Lake of the Irish

Paddling an Irish “currach” in Lake Michigan’s choppy waters is not a leisure sport.

In a Lake Michigan harbor packed with gleaming yachts and muscular powerboats, four rowers push off from the dock in a slender black boat modeled on those used for centuries by fishermen in Ireland. Facing toward shore, the rowers have a panoramic view of the U.S. Bank building and its tall Downtown neighbors as they lean back in unison then surge forward with each stroke. A Jameson bottle hanging from the stern holds holy water blessed by a priest.

The goals of the wind- and motor-driven crafts all around them – let the boat do the work and relax – play out in reverse for this small group that takes to the big lake three times a week from spring to fall. Their intent: be old-school and Irish.

The goal most definitely is not to relax. A workout “makes us all cry,” says Julie Solger, president of the Irish Currach Club of Milwaukee. “And it’s wonderful.” Asked if she’s Irish, she scoffs. “Not a lick. Puerto Rican and German.”

Brew Crews: The Irish Fest Regatta will feature clubs from throughout the eastern U.S. on Aug. 15.
The wooden oars are long and flat and resemble a pack of synchronized matchsticks as they move back and forth on either side of the boat. Known as a “currach,” the handmade 25-foot craft was built to resemble the rowboats that ply the seas off Ireland’s western coast. “The whole idea of the sport is to be as traditional as possible,” Solger says.

In the old days, fishermen used sealskin coated in tar to cover the wooden frames. Now, the boats are draped in canvas. Magie Brady, one of the early members of the Milwaukee crew, compares currach racing to American tractor pulls: making sport out of the vessels that many have used to make a living.

The sport migrated decades ago to the East Coast, where a batch of Irish immigrants started clubs, often building the boats from scratch. In 1989, two local Irishmen, Tadhg McInerney and John Gleeson, started the Milwaukee team, which now has five currachs.

The team’s continued existence owes mostly to women. At a recent practice, the gals outnumbered the lads 12 to 2. Shannon Richmond heard about the sport at her book club. She’s Irish and had paddled canoes and kayaks. “I thought that would be enough experience,” she says. “I was wrong.”

But the rigor of the sport and serenity of the water keep her coming back, along with the club’s unofficial motto: “Will Row For Beer.”

‘Lake of the Irish’ appears in the August 2015 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
The August 2015 issue is on newsstands August 3.

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Daniel Simmons grew up in St. Paul, Minn., the “good twin” city. He started his writing career covering the midsection for the Mayo Clinic. Since then he’s written about human smuggling by sea in San Diego, the coyote invasion of Chicago and the political circus in Madison. He also got to write about his childhood idol, Larry Bird, for Runners World. He’s the managing editor.