Rowing in UCDBC
by Domhnall Macauley
Standing on one leg, trying not to fall over in the mucky farmyard. The gable wall of the hayshed protects us from the rain but heavy clouds predict a long wet day ahead. Walking two fields, with the boat balanced on your head, you try to pick your way between the cowpats. Step down onto the stony foreshore, kick off your shoes and wade into the ice-cold water, deep enough to float the shell. No hot showers, no changing room, no sheltered boathouse. In the late seventies, we boated from a farm on the other side of Blessington Lake. We changed in the car, and carried our boats about 200m from the trailer to the water. Such was the glamour of International Rowing.
It all began with the Butler Cup. There were two novice eights and everyone competed. By the four o clock gloom of Islandbridge in February, two pairs lined up for the final. The stern pair from the first novice eight and two no-hopers from the leftovers. Against all the odds, we pulled it off: John Lang, now an ENT surgeon in Galway, and myself. Barely twenty-one stone between us, it was a shock for the favourites but not enough to promote us to the first novice eight. We stuck at it for another few months, and as the last remainders of the second eight, we won the novice pair at the University Championships. Exams took their toll, and others drifted off so I was lucky to be promoted to the novice eight for the Championships, held that year at the Marina in Cork. It was a hot summer’s day, with crowds lining the riverbank, hawkers, ice-cream sellers and, reputedly, a few bookies. A tremendous buzz. Moving well through the middle of the course, disaster struck. We hit a buoy. Not a small lane buoy, but a huge red navigation buoy, eight feet high, towering above the boat. It stripped the riggers clean off the boat at bow and three, and we were lucky not to be injured. The buoy is still there, visible for miles.
The following year, 1976, we won the Intermediate Championships (then called the Junior Championships) with the core of the crew from the previous year, and in 1977, a four from this crew carried on and rowed at Henley in the Visitors Cup. We competed in Nottingham International Regatta and Marlow in a three-week tour before Henley travelling around in Jim Wallis’ ancient car, and meeting lots of fascinating people whom Jim knew from his time as boatman at University of London. Later that year, a group of us travelled to the World Rowing Championships, in Amsterdam. The colours, the international atmosphere, the excitement, the glamour, and to see Irish crews compete at the top level in world rowing was inspirational. Next year’s season didn’t start soon enough. It was 1978 and time to move into the single.
As a medical student, I chose the Mater Hospital for my clinical years, not for its academic reputation, I confess, but for its proximity to the boathouse. After morning lectures and ward rounds, it was a short sprint down the North Circular Road on my motorbike to Islandbridge. After 40 minutes on the water, it was back to the hospital where the surgical tutor at the time (Frank Durkin) was remarkable tolerant of my late arrival and occasional absences. After evening training, it was straight into the library in Earlsfort Terrace. Having seen the glamour of international rowing, I was keen to compete at that level and raced at Ratzeburg Regatta in May. It was a humble start, but I made the final of the U23 lightweight sculls, at the spiritual home of German rowing. I remember climbing onto the scales in my full gear and tracksuit, something I was never able to do again as part of a lightweight crew. Having listened to yarns of famous crews, and famous events, from Noel Graham and Tom Sullivan, I now had my taste of the international scene and I wanted a little more.
There were sculling trials in Blessington in June. It was more like February. The black clouds added to the drama, and the wind whipped up breakers along the Blessington enclosures as we raced for squad places. Of the lightweights, there were five of us with a chance, but Barry Currivan (Neptune) and I had the best aggregate score and so began a partnership and friendship that was to last much longer than the prized trip to Nottingham. Compared to our UCD odyssey in Jim Wallis’ huge ancient car, it was a different experience flying across with the national sqaud, bussed to our hotel, with a team manager to organize our travel and food. As newcomer, it was dazzling to travel with the Garda four that had finished seventh in the Olympics, and other experienced internationals. But, our greatest reward was that we won the double sculls event and earned our trip to the FISA (World) Championships in Copenhagen.
In the meantime, we were to compete at the Irish Championships. Although lightweights, we were competing against, amongst others, the top heavyweight double of Rice and Ryan. It was a tight two boat race, with barely a canvas between us all the way down the course. The hooters sounded together, and no one knew who had won. After a long wait it was declared a dead heat, and we were to race again later in the day. It was just as tight, with just a canvas between the crews for the entire race, but on this occasion, the heavier crew won. But, our dead heat and close result in the re-row surprised us and boosted our self-confidence and reputation.
And then to Denmark. It was a long summer. Training hard and hoping that nothing would come between us and the event. The weeds grew long in Islandbridge, but we had no option but to stay on the Liffey as we had no transport to Blessington. It was a relief to arrive at Lake Bagsvaerd, on the outskirts of Copenhagen. We shared a boat bay with the Chinese, who were as mesmerized by the event as ourselves, and with Ian Wilson and Dan Topolski, huge heroes of British rowing, whose reputation preceded them. It was also our first meeting with Thor Nilsen whose involvement with Irish rowing continues. It was a wonderful experience and a privilege. We competed well, and were thoroughly hooked by international rowing.
World politics offered an unexpected opportunity later that year. Egypt, seeking greater links with the West, extended invitations to the Nile Festival of Rowing and in 1978, the Irish Universities were asked to nominate a selection of crews. After trial races on Newry canal, an eight, four, pair and scull were selected, and we flew to Cairo and Luxor over Christmas. We arrived in Luxor to banners proclaiming “Welcome to the heroes of Rowing” strung across the road and joined university crews from the US, Canada, Belgium, and the UK. Thousands lined the road as we paraded with our oars to the opening ceremony. We visited the Valley of the Kings and ancient temples at Luxor and Karnak enjoying amazing hospitality as visiting dignitaries. Later we moved to Cairo for a major regatta on Christmas Day. But, succumbing to gastroenteritis, I was lucky to make it through the heats, eventually finishing second in the final to a fine sculler from Cairo Police. Because of illness, I missed the organized tour to the Pyramids and Sphinx but our hosts organized a special trip for three of us who were ill. One of these two English rowers became a great friend but was tragically killed in a road traffic accident shortly afterwards. His parents donated the riverside gates of Leander Club in his memory.
University rowing is rather special and there are few thrills to match the Gannon Cup. I had watched it many times as a schoolboy with my father (UCD 1948-52) and it was always an honour to compete. I can recall vividly Donal Hamilton, standing on the back of a sportscar, his colours scarf blowing in the wind, as the cavalcade of bikes, cars and rented double-decker buses followed the race along the quays. It was rowed downstream at that time, starting just below Heuston Bridge. As you approached the start, from the tranquillity of the upper Liffey, the boat emerged under Heuston bridge to the cheers of hundreds of eager supporters. Lining up at the start, two crews side by side, between the high walls, the noise echoing, the excitement was overwhelming. Trinity had had a run of recent wins and we were the underdogs. But, in 1979, we patched together a reasonable crew and had come together surprisingly well. The race was very close and, as we went under O’Connell Bridge just ahead, it looked like we were going to score a shock win against the odds. But disaster struck and we were foiled again by a steering error. With the awful screech of blades scraping the inner walls of the bridge, we slowed dramatically and came out a length down.
In 1979, the Irish Senior Championships were spread amongst the different regattas which allowed the best rowers to compete in as many events as they wished. The Double Sculls Championship was held at Athlone and we made no mistake this time, winning against some top opposition. At Metro regatta at Blessington, we finished second in the fours event to a superb Garda four and I finished third in the Eblana sculls, closely behind two established heavyweight internationals.
Lightweight rowing was developing quickly, John Holland (current Irish Lightweight Headcoach) tried to put together an eight for the Championships in 1978 and although I was invited, I had a prior commitment to UCD. But, in 1979, John arranged trials on the Liffey in Islandbridge. It was one of those weekends where everything fell wonderfully into place. Sean Carolan (Coach NUIG) and I were paired together and every boat that we stepped into surged ahead. We could do no wrong. And, so I earned my first international place as a sweep oar squad member at Nottingham International regatta.
Barry and I had also earned our opportunity to race again in the double. It was to be part of a three-week tour to Nottingham, Henley and Lucerne. We would race the four in Nottingham and the double in Henley and Lucerne. But, money was short and the entire trip was on a shoestring. We competed in Nottingham, raced well, and set off for Henley in good spirits. In Henley we camped. Still, the campsite was comfortable and the weather was good. We rowed well against some tough opposition and enjoyed the week. We stayed on to train at Henley after the regatta where the river was quiet and the crowds had gone. Rowing along the regatta course you could lose yourself in the rhythm and enjoy every stroke – which is exactly what we did. On our last training session, we struck the only immovable obstacle on the Henley reach, the Island, and broke off about 8 inches from the bow of the boat. It had been a beautiful wooden boat, and we had no option but to pack the boat on the trailer and hope that Carl Douglas, who had built it, could do a repair at the regatta. We had been given a small grant but we made the choice to travel by train, a journey of 20 hours. The alternative was to have taken a flight and rented a boat, but we chose to use the money for our boat transport and travel overland. It was to be a selection regatta for the World Championships and we had, not only to compete against another Irish crew, but to perform well in the event. Arriving in Lucerne we made our way to the campsite which was full of rowing supporters and aficionados, but as expected, we were the only competitors.
Lucerne was, and remains, the centre of world rowing. The standard at the regatta is exceptionally high because many countries use it as a selection regatta, sending their top crews to compete for places at the World Championships. We recognized many of our competitors – the top crews in the event. It was to be our finest hour. Battling through the preliminary events, we made it to the final. But, that night, there was the most horrendous thunderstorm and downpour. We barely slept and the campsite was a quagmire. Despite, or perhaps because of the difficulties, we performed exceptionally well, finishing fifth in the final, an extraordinary result. There were two separate regattas and we repeated our previous performance. Finishing fifth in the final at Lucerne at both regattas was an unprecedented result and the best Irish performance of the event.
The World Championships were in Bled, then Yugoslavia, a beautiful lake with a fairytale island. The rowing venue was perfect and the town spotless. Old women, in long black skirts and scarves swept the leaves off the grass in preparation of the opening ceremony. We all paddled to the top of the lake beside the town in the warmth of a summer evening – a spectacular affair, preceding a memorable World Championships. At this time, it was an eastern Bloc country under the rule of President Tito. There was no tourist industry, and it was clearly an austere regime. Now a major summer tourist venue and a centre for winter sports, there was little western influence at that time and it was clearly under firm rule. On of the Irish party, in high spirits after the racing, climbed a flagpole in search of a souvenir. He was arrested and, after four hours in police custody, was dumped from the back of an army vehicle at the front of the hotel, thoroughly chastened and scared by the experience.
In the weeks leading up to the Championships, with the regatta season long past, it had been quiet at Islandbridge and the river was empty except for ourselves, a few swans and the thickening weeds. Our rowing had deteriorated since the achievements of July and we struggled to reproduce our early season form in Bled. Our performances through the year had made an impression at home, however, and I was privileged to receive awards from UCD and AIB, and the Bank of Ireland and Union of Students of Ireland. As part of one of these awards, I was selected, together with a celebrated Kilkenny Camogie player, to attend a sports camp in Czechoslovakia. It was then behind the Iron Curtain, and we spent two wonderful weeks, the only westerners there, where we met athletes from a variety of sports and from many countries of the Eastern Bloc. With my Final Medical examination in 1980, I decided not to row that year, which brought the UCD chapter of my rowing career to a close. But, it was a privilege to be part of the birth of a new era, as Ireland became a major force in Lightweight rowing.
Barry Currivan continued rowing and became one of the most successful Irish rowers of our generation. I qualified in 1980 but continued rowing as a postgraduate at the University of Exeter and on my return to Ireland (in Autumn 1984) was privilege to compete in the World Championships in 1985, the Commonwealth Games in 1986 and the Home Internationals in 1987.