Tales of the Unexpected III – Bringing it all Back Home

17 May 2021

By Greg Denieffe

After 10 years on HTBS, Greg Denieffe accounts for how he caught the rowing collecting bug.


In the middle of the 19th century, there were private boathouses dotted along the Carlow stretch of the River Barrow. Most were on the town side and were owned by the Boake, Corcoran, Governey, Fitzmaurice and Clayton Browne families – all gentlemen amateur oarsmen. On the Graigue side of the river, the Foley family were also keen rowers.1.

On 5 April 1859, Mr F. Barnes presided at a meeting convened to establish a rowing club in Carlow. On 8 May 1859, the first meeting was held in the Corn Exchange to establish a regatta.2.

On 8 May 1860, a meeting of the subscribers of the Carlow Regatta Fund 1859 was held in the Corn Exchange and those present heard a report on the 1859 regatta and received a Statement of Accounts for the year.3.  Regattas were held infrequently thereafter, and the Rowing Club was not put on to a more formal footing until 10 years later.

The 1859 regatta was the catalyst that led to the formation of the Rowing Club in Carlow that we know today, but it was not the first regatta held locally. One was held in August 1856 in which there were three races, all, it would seem, for Pair Oared Wherries. The first race for the ‘Challenge Cup’ had two boats being: The Ripple, the property of Messrs. Haughton and Clowes and The Mayflower, the property of Messrs. M. & D. Foley, whose coxswain is recorded as Master R. Whelan. Despite a clash when the boats came to the turn at the buoy, it was deemed that the cup was fairly won by The Mayflower. Three boats entered the second race: The Ripple, The Guilt and The Mayflower, with the result unknown. Three boats also entered for the third race for ‘The Silver Oars’: The Dolphin, owned by Mr Foley and pulled by Messrs Brown & Foley, The Mayflower, pulled by Messrs M. & D. Foley and The Bluebell, pulled by Mr Whelan & W. Madden. The race was won by The Dolphin after The Bluebell ran foul of The Mayflower and capsized her. In a very generous sporting gesture Mr Foley, the owner of The Dolphin, presented ‘The Silver Oars’ to Master R. Whelan, the coxswain of the capsized boat, who had acquitted himself so well.4.

A presentation prize from one of the early regattas is held by Carlow County Museum. It was won by M. F. Barnes at the Carlow Regatta in 1868 and is a miniature kayak paddle presented for a canoe race.

Miniature paddle and silver shield from the 1868 Carlow Regatta. Picture: Carlow Museum.

Tangible Assets

The 1930s nearly saw the demise of the club. However, in 1952, after 20 years of pleasure boat rowing, Carlow Rowing Club reregistered with the Irish Amateur Rowing Union and once again joined the ranks of Irish racing clubs. They immediately resurrected the town regatta and recalled the splendid trophies that they had in storage. An added attraction for those young men joining the ranks was the travelling to and racing at regattas in nearby towns like New Ross, Waterford and Wexford.  

Some of the Carlow Regatta trophies on display at the 2018 regatta. Picture: Waterford Boat Club.

The regatta trophies with their original status (racing categories have changed several times over the years) include the following:

1867               The Championship of the Barrow              –              Senior Sculls

1878               The Ceatharlach [Catherloch] Cup             –              Confined Fours.

1901               Lord Rathdonnell Challenge Cup               –             Junior Fours

1901               The Barrow Challenge Cup                         –             Senior Fours

1927               The President’s Challenge Cup                   –              Maiden Fours

1955               The Clogrennane Challenge Cup                –              Maiden Eights

1956               Saint Molling’s Challenge Cup                    –              Schools Fours

1959              Centenary Challenge Cup                             –             Senior Eights

1966              The Thomas Nolan Challenge Cup             –             2nd Senior Fours

1969              The Bill Duggan Challenge Cup                   –             Cadet Eights

The first challenge cup was probably The Acton Cup, presented in 1860 by Sir John Acton MP for presentation at the regatta. The cup was taken away by its winner after the racing and never returned. In 1901 or 1902, a Carlow rowing man, a medical student, saw the cup in the window of a Dublin jeweller. It was not for sale and to this day, its fate remains a mystery. Sir John Acton was from an ancient Catholic family who originated in Shropshire, England. He was born in 1834 in Naples and educated in England. He was elected to the House of Commons in 1859 as MP for the Borough of Carlow and was a great admirer of and influence on Gladstone. John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, first Baron Acton (1834–1902) was a historian and moralist, who was otherwise known simply as Lord Acton. In a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887, he expressed this opinion: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”

Sir John Acton

The Rathdonnell Challenge Cup was presented to the club in 1901 by Lord Rathdonnell in memory of his son William (Billy) for competition at Carlow Regatta for Junior Fours. Thomas Leopold McClintock-Bunbury, 2nd Baron Rathdonnell (1849-1929) was an Irish Peer who sat in the House of Lords from 1889 to 1929 and served as Lord Lieutenant of County Carlow between 1890 and 1929. The family seat is Lisnavagh House in Rathvilly, County Carlow. The family originally came to County Carlow in 1669. Billy, was only 21 years old when he was killed in 1900 during the Second Boer War

When the Clogrennane Challenge Cup was presented by Michael Wall, it made the news in The Irish Times of 19 March 1955: “Maiden eight crews will have a new trophy at the annual Carlow Regatta on June 16 next. It is the Carlow Citizen’s Cup. This is the centenary year of the Carlow Rowing Club”. 5. One can only speculate as to why the name of the cup was changed – an early example of sponsorship perhaps and in my opinion, an opportunity missed to honour the changing social status of the club’s membership and town folk who supported it.

In 1959, the Centenary Challenge Cup was presented by W. L. Duggan in memory of his father John J. Duggan. Both men served long periods as club president. W. L. (Bill) Duggan had a cup presented in his honour 10 years later and several of the sub-tales in this reminisce involve him.  

In 1967, the club was delighted to be presented with a sculling trophy, The Championship of the Barrow, which was missing for one hundred years. It was returned by a priest, Fr. Francis Murphy, who “discovered” it in England, and it is now offered for competition again each year. It was originally raced for at the 1867 regatta and was not returned and presumed lost forever. In 1867, it was won by George Bourke and Fr. Murphy, his grandson, being a man of the cloth, returned it in person. It now has an additional name, The Bourke-Murphy Cup, linking two great men who may prove the exception to Lord Acton’s opinion.

The return of The Championship of the Barrow trophy in 1967. Fr. Francis Murphy travelled over from England to return the silver cup at a reception in The Royal Hotel, Carlow. L to R: Peadar Doyle, Fr. John Fingleton, William L. Duggan, Joe Culleton, Robin James, Fr. Francis Murphy, Paul Lyons and Frank Kavanagh. Picture: Paul Lyons.

The Perpetual trophies are still presented at Carlow Regatta. However, the winning clubs are not allowed to take their bounty home with them, but the trophies continue to serve as a tangible reminder of the Club’s past. When the Club hit financial hardship in the 1930s, they were the only valuables left and cashing them in was considered. The Club owes a great debt to those who made the brave decision not to sell.

Return on Investment

My earliest memories of Carlow Rowing Club go back to the early 1960s, when, as a young child growing up in Little Barrack Street, I was surrounded by rowing trophies of all shapes and sizes. To tell the truth, the weekly cleaning of them made sure I would either love or loath rowing history and memorabilia. The biggest trophy to find its way to our house was The Metropolitan Sculler’s Shield from Dublin Metropolitan Regatta (Junior Sculls), which stood in front of our fireplace in 1968. It made a fabulous fireguard. Rest assured, we never lit a fire, and it too received a weekly clean.

Metropolitan Sculler’s Shield

I have two earlier memories of Carlow Rowing Club. I was no more than 6 or 7 years old when I was a “passenger” in Anthony Dooley’s single scull for a trip from the clubhouse to the weir upstream of Bestfield Lock. I sat at front stops, my feet between the clogs on the footplate (risk assessments and Health & Safety officers had yet to be invented) as we glided along; I had no fear and never have, in and around boats.

A familiar sight for many years at Carlow Regatta was Mr Duggan’s Boat. I spent many a regatta getting in everyone’s way aboard her when she was moored at the regatta start. She served as the starters HQ and from which Mr Duggan would announce to the crews as they lined up on the stake boats: “The order of the start shall be – I will ask you once if you are ready and if I receive no reply, I shall say go”. If only I had a punt/euro for every time I heard that. As added excitement, Mr Duggan (W.L.D.) would take me with him in his Mini as he umpired the second half of races from the Bishop’s Steps to the finish. On one such occasion at the 1967 regatta, W.L.D. was manoeuvring the car in readiness for the next race and with me in the back and blissfully unaware of the difficulty of three-point turning on the Barrow Track we slipped rear end first into the river. As luck would have it, the wire for the communication system got caught around the car delaying the inevitable. In an instant, the car was heaved back on to the track by some rowers from Queen’s University Belfast. Years later, I found out that one of the rescuers was John Martin, Captain of Queen’s Boat Club. Mr Duggan affectionately referred to him as the “Moderator’s Son”. He would later become a Judge and retain an interest in rowing becoming a FISA umpire, officiating at the 1980 Olympic Regatta in Moscow. 6.  

To be fair to Queen’s, they did owe Carlow a favour. In 1955, Carlow had one of their greatest victories; it occurred at Dublin Metropolitan Regatta on the Islandbridge course. The crew of Mick Bolger (Bow), Eamon Stafford (2), Harry Griffiths (3), Maurice Dowling (Stroke) and Joe Fenlon (Coxswain) won the Metropolitan Grand Challenge Cup – the Blue Ribband of Irish Rowing – in their new fine boat: The Pádraig. That is the only time that this cup has been won by Carlow but The Pádraig crossed the finish line first in the event on two occasions. In 1965, Queen’s lost their best boat when their trailer was involved in an accident. They used The Pádraig at several regattas that season, winning the Blue Ribband in Blessington. Dublin Metropolitan Regatta dates to 1869 and from its beginning the principal event was for four-oared racing gigs. For the first regatta, the Metropolitan Cup was purchased for £100 which in today money would be about £9,000. It was won outright by Cork Harbour Rowing Club, and for the following year’s regatta an even grander Grand Challenge Cup was presented, and this was the cup that Carlow claimed in 1955 and with it the title of Ireland’s premier crew. Remarkably, the club went from hiring out pleasure boats to having one of the best crews on Irish waters in little more than three years.

Metropolitan Grand Challenge Cup

It was one thing to spend the day in Mr Duggan’s boat when it was moored at the regatta, but it was something else to be a passenger (and galley assistant) when in February 1973 the Club rowed the twenty-nine miles between Saint Mullins and Waterford. The marathon row was organised as a fundraiser to assist in the purchase of a new four for the club’s senior crew. The day and the fundraising were a great success and shortly after, the new wooden boat, The Spirit of Carlow, arrived from Italy. It was a beautiful boat, but it was no Pádraig, a boat that had served the Club for nearly two decades.

“Soup and sambos” – a refuelling break during the 1973 marathon fund raising row. The crew from bow to stern [E&OE]: Noel Hurley, Seán Kane, Mick Lacey, Anthony Dooley, Denis Whitney, Pat Walsh, Dessie Whitty, Kieran Kennedy and Peadar Doyle.

I suppose it was inevitable that I would take up an oar and when the club began a drive for new and younger members for the 1973 season, I answered the call. I was 11 years old and weighed about eight stone. Most of the lads that joined at that time were of a similar age. The lowest age category was for under 15s, at the time called “cadet” and we were never going to beat boys three or four years older than us, so the club invented an event for that year’s regatta – “Mini-Cadet 4”. I didn’t win it.

The 1973 Cadets – L to R: Eugene Travers, Tom Snoddy, Paul Donohue, Davy Molloy, Larry Nolan, Greg Denieffe, Tom Regan, Joe Travers, Andy Williamson, Gordon Molloy, David Donohue, Pat Snoddy.

The following year, I started steering as well as rowing and ended up coxing the club’s Maiden (now Novice) four and excitingly, that included travelling to away regattas. The highlight of the season was our performance at our home regatta when incredibly, 22 crews entered the Maiden Fours event and we reached the final, winning four rounds, only to lose to an outstanding Athlone Boat Club crew that went on to win the Irish Championship at Metro. I even got my photo in the local newspaper.

Carlow R. C. Maiden 4 at the 1974 Carlow Regatta – L to R: Greg Denieffe (Cox), Jimmy O’Neill (Stroke), Mick Whitney (3), Mick Lacey (2), Pat Walsh (Coach) and Noel Hurley (Bow).

In 1975, the men’s squad was large enough to require the services of three coxes and so I continued pulling on the tiller strings until the beginning of summer when the squad lost a few bodies and three coxes into two seats no longer fit. I rowed on for another year as a colt (under 16) before deciding in the autumn of ’76 that I would concentrate on playing hurling in an effort to make the school team. Most of what I collected during this period would be classed as ephemera and of no value if offered for sale. But to me, each and every programme, newspaper cutting and photograph is intrinsically linked with good memories. The clash of the ash was calling, and I didn’t get back in a boat until January 1979. A tale for another time perhaps.


  1. Carloviana Vol.1, New series, No 1 Dec 1952 ‘Oars on the Feather’ [Source – Dan Fenlon’s scrapbook].
  2. Ibid.
  3. Minutes in the possession of Carlow Rowing Club.
  4. Carloviana Vol.1, New series, No 8 Dec 1959 ‘Rivals & Revels on the River’.
  5. The Irish Times, Saturday 19 March 1955, page 22.
  6. Telephone conversation with HH Judge John Martin QC 23 December 2009.

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