The Last Forty Years
by Tom Sullivan
In 1951, Danny Macauley was captain for the second time for what was to be one of the great years, as John McDermott took over the coaching of the Senior Eight. The Wylie was won for the first time since 1947, and the Gannon by three-quarters of a length. The Grand was won at Trinity when the hosts were beaten by one-third of a length, the Pembroke at Metropolitan and College again defeated Trinity at Cork to win the Leander.
The Senior Eights Championship was rowed on the Shannon at Limerick and College defeated Neptune in the final. But in the first heat College and Trinity had fought one of their greatest battles. At Barrington’s Pier UCD were a length behind but along the docks Hugh Pairley took his crew with him to win by a canvas. Victory could not have been accomplished in a more spectacular fashion – still spoken of in Limerick. Barry McDonnell had taken over the coaching of the Maiden Eight and they duly won the IARU Maiden Championship in Belfast beating the school crew from Coleraine Academical Institute by one and a half lengths in the final.
The rest of the Fifties did not live up to the standard of 1951. The club minutes in the early part of 1952 refer to “inadequate coaching”, and all the Wylie crews lost, the Trophy going to Queen’s. Later in the spring, coaching improved sufficiently under Barry McDonnell, Hugh Pairley, Dermot Farrelly and Ray Hickey for the Senior Eight to win the Gannon Cup, the Grand at Trinity and the Hibernian Grand Challenge Cup at Drogheda. The Senior Eights Championships was lost to Queen’s in a heat at Portadown and Queen’s won the Pot for the first time. However, the College first four retained the Blue Riband, and the Championships for Junior and Maiden Eights were won by College crews at Galway and Metropolitan Regattas.
The next few years saw a decline in the club’s fortunes. The season of 1953 is summarised fatalistically in the secretary’s report: “the season could hardly be said to have been a fruitful one if judged solely by trophies won. The Senior Eight won only at Metropolitan… the Junior crew won at the Dublin Head, Trinity, Athlone and New Ross… while the Maidens’ yield was completely barren.” The Gannon was regained in 1954, Trinity going down by a length. The Dublin Head was also won.
In 1955 College knocked on many doors without much success but finally, at Cork, they won the Senior Pot from Queen’s and Neptune in a heat and from Bann R.C in the final. The Eights from Trinity and Portora who would have figured in the betting, were not there.
In 1956 the Club struggled through the year and finally failed to appear at Coleraine for the Senior Championship because their entry arrived late. There was no challenge for the Gannon Cup in 1957 and 1958 because College crews were competing at Maiden and Junior level, with infrequent success.
Over the years, the commitment of Old Collegians to the student club has provided the support – coaching and financial – that has helped the Club to survive at the top level. Now Peter Spillane arrived to initiate a progressive coaching programme and to build a morale that was to see the Club into an era of real success. He continued to coach until 1966. He introduced physiological testing for the first time in 1960. These tests were conducted at St. Vincent’s Hospital by a former member, Dr. Risteard Mulcahy. The maiden oarsmen Spillane managed in 1958 showed something of the future at Trinity, Belfast, Waterford and Metropolitan Regattas, where it became obvious that he had a good Maiden Four on his hands.
In 1959 he formed a Senior Eight based on the Maidens and some Juniors of the previous year. Training for the Wylie was interrupted by illness but the Club Secretary was not too downhearted: “… but although all the crews were beaten there was no discreditable performance. The Senior Eight could have beaten Trinity, had they more experience.” Trinity won by a third of a length as they did later in the Gannon, after UCD had led by a length at the Four Courts.
Wins at Athlone and Carlow improved morale greatly, and while the crew went down to Frankfurt “Germania” and Garda B.C. at Cork, it reversed placings the following day at Limerick, and won by a canvas from the Germans and two lengths from the Guards. During the race the bookies were offering 20/1 against College at Barrington’s Pier where they led by a length. Obviously they did not believe College would prevail – but they did, and that night in Shannon R.C. some of the crew were lucky enough to be entertained by a punter who had a fiver on at the odds. At Waterford UCD raced for the Senior Pot for the first time since 1955 and lost in a close finish to Queen’s and Garda – half a length covering the crews.
The Metropolitan Regatta had moved to Blessington in 1959, and the first IARU Championship Regatta was held there in 1960 – the old rota system being virtually abandoned. The year 1960 was an Olympic year and the Eights Championship at Blessington was to be a trial for Rome. UCD and Queen’s competed, and College won the Pot by one and three-quarter lengths. No crew was selected and a further trial was arranged.
Previously, the crew had won the Dublin Head, the Gannon and the Senior Eights at the Boyne Regatta. Jeffrey de Freitas, vice-captain and a Trinidadian, had to leave the crew because he was ineligible. The Championships were rowed in perfect conditions on Friday evening, but the Metro on Saturday was almost a complete washout. The Pembroke Cup went to the German Eight from Rhenania Coblenz, but later, at Cork and Limerick, UCD won, beating the Germans on both occasions.
On July 30 a final Olympic trial was held – a time trial, since no other crews entered. The qualifying time was set at 6mins 30secs. In the second course College returned 6.31, but the crew was not selected.
The number of active members had increased and in the spring of 1961 the club had a Senior Eight, Junior Eight and three Maiden Eights on the water. This resulted in the College authorities responding to the overtures of Prof. James Meenan and agreeing to the opening of a special account whereby four new boats were purchased. The capital was to be repaid by the Boat Club over a number of years and the interest by the College – a fair arrangement.
UCDBC had returned to Henley for the first time since 1956, and lost in the first round of the Thames Cup to Kingston R.C. Peter Spillane believed that the record of Irish crews at Henley was unnecessarily poor and, in 1961, set his sights on a serious performance. College beat Trinity’s second Eight comfortably in the first round of the Thames Cup and again faced the Americans from Kent School in the second round. They led by three-quarters of a length, let the race slip at Remenham and lost by three-quarters of a length.
There was scant consolation from the EVENING STANDARD headline on Henley Bridge – “Kent overpower the fighting Irish.” The tag of gallant loser still applied, but this time, at least, it was articulated by an English newspaper which made the race the story of the day.
In Ireland the crew had a most successful season, winning the Wylie Cup – where all three crews won their divisions – the Erne Head and the Dublin Head, in record time. In the final term the Eight won the Gannon and the Senior Eights at Boyne, Metropolitan and Limerick Regattas. At Cork they retained the Senior Pot and the Leander. The first Senior Four won five of its races but lost the Blue Riband by three feet to Bedford R.C.
The strength of the club was reflected in 1962 when three changes were made in the Senior Eight. Peter Spillane wished to keep the Senior crew together for another challenge at Henley. Some senior thinking was that it would be “dog-in-the-manger” to hold on to seats and prevent good Junior and Maiden oarsmen getting their Colours. Paul Crowley, Barry Doyle and Tom Sullivan left the boat. Modern thinking, which rightly looks to continuity, would exclude such sentiment.
At Henley, the crew lost a fine race by one and a quarter lengths to Massachusetts Institute of Technology after leading to beyond Fawley. At home they won the Erne Head, the Gannon and the Eights at Trinity and Metropolitan Regattas. Queen’s improved three lengths from Metro to beat UCD for the Senior Pot at Coleraine. Junior rowing this year was very strong – the Eight and Four between them winning thirteen trophies. Their only defeats were in the Championship Eights at Carlow and the Fours at Galway.
The Blue Riband had remained an elusive prize for College oarsmen through the recent successful years. In 1963, an Old Collegians Four of J.J. O’Sullivan (bow), Des. McCann, Tom Sullivan, Barry Doyle (stroke) and cox, Peter Lenihan, was formed to have another try. Paul Keating, of Lady Elizabeth B.C., shared the coxing with Lenihan. The prize was won in ’63 and ’64 and the crew was unbeaten on Irish waters over two years. In ’63 O.C. lost in the semi-final of the Wyfold Cup for Coxless Fours at Henley; in ’64 they went out in the quarter-finals. In the same year the crew was selected to represent Ireland in the coxless fours at the European Championships at Amsterdam, where they rowed without success.
In those years various combinations filled the bow seats of an Eight behind the O.C. Four. These men were mainly drawn from Lady Elizabeth. B.C. – the Trinity equivalent of O.C.B.C. Simon Newman, a former captain of Trinity, was an enthusiastic supporter of the idea of a combined Eight. The crew was successful, winning the Senior Pot at Limerick in ’63 and at Coleraine in ’64. The Leander was also won twice.
The College Eight was still strong, finishing second to O.C. at Limerick; after winning the Pembroke at Metro they went closest to them in a heat in Coleraine the following year.
In 1963, Michael Johnston commented that “University domination (of the Pot) was over”; but it had taken former University men to do it. Composite crews had been agreed at the previous AGM, but interestingly this crew raced possibly illegally, under the colours of one Club. In Fours they races as O.C and Lady Elizabeth. One newspaper commented: “A delegate at the IARU meeting which discussed composite crews asked ‘What happens if a crack National Four and a crack Trinity Four join up?’ He has his answer now and Irish Rowing has a new lease of life.” Generally true, but UCD was yet to have one golden era competing for the great trophy.
By 1965 the tide was on the ebb again – the Maiden Eight recorded the only victory of the year at Carlow but the secretary did not lose heart. “Almost all of the successful Old Guard were gone from the club… like the Phoenix we shall rise again.”
In 1968 Paddy Daly stroked a fine race in the Gannon to come from behind at the Four Courts and win by two lengths. The Wylie Cup was won in 1969 and, under the strong captaincy of John Riney, the Senior Eights Championship was won at Blessington later in the year – a most important springboard for what was to follow.
The Gannon Cup was won for the following six years, a period when the Club enjoyed its greatest success at senior level in Ireland and abroad. In 1973 the Gannon Cup programme commented: “Once again the Gannon Cup would appear to be a one-sided affair; the UCD juggernaut is being rolled out against a Trinity crew the pundits say hasn’t a dog’s chance…”
The pinnacle had been reached through 1970 when the Eight was the best for some years. It went through the Irish season without defeat until the Championships when, in bad conditions, they failed to Neptune at Blessington. This was Neptune’s first victory since 1964 and they were helped on their way by four oarsmen who had rowed for UCD in previous years. There was consolation for the defeat of the Eight when the first Four won the Blue Riband at Metropolitan regatta on the following day – thus bridging an 18-year gap.
At the beginning of the following season the Eight was based on a crew which had won the Maiden (nowadays Novice) Eights Championship in 1969 and the Junior (nowadays Intermediate) Eights Championship in 1970. The results of the Head of the River at Putney disappointingly showed that the crew was not good enough to win in Ireland nor to make a serious challenge at Henley. Over the years performances there had remained in the realm of gallant efforts, and to win there was the great objective.
It was decided to seek an overseas coach who would be available for intensive coaching sessions. Geoffrey Page, who had a distinguished record as an oarsman and coach with Thames R.C. and Great Britain crews, accepted the challenge and formed with Tom Sullivan a harmonious and successful partnership, which continued for five of the most successful years in the Club’s history.
The wind of change blew through the Club when Page arrived after Putney and selected a senior eight based on the Maiden crew of 1970. Because of their substantial physique, great determination and a certain flamboyance, they became known to Irish rowing as “The Animals” five of them – Pat Brady, Martin Feeley, Tom Galligan, Pat McBride and Jim Skelly – were the mainstay of the College Eight which won the Senior Pot in 1971, 1972 and 1973.
The members responded enthusiastically to the energy, good humour and expertise that Geoffrey Page brought with him and a memorable spirit of commitment and self-confidence developed. At Henley in 1972 in the quarter-finals UCD gave the Dutch crew “Laga” from Delft University its closest race on their way to winning the Ladies’ Plate. The first Four reached the semi-final of the Britannia Cup, losing to the eventual winners, Wallingford R.C. Once again the College authorities responded to the rising tide of success by providing for new boats and oars.
The 1973 Eight was possibly the strongest crew College has put on the water. The Dublin Head Pennant was won for the fourth year in succession and the Grand at Trinity was retained in a new course record. In June, UCDBC competed for the first time at a continental regatta. At Ghent, College won the Senior Eights and Fours. At Marlow Regatta, before Henley, UCD won the Marlow Eights beating some of the leading English clubs of the time – Leander, Tideway Scullers, Quintin and Thames Tradesmen.
There was a very strong entry in the Ladies’ Plate at Henley – particularly from the American and Dutch universities. College beat the University of London in the first round and Isis B.C in the second. Isis is the Oxford University second boat, and that year it had on board three of the ’74 Oxford crew which would end the Cambridge run of six consecutive victories in the Boat Race. It also contained two Blues from ’72 and ’73. In a fiercely fought race, won by a canvas, UCD lowered the course record for the Ladies’ Plate by five seconds.
There was great disappointment on the following day when after a poor start, the crew lost another fiercely contested race by a length to the University of Washington. An exceptional Harvard crew went on to win the event. The first Four lost again in the semi-final of the Britannia to the University of London by one and three-quarter lengths.
In 1971, 1972 and again in 1973, the UCD Eight and first Four were selected to represent Ireland in the Home Countries Rowing Match. In 1973, at Nottingham, the Irish Eight defeated the English crew to win the Eights for the first time in the series.
In 1974, it appeared that the club’s hopes would rest with a Senior Four – all that remained of the ’73 championship crew. A Senior Eight was formed from the Maidens and the Juniors of the previous year. From this boat emerged a very strong second Senior Four, which was unbeaten. The first Four again competed on the continent and it won the Elite Fours at Ostend Regatta by a canvas from S.N.Bass Seine of France in the final.
Before leaving for England an Eight was formed by amalgamating the two Senior Fours. This crew competed at Nottingham International Regatta on the week-end prior to Henley and won the Elite II event by five seconds from Harvard and four others in the final. Since Harvard were favoured to win the Thames at Henley – in the event they were overhauled and beaten by three-quarters of a length by the Belgians from Antwerp – this result indicated that College were serious contenders for the Ladies’ Plate.
And so it proved. They progressed comfortably to the final where they beat the University of London by one and a half lengths. This was the first Irish crew victory at Henley since 1903, when Trinity had won the Thames Cup, and the first victory in the Ladies’ Plate since Trinity’s in 1875.
It was a great Irish Henley; that night in Theo McCammon’s “Horse and Groom” on New Street, there were two Irish trophies – UCD’s Ladies’ Plate and Sean Drea’s Diamond Sculls, his second of three. These victories were a turning point in Irish rowing, a psychological barrier was removed and in the following 13 years Garda B.C were to win three Henley trophies, Neptune R.C, two, UCG one and Trinity the Ladies’ Plate in 1977.
But for the College rowing the tide was already going out once again. At Blessington, the Senior Eights Championships was lost to Garda, who also beat the first Four for the only time that season to win the Blue Riband.
The Irish Amateur Rowing Union responded to the rising standard of club rowing by establishing a national team system from which crews would be selected to compete at international regattas. In 1974, together with Sean Drea in the Single Sculls, a Coxed Four was selected to compete at the World Championships at Lucerne. From UCD Martin Feeley, Pat Brady and Jaye Renehan were chosen with Alec McCabe and Gerry Homan of Commercial R.C. Unfortunately, on the eve of the crew’s departure Martin Feeley was injured in a motorcycle accident and had to withdraw. It was a grievous blow and the crew failed to qualify for the semi-finals.
For the World Championship of 1975 at Nottingham, Feeley was again chosen to stroke the Irish Coxless Four, which again failed to qualify for the semi-finals. At the Montreal Olympics in 1976, Feeley and Jaye Renehan joined Andy McDonagh of Garda B.C and Iain Kennedy of Queen’s University in the national Coxless Four which failed narrowly to take a qualifying place from Belgium in the repechage.
In 1975 the Club entered a Four in the Britannia at Henley which lost a close race in the semi-final to Leander, the eventual winners. In ’76 the Intermediate Eights Championship was won at Athlone after which, for five years, the club settled in the doldrums, despite success in the Novice’s Fours Championship of ’78 and the Wylie Cup and Intermediate Fours Championship of ’80.
For some time past the club premises at Longmeadows had been considered inadequate for the needs of rowing in the College. Among other factors the requirements for a women’s club would have to be addressed. Negotiations were concluded with St. Patrick’s Hospital for the purchase of a site attached to Salmon Pool House, which had been used as a nurses’ residence by the hospital.
Phase one of a two phase development on the site was completed in 1977. This consisted of a spacious five-bay boathouse; the east bay was pressed into service as temporary dressing-rooms and that remains the rather unsatisfactory situation at the moment. The club moved down-stream that year and the old place was purchased by Dublin Corporation for use as a municipal rowing centre.
In 1977, also, an association going back almost to the foundation of the Club was ended. Billy Bass retired after 45 years as devoted service as boatman. His retirement was marked by a fine gathering of past and current oarsmen at a dinner in the Aula Maxima of Newman House. His place was taken by Jim Wallis, who had been boatman at the University of London.
The Club returned to Henley in 1981 with an Eight which was eliminated in the first round of the Ladies’ Plate. An improvement came in 1982 with the Eight losing a tough race to Yale in the second round of the Ladies’ by three-quarters of a length. The time of 6.36 was the fastest for the event at the Regatta. On its return the crew convincingly won the Intermediate Eights Championship at Blessington and competed in the Senior Eights, finishing third to Neptune and Garda.
In 1983 the Gannon Cup was won, ending a seven year losing sequence. At Henley, UCD defeated the unbeaten and much fancied Temple University crew from Philadelphia in the first round of the Ladies’ Plate. The second round provided excitement when Trinity were overhauled and beaten along the enclosures. The crew went out to Princeton University after a tactically naive race in the quarter-finals. After Henley the College Eight lost the Intermediate Championship to Trinity by one foot at Athlone.
The Club labelled 1984 as a rebuilding year and the Novice Eights and Fours Championships were won. The first of three consecutive victories came in 1985 in the Gannon and another success in the Intermediate Championship; the Trophy was to be won again in 1987 and 1992. At Henley in ’86 the two fastest crews in the Thames Cup met in the final but UCD had to give best to a very strong Ridley College crew from Canada.
In 1993, in the first round, the Eight lost another tough race by one and a half lengths to the eventual winners of the Temple Cup, Oxford Brooks University, in the very fast time of 6.21. This was the fastest time for the event through the five days, which was some consolation to the coach Jim Wallis. Apart from that College crews have not had much to encourage them at Henley since 1985.
When the 1987 crew disbanded, other re-building programmes commenced and the Novice Eights Championships was won in 1988, 1989 and again in 1992. Despite victories in the Gannon in 1991 and 1994, and success in the Intermediate Eights Championships of 1992, it is proving difficult to develop a consistent run of success for the crews in recent times.
Where College boat clubs rely on an intake of rowing beginners, time is the great problem. It will take three years to develop a crew to compete, even modestly, at Senior level. Beyond that, it takes more years to produce a competitive crew. Because of the duration of university courses it follows that College boat clubs have a too frequent turnover of oarsmen. This leaves them at a disadvantage to the open rowing clubs which have a potential for continuity that colleges can only dream of. Since 1976 the Senior Pot has been won by university crews on only two occasions – Trinity in 1981 and UCG in 1988. with a UCG/Trinity composite win in 1991.
At UCD continuity would be improved by more graduate involvement in administration and active rowing; standards on the water would be improved by a full-time Director of Rowing. Professional directors/coaches have been the norm at American colleges and universities for years, and the more progressive college boat clubs in Britain are now going down the same road.
Whatever the future holds for the College Boat Club long may it continue to provide comradeship, recreation and success for its members.
(This account was also taken from the book – St. Patrick’s Blue and Saffron, a miscellany of UCD Sport since 1895′ by Prof. Patrick N. Meenan, published 1997)