6 September 2021
By Greg Denieffe
Greg Denieffe watched Ireland’s rowers in action in Tokyo and finds that winning is better than not winning but feels that getting to compete in the Olympic Games is a victory in itself.
Níl aon tintéan mar do thintéan féin – There’s no fireplace like your own.
The loneliness of the immigrant is complicated and felt most at times of national rejoicing in their homeland. As Clifford T. Ward sings in his 1973 hit, ‘Home Thoughts From Abroad’: I’ve chosen aeroplanes and boats to come between us. This, I have done, and consequently, missed out on the celebrations that follow Ireland’s international sporting victories. These celebrations range from getting together to watch the action live, rejoicing the successes and drowning the losses in equal measure, the homecomings, and of course, the memories.
The COVID Games did not allow us rowing types to go ‘all-out’ in celebrating the way we would have liked. Watching rowing on an iPad, live from Tokyo Bay during the small hours of the morning, is not as glamourous as it seems. But I did it for two nights/mornings, saw some historic rowing and made do with Twitter updates for races not broadcast live.
Results, race reports and further ‘informed’ comments have had extensive coverage on websites and social media platforms, so I won’t remark too much and those aspects of the Games, other than say whoever thought that holding the most important rowing event in the world on that course should be locked up.
One aspect of Irish sport that is remarkable is the community involvement. The smaller the community, the stronger the link between the competitors and their neighbours and supporters. This translates into a huge volunteer effort and buy-in to the clubs, especially the GAA clubs, but we see the same thing in the rowing clubs up and down the country. Everyone on the Irish rowing team in Tokyo comes from somewhere local with its own community, and as those wise proverb writers in Africa know, it takes a village.
During the severest time of the COVID lockdown in Ireland, messages on TV screens advised people to Fan Slán (Stay Safe) or Fan sa Chóngar (Stay Nearby or Stay Local). Government guidelines asked people to stay at home and only leave to go grocery shopping and exercise. How far could you go from home? Why, two kilometres of course!
An rud is annamh is iontach – What is seldom seen is wonderful.
After Gary and Paul O’Donovan won the silver medal in the Men’s Lightweight Double [LM2x] in Rio, Skibbereen saw celebrations that could never be repeated. Even if COVID-19 had not made an unwelcome appearance, that outpouring of emotion at a first Olympic rowing medal would have been impossible to recreate.
However, the two rowing medals won by Ireland in Tokyo, a Gold in LM2x and a Bronze in the Women’s Four [W4-], sparked joyous homecomings in Cork, Galway, and Dublin – the counties where the six athletes hail from, and as far as I know, still call home. Skibbereen, in County Cork, welcomed home Olympic Champions, Fintan McCarthy and Paul O’Donovan, and Olympic Bronze medallist, Emily Hegarty. Galway can now boast of two women with Olympic medals, Fiona Murtagh and Aifric Keogh; the fourth member of the women’s crew, Eimear Lambe is Dublin-born and bred. More importantly, she is from Cabra, an inner suburb on the north side of the city. Yes, even in a city, you have local communities.
Dinnseanchas – Lore of the place.
Skibbereen is a small town in West Cork in the province of Munster that is on the world map of rowing. Its name derives from the Irish name for the town, An Sciobairín, which means ‘a place frequented by scibs’. A scib was a ship or a boat and is related to the old Norse word for a boat – skip. In various Irish-English dictionaries dating to the 17th and 18th centuries, it is also translated as ‘skiff’. However old the name is, the land around this part of County Cork is older, and before 1600 AD was controlled by the Mac Carthaigh Riabhach clan, that’s the McCarthys in modern-day parlance. The McCarthys now have to share the limelight with the O’Donovans.
Hegarty, at 23 years old, is the youngest member of the women’s crew. She started her rowing career in 2009 and while the other three members of the Olympic four were winning a bronze medal at the 2020 European Championships, she was in the pair with Tara Hanlon, reaching the A final. This year she replaced Aileen Crowley in the four and Crowley paired up with Monika Dukarska for Tokyo, bringing the pair back together that had qualified the boat at the 2019 World Championships. Hanlon went to the Japan Regatta (so-called by Paul O’Donovan) as a reserve.
Hard to believe then, that Skibbereen Rowing Club, founded in 1970, is just over 50 years old. Harder to believe is that it has become the most successful rowing club in Ireland, as measured by championship wins. Hardest of all to believe is that it now has three Olympic medals, one of each hue, to its name.
De réir a chéile a thógtar na caisleáin – It takes time to build castles.
HTBS readers may not be familiar with the Irish W4- that won their place in Tokyo at the Final Olympic Qualification Regatta [FOQR], finished second in the 2021 European Rowing Championships, and then took the Bronze Medal in Tokyo. They have an average age of 25 and average rowing experience of 12 years; this crew has been a long-time work in progress. As a big fan of sweep rowing, it gladdens my heart that Ireland now has a first Olympic medal for women, for sweep and for a ‘big’ boat.
In County Galway, on the west coast in the province of Connacht, two small villages can boast Olympic success thanks to the women’s crew: Na Forbacha (Furbogh), population 300 and situated in An Gaeltacht, where Irish is the main language, is rightly proud of Aifric Keogh, as is Moycullen of Fiona Murtagh.
Keogh, a National University of Ireland, Galway [NUIG], and University College, Cork [UCC] graduate, is the most experienced of the crew, she started rowing in Coláiste Iognáid, Galway, in 2006 and has been a member of the High-Performance team for several years. Murtagh started rowing with Galway Rowing Club in 2009 and after finishing school in the Dominican College, Galway City, studied Science in NUIG for one year before transferring to Fordham University in New York. As well as the European medals (bronze in 2020 and silver in 2021), highlights include winning the Head of Charles with Fordham two years in a row.
The last but by no means least member of the crew is a Leinster woman and a proud Dubliner. Eimear Lambe already had ‘Olympic’ experience having raced the single at the 2014 Youth Olympics in Nanjing. She also had the motivation to go one better than her sister Claire, who went to Rio in 2016 and qualified for the A Final in the Lightweight Women’s Double Scull [LW2x]. The Lambe sisters began their rowing at Commercial Rowing Club. These four women had the honour of winning Ireland’s first medal in Tokyo, and they certainly benefited from the decision to postpone the Olympic Games by a year.
Ireland’s LW2x of Aoife Casey and Margaret Cremen also took advantage of the year’s postponement, grabbing the final qualification place at the FOQR and placing eight in Tokyo. One of the niceties of Rowing Ireland’s Team announcement for the Games was the inclusion of the names of the clubs where the athletes started rowing as well as their current club. Both Casey and Cremen are currently students at University College, Cork but began rowing at Skibbereen Rowing Club and Lee Rowing Club respectively. They sculled a wonderful race in the B Final. As both are only 22 years old, they can exploit lightweight rowing’s reprieve in Paris in 2024.
Ní huasal ná íseal ach thuas seal agus thíos seal – Neither noble nor lowly, but up for a while and down for a while.
Whether you like it or not, life is a rollercoaster – sometimes you’re up, sometimes not. Ireland’s three other crews, Sanita Pušpure in the Women’s Single (W1x), Ronan Byrne and Philip Doyle in the Men’s Double (M2x), and Aileen Crowley & Monika Dukarska in the Women’s Pair (W2-) had all raced magnificently in 2019 and qualified their respective boats for Tokyo at the World Championships. Before racing began, I thought that all three would make the A Finals and two would be on the podium. It was obvious from the heats that my optimism, something I’m not known for, was misplaced. In the end, all three boats ended up in the B Finals.
Pušpure won both her heat and quarter-final but came unstuck in the semis. She pulled out of the B final owing to illness and the Irish Examiner reported that she had not been feeling well for a number of days leading up to her semi-final. I have to admit that I felt heartbroken for her – a three-time Olympian, twice world champion and the one who has inspired the success of the Irish women’s rowing programme. Her club colours are those of Old Collegians Boat Club, Dublin, which is primarily for ex-members of University College Dublin Boat Club. Home is now the small town of Ballincollig, County Cork, not far from the National Rowing Centre.
The cruellest events of the Olympic Regatta must be the Eights and the Twos (Pairs and Doubles). One crew is eliminated after the repechages, and in Tokyo, that meant being sent home within 48 hours. There was no consolation semi-final or final to put things right; it was a simple case of ‘sayonara Tokyo’. Aileen Crowley and Monika Dukarska found themselves up against New Zealand, the hottest of favourites for the gold medal, in their heat of the W2-. In the repechage, they had to avoid finishing fourth (and last) to avoid elimination and they survived by beating China. They eventually finished fifth in the B final. Both women are from Killorglin, County Kerry. Well, at least from Killorglin Rowing Club, as Dukarska is from Poznań, Poland, and moved to Ireland 15 years ago. Poznań is famous for its international rowing course on Lake Malta, but it was not until she arrived in the Kingdom (nickname for County Kerry) that Dukarska sat in a racing boat. You can read how joining the local rowing club helped settle her into the local community here.
The men’s double scull of Ronan Byrne and Philip Doyle was the surprise crew of the 2019 World Championships, winning the silver medal, and impressed at the World Cup II Regatta in May 2021. Byrne, from Cork, and Doyle, from Banbridge, County Down (and the only Ulsterman on the rowing team), were seeded second behind the Chinese double (World Champions in 2019 and winners of that World Cup II event) and, thus, it appeared that their passage from heat to semi-final would be straightforward. Alas, they finished fourth and had to race the repechage the following day. They survived by finishing ahead of Czech Republic, but the writing was on the wall. There was no time to rediscover their form; last place in the semi-final was as much of a surprise as their silver medal in 2019.
I began by quoting Paul O’Donovan (winning is better than not winning) from when he was over in Henley with partner Fintan McCarthy adding the Double Sculls Challenge Cup to their Olympic Gold. By then, there had been a reworking by the Gift Grub team of the Christy Moore classic football song, ‘Joxer Goes to Stuttgart’ (1994) and ‘Joxer goes to Tokyo’ was aired on Today FM. I cannot see it having a general release but there is no greater honour in Ireland than having a song written about you. Listen to it here.
Let me end with one final proverb (as Gaeilge – in Irish): Ní neart go cur le chéile – There is no strength without unity. It is certainly a proverb for the times in which we find ourselves living. However, as ‘cur le chéile’ can also be roughly translated as ‘pull together’, it can translate as ‘There is no strength unless we pull together’, making it particularly appropriate for rowing and a rowing website like HTBS.
Footnote. The three manga images (LM2x, W4- and M2x) are from the Twitter accounts of the Irish Embassy in Japan (@IrishEmbJapan in Japanese and @IrishEmbJapanEN in English) and were the inspiration to use artwork as much as possible in this report – Arigatou gozaimashita.