Paint and tar have hit the canvas in Kerry where an artist and a boatbuilder have formed an unlikely partnership to create a unique exhibition celebrating the traditional west Kerry craft known as the 'naomhóg'.

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

The collection is complemented by an actual 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, comprising a wooden frame covered by canvas and coated with tar, has been used for both fishing and racing.

It’s believed the naomhóg may have evolved from the hide-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 of fishing in naomhóg as a young man, as well as an appreciation for the boat’s rich heritage.

The west Kerry artist is regarded as 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 complemented by an actual naomhóg

The artist says the recent pandemic inspired him to undertake 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 sustained entire families and communities here, including my own family.

"She was the work horse of the sea and she was also the race horse of the sea in the way you have to face the bow into the approaching wave and she leaps over the waves with grace and power.

"She is a beautiful craft to paint. I have to be confident with my knife, using a long sweeping action to create the beautiful shapes of the naomhóg.

"I feel the naomhóg is much more elegant than the Connemara currach for example, in the way she rises out of the water at both the front and back."

Mr O'Neill invited his cousin and neighbour Eddie Hutch to make a naomhóg for the exhibition.

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

The master craftsman is among just a handful of naomhóg-makers who still possess the skill.

"I make her using my eye," boatmaker Eddie Hutch said

"Every piece of timber must be steamed and bent in to shape and moulded. The only straight piece of timber in a naomhóg is the thoft, where you sit on your backside," said Mr Hutch.

"After making the frame you stretch the cotton canvas across it and tack it on. Then I give her a couple of coats of tar to seal her."

While the naomhóg Mr Hutch has made for the exhibition is only 16 foot long, rather than the typical 23 foot naomhóg, she retains all her traditional proportions.

"I make her using my eye. I learned the skill from the old builders of youth in Paróiste Múrach," he said.

"I’m one of the last left doing it now but I hope that exhibitions such as this might inspire the younger crowd to continue the tradition."

Mr O’Neill believes it’s important to celebrate not just the cultural significance of the naomhóg but also the craftsmanship of such traditional boats.

"Eddie’s skill and the making of a naomhóg is a form of art in itself. It’s something that’s been preserved and handed down through the generations. The naomhóg is a truly special boat. I fished in her in my youth, my father fished in her, my grandfather and all my ancestors fished in her. I’m proud to celebrate her."

'An Naomhóg: Capall na Farraige’ will open in the Merrion Hotel in Dublin tomorrow.