By Ciaran Tierney
2021 was the year when Áras Éanna Ionad Ealaine began to look at the beautiful island of Inis Oirr as a perfect location for outdoor shows.
For decades, artists have been coming to the smallest of the Aran Islands to take inspiration from its beautiful landscape, friendly people, stunning views, stone walls, and a Gaeltacht culture which connects them with our ancestors.
Programming in a pandemic has been a challenge for arts centres all across the world.
But, as the arts centre celebrated its 21st birthday in 2021, Artistic Director Dara McGee came up with the idea for a stunning exhibition which captivated islanders and visitors alike from July to September.
‘Curacha’ celebrated the traditional boat used by islanders for generations, in an exhibition which involved following a trail – outdoors and in safety – around the island.
“I had two different things going on in my head. One was ideas for our 21st birthday celebration of Aras Eanna. How could I programme for this?” says McGee.
“Two, for some reason I was thinking about currachs and I used to own a currach myself on Inis Turk. I was thinking that currachs are made out of timber and covered in canvas, and then they are tarred. As an artist myself, I was thinking that artists paint on canvas and why not make canvas currachs and paint on the currachs!”
As the country emerged from lockdown, Dara got in touch with Mayo-based artist Tom Meskill, his wife Carmel Balfe, and metal fabricator Eugene Finnegan.
He designed a six foot structure, based on the shape of the traditional boats used by generations of fishermen on Inis Oirr, and they produced 21 canvas currachs.
Together with co-curator Dolores Lyne, Dara contacted 21 artists and gave them a couple of months to work on the 3D structures before the launch of the exhibition on the island in mid-July.
“I had no idea what the currachs would be like,” says Dara. “Then we had the task of making a plan for where each currach would go on the island.”
Dolores placed seven of the currachs inside the theatre at Áras Éanna, including the three-dimensional piece by Galway-based sculptor John Behan and a stunning Mandala-style piece by asylum-seeker Sadia Shoaib.
Realizing that the indoor exhibition needed sound, two days before the launch of the exhibition Galway artist Emma O’Grady went out on a currach and recorded a man rowing a traditional boat out on the ocean.
It created a wonderful atmosphere in the theatre.
Dara, with the support of the island community, located currachs all around the island and Kathleen Furey’s wonderful tribute to a stained glass window by Harry Clarke was placed in the island’s church for the duration of the exhibition. It was a huge success.
“It really came together and I think it was because the idea was strong enough. The artists just produced amazing, iconic works. We knew we had to get as many people as possible to see this exhibition,” says Dara.
The exhibition then moved to the grounds of NUI Galway (and Galway Cathedral, in Kathleen’s case) in September, where the 21 stunning pieces were seen by a whole new audience.
Four of the decorated currachs have now been sold and a beautiful poster of all 21 pieces was designed by Inis Oirr-based photographer Cormac Coyne.
If you have an interest in purchasing one of the currachs, which are in storage for the winter, you can contact Dara at firstname.lastname@example.org
You can purchase one of the posters at Charlie Byrne’s bookstore in Galway City and on their website https://charliebyrne.ie/
The challenge now is to match the phenomenal success of ‘Curacha’ in 2022!