By Kieran McCarthy
SEAN O’Brien has many claims to fame, the latest being he upstaged rising Irish band Riptide Movement at Áras an Uachtaráin last Saturday week.
Yet again, Skibbereen Rowing Club was centre stage on the big occasion.
This time it wasn’t because of Paul O’Donovan or Gary O’Donovan or Denise Walsh or Shane O’Driscoll or Mark O’Donovan or because another gold medal was rowing its way to the clubhouse nestled outside Skibbereen town.
This time it was club captain Seanie O’Brien who stood tall in the spotlight, his beautiful rendition of ‘Dear Old Skibbereen’ striking a chord with all who had packed into the State Reception room at Áras on Uachtaráin, spilling into both the State Dining Room and the Francini Corridor.
With Sean’s home audience joining in, this felt more like The Corner Bar in Skibb on a busy Saturday night than the Irish President’s residence in Phoenix Park.
Skibb invaded Áras on Uachtaráin last Saturday for a memorable evening as, and in President Higgin’s own words, ‘the historic achievements of an extraordinary club’ were honoured.
Last Saturday was about a club that is more than just a club.
Skibbereen RC is part of the fabric of its townland, it’s part of the people involved and part of the heritage of the area, with President Higgins noting, ‘We were people of the sea and all of our beginnings, I once wrote in a poem, were “sea beginnings”.’
Coach Dominic Casey has been surrounded by water all his life. He came from ‘sea beginnings’, his father, also Dominic, was a man of the water, a great boatman, well remembered for driving a sand boat up and down the River Ilen and, we’re told, ‘a mighty man to move cattle from the island to the mainland’.
The lineage is there.
Dominic has spoken before of his memories of watching the famous Crowleys from Ardralla training on the River Ilen for local regattas, which his family would all go to on a Sunday afternoon.
The tradition is there also.
This was never a case of one man joining a local sports club, the heritage is engrained in his DNA, water and boats are part of who he is.
There’s a history and deep attachment locally to the water and to boats.
That’s why Skibbereen Rowing Club is more than just a club for the people involved. It’s who they are.
It’s also why last Saturday in Áras an Uachtaráin was an historic and memorable occasion for the people who have shaped and moulded this club into its current standing as the most successful rowing club in the country. It felt like a family reunion.
That’s why this historic reception was for the men who started it all, the founding members, Donie Fitzgerald, Richard Hosford and Danny Murphy.
This was for the Skibbereen athletes who have competed at world championship and Olympic levels and who’ve helped the club win its record 170 national titles. To that end, all those were invited to last Saturday’s event. That’s Denise, Gary, Paul, Shane, Mark, John Whooley, Justin Ryan, Brian O’Mahony, Bernadette Walsh, James Lupton, Ross O’Donovan, Gráinne O’Donovan, Tim Harnedy, Eugene Coakley, Richard Coakley, Kenneth McCarthy, Paul O’Sullivan, Ciarán Hayes, Orla Hayes, Emily Hegarty, Aoife Casey, Fintan McCarthy, Jake McCarthy and Paddy Hegarty. And when some of them couldn’t attend they asked their parents to represent them.
This was also for, as Gary O’Donovan said, the people who have made this all possible, those behind the scenes whose work goes unnoticed to the outside world looking in and who only see the end results, not what’s led to Skibb supplying the world’s and the country’s top rowers.
‘We always say that we could never do what we do unless the doors of the rowing club were open,’ Gary explained.
‘I have often said it goes deeper than the people who are directly involved in the rowing club.
‘This is one of these special days where you get to show those people what they have done is worthwhile and important.’
This runs deep.
It’s a community that has pulled together to achieve extraordinary feats that has put Lisheen, Aughadown and Skibbereen on the world map.
During President Higgins’ recent State visit to Australia and New Zealand, he was in Melbourne, a city of nearly four million people. He looked out over a section of the Yarra, a 150-mile long river that is home to six rowing clubhouses.
President Higgins’ thought of Skibbereen and its townlands, an area of 11,000 people, and the River Ilen, 21 miles long, yet, he says, ‘for all their advantages, the rowing clubs of Melbourne returned the same number of medals as Skibbereen for its country in the recent Olympic Games.’
It’s becoming the norm but we can’t take for granted Skibbereen Rowing Club’s amazing success, how it has raised world champions and Olympic medallists because this just didn’t happen on its own, it’s the result of the people, the area, tradition, history, as well as the athletes’ own talent, commitment and perseverance.
This club has showed what can happen when a community pulls together with a dedication to a common purpose.
There’s a lesson there for all sports clubs.
It’s also why Skibbereen Rowing Club is more than just a club – and now Michael D Higgins has given the club his presidential seal of approval, a huge honour for this tightknit family.
• Skibbereen RC is hosting its annual Head of the River on the marina in Cork City this weekend. There is a large entry of 385 crews, which is 100 more than last year’s entry.