We’re blessed in Greystones, having far more than our fair share of budding historians in our midst.
From Derek Paine to Gary Acheson, and so many inbetween, it means that our town’s early years will forever be remembered, not only by our generation, but those Greystonians who will follow.
Our grandchildren will probably make hologram games out of all us, to be randomly found around the town, but, hey, better than just fading away, right…?
One of those local heroes who has gone out of their way to keep our history alive is Jago Hayden, who has been bringing some of our old pictures to life – you can check out his forensic work here agus here – whilst campaigning against the town’sfisherman’s blues.
For his latest GG entry, Jago has been working on updating his memoir, Hair All Curling Gold, and has provided us here those chapters dealing with rowing in Greystones, as well as some extra research on earlier years out on those inviting Irish Sea waves…
The Rowing at Greystones 1 From Chapter One – Heroes
The Colleen Bán
Blacktop Kinsella was a grand-uncle of mine, a great hulk of a man who was reported to have rowed a twenty-foot oar in John Spurling’s original “Colleen Bán”, a working skiff that failed to win only two races in the regattas of the day. One of Derek Paine’s books of photographs shows the “Colleen Bawn” crewed by John Spurling, Bill Spurling, Jack Darcy, James Whiston and George Archer, (page 124 of Derek’s 1993 book; his first). In another of Derek’s books – page 90 of his second (1994) book – it’s clearly Blacktop on the midship oar, with John Spurling on stroke oar and Bill Spurling on the tiller. Blacktop’s given name was John Thomas. By the time of his death, he too had become a legend, with the reputation that he could snap the twenty-foot oar at will.
Thomas Kinsella & Cornelius Salmon
I can remember kneeling at Blacktop’s wake in Kinsella’s house in Blacklion, about 1946, my eyes just level with the rim of the coffin, and seeing this great nose protruding above the rim. In the first published edition of this memoir, I wrote that he was buried in the old graveyard in Kilcoole in the next grave to his sister Katherine, my grandmother McKenzie. In that, however, I was mistaken. It is his and my grandmother’s parents that are buried next to my Grandfather and Grandmother McKenzie in Kilcoole; their names: John and Katherine (nee Fitzpatrick) Kinsella, who were both born about 1847. My Grandmother Katherine, who was clearly named for her mother, died in 1923, when my own mother was only eleven or twelve years old. Blacktop and his wife Sarah are buried in the graveyard in Redford.
There was a revival of interest locally in skiff racing in the late 1940s and I can remember a triumphant crew being carried up the beach in the borrowed white-painted skiff “St. Joseph”. By 1950 or 1951, a rowing club had been formed and a new skiff commissioned, to be built by John Spurling and to be also called “Colleen Bawn”, the second Greystones skiff to bear the name.
John Spurling & Connie Archer
John Spurling was the real hero of the original ‘Colleen Bawn’. He not only rowed and fished it, but he had built it, and the skiff had lost only two races. One of these failures had been a dead heat at Wicklow Regatta and, in the immediate row-off, the Greystones crew had triumphed by a distance. I have heard it variously recounted as anything from twenty lengths to forty lengths.
The second occasion that first ‘Colleen Bawn’ was beaten was in a race against a skiff named the ‘Venture’. This had also been built by John Spurling, reportedly to give the lie to the growing legend that the “Colleen Bawn” could not be beaten. These skiffs, you should remember, were all working skiffs. They fished, hobbled, and carried gravel ballast to coastal trading schooners, even pilgrims across the upper lake at Glendalough to Kevin’s Bed. But the second ‘Colleen Bawn’ was not the equal of the original and failed miserably at her first outing.
Paddy Redmond & John Spurling
Chapter Three – Heroes II I believe I was stroke oar in the first race of the new Colleen Bawn. Aged only fourteen, I was the youngest of an under-sixteen minor crew whose luck it was to man the oars for the skiff’s very first outing at Ringsend Regatta. Some of the crews against us that day could manfully have rowed an under-eighteen race – legitimately. It was a mistaken understanding by our club that the shut-off age was sixteen years that had us restricting ourselves. The real focus of attention on the day was the another new skiff that was also on its maiden outing. The ‘St. Luke’, commissioned by the Irish Glass Bottle Company Rowing Club from a Ringsend boat builder named Smith, was a beautiful craft, drawing her lines from an earlier Ringsend skiff, the ‘St Patrick’, by the same builder: It had set the standard for skiff-building in its day; but the sheer newness of the ‘St Luke’ projected an image of sleek precision, and it won seven out of eight races on the day. The home crowd skint the bookies to such an extent that I don’t think they ever came back to a Ringsend Regatta again. We were crushed, and although we pulled our physical best for the rest of the season, our hearts weren’t in it. The following winter, the committee decided to get a new boat, eventually to be named ‘Shamrock I’, to be built by Smith of Ringsend.
The Shamrock gets ready for battle
No one felt the failure of the second Colleen Bawn more deeply than John Spurling and, even as the new skiff – the Shamrock we called it for simplicity – was only being built, he set up a boat on the stocks for himself. Sixteen foot long and transom-sterned, she was as precision-built as a Ringsend skiff and was a pure racer. The next year, he traded the boat to his brother Bill, and built a second sixteen-footer with a little more beam to it. The year after that again, or the next, he built a third sixteen-footer, for Jimmy Smullen and myself. He had promised my father that he would build a boat for him sometime, to replace the fifty-year-old Scottish-built fourteen-footer, the “Kathleen” that we had bought from the Tuckers. Forty-eight pounds the new boat cost us – me and Jimmy Smullen. The Kathleen had originally cost seven pounds five shillings, delivered Dublin, and an extra five shillings took it by rail to Greystones. That was in 1902. I’m not sure who the original owner was, but I think it was Bert Curling who sold it to the Tuckers, and we got it after Willie Tucker died in 1939.
Jimmy Smullen and I named the new boat Mac Lir, after the Celtic god of the sea, Manannan MacLir, and I don’t believe John Spurling ever built a nicer boat for rowing. She fished as well. I can recall going off one evening to haul a couple of trammel nets and being hailed from the South Beach by the Ahernes – their father owned the Palace Bar in Fleet Street – who were together with Breda Reynolds and a friend, Marie Kennedy. We came that night to shore with ten stone of plaice, eight people on board, and a three and a half stone British Anzani outboard motor astern.
On another occasion, Kevin Dillon and I were rowing pair-oared with the beautiful ten-foot six sweeps that I bought from the Hammond Lane Metal Co. – salvage goods – when we encountered Breda Reynold’s younger brother, Seamus, who was off in Jimmy Lennox’s fourteen-foot boat with Jimmy and a one and a half horse power British Seagull outboard motor. Challenged, we invited them to a race and said we would row rings around them. And we did just that. We circled them twice, Seagull engine notwithstanding. John Spurling built one more boat; an abler but heavier sixteen-footer for his own family’s use, but to my mind he never built a finer craft than mine. Then again, I never rowed in the real Colleen Bawn.
The MFV Ard Aidhm
One of John’s sons, Johnny-boy, was stroke oar in the senior crew of the Shamrock, his cousin Cecil Gilbert being bow oar. The two centre oars – midship, and beam oar – were rowed by Christy Whiston and Jimmy Redmond respectively. The cox was Michael Whiston, but everybody called him “Beezie”. In the five regattas in their first year rowing together, they were third, second, first, second, third and never in our lives did we experience more exciting rowing. We roared ourselves hoarse at every race, and sang all the way home in the back of J.P. Traynor’s lorry, even when we lost.
The next year, that same senior crew won every race bar one, and the same I think in the year after that. From then on, they won all before them. At some stage, Paddy Redmond had replaced Cecil Gilbert on bow oar, and maybe even for a while, Johnny-boy Spurling; I have some memory of Johnny having an accident on a motorcycle. Cecil and Johnny-boy were those kind of fellows who didn’t look especially strong but had muscles of steel. Jimmy Redmond had the physique of a Hercules and could have stood-in for Johnny Weismuller in any of his Tarzan movies. Christy Whiston was just lean looking, and Michael, his brother, was small, cheery and a great sportsman. Christy and Michael were cousins of my mother, their mothers being sisters with the family name of Kinsella. Paddy Redmond was strong and determined and had been a close pal of my own when we were younger. Lord, how we cheered them.
Guinness barge Jago Hayden
In the year of An Tostal, it was decided to organise a special race on the Liffey, between the winners of two heats to be rowed respectively at Dun Laoghaire and Ringsend. The race was to start at Guinness’s Wharf and finish at Burgh Quay, just as the Head of the Liffey races of fours and eights that were more familiar to the general public did. The Ringsend heat was won by the ‘St Patrick II’ from the St Patrick Rowing Club. Their new skiff had been built in the same year as, and was launched shortly after, Shamrock I in 1952.
Now, when I first wrote and published this particular reminiscence, I had for almost fifty years been obsessed with the Stella Maris, which was also a Ringsend boat, and I got the two skiffs mixed up in my memory. It was only when Eric Spurling wrote to me after the book was published that I realised my mistake. Eric also rowed in that great Greystones senior crew in the 1950s, as indeed had his oldest brother, Osborne. Each rowed stroke oar. Indeed, Eric was the last to stroke them to victory before the crew finally broke up.
In mitigation, all I can plead is that the Stella Maris senior crew was the Greystones crew’s great rival in the early and middle years of the 1950s. They trained seriously, were superbly fit and, rowing shorter oars than the Greystones crew, generally set a faster stroke than the Greystones men. And their coxswain was, at the beginning, at least, far more experienced than Beezie.
At some stage, the old Stella was replaced by a new Stella Maris, which was also built by Smith of Ringsend, and was said to be a half-inch finer than the Shamrock. We had it as gospel that the differences in beam between the St. Luke and the Shamrock and the new St Patrick and Smith’s Stella Maris were, respectively, one-eight, a half, and a quarter of an inch. Smith, I believe, reckoned the St. Luke the fastest of all the skiffs that he built. Be that as it may, it was the St Patrick, as Eric Spurling reminded me, that the Greystones men were to face on the Liffey in the Tóstal challenge, because, you see, it was the Shamrock that had won the Dun Laoghaire heat.
I got to thinking that the Ringsend boat would have the advantage of us, because all they had to do was row up the river and practise over the course itself. Without saying anything to anyone, I travelled into the city and went down along the quays to where the Guinness ships berthed below Butt Bridge. In those days, the Guinness that was exported – whether to Liverpool or to Manchester, or to Bristol – was all brought downstream in the famous Guinness steam-barges and it was one of the sights of the city to see them off-loading the barrels and half-barrels and hogsheads onto the cobbled quays virtually under the loop-line bridge. If anyone, in my mind, were to know the run of the river, it would be a Guinness bargee.
I don’t now remember if it was the barge captain or the mate, or just one of the deckhands that I asked, but I hit gold. I had already checked the time of the tide for the evening of the final and I remember that it was to be rowed on a falling tide. The bargee named out every bridge for me and told me how the stream speeded up where the channel deepened as the river curved into the south bank at Church Street Bridge and Winetavern Street Bridge on the ebb. When I boarded the train for home at Tara Street Station that evening I had already walked the entire river from Butt Bridge to Kingsbridge, and had paced and sketched every arch.
Beezie gave me a right look when I gave him the sketch and told him where I got the information from, and he tucked the fold of paper away into a pocket.
On the evening of the race itself, we unloaded the Shamrock at Ringsend and, leaving the crew to kit out, crossed to Sir John Rogerson’s Quay on the Port & Docks ferry and set off at the trot to get to the start at Guinness’s wharf, just level with the brewery yard. We barely made it ahead of the two skiffs, which had been rowed briskly up river, and it wasn’t until afterwards that I learned Beezie had taken them through two of the side arches on the way. The last bridge they cleared upstream, and the first to be negotiated in the race itself, was the single-arch Watling Street Bridge at Usher’s Island. Its fine cast-iron spans are dated 1858, from the St. Helen’s, Lancashire foundry of Robert Daglish Jnr., and it lay down stream about two hundred and twenty yards from the start. At the crack of the gun, eight oars dug into the water, and again and again, as both crews clawed frantically to build up speed. As I expected, the St Patrick, setting a faster stroke, made it to Watling Street Bridge first and had even increased their advantage by the next bridge, Queen’s Street Bridge, to head the Greystones crew through the centre arch.
The great shout that had gone up from both sets of supporters at the start had built into a rising clamour of jubilance and counter-exhortation as we all ran downstream along the quays with them. I disremember whether it was at Church Street Bridge or Winetavern Street Bridge that Beezie let the Shamrock fall away to the south side of the river, but I can still see the St Patrick entering the centre arch in the lead, and I know we had sprinted ahead and were there to roar when the Shamrock emerged from the side arch ahead of the Ringsend boat. That was the end of it really, but we ran and jumped and shouted all the way to the glorious finish; the Shamrock leading the St Patrick under Capel Street Bridge, where the navigable arches are all equal; then flashing under the airy span of the Ha’penny Bridge and through the centre arch – tunnel almost – of O’Connell’s Bridge to the finish opposite the Irish Press office at Burgh Quay. All we lacked was an artist of the calibre of Jack Yeats to immortalise the scene.
There is a very fine photograph on page 91 of that great Senior crew with the many trophies they, and the the Junior and the Greystones Minor crews won in those early and middle years of the 1950s at various regattas, including the Tostal Trophy – the Shield in the centre of the photograph, I’m conjecturing. Glory days, indeed.
The final paragraph of the particular chapter of my 2000 memoir read:
Derek Paine (with Tyson)m Telford Evans, David Spurling & Eric Spurling
“There were other great national heroes at that time: Harry Bradshaw, yet again vindicating his true reputation as world-class with his victory, together with Christy O’Connor, in the Canada Cup, after the disappointment of the infamous ‘ball in the broken bottle’ incident in the 1946 British Open; John Joe Barry, the Ballinacurra Hare, the fastest miler in the world on grass and the first Irishman to be awarded an athletic scholarship to the United States; the Rackards and the excitement of the great Wexford hurlers, and the train loads of supporters that we cheered, and counted – on one occasion, I think, eleven trains – on their way to Croke Park. But I treasure the memory of our own, those great Greystones oarsmen, more than all of them.”
The Rowing at Greystones 2 March 2016: the rest of the story, rediscovered.
After Eric Spurling wrote to me to point out the error in my account of the Tóstal Challenge race on the Liffey, and after I replied to thank him and acknowledge my mistake, we didn’t keep in touch. Something I regret, because years pass so quickly and Eric, sadly, is no longer with us. He had written in his letter, also, that he had a record of the results of all the regattas the Shamrock had rowed in, and it would be a shame if that archive were to be lost. So, when I decided to write this expanded reminisence of the early years of Greystones Rowing Club, I was conscious that I needed to approach it in a different way. I needed to confirm everything as much as possible. Trouble is, there are not so many people still around who can recall the Club’s beginnings.
Shamrock II launches
I’m pretty certain it was founded in 1950. My father gave me a half a crown to go to a rowing club fund-raising dance – my first ever – in St Kilian’s Hall, and told my mother he would look out for me. I was thirteen years of age. Earlier in the year, I had an operation for appendix, and was around the top of the slip afterwards, along with Seán Dillon – who was also just out of hospital – as Charlie Hempenstall painted his boats, the Dolly H, and the Colleen Bawn; two old fourteen footers, each of which was almost as ancient as Charlie himself. Three days he was painting, and for three whole days he entertained us with – mostly – scatological stories of his often exaggerated, if not imagined, experiences. No wonder we never forgot it or him, or the year.
It was in the following year that the Rowing Club’s new skiff was built, in a substantial shed on the north side of Tom Whitton’s field, just across the road from the Grand Hotel. John Spurling was the boat builder who was commissioned for the job, and he was assisted by his sons Osborne and John junior, who was commonly known then as Johnny Boy. It was Osborne – back then we knew him as Ozzy – who reminded me where Tom Whittons field was, when I phoned him only a week or two ago. Leslie also helped; but what I remember Leslie doing mostly, was shaving slices off a plug of ‘Yachtsman’ tobacco, and rubbing it between his palms, to leave the shavings ready for smoking. John, his father, usually bought an ounce at a time from my Grandfather John McKenzie’s shop; but when he was building the skiff, he bought the full two ounce plug every time. By the time the skiff was nearly finished, everyone in the town knew what it was to be called – what else, but the ‘Colleen Bawn’.
Osborne Spurling in fine fettle
John Spurling had previously built a working skiff in the 1920s of the same name, and when it was entered in the regattas and skiff races of the time, it won all before it. It was said in our time to have lost only two races: the first being a dead heat at Wicklow Regatta, immediately following which the race was re-rowed, and the Colleen Bawn won by a distance. The second occasion was when the Colleen Bawn lost to a new skiff named The Venture, which was built by John Spurling also, to prove that the Colleen Bawn could be beaten.
There is a fine photograph of the original Colleen Bawn on page 124 of Derek Paine’s 1993 book – his first – crewed by Bill Spurling, John Spurling, Jack Darcy, James Whiston, and George Archer. And, on page 97 of the same book, there are two equally fine photographs of John and Bill spurling as they looked in the 1950s or ‘60s. For those interested there are further photographs of that original Colleen Bawn on page 90 of Derek Paine’s second book (1994).
There were high hopes for this new enterprise, and it too was captured on camera. The top photograph on page 92 of Derek’s second book (1994) shows the new Colleen Bawn being paraded through the town; and the second image on the same page shows it being launched after it was blessed.
There was an element of controversy about having the boat blessed. A number of founder members of the Rowing Club had advocated strongly that the Club be “non-political and non-sectarian”, and those tenets were written into the Club’s constitution and minuted accordingly. Some of the original committee members felt that to have the boat blessed would not be in accord with those principles, and I think two or three resigned.
On the day, the Colleen Bawn was blessed – by Very Reverend Father Skehan, Parish Priest of the Church of the Holy Rosary, if my memory serves me correctly, and also by Reverend Moore (I think it was) of St Patrick’s – but it all happened discreetly in what had once been a livery stable. Check out a cropped and enlarged image of a section of one of Robert French’s early 1880s photographs that is reproduced on page 189 of Derek’s fourth (1998) book. It was an ecumenical moment, nevertheless; although back then we wouldn’t have known how to spell the word, let alone what it meant.
I still looked for confirmation of the year, however, and found it in a marvellous web site, www.wicklowregatta.com/old-programmes, which hosts a whole succession of pdf files of individual Wicklow Regatta Programmes extending back to the 1920s, although not all years are available. The programmes for 1949 and 1950, for instance, are not there, and that for 1948 lists only three rowing races by category, and no club or skiff names. That for 1951, in contrast, is very complete.
Twelve skiffs competed in the Senior Open Skiff Race in 1951. In the order in which they were drawn, they were: 1. May Queen Dun Laoghaire 2. Guiding Star Wicklow 3. Mayflower Dun Laoghaire 4. St Malachi [sic] Dalkey 1st in 18 minutes. 5. St Joseph Wicklow 6. St Joseph II Sandycove 3rd 7. St Patrick Ringsend 2nd 8. Endeavour 9. Marie Theresa Dun Laoghaire 10. St Luke Irish Glass Bottle Co’y 11. Stella Maris Ringsend 12. Colleen Bawn Greystones
The Club Skiff Race – i.e. the Junior Race – records only St Joseph II of Sandycove as 1st.
Most interestingly, a newspaper clipping giving the results of Bray Regatta, which was run some few weks later on the nineteenth of August, lists the the St Malachy of Dalkey, the St Joseph of Sandycove, and the St Patrick of Ringsend as 1st, 2nd, and 3rd respectively in the Senior Open Skiff Race for the Mallon Cup.
The Junior Skiff Race, for the Cassoni Cup, was won by the May Queen of British railways Sports Club, with the St Patrick of Ringsend in second place, and the St. Luke of the Irish Glass Bottle Company in third place.
A Confined Skiff Race for the Eagle House Cup was won by a crew rowing the St Patrick. The second place was won by a crew rowing the Colleen Bawn, and third place was taken by a crew rowing the Endeavour (the local Bray skiff).
A Confined pair oar race, listed St Joseph, Endeavour, and St Luke, as 1st, 2nd, and 3rd respectively.
All this accords with what I wrote of the rowing in my memoir, Hair All Curling Gold, that I first published in 2000, and, more recently, in a corrected excerpt posted online.
In the first year that the Shamrock was raced, the Greystones senior crew came third, second, first, second, and third respectively, in the five regattas that were run that year. The first was held in Dalkey, over a triangular course of almost four and a half miles. The boats started from the shore in front of the convent and rowed just over a mile off shore to round a single boy, turning to port on a long northwesterly leg, before again turning to port to race for the finishing line in Dalkey Sound. The winner, by a distance, was the Dalkey boat, a dark blue older skiff named St Malachy.
The Shamrock crew had their revenge when they won a decisive victory at Ringsend Regatta, a photo of which appears on page 119 of Derek Paine’s fourth book (1998). The regatta at Greystones that year, however, was not so good for us. Our nemesis on the day was the Stella Maris from the Ringsend Club of the same name.
The older Stella Maris had a low freeboard and a raked stem and always looked to be a couple of feet shorter than the other skiffs, which were a standard 25ft length with a beam of approximately 6ft. They rowed two twelve-foot and two fourteen-foot oars. By contrast, the Greystones crew rowed two sixteen-footers and two fourteen-footers. The Stella Maris crew generally started at fifty-five strokes to the minute, then settled at the still very fast pace of forty-two to forty-five strokes per minute. The Greystones crew, with longer oars, usually settled to thirty-four to the minute, and spurted by hitting the oars harder rather than by lifting the stroke.
The weekend picked for the event turned out to be one of exceptionally strong tides. The starter buoys, which had been painstakingly lined up with the North Wall the day before, dragged their anchors overnight; and even though the ebb hadn’t reached it’s peak as the earlier races got under way, the pull of the skiffs, each trying to gain an extra fathom or two, skewed the starting line even more. When the time came to start the Senior race, the starter might as well have been trying to line up the horses for the start of the Grand National. Eventually, just after he ordered the Greystones skiff to row back into line, he suddenly fired the starting shot. The Shamrock was caught broadside on to the course, and at least at seven or eight lengths of a disadvantage. By the time they got the skiff straight and moving, the other skiffs were leading by up to ten or twelve lengths. The Stella Maris in particular was like a sea stallion with the bit between its teeth and was heading for the outside buoy on the ridge, taking every advantage of the strength of the ebb.
A photo of seven skiffs, with one trailing badly behind the others, which is reproduced on page 118 of Derek Paine’s fourth book, may well have been taken on that particular afternoon.
Undeterred, we took after the flotilla along the Marine Road, shouting all kinds of encouragement. We even followed them down the south beach until the skiffs rounded the marker boats and raced for home, and we just as vociferously retraced our tracks. The Shamrock was still down the field, but making ground strongly. Abreast of the Swan’s Rock, certainly by the time they were off the Gent’s bathing place, we could see the effort our men were putting in. With every successive stroke, the Shamrock surged ahead, gaining incessantly on their rivals The four oarsmen, Beezie the cox, and the Shamrock became a mystical organic whole, and we willed them on, almost metaphysically.
By the time the leading craft breasted the Cove, our lungs and larynxes were stressed to their limit. The Shamrock was overhauling the Stella Maris with every pull of the oars. But the cox of the Stella, we could clearly see, was relentlessly steering their skiff across the track of the Greystones boat. A blatant foul, completely against the rules! Desperately we raced ahead, scooted past the Grand Hotel, skirted the base of the flagstaff, and clambered down the back of the rocks, the better to see the actual finish. The portside oars of the Greystones skiff virtually scraped the barnacles off the rocks below us. The Shamrock’s sea room had been effectively closed off. The Stella Maris shaded them to the line by not much more than a bow. Had it happened anywhere else, the Greystones Club Committee would certainly have lodged a protest. As it was a home venue, they reluctantly accepted the de facto result. Maybe it was the wiser choice.
The ultimate battle with the Stella Maris took place in Greystones some years later, in 1957. It was a particularly traumatic year for our family – the stock and good will of my mother’s shop had to be sold, and it fell to me to look after my three youngest siblings, together with my Aunt Eileen in a bungalow we rented from Bobby and Mrs Brigid Mooney, the couple who had bought the business. On top of it all, I quit my job in the Irish Glass Bottle Company and started fishing a couple of trammel nets instead. By that time, however, our parents had already gone to England, for work, and to find somewhere to live. It’s no wonder I remember the year.
I didn’t plan to row in the Shamrock that Summer. Too old at 20 for the minor crew, I took to going out with the junior crew for training whenever any one or other of the regular crew couldn’t make it. Mostly, I stood in for the cox, Des Mitchell, when the lads took the Shamrock out during the day. On other occasions, I rowed the bow oar in place of Brendan Sweeney, when he was working. And that’s how it happened that I rowed bow oar in both the Wicklow and Greystones Regattas. At least, that’s how I have always remembered it.
I was certain Brendan had rowed in the Dunlaoghaire Regatta, which, if memory serves me right, took place on the Sunday immediately preceding Wicklow Regatta, and it’s like a dream to me that the Greystones Junior Crew won over a long hard course that took them right out between the piers, although I stand to be corrected.
There was a year when the skiffs started from the East Pier and raced across the harbour and back; but on most years they started from the Coal Pier and the course took them right out through the mouth of the harbour to round marker buoys some hundreds of yards further off. On such occasions, the draw was critical. If the race was rowed on the ebb, the skiffs nearest the East Pier could get swept to starboard as they cleared the harbour mouth, such could be the strength of the ebb. If on the flood, skiffs re-entering the harbour could get pulled sideways into an eddy of dead water just inside the entrance. I have seen both happen, from the pier itself.
Did I experience it actually on the water that day? I have no distinct memory of it. All my life, I have been certain that I won once at Junior level – and a couple of times as a Minor – but whether that was at Dun Laoghaire, or at Wicklow is a question someone else needs to answer for me. I was sure that I stood in for Brendan, yet again, at Wicklow when he couldn’t make it on that day, either; but a copy of the Wicklow Regatta Programme for 1957 on the Wicklow Regatta results web site, with the results recorded in marker on it, tells a different story. The Shamrock came second in the Junior race.
Greystones Regatta was a different matter. It was a stinker of a day. A gale of wind blew from the northwest out of an often overcast sky. There was great difficulty getting the skiffs lined up for the start, and I’m not even sure if a minor race was rowed at all. Brendan Sweeney couldn’t make it that day, either, so I stood in for him yet again on bow oar for the Junior race; but it was a vastly different experience to the races at Dun Laoghaire and at Wicklow only a couple of weeks earlier. The boat was being blown onto its beam ends even as we raced for the four local boats that were moored on the ridge as marker buoys. We weren’t at all well balanced; neither in weight, nor in relative strengths on an oar, and the weather laid bare all our weaknesses. After we rounded our mark and turned for home, we rowed like amateurs. Desperately, we tried to hold a course as close as we dared to the rocks off St Davids, and we found it all but impossible. Eventually, we struggled back to harbour, just glad to have made it. We were well down the field.
It was well late in the afternoon before the Senior crews boarded their respective skiffs for the big race of the day, the gale by this time, if anything, blowing more severely than ever. As the boats nosed out across the harbour for the start, dark clouds built ominously over the Little Sugarloaf. I made a run for it, up the Trafalgar Road and into La Touche Close for my tea – probably just a boiled egg – and was tucking into it when the squall struck. The raindrops when they came were like spears driven horizontally across the window pane. In years afterwards I only once experienced anything like it; when I was on anchor watch as we lay at shelter one dreadful winter’s night on a fishery cruiser named the Longa in the Cromarty Firth in Scotland. It blew force twelve in the Minch that same night.
Back in Greystones on that fateful day, I realised I couldn’t not be there, and, weather or no weather, hastened back to the harbour just in time to see the Greystones crew walking up the beach. Every man was drying himself with a towel. I gathered the Shamrock had won, and congratulated Jimmy Redmond.
“Jago,” he said to me, “It wasn’t the race I was thinking of. When those freezing drops of rain hit me in the broad of my back, I was rowing for my life. They were as big as half crowns.”
It was all of twenty minutes before the Stella Maris crew made it into the harbour. In the meantime I got a full account of the race from one of the lads who had stayed to watch it.
The Stella, as expected, went wide on the first leg to take advantage of both wind and tide, but when they turned for home they weren’t able to track inshore again. Instead, they were gradually blown further and further offshore. The squall hit when they were about level with the Cove, but nearly half a mile off; neck and neck with the Shamrock, which was holding tight inshore. So severe was it out to sea that the Stella abandoned the race and rowed directly for the mouth of the harbour. When one particularly violent squall hit them just as they had dipped their oars in the water for a stroke – so my erstwhile commentator informed me – the wind lifted the skiff completely clear of the water. I don’t think that particular Stella Maris crew ever raced in Greystones again.
No wonder that years later, when I thought to write the story of the Tóstal race on the Liffey, it was the Stella Maris my memory conjured up – mistakenly – as the Ringsend skiff on that occasion.
There was another episode in the life of the Rowing Club that Eric Spurling reminded me of in his letter in 2000: the circumstances which led to the break up of the great Senior crew of the 1950s. I was around when that happened, also. Is it possible that it, too, could have happened in 1957?
The precocious memory that I developed as a child was probably down to my being enrolled in the infant class at the Holy Faith Convent just behind my Grandfather John McKenzie’s shop on Trafalgar Road, in the charge of Sister Mary Finbarr, in 1940, when I was only three and a half years old. And, I’m certain that it was the trauma of everything that happened in 1957 that locked all those memories in. Not that some things didn’t get blurred.
By the end of November 1957, the imperative to get the family back together again was more than urgent. Out of the blue, a cheque for £40 made out to me arrived in the post. A shilling a week Life Assurance policy my mother had taken out on my life when I was a boy had matured. Two days later I was at the public phone in Sharavogue Cafe in the evening to take a pre-arranged call from my brother John in Watford in Hertfordshire.
“Mother is in hospital”, he said, “and is fretting for the kids. Get them over immediately.”
Forty eight hours later, I had them all, my Aunt Eileen and my younger sister, Eileen, together with my two youngest brothers, Barney and Declan, and half a ton of luggage, on the mailboat to Holyhead.
Twice I came back in the first six months. On the second occasion, towards the end of May 1958, I just walked in, fresh off the Mail Boat at Dun Laoghaire, to my Aunt May in Killincarrig and asked if she could put me up; just in time to cop, as it were, an advertisement in the Irish Press seeking applications from fishermen with at least four years fishing experience to take part in a Skipper Training Course. Six or seven weeks later, I had been signed on the 94ft MFV Loch Lorgan, one of the three offshore trawlers acquired by Bórd Iascaigh Mhara in the eary 1950s. I wasn’t around for the rowing season that year.
Neither was I around in 1959. I had injured a knee when I went back to sea after getting my ticket, and went off to England again until it mended. Then I got a berth for three months as a relief seaman on a Scottish Fisheries Research Vessel, the Scotia, and stayed a further four months as a relief man on the Fishery Protection Cruiser Longa; after which I came back to Dublin to take up a berth on the Exploratory Fishing Vessel Cú Feasa, which had been commissioned by the Dept of Lands and Fisheies from a yard in Nijmegen in Holland. I was one of the crew that collected it from the yard in the Spring of 1960. That was another year I wasn’t around for the rowing.
1961 was different. I had quit the Cú Feasa in Galway, just after the Fleadh Cheóil in Swinford and, after hitch-hiking all around the country, came back to Greystones to have a base to research the relative abundance of Dublin Bay Prawns. More correctly named Nephrops Norvegicus – Norwegian Lobsters – I knew the Irish Sea was full of them, and they just weren’t being fished because there was little market for them in Ireland. But they processed particularly well in Accelerated Freeze Drying, a new process, and the Irish Sugar Company had just built an Accelerated Freeze Drying plant in Mallow – a world first. My brother Billy (Liam Hayden) was the engineer who had overseen the entire project. I was interested in the possibility of a job with the newly established Erin Foods Ltd. Meantime I took our old trammels out and went fishing locally for plaice. So I know for sure I was around in 1961, but I don’t think that was the year the great Greystones Senior crew broke up; because, I wasn’t rowing that year! Plus, I have a photograph I took of my father sitting on the wall at the top of the slip when he came on holiday that year, without him noticing, and his feet are resting lightly on the gunwhale of skiff that looks awfully like the Shamrock; and, it’s clearly neglected.
Willie Redmond & Jago Hayden
Whichever year it was, the Rowing Club was in financial difficulty and the committee decided that whatever prize money might be won, should accrue to the Club, (or maybe half of it; I wasn’t in the loop). Previously, the prize money won by any individual crew was split evenly between the members of that particular crew. The Senior crew were the big prizewinners, and they decided they were not going to row under those terms.
The crunch came just three days before Ringsend Regatta. A jury crew was cobbled together at short notice. I was one of the men who stepped up to the mark, and was detailed to row bow oar. Not my favourite. I had dislocated my left wrist in my very first week at Synge St CBS in 1948 and, while it was set well enough at Baggot St Hospital to last me until now, it was never just as it was before. In particular, when I rowed pair-oared and was sitting to starboard, I couldn’t comfortably wrap my left hand under the extremity of the handle, as I could and did for extra power and control with my right hand when rowing stroke oar in the skiffs. In the emergency, however, none of us were chosers.
Des Mitchell took on the job of cox and didn’t fail us. A Shankhill man whose first name was Joey, who had rowed Junior in Dun Laoghaire, Wicklow and Greystone in that year of 1957, was picked to row beam oar. I think it may have been Seamie Sweeney who went stroke. I can’t remember who rowed midship oar. It might even have been Christy Whiston from the original crew. Torn between supporting the stance taken by his erstwhile team mates, and with not wanting to let the club’s supporters down, he might just have yielded. I don’t honestly remember.
Dublin Rowing Club 1931
There wasn’t a single one of us at the time who could have told you what the phrase ‘quantum leap’ meant – if indeed it had even come into use at the time – but every man jack of us knew we would have to lift our game. Rowing at Senior level was, to mix metaphors, a whole different ball game. We had no more than two or three practice runs, and left it until we actually got to Ringsend to decide on tactics. Once there, we realised we had only one option. There was to be a field of seven or eight skiffs, but only four buoys were anchored off for the turn. Each consecutive pair, dependent on the draw, was allocated a specific buoy. Whatever it took, we decided, we needed to be first to our buoy, with sufficient sea room to turn and get out of the following skiff’s way.
We led the entire flotilla to the turn and rounded our buoy clear of the following skiff, only for a third skiff to ram us just as we were starting to regain momentum. The collision left us dead in the water and broadside on to the course. Desperately, Joey and I clawed at the water in our attempt to get the nose of the Shamrock round again, effectively setting our own stroke. Even before we had quite straightened the skiff, the other two men, matching their strokes to ours, started to pour on the power, driving us to even greater efforts.
We were moving again and gaining ground. Quickly we overhauled and passed one backmarker, then a second; then, a third and a fourth, maybe even a fifth – all eight skiffs may have been on the water that day; I don’t remember. Suddenly, we were clear of the stragglers and into third place with only a hundred yards to row; but we were running out of course. My forearms were like two blocks of concrete, the pain at scream level.
John McKenzie, John Redmond & Leslie Redmond early 1950s Source Jago Hayden (JM’s cousin)
I knew I was weakening and felt the same weakness in Joey. The fourth skiff, making their move, started to overhaul us. I tried, Joey tried, but we had nothing left. As we lost momentum and the fourth boat slid past us, the gun went for the winner. Still thirty or forty yards out, I pulled my oar across the gunwhales and lay across it as we drifted over the line in fourth place.
Winning is not always that important; but for us, on that afternoon, it would have been massive. We were that close.
I never rowed in the Shamrock again. Nor did I hear if that great crew ever came together again. The world had moved on.
Postscript:One of the boats used as marker buoys for the 1957 regatta in Greystones broke adrift in the storm afterwards, but was chanced on by one of the cross channel steamers two or three weeks later, adrift and still afloat. It was towed into Liverpool, I think, and shipped back some weeks later again. It was undamaged. It might even have been one of Charlie Hemp’s.
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