(An occasional column about affordable rowing memorabilia)
Now anyone can join our crew,
Ask Bob the Builder what to do.
Now gather round and hear him out,
This post will make you sing and shout.
Don’t get all tied up in knots,
Just get some pots and a cardboard box.
Big pot, little pot, cardboard box,
Big pot, little pot, cardboard box!
(Original lyrics by Nik Martin – improved lyrics by GD, a well-known pot-hunter)
13 July 2018
Greg Denieffe continues his series Crewcial Collectables:
Micheal Johnston’s book The Big Pot (1992) is the story of the Irish Senior Eights Championship – the winners, the races, the trophy (or trophies) and the stories behind the event’s first eighty years. The trophy itself is officially called The Irish Amateur Rowing Challenge Cup but is affectionately known as ‘The Big Pot’. The first championship was raced in 1912 and the original trophy, standing more than a metre tall and costing 100 guineas, quickly became a symbol of the ultimate challenge for all in Irish rowing. That challenge wasn’t always on the water as disputes frequently arose about the presentation prizes; prizes, or little pots, now elevated to ‘Crewcial Collectable’ status.
The first winner of the championship was City of Derry Boating Club (CoD), who beat Neptune in a two-boat race, off at Dublin Metropolitan Regatta over the tidal stretch of the River Liffey.
If the above photograph looks vaguely familiar, it is because I posted a similar one in 2011 in an article called Royal Visits Benefit Irish Rowing. A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing… but not always. The real photographic post card featured in my earlier post, was put up for auction with ‘the crew unknown’ and with no publisher identified. As there was no message written on the card and no postage stamp, it was not possible for the vendor to give any information; it cost me the princely sum of £1.
Before the first stroke was taken in the new event there was a major row on the special Cup Committee set up by the I.A.R.U. when it was learnt that Messrs. Gibson & Co. Ltd, of Belfast (who had designed the cup) had had it and the nine replica presentation prizes made in England. An Extraordinary General Meeting was deemed necessary and as there was no stipulation that the cup be made in Ireland, the members had no choice but to accept the position.
Last year, one of the 1912 presentation prizes was acquired by former I.A.R.U. President Tom Fennessey. Tom brought the prize to the Irish Championship Regatta where it was put on display and it also gave the good fellows at the Irish Rowing Archive the opportunity to photograph it.
There was a new glass case for the Challenge Cup; the legend in Limerick is that Trinity where the hot favourites, and silver replicas of the IARU cup had been specially cast for them as individual presentation prizes. In fact, there is plenty of debate about those replicas. It was resolved first that they should be made in Ireland, with preference for a Munster manufacturer. But the question of cost was a thorny one and, eventually, Messrs. Gibson of Belfast’s tender – ‘to be made in England for £3-6-8 [£3.33 in modern parlance] per cup’ was accepted.
Having lost to Trinity the previous day at Cork Regatta, Athlunkard Boat Club turned the tables on the students and claimed the nine silver replica pots for themselves and became custodian of the big one for the next year.
There was one more Championship, won by Neptune Rowing Club in July 1914, before the event was suspended for the duration of the Great War. Unfortunately, there is no mention by Johnston about the prizes won by the Dublin club.
The Championship resumed in 1919 and was won by Bann Rowing Club. The 1920 championship was won by Clonmel Rowing Club in an all-Munster affair beating their fellow provincial clubs, Shandon, Waterford and Cappoquin in a straight final. Micheal Johnston gives the following information about the prizes:
Prior to the 1920 Championship, the annual debate about the presentation prizes continued: a rather high limit of £50 for the nine prizes was agreed, but the entry fee for the event was raised from 3 guineas to 4 guineas.
In April 2018, one of the 1920 prizes came to the market and was bought by a collector, Conchúir O’Duilacháin. Based in U.S.A., Conchúir’s main collecting area is Early Irish Militaria especially the period from 1916 to 1923 and he bought the cup because it was a nice example of Irish-War-of-Independence-era Irish silver. The 1920 prizes were made by West & Sons (hallmarked 1919) who were also makers of the Defence of Trinity College Dublin Cups (1916) awarded to members of the Dublin University Officers Training Corps.
Matt Beary upped sticks and moved to Dublin and joined Neptune Rowing Club. In 1930 at the Championship Regatta, he had the distinction of umpiring the heats, and the final the between Drogheda Rowing Club, on their home water, and Citie of the Tribes.
The final was a cracking race and was won by Drogheda by a quarter-of-a-length. The umpire’s report includes a reference to an objection by Trinity College (D.U.B.C.) in their heat and describes how tight the final race was ‘to the point of the wall, where for a space of about ten seconds I lost sight of the crews while dismounting from the side-car and going through the turnstile into the far-side enclosure which was packed with an excited crowd, through which I had to make my way on foot. When I next saw the crews, they were nearly level […] I had not seen any foul, and in any case, I was strongly of the opinion that any slight clash of oars that may have occurred did not influence the results of the race’.
The contract for the 1921 prizes was given to Roches of Cork at a net cost of £45. They kept the contract in 1922 at a reduced cost of £40 for the nine cups and the design was changed to one based on the Ardagh Chalice. Of considerable interest to me are Micheal Johnston’s comments about the 1925 prizes – for it is a 1925 pot, won by Dublin University Boat Club, I am lucky enough to have in my collection:
The debate about the presentation trophies continued each year on the Cup Committee: Weir’s of Dublin successfully tended for 1923 and 1924. In 1925 they quoted £35-15-6 for the Ardagh style prizes, £7-10-0 each for the replicas of the Championship Cup made in England; these would cost £8-15-0 if made in Ireland. Roches of Cork quoted £36 for Ardagh bowls. But a message was brought to the meeting that they would give a discount of one and a quarter percent, bringing the price down to £35-11-0, a saving of four shillings and sixpence. It was agreed to give the order to Roches, provided they could guarantee specification and delivery.
D.U.B.C took the victory by 3 feet over a City of Derry crew that had also finished runners up, by a canvas, the previous year. This was the same Derry squad that had claimed the Tailteann Games gold medals in 1924 by beating the Australian Olympic crew.
The 1925 Trinity senior eight has the added distinction of having their entry for Henley Royal Regatta refused by the Stewards. The all-powerful organisers of the regatta had altered the rules of The Ladies’ Plate in 1924 so that Trinity College, Dublin, could continue to compete in the event which previously only accepted entries from colleges and schools from within the United Kingdom. By 1924, Dublin was outside the ‘Union’ and the Stewards changed the rules to allow them entry. Trinity responded by entering The Thames Cup in 1925 and when their entry was rejected, presumably because they were above the standard for the event, they decided against entering The Ladies’. I doubt they would have entered the Irish Senior Championship event, raced on Thursday 2 July, if the Stewards had allowed them in to The Thames Cup.
Micheal Johnston’s report of the 1926 Championship is the last time he mentions the presentation prizes. He records that the discussion was elevated from the Cup Committee to the Annual General Meeting, which passed a resolution that the trophies be made in Ireland ‘where all the funds for the cup originated.’ Roche’s tender was selected ahead of Weir’s.
Drogheda Rowing Club, the winners of the 1930 championship, also received Ardagh Chalice style presentation prizes. Their publication Memories from the Boyne: The Story of Drogheda Rowing Club (2000) contains photographs of the presentation table on which sits the Big Pot decorated in ribbons of red and black, and the individual presentation prizes.
Sometime before 1967, the presentation prizes were changed to the popular one-pint tankards featuring the crest of the I.A.R.U. and have remained the same with some variance in the quality of the crest ever since.
Unfortunately, the original cup is no longer the great symbol of Irish rowing. In 1985, it was stolen from the jewellers into whose care it had been entrusted for safe keeping. The Big Pot sums up my feeling on this malicious crime ‘It is presumed that it was melted down overnight for its silver content, a monumental act of vandalism against the Irish rowing fraternity’.
Using one of the miniature replicas won by Athlunkard Boat Club in 1913, the ‘Union’ commissioned a new Senior Pot to be made in Dublin by Richard McMahon. It is not made of silver and is nowhere as imposing as the original, but it does symbolise the work that every year goes into winning the Senior Championship. The new trophy was presented for the first time in 1989 to Neptune Rowing Club, who, as fate would have it, was the last club to be presented with the original in 1985.
Most of my collection of pots and medals are unboxed but some have nice red boxes and some like the four pictured above came in their original cardboard presentation boxes. Each of them bears the name of the jeweller who supplied the medals and are clockwise from top left: T Dillon & Sons, Galway (c.1928-35); Gilmour’s, Coleraine (1952); John H. Lunn Ltd, Belfast (1956) and Weir & Son (Dublin) Ltd (c.1940). They contain regatta medals from Galway, Bann, Belfast and Dublin University AKA Trinity Regatta.
Some medals bear a full inscription of the winner, regatta, year etc. and some bear nothing at all with perhaps the design of the medal easily identifying the regatta. Some give a little information that you can use in research and some like the Galway medal above set you a puzzle.
The medal in the Galway box is not engraved, but it is date stamped for 1928 and was made in Birmingham, England. Records of regatta winners of events of the principal regattas in Ireland for 1919 to 1938 are recorded in T. F. Hall’s History of Boat Racing in Ireland and the winner of Junior (now Intermediate) sculls for Galway Regattas of 1928 and 1929 respectively are Dublin Rowing Club and Galway Commercial. Mullin is a Connaught name and Galway is the principal city in the province, so perhaps Sean Mullin won the Junior Sculls at Galway Regatta in 1929? Or perhaps not.
In January 2017, I enlisted the help of Kieran Kerr of Irish Rowing Archives to confirm my suspicion as he has a subscription to the Irish Newspaper Archives (INL). Unfortunately, there was no Mullin recorded as a winner of the Junior Sculls event for either of those years.
I then managed to get the date stamp of the gold disk and thought it was for 1933 but again no confirmation of a win by a Mullin, either a Sean or a John (English translation). In fact, the 1933 event was won by University College Dublin and there was no Junior Sculls event at Galway in 1934. In 1935, the event was back on the programme and was won by Corrib Rowing and Yachting Club (another Galway Club). Was this our man? The INL was not able to help, so I turned to searching old programmes from around this time and found only one Mullin – a J. Mullin that raced for Athlone Boat Club in Maiden Eights and Fours at Galway Regatta in 1934.
Unless something new comes to light I may never solve the Mullin Mystery but as Vera Nazarian wrote ‘Not every puzzle is intended to be solved. Some are in place to test your limits. Others are, in fact, not puzzles at all.’