28 July 2020
By Greg Denieffe
Here HTBS continues with another article in its show-and-tell mini-series. Greg Denieffe presents a silver medal dated June 1861 from Catholic University of Ireland Rowing Club.
I purchased this un-hallmarked medal in August 2008 thinking that I would have some fun finding out about a club that I had previously never heard of, and about a university that had barely registered with me. My not insignificant efforts to discover more about the club or the crew has not unearthed a single piece of additional information than what is engraved on the medal itself. In truth, no matter how hard I strained at the oars, the wind was against me.*
The medal weighs 35 grams and the seller had it professionally troy tested in three different areas, and each indicated sterling silver. The obverse is engraved with a Celtic High Cross and the motto SEDES SAPIENTIÆ surrounded by a garland of shamrocks. The reverse identifies the club and its crew and dates the medal to June 1861.
University education in Ireland between 1592 and 1845 was the sole preserve of The University of Dublin and its single constituent college, Trinity College. Rowing amongst undergraduates and associates began there in 1836 and in various guises, they dominated rowing in Ireland for much of the next century. Catholics were permitted to study there from the 1780s, with further restrictions removed in the 1870s. However, the Hierarchy of the Catholic Church refused to allow its flock to attend.
The Government addressed this in 1850 by founding the Queen’s University of Ireland by amalgamating three existing Queen’s Colleges: Belfast, Cork, and Galway (all founded in 1845), as a non-secular university. This did not satisfy the Church leaders and in 1851, they established the Catholic University of Ireland, a private university that opened its doors to students in 1854 under the leadership of John Henry Newman, a convert from the Church of England and a future Cardinal.
Seventeen students attended the first lectures in 1854 but as a private university without a royal charter it could not award degrees. Newman left the university in 1857 believing its purpose was just a political weapon to be used against the Queen’s University. Following his departure, the university declined rapidly and in 1879 only three students registered.
In 1880, the Royal University of Ireland was founded as a degree-awarding institution whose exams could be taken by anyone including those who attended other educational establishments. This notable change prompted the Catholic University to reinvent itself as University College, Dublin, and immediately its downward spiral was reversed.
A further reorganisation of third-level education in 1908 (The 1908 Irish Universities Act) dissolved the Royal University and raised the Queen’s College, Belfast, to university status whilst the two remaining Queen’s Colleges at Cork and Galway together with University College, Dublin, became the National University of Ireland with three constituent colleges: University College, Cork; University College, Dublin (UCD); and University College, Galway. All three now have strong rowing clubs.
UCD began its rowing life in 1917 when students formed UCD Rowing Club boating out of Commercial Rowing Club in Ringsend. As it expanded, the fledgling club moved next door into Dolphin Rowing Club (1919), joined the I.A.R.U. in 1922 and in 1926 it changed its name to UCD Boat Club. In 1928, they joined the exodus to Islandbridge.
UCD Boat Club celebrated it centenary in 2017 but through a complicated timeline the College itself can trace its rowing history back to 1861.
* See Mark 6.48 (NIV)