3 March 2020
By Greg Denieffe
Greg Denieffe browses around his collection of books on Irish rowing.
My collection of rowing books can be split into four sections: Irish, Professional rowing and sculling, English, and Other (American and Australian with a few Dutch and German). They are mainly history related, with a few on the technical aspect of the sport. One day I hope to have read them all. I recently updated my bibliography of books on Irish rowing and as well as the main list of books/booklets, it now includes a list of books that contain substantial chapters on the topic and a separate section of articles published in local historical journals. You can find the lists on the Irish Rowing Archive website under the heading ‘List of Books on Irish Rowing’ or follow these links: Books and Booklets and Journal Articles.
The 2010s have seen a significant number of publications on Irish rowing roll of the presses; 12 of the 39 books/booklets on the main list have been published in the last 10 years, nearly as many as were published between 1893 and 1992.
Last October, Mercier Press published an Irish rowing book that became a bestseller. Kieran McCarthy’s book, Something in the Water, tells the story of Skibbereen Rowing Club, which at less than 50 years in existence (founded 1970) has become the most successful rowing club in the country, producing Olympic medallists and world champions and rising to the top of the league table of Irish Championship winners.
As Mercier Press says in their release publicity: “It is the characters involved in the club, the coaches, members and the athletes themselves, who come together to make Skibbereen Rowing Club what it is.
Something in the Water reveals what goes on behind the scenes to create an environment that allows locals to excel on the national and international stages. The story is told through the people and families involved, showing how relatable they are to people around the country.”
The book was one of six shortlisted for the Bord Gáis Energy Sports Book of the Year at the 2019 An Post Irish Book Awards and it is easy to see why. It has been reviewed across all platforms of the MSM, but I particularly like this short piece from Cathal Dennehy of the Irish Independent on 21 December:
“A book that simply had to be written about a tiny pocket of our country that can outperform many large nations – this journey through the inner workings of Skibbereen Rowing Club was always going to be worth the admission fee.
That’s especially true here due to McCarthy’s top-class writing, which weaves together the stories of head coach Dominic Casey, the O’Donovan brothers and various others whose names don’t ring as familiar a bell.
This is the definitive word – and a delightful read – on one of Ireland’s great sporting institutions.”
I found the near 300-page experience a delight and quite understand that a book of this sort, written for rowers and non-rowers alike, has to include some housekeeping on the semantics of the sport. Like all good reads, as I neared the end, I wished that it could continue for a few more chapters. I read fewer pages each night trying to prolong the experience of looking forward to my bedtime story. And, then one night between Christmas and New Year, I landed on the final chapter, ‘Coach Casey’, and that sent me scurrying back in time. Back to 1981 in particular and the early 80s in general. For not only does this chapter deal with Casey the coach, but it also deals with Casey the rower and how our paths crossed as Skibbereen took a major step to recognition by the more established clubs.
In his youth, Dominic Casey played a bit of Gaelic football, but that changed in 1977 when he called into Skibbereen Rowing Club on his way home from GAA training and got bitten by the rowing bug. By 1980, he was in a settled crew, a novice four, that also contained his brother Stephen, Teddy O’Donovan (father and early coach to Garry and Paul), Lar Harrington and coxed by Liam Lupton. They had a good season, winning their Novice Pot at Cork and finishing fourth at the Irish Championships. The following year, they raced Senior C, and so did I for Carlow. I was 19 years old, and, at 60 kilos, the second heaviest in the crew. We were fast starters and loved a tailwind.
There were several competitive Senior C fours around in ’81. We won our home Head of the River, The Barrow Fours, in February, beating a Queen’s University, Belfast, crew by four seconds. The following week they beat us on the Lagan in Belfast. At our first regatta, Clonmel, we rowed Senior B and beat the Skibb boys, losing to the hosts in the final. In May, we all headed to Dublin’s Islandbridge to race at Trinity Regatta. And so, to chapter 22 of Something in the Water:
“Dominic was still out of breath. He was sitting in the boat, his heart thumping in his chest and his mind struggling to comprehend what had just happened. A man on the bank helped join the dots.
I never thought I’d see the day that Skibbereen would beat Queen’s, he shouted.
It clicked. We won. WE WON!
This was their highlight.
The Trinity Regatta is a special day in the calendar, an annual regatta first held in 1886 at Islandbridge, on the Liffey River. It’s two-lane racing at its finest. One boat against another.
In the opening heat of the Senior C fours in May 1981 Skibbereen were two lengths down on UCD [University College, Dublin] early on and by the halfway mark they were still one and a half lengths back. But they dragged themselves back into contention and came up with a stunning three-quarter-length win. In their next race Carlow built up a one-length lead, but a powerful last 200 metres pushed Skibb over the line first.
It was a battle with the mighty Queen’s University, one of the country’s established powers in the final. The aristocrats against the farmers. Skibb won by three lengths. That was a big win. Up to then, they had no idea of where they stood. It showed them that they were good enough. Back home in Skibb, Nuala [Lupton, Liam’s mother and winner of Skibbereen’s first Irish championship in 1976] invited them all around to her home for a celebratory dinner. This win was worth savouring.”
At the end of the 1981 season, Dominic Casey turned to sculling and once he mastered the technique, he rose through the ranks, winning eight Irish Championships between 1983 and 1988. Along the way, he developed a rivalry with my fellow Carlovian, Seamus Keating. Over three pages, McCarthy tells the story of their relationship – fierce on the water but friendly off it. Both were in the Intermediate grade in 1983 and the championship final was a typical fly-and-die by Keating who knew that to stand a chance of beating Casey he would need clear water coming into the final 500m. With Casey two lengths astern at that point, the race looked done and dusted. Not so. A huge effort, physically and mentally, by the Skibb sculler saw him catch and then pass Keating to take the ‘pot’, Skibbereen’s second Irish Championship.
I contacted Seamus, AKA ‘Buster’, to see if he knew about his new-found fame and he gave me his version of Casey v Keating – 1983 Intermediate (combined Senior B and C) Championship final and beyond:
“I could always hold him off to the 1,500m mark; then would come the same finish that he gave the boys [the O’Donovan brothers]. The Intermediate Championships in Athlone were over 1,800m, and I was a complete underdog. I was at my fittest and after getting to the final, I thought I was in with a chance. It was the last race of the day and all the safety launches were coming down behind the race. Every one of them was shouting for Buster. But again, he got me in the last 500m.
Two weeks later, we did the end of season trip to Killarney/Bantry/Skibbereen; Whitney, Shaw [RIP], Stix Hurley and me. On day one, we had a piss-up in Killarney. I hammered Casey over 500m in Bantry followed by a bigger piss-up. I woke up the next morning and drank a large bottle of Smithwick’s Ale that I found outside the tent. We drove to Skibbereen where we managed to get into a pub at 11 A.M. and drank two pints of lager before making our way down to the regatta. I was yahooing on the way to the start; I had Casey on one side and another pretty fast Skibbereen sculler on the other. I intended to give it hell with the expectation of not getting far before capsizing. To my amazement, I got three lengths off the start and kept going; with it being 1,200m I managed to win. Stix was heard to say: Is Buster winning, no way, I think I’ll go back sculling myself. We then headed to the nearest pub and continued to get blotto. Eventually getting thrown out for yahooing too much about beating Casey.”
We had a great mutual respect and friendship over our years of rivalry. That’s a true version.”
You can read an extract (prologue and chapter 1) of Something in the Water by following this link and buy a copy on Rowing Ireland’s shop page, ‘Green Blades’.