A Brief* History of the Cork Mechanics

A postcard (posted 1906) featuring a regatta on the Marina, Cork.
A postcard (posted 1906) featuring a regatta on the Marina, Cork.

Greg Denieffe writes:

The Irish Rowing Championship Regatta begins today at the National Rowing Centre in County Cork. The secretary of the regatta, Kieran Kerr, whom HTBS wrote about in January in a piece called The Irish Rowing Archive, unearthed an interesting anecdote that he includes in this year’s regatta programme and which he kindly agreed to share with our readers today.

Kieran writes:

Boat-racing in Ireland is generally accepted to have commenced around 1830. In its infancy it was a form of entertainment for the more affluent members of society and was generally restricted to gentlemen. It was only in the 1880s that it started to be organised, firstly by the short lived Irish Amateur Rowing Association, and then in 1899 by the Irish Amateur Rowing Union (now called Rowing Ireland). Prior to this time, a number of clubs sprang up around the country but over time many of them slipped into obscurity.

One such club was the Cork Mechanics Rowing Club. It was founded in 1860 for the benefit of Cork’s tradesmen who were not eligible for membership of the other Cork clubs. They were given a lease on a site on the River Lee known as the ‘New Wall’, which today we call ‘The Marina’, on which they erected a timber boathouse. Their first regatta was Queenstown (Cobh) Regatta in 1861 where five carpenters lined up against Cork Harbour Rowing Club (1858) and Lee Rowing Club (1850). However, there was an objection to their eligibility on the grounds that the race was restricted to gentlemen amateurs, and officers of the army or navy. The crew was allowed to race despite the objection but during the course of the race a foul occurred between the boats of the Mechanics and of the Lee. The Mechanics took exception to a letter published in a newspaper laying the blame on their steering. They set out their version of events in the same publication but the writer of the original letter responded disputing their account.

For some inexplicable reason, the Secretary of Cork Mechanics, a tradesmen’s club, was a barrister. He encouraged the crew to take a libel action against the gentleman in question, promising them a significant award and advising that the worst that would happen was that the defendant would settle out of court. The case proceeded and the plaintiffs duly lost their case. The barrister then sought his costs and when the ‘Carpenters’ were unable to pay, he had four of them incarcerated and declared bankrupt, the fifth having fled the country. He then turned his attention on their club which he attempted to seize. When the members refused to vacate the premises he returned with the City Sheriff and 30 constables and took possession. He subsequently attempted to sell the premises without success. In July 1863 a successful court case was taken by the members of C.M.R.C. to recover their premises.

It would appear that despite their victory in court, the tumultuous events of the previous two years had sapped the energies of the members and they never rowed again.

Thanks to Kieran, I now know the origin of the proverb ‘There is a difference between giving up and knowing when you’ve had enough.’ His anecdote also spurred me on, to look through some of my old prints and postcards and to try and add some background to the tale I’ve called ‘A Brief History of the Cork Mechanics’.

Cork Regatta 1939 – The trams were gone but the horse and cart was still there.
Cork Regatta 1939 – The trams were gone but the horse and cart was still there.
The Marina, Cork, with the old boathouse of Shandon Rowing Club facing onto the River Lee.
The Marina, Cork, with the old boathouse of Shandon Rowing Club facing onto the River Lee.

Although Shandon Boat Club was founded in May 1877, the lineage of the club stretches back to the beginning of organised rowing in Cork in 1858 when Cork Harbour Rowing Club was founded. Ten years later, in 1868, Queen’s College Rowing Club was founded by a number of members who left Cork Harbour after a dispute and nine years after that, the club changed its name to Shandon Boat Club, owing to the lack of  ‘college men’ rowing by that time.

In 1871, the Cork City Council granted land to Queen’s College Rowing Club to build a boathouse on the Navigation Wall of the Marina and this boathouse was subsequently knocked down and replaced in 1896 by the building still in use today.

According to the website Cork Past and Present:

Much of the land on the south bank of the Lee from the City Hall to Blackrock Castle is reclaimed slob land. In the 1760s, Cork Corporation began the construction of the Navigation Wall, which was also called the New Wall.

It could be that the Cork Mechanics site was the same one that the Council were in a position to hand over to Queen’s College Cork.

Lee Rowing Club, the club that the ‘Mechanics’ was in dispute with over the foul also has an interesting history. From their website:

Lee Rowing Club …. has been an integral part of Ireland’s and Cork City’s sporting life since its inception in 1850.

The club was founded by a group of Cork businessmen to provide outdoor exercise for their apprentices who worked in the businesses on Patrick Street, and in other parts of the city. The members worked as tailors and shop assistants in establishments such as Grant’s, Dwyer’s, The Queen’s Old Castle, London House and Munster Arcade, to name but a few, earning them the nicknames ‘Collars and Cuffs’ and ‘Counter Jumpers’.

Lee had a number of homes in the early years. The address of the first clubhouse was No. 3 Victoria Road. In 1862, the Club rooms moved to Tuckey Street but went back to Victoria Road again in 1863. The first clubhouse was destroyed by fire in 1870 also destroying much of the clubs early written history.

In 1871, a deputation from Lee Rowing Club went to the Navigation Wall Committee of Cork Town Council and the Club was given a site next to the slip opposite Water Street.

Lee was later given a site by Cork Harbour Board on the Lower Glanmire Road where a temporary clubhouse was built, with showers, near the Ferryboat Inn.

Between 1884 and 1886 Lee moved permanently to its present site on The Marina, the Marina itself having been finished in 1872. In July 1890, the club asked Charles Stewart Parnell to make a financial contribution to help clear the club’s debts. Parnell obliged and was made an honorary member of the club.

The inaugural Lee Regatta was held in 1864, and Lee got its first outrigged boat in that year. The Club colours became red and black in 1888.

After the Great Exhibition of 1902-1903, Lee bought one of the exhibition halls and brought it to the Marina site. A concrete base was built and the wooden structure was placed on top.  It consisted of a boathouse on the ground floor, changing rooms, a reading room, and a bar.

It was during this exhibition that the International Regatta was held and which HTBS covered in an article sub-titled The Two Poem Regatta.

The following video, set to the sound track of The Marina Love Song features several rowing images including the original and current boathouses of Lee Rowing Club and many of their crews over the years.

The other club involved in the controversial race was Cork Harbour Rowing Club. They were founded in 1859 and had their headquarters in the Victoria Hotel, Glenbrook, Passage West, until their clubhouse was erected in 1865. In 1860, the club instigated a regatta that was for a decade, the leading regatta in the country.

Their first regatta may have been a small affair, judged by the number of events on offer, but considerable importance was given to it by the entry of crews from London and Glasgow. T. F. Hall, author of History of Boat-Racing in Ireland:

The London Rowing Club crew included two oarsmen, A. A. Casamajor and H. H. Playford, whose names are famous in the annals of the London club and also in the history of English rowing: both rowed in the London R. C. eight that won the Grand Challenge Cup at Henley the previous year. Playford won the Diamond Sculls at Henley in 1860, a short time before coming over to Cork. London won the principal event at Glenbrook after a closely contested race with the local oarsmen.

The London Rowing Club returned to Glenbrook in 1862 and competed with Lee. R. C., Glasgow R. C. and Cork Harbour R. C. for the Glenbrook Cup. A report on the race was published in The Penny Illustrated Paper of 6th September 1862 and was included by Hall in his book. In summary, the course was about three miles from Ringaskiddy round a flag-boat off Passage and back to Cork Harbour R. C. The city crew, Lee R. C., lead from the off and was challenged by the Londoners but Lee ‘in a few seconds shot ahead’ and maintained their position to the finish with London R. C. second and Cork Harbour third. The Glasgow boat did not finish.

Also published in The Penny Illustrated Paper alongside their report of the 1862 regatta was a print, which Hall did not include in his history. I recently tracked down a poor copy and remain hopeful of finding an original to add to my collection.

The Penny Illustrated Paper of 6 September 1862.
The Penny Illustrated Paper of 6 September 1862. ‘Great Gig-Race at Glenbrook Regatta, in Cork Harbour, last week – see preceding page’.

Glenbrook R. C. continued to produce successful crews for the next 15 years but then a slow decline set in. No regattas were held for seven years up to 1882 and after 1885 its activities were suspended. It remained dormant until being wound-up in 1891.

The venue for the 1861 race was Queenstown (now Cobh) in County Cork. Part of the course featured in a rowing print published in The Illustrated London News on 11 November 1865.

The Illustrated London News of 11 November 1865.
The Illustrated London News of 11 November 1865. ‘Naval Boat-Race in Cork Harbour – See page 463’.

I purchased a hand coloured copy of this print and was curious to see what was on page 463. Luckily the library in Bedford had a copy on microfiche and I was able to read the report on this race:

Naval Boat-Race at Queenstown.

Some days ago an exciting match was rowed at Queenstown, Cork Harbour, by the crews, respectively of the gigs of Rear-Admiral Dacres (in command of the Channel squadron) and Rear-Admiral Frederick (Port Admiral), for a considerable prize, subscribed by the officers of her Majesty’s ships in the harbour. The challenge came from Rear-Admiral Dacres’s gig, which beat the gigs of the French ironclads both at Cherbourg and Portsmouth, and was at once accepted by the flagship Hastings. The permission of Rear-Admiral Frederick having been obtained, his gig was manned by an excellent crew, and the two boats started. The distance was four miles – viz., from the R. C. Y. Clubhouse round the Bar-knock buoy and Spit Light, back and round the Frederick William, finishing at the starting-point. After an exceedingly close and well-contested race, in which great interest was manifested, Rear-Admiral Frederick’s boat won by fourteen seconds – equal to three or four lengths. The winning crew was heartily cheered by the spectators.

The magnificent building on the left was the home of the Royal Cork Yacht Club (1720) from 1854 to 1966. You can read more about the building’s history and the efforts to restore it here.

The Illustrated London News of 31 July 1852.
The Illustrated London News of 31 July 1852. ‘Raft Dance at the Squadron Regatta, Cork’.

The humbuggers were nowhere to be seen at the Squadron Regatta, held in Cork Harbour in 1852. Quite the opposite if the above print is anything to go by. It was published in the Illustrated London News on the 31 July 1852 and the strange aquatic activity was described as follows:

Marine Festivities at Cork.

THE Exhibition at Cork has contributed a great accession of gaiety to the life of that ‘beautiful city’. In conjunction with the Squadron Regatta, which commenced yesterday week, a very amusing performance took place—a scene of pantomime, as the Sadler’s Wells managers were wont to say, ‘upon real water’. A sort of stage or raft—a fleur d’eau—was prepared, and six of the crew of H.M.S. Leander, dressed in pantomimic costume, were cast adrift upon it. One of the crew was dressed as Columbine, another as Clown; and a third as Pantaloon, who was provided with a fiddle; the three others being the corps de ballet. They executed several grotesque dances in the water, as it were, to the great amusement of the guests on board the frigate, &c.; and were afterwards towed round the squadron, and received the hearty cheers of the various crews. As a grand and most unexpected finale, they afterwards jumped overboard; but, Triton-like, emerged, and played all kinds of antics in the water. A similar nautical entertainment took place on board the Prince Regent, Captain Hutton, on Saturday.

Good luck to Kieran and his team this weekend. You have a hard act to follow.

* Brief: slang for your legal representative as in ‘I ain’t sayin’ nuffin ’til my brief gets ‘ere’.

One comment

  1. A superb example of what sort of rowing history articles can result from the discerning combination of original research and pre-existing reports. The marvelous ILN woodcut illustrations, which would most likely have been based upon sketches made in situ and forwarded to London for engraving, raise an interesting question. To what extent might the ILN engravers, used primarily to Tideway and upper Thames scenes, have incorporated familiar strokes into their interpretation of the Irish images? That inquiry, in and of itself, to the extent that there were any basis for comparisons, would be a fascinating undertaking.

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