Exhibit celebrates traditional West Kerry naomhóg

Paint and tar hit the canvas in Kerry where an artist and a boat builder have formed an unlikely partnership to create a unique exhibition celebrating the traditional West Kerry craft known as ‘naomhóg’.

The exhibition titled “An Naomhóg: Capall na Farraige” (The Naomhóg: The Horse of the Sea) includes ten paintings by renowned artist Liam O’Neill, all depicting the traditional boat.

The collection is completed by a genuine naomhóg, carefully crafted by West Kerry naomhóg maker, Eddie Hutch.

The West Kerry naomhóg belongs to the currach family of traditional boats.

The distinctive craft, consisting of a wooden frame covered with canvas and coated with tar, was used for both fishing and racing.

It is thought that the naomhóg may have evolved from the skin-covered boats used by early Christian monks to reach monastic outposts.

A self-taught painter, Mr O’Neill says the exhibition was inspired by his own experience fishing in naomhóg as a young man, as well as an appreciation for the boat’s rich heritage.

The West Kerry artist is considered one of Ireland’s leading contemporary painters.

Creating images using a palette knife, he is known for his striking depictions of rural life in his native West Kerry.

The exhibition is completed by a real naomhóg

The artist says the recent pandemic has inspired him to take on a project celebrating West Kerry’s iconic boat.

“The naomhóg is an integral part of West Kerry’s identity,” he said.

“In the past, she has supported entire families and communities here, including my own family.

“She was the workhorse of the sea and she was also the racehorse of the sea in the way you have to face the bow in the oncoming wave and she leaps over the waves with grace and power.

“It’s a beautiful craft to paint. I have to be comfortable with my knife, using a long sweeping action to create the beautiful shapes of the naomhóg.

“I think the naomhóg is much more elegant than the Connemara currach for example, in the way it sticks out of the water front and back.”

Mr. O’Neill invited his cousin and neighbor Eddie Hutch to do a naomhóg for the exhibit.

Now in his eighties, Eddie Hutch has made more than 300 naomhóga.

The master craftsman is one of a handful of naomhóg makers who still possess the craftsmanship.

“I make it with my eye,” said boat builder Eddie Hutch

“Each piece of wood has to be steamed and bent into shape and molded. The only straight piece of wood in a naomhóg is the thoft, where you sit on your back,” Hutch said.

“After you make the frame, you stretch the cotton canvas over it and glue it. Then I give it a few coats of tar to seal it.”

While the naomhóg Mr. Hutch made for the exhibit is only 16 feet long, rather than the typical 23-foot naomhóg, it retains all of its traditional proportions.

“I make it using my eye. I learned the skill of the ancient builders of the youth of Paróiste Múrach,” he said.

“I’m one of the last to do it now, but I hope exhibits like this can inspire young people to carry on the tradition.”

Mr. O’Neill thinks it is important to celebrate not only the cultural significance of the naomhóg, but also the craftsmanship of these traditional boats.

“Eddie’s craftsmanship and the making of a naomhóg is an art form in itself. It is something that has been preserved and passed down from generation to generation. The naomhóg is a truly special boat. I I fished with it in my youth, my father fished with it, my grandfather and all my ancestors fished in it. I am proud to celebrate it.

‘An Naomhóg: Capall na Farraige’ opens tomorrow at the Merrion Hotel in Dublin.

James C. Tibbs