Cloisim an Bád ag Canadh / I Hear the Boat Sing

23 August 2022

By Greg Denieffe

Greg Denieffe goes back to school.

I doubt I am the only HTBS type that notices when rowing is used in unusual settings. Recently, I spotted rowing in the background of the 1976 film, All the President’s Men. Advertisements for financial products are a reliable source of hits and of course, cartoonists have had open goals in depicting politicians of late, rowing and sculling themselves into trouble.

My latest craze started when I found an old schoolbook belonging to my niece that used rowing in a lesson teaching Irish to primary school students. To misquote Sherlock Holmes: the game was afoot; could I find further use of rowing in an Irish language (Gaeilge) or a peculiarly Irish setting?

Bunscoil – Primary / Elementary School

The beginning of Lesson 5 from the 1976 exercise book ‘Táim ag obair 2’ by Fearghus Mac Domhanaill (publisher: Ó Fallúin).

In the above lesson, the boat begins to sink with the translation for this is being ‘ag dul go tóin.’ This amused me because I know that English speakers with no knowledge of Irish may recognise the saying Póg mo thóin, which does not mean kiss my ass. The literal translation for ‘Ag dul go thóin’ is ‘going to the bottom.’ Póg mo tóin, correctly translated, ends in a four-letter word rhyming with farce. Infamous Irish folk-punk band, The Pogues, originally called themselves Pogue Mahone, the phonetic pronunciation of Póg mo thóin, but they were persuaded to shorten their name to The Pogues, partly due to BBC censorship following complaints from Gaelic speakers in Scotland.

Meánscoil – Secondary / High School

My experience of primary school is that your teacher taught you all subjects, and you stayed in the same classroom, day after day, for the academic year. In secondary school, you graduated to different teachers for each subject, with the teachers staying in ‘their’ classroom and the students moving between the rooms as the timetable dictated.

Ábhar I / Subject I – Religious Education: A reading from the Book of Proverbs.

Rowing is the ultimate team sport and naturally there is an Irish proverb that recognises that fact. Similar to ‘There is no I in team’ and ‘Teamwork makes the dream work’, Ní bhfogfaidh an bád má dhéanann gach iomróir a rogha rud translates as ‘The boat will not move if each rower does their own thing.’

Picture GLP

A second Irish proverb, and certainly a much older one, pokes fun at some people’s lack of common sense. Is maith Dia, ach ná dean rince i naomhóg translates as ‘God is good, but don’t (do a) dance in a naomhóg.’ Naomhóg is the name given to the type of currach (Irish: curach) used by coastal communities in counties Cork and Kerry in the south-west of Ireland. Currachs (Irish: Curachaí) differ from each other around the provinces. Naomhógs (Irish: Naomhóga) are slightly longer than the currachs used in Connacht, in the west of Ireland.

Picture GLP

There is an Irish saying, not a proverb per se, that uses the Irish word for oars (‘madaí rámha’ or simply ‘madaí’) out of literal context. In English, you may ‘rest on your laurels’ or ‘sit back and relax.’ In Irish, these sentiments would be conveyed by using: ‘Lig na madaí le sruth’ (Let the oars go with the flow). This saying is also used in the negative – ‘Ná lig na madaí le sruth’ (Don’t let etc.) or to convey failure – ‘Lig sí madaí le sruth’ (She let etc.).

Ábhar II / Subject II – History: (Sing) a little bit of these workingman’s blues.

The Decade of Centenaries, remembering the years 1912 to 1923, is almost over. It recalls the momentous historical events that began with Home Rule legislation for Ireland and ended with former comrades fighting each other in a bloody civil war caused by a split over the Anglo-Irish Treaty that divided Ireland into two political jurisdictions.

James ‘Jim’ Larkin, founder of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU) knew that it didn’t matter who was in power in Ireland, the plight of workers wouldn’t change. This point was illustrated on the front page of the ITGWU’s weekly newspaper, The Voice of Labour (1921 – 1927) on 20 January 1923. There is more about Larkin on HTBS – Serendipity Strikes Again deals with the 1913 Lockout in response to a general strike in Dublin. The Lockout and the use of Scabs eventually broke the strikers. It will come as no surprise that the leader of the Lockout, William Martin Murphy, was a newspaper publisher and a British MP. There are similarities to the current industrial actions taking place in Britain, particularly in the rail sector where the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) have a fine negotiator in General Secretary, Mick Lynch, whose parents are Irish. The right-wing press demonises the workers and their leaders whilst MPs are falling over themselves to see which of them can be the most vicious critic of modern-day industrial action.

‘This has no reference to current events in Ireland England – perhaps.’
The Voice of Labour, official publication of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, 20 January 1923.

Ábhar III / Subject III – Poetry: Lost in translation.

Máirtín O Díreáin (1910 – 1988) has been called “Ireland’s unacknowledged poet Laureate”. His poems, most of which were inspired by life on the Aran Islands, were written in Irish, but many have been translated into English. In 1957, he published a poem, “Cranna Foirtil”, usually translated as Strong Oars. Here is the original final verse and a translation that brings to mind the last line of The Great Gatsby: So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Luigh ar do chranna foirtil / I gcoinne mallmhuir is díthrá, / Coigil aithinne d’aislinge, / Scaradh léi is éag duit.

Lean upon your own strong oars / against low ebb and neap tide. / Keep your spark, your vision burning; / part with it, and you die. Translation by Frank Sewell.

Ireland’s Ambassador to the USA, Daniel Mulhall, tweeted a different interpretation (or a different poem?) of O Díreáin’s for #PoetryDayIRL.

Lean upon your own strong oars! / What else could I do / since the bright thread vanished / from your love forever?

Between F Scott Fitzgerald and O Díreáin, we can move forward whilst looking back, but before we do, let me introduce you to one of Ireland’s most eccentric poets: Pat Ingoldsby. He will be eighty years old this month (August 2022) and was a children’s television presenter when I was still in short trousers. I met him on the streets of Dublin in 1986 and he signed a wonderful dedication to me in his collection, Welcome to My Head (Please Remove Your Boots).

I enjoy his observational poetry, like this one from Hitting Cows with a Banjo (2011):

I Love the Going Up and Down.

There is a beautiful moment / when you step into a rowing boat / and suddenly, itself and the water / are working things out / coming to a new arrangement / up and down, / side to side, / while you stand still / and wait for them / to settle.

Ábhar IV/Subject IV – Geography: Flow on lovely river.

County Kilkenny, my father’s birthplace, and famous for hurling and camogie, is defined by the Three Sisters. They are the three rivers that flow gently along until they meet and then empty into the sea around Passage East. The River Barrow forms the eastern border of the county and the River Suir, the southern one. Down the centre, and through the county town – also called Kilkenny – flows the River Nore. In the southeast of the county, between the Nore and the Barrow, sits a small village called An Robhar. Its Anglicised name is The Rower because of how it sounds and not its true meaning, which is ‘flood/spring tide’. The village sign offers HTBS types a photographic opportunity if they are ever in the vicinity.

It should have been me (it is on my bucket list).

Ábhar V / Subject V – Art: It’s a great art, is rowing. It’s the finest art there is. It’s a symphony of motion.

Oscar Wilde held that a true artist takes no notice whatsoever of the public. If you look at street art in Ireland, you will find examples that support Wilde’s opinion and examples that would not exist except for the public attention sought by the artist.

Pop Art or Pop-Up Art? This small mural appeared in Dublin in March 2022, the day before the Colours Races between Dublin University and University College, Dublin.

John Gilroy, the creator of many of Guinness’s most famous advertising posters, had pieces rejected by the company, who clearly took notice of what the public thought. I feel that they got it wrong when they rejected this development sketch.

A watercolour of a Guinness advertisement which was not taken up by the company. Does the casual lettering read: ‘I feel like a Guinness’?
Never throw away a good Idea. Furlong’s Public House, AKA The New Geneva, looks like an interesting place to enjoy a pint of the black stuff. As it is located in Passage East, you could combine a visit with one to The Rower.
This mural of a traditional naomhóg graces the sidewall wall of Nelliefreds in Dingle, County Kerry.

Ollscoil – University

When you are a child in primary and secondary schools, you behave like a child. When you move into third-level education, you put away your childish ways and behave like an adult.

Yeah, right!

Pogue Mahone even.

Be warned – what follows is PG-18.

The Young Rajah, a silent film from a century ago starring Rudolph Valentino, made its HTBS debut in 2014 in a piece called The Forgotten Rowing Movie with Heartthrob Rudolph Valentino. As a footnote to the piece, Göran Buckhorn introduced readers to the term ‘Rummel’, the standout feature of the promotional photograph of Valentino in the lead role, playing Harvard stroke, Amos Judd.

Rudolph Valentino in The Young Rajah (1922).

Valentino‘s Irish connections only extend as far as marrying the Salt Lake City born daughter of an Irish New Yorker, Michael Shaughnessy. His marriage to Natacha Rambova (born Winifred Kimball Shaughnessy) was short and initially bigamous, and Valentino was jailed briefly for the offence. They married legally in 1923, divorced in 1925, and Valentino died the following year, aged 31. Rambova worked on The Young Rajah in the costume department but cannot be blamed for the revealing rowing shorts – see above – because her job was to design the authentic Indian costumes.

Forsaking Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians 13:11 (the bit about maturing from a boy to a man) for a moment but still keeping an academic interest in bilingual endeavours, we Irish have a seanfhocail (old saying) for Amos Judd (1922) and Henrik Rummel (2012) and other ‘victims’ of the paparazzi:

Níl aon rud níos measa ná bod ina sheasamh.

As Terry Wogan might have said in his Blankety Blank days – There’s nothing worse than a standing BLANK.


  1. A few years ago, I took part in an historical walking tour of Dublin led by an academic from Trinity College, Dublin. Apart from upsetting the (Irish) Americans on the tour by informing us that many who fought for Irish freedom were also socialists, our tour guide also noted that, in the 1920s, the new government of the Irish Free State was very keen to establish Irish as the language of the country and strongly encouraged state employees in particular to learn it. However the result was that, “They almost encouraged it out of existence”. The academic suggested that the best way to get the contrary Irish to lean their native language would have been for the government to ban it. Sláinte.

  2. Great article, especially as I am a rower and London Irish. YouTube has a very good VT of “Curragh racing on the Thames 1988”.
    This took place at AKRC in Hammersmith when I was a member there and with which I was involved. Watch it to the end for some exciting rowing – lots of leaning back at the finish!

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