It is said that people don’t come home for Christmas to the small western Irish village of Carna, they come back for St. MacDara’s Day.
On that day, every July 16, hundreds make a pilgrimage off the coast of Gaelic-speaking Carna to tiny, uninhabited St. MacDara’s Island, to a celebration of mass and blessing of boats. It will keep them safe throughout the year, locals believe.
St. MacDara, the patron saint of seafarers, is believed to have built the small church on the island in the sixth century. After mass, the locally crafted boats, known as Galway Hookers, bow their sails in the direction of the church three times to bless the year ahead.
“It is like a second Christmas half way through the year,” said Cliona Ni Chualain, the organiser of MacDara’s festival. Her family own a Galway Hooker built in 1895 called ‘Blath na hOige’, meaning ‘Flower of Youth’.
“I’ve done it since I was a baby and for us it’s a family gathering, a community gathering. It’s pretty special. And when you’re on the island there is this feeling of calmness. I wouldn’t be a practicing Catholic but there is something very, very spiritual about it.”
Local fisherman Johnny Cloherty reckons the pilgrimage, one of the few remaining snapshots of Irish yesteryear, has kept him safe for the last 40 years in the Atlantic Ocean, where he harvests seaweed and fishes for lobster and crab.
“It does yeah, definitely,” said Cloherty, 58, from nearby Mweenish Island. “I’d be out there in the winter and keep near that island (MacDara’s). It’s a good thing.”
But like many in small rural parts of the country, Cloherty, who starts working at 5 a.m. each day and doesn’t finish until 10 p.m., has seen young people leave the area in increasing numbers in search of jobs and a different lifestyle.
There are now only about 30 Galway Hookers left and the days of all 30 trawling the western Irish coastline together are fading with fewer and fewer crew to go around.
“I don’t think the young people will be going out fishing. It’s sad. Say another 10 years, who will be out there? Nobody knows,” Cloherty said.