A coracle is a river going vessel that has been used since primitive times. They are made by hand with a wooden basket-like frame and are traditionally covered with animal hide, but more recently in canvas or synthetic materials coated with bitumen or tar to make them waterproof. Generally, British coracles carry a single person and are light enough to be carried on a person’s back for transportation.
Most primitive cultures have their own version of the coracle: all are similar with their shallow basket frames made from locally produced materials.
Coracles and their Irish equivalents, curragh’s, have been used for fishing and transportation, and later by holy men as a means of travel in ‘perigrinatio’ (for the love of Christ) into exile or to foreign lands. The ‘Navigatio’ of St Brendan is a Latin text that documents the journey of Brendan and his fellow monks in search of their land of Paradise. It details the building of their curragh from local wood and tanned ox hide, bending the wooden slats to form the frame and shape of the boat and greasing the sewn leather joints to make them watertight. An eighth century carving on a stone pillar at Bantry Bay in south west Ireland depicts a banana shaped curragh with five oarsmen rowing their way to heaven. The style of craft is similar to the curragh’s still in use in the west of Ireland today.
Types of coracles
Iraq – The Guffa
The Guffa is a large circular boat made to transport cargo and passengers. Their wooden frames are constructed from pomegranate sticks with twine and straw to complete the vessel with pitch making it waterproof, without any actual skin as such.
Tibet – A Hide-covered boat
In Tibet boats are still covered in hides from yaks and are made in many shapes and sizes. In some villages they provide the only means of transport
Coracles are made from split bamboo tightly woven together and a thin covering of bitumen provides the waterproof coating
India – Parisal
These too are made from split bamboo but are woven in a hexagonal pattern covered originally with an animal hide, but now most often with modern sacking. Some remain in use on certain rivers, but the majority are used to transport tourists. The person paddling the parisal kneels and braces his feet against a central bar and his passengers sit on the floor.
North America – The Bull Boat
Native Americans built these simple coracles with a few rods of hazel or willow lashed together with buffalo hide. These were generally made by the women of the village and were used for fishing and to transport firewood. When families moved camp several bull boats were tied together and their belongings taken down the river.
Ireland – The Sea-going Curragh
Irish curraghs are more boat shaped than the round coracles and are flat bottomed crafts built in the same tradition as the coracle with a wooden frame and a covering of calico and pitch. Traditionally it was manoeuvred with scoop-like paddles, used over the bow by the person kneeling, but more recently oars have been introduced. Despite their fragile frame they venture miles out into the Atlantic Ocean and have been used in up to force eight gale’s. Each curragh off the west coast of Ireland carries a bottle of holy water in its bow for protection of the travellers inside.
This curragh was used on inland rivers and lakes in Ireland, and the River Boyne was the last river that this type of curragh was used on.
England and Wales– The River Severn
There are three types of coracles that have been used on the River Severn. These differ from each other slightly in shape and use. The Greenwood Trust at Telford has adopted the Ironbridge coracle to provide coracle-making courses. This is characteristically circular in shape and is normally made from ash slats interwoven in a basket style, then covered in calico and coated in bitumen for waterproofing. Some Ironbridge coracles are on display.
Coracles have also been used throughout Wales on the River Dee, the River Dwyryrd at Maentwrog, the River Taf, the River Cleddau, Conwy, and the Teifi where they are still being made and used today.
Pictures and explanations provided by the ‘coracle society’ with Thanks.