On the wild West Coast of Ireland the sailing cargo craft were known as the Galway Hookers.
At Galway the fishing hookers were based in The Claddagh, the mouth of the River Corrib, but most of the trade was from Galway Docks to County Clare and County Galway. The hookers, and their smaller versions, were open gaff cutters with small cuddies forward. They had a pronounced tumble home (curved sides) and a deep fore foot. The same characteristics as the seventeenth century trading sloops, but Galway hookers are much faster.
The real home of the hookers was, and still is, to the west of Galway in Connemara. The hookers last trade was to the three Aran Islands with turf for fires. In Connemara they loaded the turf from the little stone piers and harbours and sailed out about nine miles in the open Atlantic, The loaded hookers could get out to Aran and back in one day. In very good summer conditions they could get in two trips from Casla Bay out to Inis Mór, the largest island. They also took cattle to graze and passengers. In the old days turf was often bartered on Aran for salted fi sh, which was then sold in Galway. On the mainland the hookers sometimes carried passengers to Galway to avoid the toll on the Connemara roads.
Taking a loaded hooker out to Aran required great skill and they had small sail areas for safety. The open hull could be dangerous and in 1989 the hooker Connacht, sailed as a yacht, sank off the Co Down coast in a gale with the loss her crew. In 2007 the 40ft Morning Star was racing at Kinvara, and filled when a crew failed to ‘let go’ of a headsail in a squall. She went over, then went bolt upright and ‘sank like a stone.’ All eleven people aboard were saved and the hooker was re-floated.
In 1970, only three hookers were left sailing with turf out to Aran. Martin O’Brien sailed with his father Mike O’Brien from Sruthan with the 37ft An Tonai. Martin remembers that they cooked over an open fire on a stone slab in the cuddy and let the smoke escape through the hatch. In 1971, Mike died and his sons started sailing with passengers out to Aran in the summer. Paddy O’Brien started the Rossaveal-Aran Island Ferries that now have modern ferries taking tourists out to the islands in two hours. Martin O’Brien still races An Tonai and this winter she is in a shed at Sruthan.
In 1973, Johnny Jimmy McDongah took the last commercial cargo of turf to Aran in An Mhaighdean Mhara (The Mermaid). The summer races for hookers then started and remain very popular, but now-a-days the hookers have a far larger sail area than they used for turf. One of the fastest smaller hookers, is the 29ft gleoiteog Blath na h-Oige (Flower of Youth) built in 1885 by Casey on Mweenish Island. She used to load about 5 tons of turf amidships and when racing has sailed at 12 knots. For the past fi fty years, she has been owned by Padraig Folan and crewed by Oscar and his two other sons. The Folans of Carna also have the 40ft Truelight, built in 1900, which would have carried about 12-14 tons, and is in need of a total rebuild. In the summer Blath na h-Oige runs passenger day trips and a smaller hooker does evening trips from Roundstone harbour.
The hookers built in the Revival Era, such as the 34ft Star of the West built at Dublin in about 1996, kept to the traditional Galway Bay hull appearance and are always painted black. The winner of last summer’s hookers race league was the Colleen of Sruthan. One of the popular races is with turf from Casla Bay out to Inis Mór. The idea is to sell the turf at Kilronan for charity and have a celebration. In light winds, O’Brien’s ferries sometimes tow the hookers until the wind comes up to make sure they are there on time. This September, there was too much wind to race, but the crews all went over to the pub all the same.