Friday, July 29, 2011
In praise of the local
This past weekend was the Ventry Regatta, the big event of the year for our little village at the end of the Dingle Peninsula. Two days of running, biking, traditional Irish dancing, horseshoes, sand-castle building, races for kids on the beach, poetry writing, and pints at the pub. But the centerpiece of the affair is the naomhog racing on Sunday afternoon, when teams from all over the peninsula gather to race traditional boats in Ventry Harbor.
Naomhogs, or curraghs, have been the traditional craft of the west of Ireland from time immemorial. They are constructed of thin wooden laths, tacked together in a resilient frame, then covered with tarred canvas. As you can see from the photo of an uncovered skeleton, these boats look fragile, but they are surprisingly supple and strong. They are propelled in the races by teams of two or four with the traditional bladeless oars.
This is the sort of craft in which Saint Brendan supposedly sailed to America centuries before the Vikings or Columbus. It is the kind of boat in which Tim Severin and his crew repeated Brendan's feat in the mid-1970s, departing from Brandon Creek just over the hill from here and successfully crossing the wild North Atlantic.
It is the rare naomhog these days that is put to a practical use. Fiberglass and steel are better suited to modern pursuits. But naomhogs are lovingly built and cared for, as art and sport.
There was a period in the latter part of the last century when traditional crafts like stonework and boat-building seemed heading for extinction. Here, as elsewhere in the world, vernaculars were being erased by globalization. Who needs the skills of traditional stonework when you can have a lorry load of concrete blocks dropped off at your doorstep? Who needs to go all that trouble building a naomhog when you can buy a fiberglass skiff in Tralee? Be quick. Be modern. Catch up with the world.
But the extinction didn’t happen. The concrete blocks are still here, but increasingly they are covered with a facing of traditional stone. Why? Because stone is beautiful. Because of pride in traditional forms. Fiberglass boats ride at anchor in the harbor, but more and more young people are seeing to it that the boats of lath and canvas remain a viable part of local culture.
Globalization is everywhere to be seen. Kids here look and dress like kids everywhere else, talk on the same mobile phones, listen to the same music, idolize the same pop stars. But among my neighbors there are potters, poets, artists, weavers, woodworkers, stonemasons, musicians and boat builders who seek to preserve the traditional forms. Globalization is the necessary instrument of prosperity. But even in prosperity, and perhaps because of it, we resist homogenization.