and painted them at home. No sooner would I have the angle of a sail just-so than it would turn and start charging in the opposite direction. So I will do my best in words. The sails were two colours, the more common oxblood ones, and ones the colour of blackberries, which I preferred – I think it’s my new favourite colour. The sails were taught, filled with wind and they were as beautiful and as graceful as racehorses, let free to gallop across the waves. The sea splashed over the prows of the boats as they raced along and the water was blue and choppy, too rough for the colours of the sails to be reflected in the water. Conversely, the brightly-painted or white stripes that distinguished one boat from another were at their best in the sun – emerald, yellow, turquoise and red. Two boats came to a halt on the quay and at last I could draw them without annoying sudden turns.
I had met the owner of this boat a week or two earlier, when I was out fishing with my brother-in-law (see an earlier article), when he gave us crab claws and mackerel. I saw him beside his boat and introduced myself, told him how he’d been so generous, and showed him the sketch I had made. I asked him about his boat – what age was she, that kind of thing – and he was just about to answer when a man placed himself between us and started chatting to him. That put paid to our conversation, which is why I can’t tell you anything at all about this beauty. “Well done,” said the hooker’s owner kindly, raising his pint of Guinness to me, and off he went with his new best friend. A party atmosphere was beginning to rise around the quay. Carmel Dempsey and her band sang old favourites and new and traditional music filled the air. On the quay, I bumped into my friend Josephine and her husband Martin. As we chatted a very drunk man with a can in his hand asked us if we’d ever been in love. Josephine didn’t halt her conversation and ignored him impressively. A tug o’war took place on the Green (that’s the spot from where I painted the hookers against the quay wall), and I wish I’d drawn it. Very much so. Big Connemara and local men in vests – and I don’t mean the trendy type, but the white ones our dads used to wear – pitting their strength against one another…next time, perhaps. (Actually I didn’t watch the tug o’war – I only heard it – so the vests may have existed only in my imagination.) Then I saw a heap of turf next to a hooker and wondered if I should draw it, as it was only a heap of turf. But I thought perhaps there would be people – like my American buddy – who had never had any experience of turf, who might like to see what it looked like. So here it is – a bit unpreposessing with its bits of yellow straw sticking out at all angles.
I think I was right about people not knowing what it was as many people picked it up, sniffed it and had it explained to them by their Irish friends. Every now and then a passer-by makes a comment about my sketching that I enjoy. I particularly enjoyed the comment that a little boy made to his dad. “What’s he drawing?” he said. Sure, I was in baseball cap and hood, but come on! I went home after that as a light wind tends to play havoc with a sedentary sketcher’s ability to stay warm – even after I got home, I remained cold to the bone. But I was determined to try again to capture the boats in full sail and so I went back to Cruinniú na mBád the next day. It was a good deal warmer with no breeze and I was much cosier. I recognised the man who had wondered if we’d ever been in love. He was as drunk as the day before, still holding a can, with the same dishevelled hair and the same jacket hanging akimbo, and he didn’t look as if he had had a good nights’ sleep. Looking around I noticed more people to whom life could have been kinder, with cans of beer, army boots, clothes that could have done with a bit of laundering and dogs that growled at each other (all of which I relayed to my teenage daughter, who said, “That’s just the sort of people I like hanging around with” – God help me). There was a smell of beer in the air. A hooker was moored in front of the pile of turf I’d drawn the day before, in the process of being rigged. I used my special field easel bag to sketch it, which means you can draw and paint an entire sketch while standing up. Three men did whatever they were doing in the boat. They all had large, bulbous noses, looked exactly like Connemara versions of Pete Postlethwaite, and were clearly brothers. They were all tanned a rich reddish-brown and one or two had mirrored sunglasses on their head. One had a white vest, tattoos and a powerful physique (who needs tug o’war guys?). His brother in the black t-shirt is bashing something with a hammer prior to their race. They spoke Irish but I’m not fluent and anyway I wouldn’t find the Connemara Irish too easy at the best of times, although in my notes I’ve written “beautiful Connemara Irish” so it must have made an impression. A girl in fancy sailing clothes (unlike theirs) was offering to help and one of the men put out his hand to help her leap from the quay to the boat – somewhat reluctantly, I felt – but she landed very heavily. It looked sore but she got no sympathy at all. It was all very rough indeed and just a little macho. The whole scene reminded me of an Ireland I don’t see very often (ie. Connemara), even though I live in the same county – Galway is very extensive. In fact, the entire festival exuded a masculine energy that I found invigorating, although that kind of goes with not talking to lady sketchers (too busy doing manly things) which was disappointing.
After this sketch I sat down to paint the hookers as they sailed gently around the bay. They weren’t racing yet and the weather was calm. That’s Dunguaire Castle, a sixteenth century castle on a little promontory on the far right. As I painted I noticed the clouds I was painting were rain clouds. I knew they were rain clouds and I still didn’t move. Big mistake. Note to self: rain clouds start raining on you much quicker than you think.
Galway had just beaten Tipperary in the hurling semi-finals and the skippers were all waiting until the end of the match before they hit the waves, which meant a slight delay in the start of the race. But I was glad to paint them as they ambled around the bay in the drizzle, for the sails cast beautiful reflections in the calm water, and their slow speed made them easier to capture in motion. Then the heavens opened. Rain smudged my paint and ran through the gutter of my sketchbook. Oxblood and blackberry ran across the pages, which were getting alarmingly soggy, and I took cover under a gazebo where a nice lady sold books of poetry on the ancient meanings of local trees, and on the five elements of the Earth. This is very Kinvara. I bought a magazine from her – I was grateful for the shelter and anyway it was good, and had a recipe for bread in it – and when there was a lull in the shower I made my way back to the car. I passed two men whom I suspected had been making merry: one of them flung a rock into the sea, but did it so slowly and deliberately, and flung it so poorly, that I felt he was perhaps a little tired and emotional. Strong men and Connemara Irish: traditional music and the smell of beer in the air; oxblood and blackberry sails and shiny black hulls – but above all, the most beautiful boats you can possibly imagine, doing what they were designed to do, all came together to give me a taste of a Galway summer festival. To finish, here’s a Kinvara boat when the fuss has all died down…
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