30 November 2021
By Greg Denieffe
Greg Denieffe finds himself guilty.
Ten months ago, I thought I had exhausted my research into the rowing exploits of Michael Dillon and was quietly pleased with the resultant article: The Curious Case of Doctor Dillon.
Oscar Wilde believed that “Most modern calendars mar the sweet simplicity of our lives by reminding us that each day that passes is the anniversary of some perfectly uninteresting event”. I disagree with ‘Grey Crow’, as he hated to be called, and perhaps he would change his mind if he were to return and read today’s HTBS tale.
Recently, I was scrolling through photographs on my smartphone, looking back at pictures from the same day over the years (my daughters love to see what they looked like, back in the days). I landed on 13 November 2016 and knew immediately what I had to do. So here I am, pleading guilty to gross forgetfulness of the first degree.
Quoting myself from a caption below a picture of Dillon [see above] in the original article:
Michael Dillon standing next to another man who appears to be holding an oar. On close examination, I believe that this is Michael wearing Neptune R. C. kit from the 1949/1950 era. In 1947 and 1948, Neptune wore a kit with a round neck with no buttons.
There, on my phone, were two photographs of Neptune R. C. crews. Two random captures that had caught my eye: both worthy of further investigation in the future and since forgotten about. One of them was the full photograph from which Michael Dillon in Neptune R. C. kit had been cropped. I was thrilled to find it again and decided to come clean on HTBS and dig up a little provenance by way of contrition.
Don’t you just love the internet. Within minutes of beginning my penitential research, I found the website: Out in the World, a site dedicated to Irish LGBTQ+ people who have emigrated and found opportunities to live and love abroad. In addition, it links to an exhibition by the same name which is now on show at EPIC (The Irish Emigration Museum in Dublin) until 31 December 2021.
One of the twelve individual stories in the exhibition is that of Michael Dillon and it includes a snippet on his involvement with Neptune R. C. The two photographs you can see on the site are the same two I have on my phone and with the help of Michael Keegan, son of Michael Keegan, a member of both the 1949 and 1950 crews, we now know the full story behind the picture:
My late father (Michael b.1928, who happens to have done his B Comm in TCD) was a member of the Neptune Rowing Club elite senior eights crew that won at most regattas nationally in 1950/1951. I was recently going through a few papers and happened upon a photo of that crew with their spoils of victory, attached. With it, however, were there newspaper articles about Mr Dillon […] It wasn’t at all clear why the articles resided with the photograph until I uncovered a second photo (“Irish Press”), of the Neptune BC crew, on the banks of the Lee, having won the Leander Cup in 1949. It was quite a surprise to read the names of the oarsmen featuring in the 1949 crew. Michael Dillon is on the extreme left.
The Leander Grand Challenge Cup (more a trophy than a cup) is historically one of the top events in the Irish rowing calendar. It is for men’s senior eights and is certainly one of the country’s top four events for this class of crew. The trophy is a wonderful silver galleon that Leander Club presented to Cork Regatta following its successful trips to the International Regattas of 1902 and 1903.
In 1949, Cork Regatta was held on Saturday 23 July and the race for the ‘Leander’ was a straight final. Five crews: University College Dublin B. C., Athlunkard B. C., Limerick B. C., Neptune R. C., and Cork B. C., lined up across the one-and-a-quarter mile (c.2,000m) downstream course on the River Lee in Cork City. Neptune finished ahead of U.C.D., who were second, and Michael Dillon had won the biggest rowing prize of his life.
The second photograph is that of Neptune’s 1950 successful senior eight. Michael Dillon was the stroke of this crew and the club’s senior four at Trinity Regatta held in early June. Those two races appear to be his last in the sport. With a single change in rowing personnel, M. J. Moore coming into the crew to replace Dillon, Neptune won the senior eights at Cork, Dublin Metropolitan, Limerick, and Carrick-on-Shannon, and added the second senior fours at Metro for good measure.
I revisited Dillon’s posthumously published autobiography Out of the Ordinary (2017) and found an explanation for him being replaced in the crew [all sic]:
On Friday and Saturday nights the ambulance would bring in an assortment of drunks with various head injuries whom they had picked up off the streets after they had consumed their weeks pay.
[…] But what was resented most was been woken up for a toothache, which could have gone to the dentist and had not, or the extracted tooth that continue to bleed or the pain that “I’ve had for days doctor.” For we went to bed hopeful of a quiet night always.
Once I fell foul of my colleagues, two Belfast men and one Australian student, because they would come to bed at one in the morning and not put any restraint on the noise they made, shouting or singing as if it were day. In the fracas that followed I had my left elbow momentarily dislocated and the ulna nerve torn which necessitated two operations by “my marn” and added to the toll of Rooksdown with which I had not yet finished and also put an end to my rowing for that year.
The 1949 photograph is stamped ‘Irish Press Photo’, a reference to the daily newspaper The Irish Press. This publication, founded by Éamon de Valera, printed its first daily in 1931 and its last in 1995. It was strongly associated with the political party, Fianna Fáil, and at one stage printed a daily late edition, Evening Press, plus a Sunday edition. If sport was your thing, then the ‘Press’ was certainly an excellent choice. One of Ireland’s finest sportswriters, Con Houlihan, wrote for them, and his back-page column of the evening edition was, for the most part, a thing of beauty. When he died in 2012, The Irish Times called him “the greatest and the best-loved Irish sports journalist of all”.
The Irish Press is still remembered annually in the Irish sporting calendar. In 1949, they presented the Irish Press Cup, to the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) as a trophy for the winners of the All-Ireland Minor (now an u-17 competition) Hurling Championship final, a game traditionally played in Croke Park before the senior final.
Less well known, is that they also presented the Irish Amateur Rowing Union with The Irish Press Cup (actually, it was a small trophy) for an annual Inter-Provincial Rowing Championship. The four provinces of Ireland, Connacht, Leinster, Munster and Ulster, selected crews to race two semi-finals and a final, usually through the centre of Dublin. It lasted little more than a decade (1950 – 1960) and one day a more comprehensive history of this all but forgotten event will feature on HTBS.
Sadly, as Con Houlihan is no longer with us, that job will fall on me. I’m certain that Houlihan would be happy that the memory of his beloved newspaper was being kept alive. Even when he worked for their biggest rival, Irish Independent, The Irish Press was not far from his mind as you can read in My Dublin days of milk and brandy and papers past.