18 October 2016

A walk by the Barrow in Carlow at
one of Ireland’s oldest rowing clubs

By the banks of the River Barrow at Carlow Rowing Club … one of the oldest rowing clubs in Ireland (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

During my visit to Carlow on Saturday [15 October 2016], I spent a few hours in the afternoon walking the banks of the River Barrow at Braganza, by the Wellington Bridge that links Carlow and Graiguecullen, and by Carlow Rowing Club at The Quay.

This is one of the oldest rowing clubs in Ireland, dating back to at least 1859. Carlow’s national oarsmen include Jimmy O’Neill, Niall O’Brien and Michael Nolan, who have represented Ireland at World Championships and international regattas. The River Barrow provided an excellent venue for a rowing club, but races and regattas had taken place in private boathouses long before the rowing club was established.

The Barrow is Ireland’s second longest river, with a length of 192 km. It is one of the ‘Three Sisters,’ along with Suir and the Nore. The source of the river is at Glenbarrow in the Slieve Bloom Mountains in Co Laois, and from there on its way to the sea in Waterford, the Barrow passes through Portarlington, Monasterevin, Athy, Carlow and Graiguecullen, Bagenalstown, Graiguenamanagh and New Ross.

The river forms a natural border on its right bank between Co Laois and Co Carlow and the Co Kilkenny and Co Waterford and, on its left bank between Co Carlow and Co Wexford. It is a major part of Ireland’s inland waterways network, providing an inland link between the port of Waterford and the Grand Canal, which in turn connects Dublin to the River Shannon.

There are three sections to the navigation: the tidal River Barrow, with 88 km of tidal river navigation; the non-tidal river navigation featuring 23 locks, continuing 66 km inland from the tidal limit at St Mullin’s to Athy; and the Barrow Line of the Grand Canal connecting to the river at Athy and continuing northwards for a further 45 km with nine locks, connecting to the mainline of the Grand Canal at Lowtown.

In 1703, the Irish House of Commons appointed a committee to bring in a bill to make the Barrow navigable. By 1800, the Barrow Track was completed between St Mullin’s and Athy, establishing a link to the Grand Canal.

There is much speculation of when and how many bridges were built at Carlow before the Wellington Bridge was built over 200 years ago in 1815 linking Carlow and Graigcullen. Although it is known locally as the Graiguecullen Bridge, this five-arched bridge was named in honour of the Dublin-born Duke of Wellington after he defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo that year.

Nearby Governey Square was also known as Wellington Square throughout the 19th century.

The bridge was built across a small island in the river and a house was built on the bridge in the 19th century house. For a time, this house was home to the Poor Clares, who later moved to a convent in Graiguecullen.

When the Poor Clares first came to Carlow, they lived a house built on Wellington Bridge spanning the River Barrow (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

For boats, this is the lowest bridge on the River Barrow, and for centuries it represented an important trading link for Carlow. By 1845, 88,000 tons of goods were being transported on the Barrow Navigation. The Grand Canal Company operated commercial boats up and down the Barrow until 1960.

There was has been a bridge at this river crossing since at least 1500. Later in the 16th century, the Lord Deputy, Sir Henry Sidney, built a replacement bridge.

By the 19th century, the River Barrow at this point was dotted with private boats and boathouses, whose owners pooled their resources for local races.

The club claims to date back to 1859, making it one of the oldest rowing clubs in Ireland. The earliest records date from 1860, and refer to a Carlow regatta in 1859. However, it is thought that boat races began long before that date, and the details of this regatta, the type of racing at it and the actual beginnings of the club are all matters of speculation. Carlow Rowing Club was founded in 1859, making it one of the oldest rowing clubs in Ireland.

The Deighton Memorial Hall … as the Corn Exchnage, it was the venue for the first meeting of Carlow Rowing Club (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The first meeting of what was known as the Carlow Regatta Yard took place in the Corn Exchange, now the Deighton Memorial Hall. It was described as a meeting of the subscribers to the 1859 Carlow Regatta Fund, and James Comerford of 11 Brown Street was among those who attended that early meeting. He was originally from Newtownbarry (Bunclody), Co Wexford, and was the father of Bishop Michael Comerford.

That date is now accepted as the founding date of Carlow Rowing Club. Others present at that early meeting in 1859 included James Bolger, P Bourke and Henry Boake. Darby Henry Cooper of Hanover House was elected Treasurer, and the next regatta was fixed for 18 July 1860. The first colours of the club were blue with white diagonal stripes, but these colours were changed later, and in 1902 the rules prescribed dark green.

Although the early regattas were not national events, the prize money was among the best in Ireland, amounting to £34.10.0 in 1861. The rowing races began at a point know as Sandy Hills, owned by Pat McDonald, and the course extended to the Old Graves. This remains part of the existing 1,500 metre course.

However, this regatta ran at a loss and all proceedings were abandoned until 1864. A regatta was held in 1864, with less valuable prizes and a reduced number of races. The committee did not meet again until 1867 and in the following year, the regatta took place at Cloydagh Pool, a few miles south of Carlow town. The prizes included two cups, the Carlow Challenge and Acton Cup, two gold rings, a breast pin for scullers and a silver paddle awarded to winners of a canoe race. This race was won by F Barnes, who became the first recorded captain of Carlow Rowing Club.

The Acton Cup was presented for this regatta by Sir John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton (1834-1902), later 1st Baron Acton, who was MP for Carlow (1859-1865). Acton is best known for his dictum, ‘Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.’

Ten years after the club was formed, it was agreed unanimously in March 1869 to put the club on a more formal footing. Meetings were held, rules were drawn up and the subscription was fixed at a sovereign, with an additional entrance fee of the same amount – this fee did not change until 1948. Hugh Doyle was elected secretary and JF Lynch was appointed Treasurer. Rules were drawn up and the annual subscription was fixed at one guinea (21 shillings). F Barnes was elected the first captain in April and Mick Hayden was appointed the first boat keeper in June.

The club established a boat house in a shed rented from the Haughton family for £10 a year. The shed at Skinner’s Lane, on the south side of Graiguecullen Bridge by the banks of the Barrow, was close to the ruins of Carlow Castle, and the castle ruins remain part of the club logo.

The ruins of Carlow Castle remain part of the logo of Carlow Rowing Club (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The first reference to the annual procession of boats from the boathouse to the milestone was in 1869. The annual regatta of 1869 was held in October.

In 1878, the crew of William P Hade, Edward Rodgers, Harold Richardson, Joseph Hare and Cox Richard Wilson had the distinction of winning the Slaney amateur and Islandbridge Regattas – the first victories for a Carlow crew. By 1884, the club had 95 members.

In 1892, Carlow Rowing Club won a legal battle with the Barrow Navigation Company. The company had introduced byelaws that made rowing boats liable to a ‘lockage charge of 1d per boat and 4d if propelled by steam or towed from the banks.’ The club protested to the Board of Trade, which deemed the byelaws interfered with long-established rights. The Board of Trade found in favour of the club and the byelaws were disallowed.

Carlow Rowing Club … one of the oldest rowing clubs in Ireland (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The club minutes come to an end in 1897 and they are not recorded again until 1916. But the years 1900-1903 were among the best in the club’s history. The names of the crew which rowed together for those four years – Bell, Boake, Duggan and Orr – became household words. They competed regularly in Waterford, Wexford, New Ross and Chapelizod. Their victory at Chapelizod in 1903 was their most famous victory. =

The Acton Cup mysteriously disappeared around this time and was never recovered. It is said that in 1901 or 1902 a Carlow rowing man who was a medical student saw the Acton Cup in a jeweller’s window in Dublin. It was not for sale and to this day, its fate remains a mystery.

At this time, one of Carlow’s strongest supporters was Thomas Kane McClintock-Bunbury (1848–1929), 2nd Baron Rathdonnell. He lived at Lisnavagh House, on the edges of Rathvilly, was a Lord Lieutenant of Carlow, and later a Senator. He was a fine oarsman who had rowed with his brother for Oxford. In 1902, he donated the silver cup that bears his name, now competed for by senior fours. That year, the club rules were updated and they remained the club’s constitution for many years.

The club developed steadily in years before World War I, and when the club records resume in 1916 the committee was content with the strength of club finances and membership.

The first ever women’s boat race in Carlow was in the 1931 petition regatta, when Dolphin Rowing Club was invited to send two crews to race, and the committee in a generous mood waived the entrance fees. A year later, in 1932, Carlow had a senior crew on the water, and the club was represented at Trinity, Waterford and New Ross. Their day of triumph was at Waterford Regatta, but it was also last trophy the club would win for more than 20 years.

But the club finances had dwindled by 1933. No regatta was held that year, nor could a crew be sent elsewhere. It seems racing ceased in the 1930s and 1940s, and the increasing number of pleasure boats on the river stood between the club and extinction, as they provided the sole justification for its continuance.

Faced with mounting dents, the club took some drastic economising measures, even ceasing its affiliation to the IARU and selling its fine and clinker four – although it always refused to sell its trophies.

From its earliest days, the club had a fleet of pleasure boats that seated about six people, and a trip to Knockbeg Weir took about an hour. In the 1920s, the club had a number of family boats and these held 20 people in comfort, and there were regular picnics an island in the river below Milford.

The last fleet of pleasure boats was bought in the 1940s. By 1962, the club had 16 boats that they were tied each night under the third and fourth arches of Graiguecullen Bridge. They lasted until the mid-1960s, when they finally fell apart from old age.

Meanwhile, under the leadership of WL (Billy) Duggan, Bill Fenlon and Jim Oliver, the club refused to die. They decided on a new start, to rebuild the club, to refurnish it and to buy new equipment. By 1952, racing had been revived, a new era began.

A clinker four was fitted and rigged by the Dublin University Boat Club boat-keeper, the Carlow regatta was revived and three cups were available for competition.

The centenary celebrations in 1959 included a special annual general meeting, a centenary dinner and a successful regatta with Senior Eights rowing for the first time in Carlow, followed by the inter-provincial championships, won by Leinster. This was the first time ever that the inter-provincial championship was rowed outside Dublin and it was allocated to Carlow to mark the centenary.

A 125th anniversary souvenir booklet is the source for most information on the early days of Carlow Rowing Club. At the close of the centenary general meeting, it was resolved that that the minutes were to be preserved and read at the 200th celebrations.

Meanwhile, the club remained at the shed on the south side of the bridge until 1962, when it moved a few hundred yards north of the bridge to a building once owned by the Grand Canal Company, which ceased operating in 1960.

The new club house at The Quay was opened on 27 May 1962 by DJ Gourley, President of the Irish Amateur Rowing Union.

Women’s rowing has been part of Carlow Rowling Club since 1964, when the first crew was recruited, and the Carlow women were unbeaten during the1965 season.
By the 1960s, the Carlow regatta had become Ireland’s top regatta, with well-run events, running to schedule and with efficiency. In 1967 the club was presented with a sculling trophy that had been missing for 100 years until it was found in England.

The present clubhouse was redeveloped in the 1970s and reopened on 12 September 1973.

Jesus College Boat Club, Cambridge … a link between Carlow and Cambridge dates back to the boat race in 1876 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Lord Action, who presented the Acton Cup to Carlow Rowing Club, was appointed Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge in 1895. But there is another connection between Carlow and Cambridge through one of the many oars hanging in the clubhouse. This one, with nine names on it and the date is Saturday 8 April 1876, is one of the eight oars used in the Oxford-Cambridge boat race in 1876. The oar was presented to the club in 1973 by Pierre E Gamier of Tankardstown, Tullow, on behalf of his grand uncle and godfather, TE Hockin of Jesus College, Cambridge.

Hockin rowed in the No 6 seat of the Cambridge crew that won the boat race in 1876. Hockin and C Gurdon were also the winners of the Magdalene Pairs that same year, and Hockin was head of the river seven times, a record unlikely to be broken.

Hockin continued rowing for Cambridge for the next four years, dead-heating in 1877, when the bow in the Oxford boat damaged his oar. They lost to Oxford in 1878 but were compensated in 1879 by winning the race again. Hockin continued his association with rowing for many years as a coach in Cambridge.

Carlow Rowing Club celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2009.

The Carlow Regatta remains one of the oldest and best attended regattas in Ireland, with teams travelling from all over the country to compete. The 2016 Carlow Regatta took place this on 4-5 June, with an entry of 340 crews.

Other events held by Carlow Rowing Club include the Head of the Barrow, where members of Carlow Rowing Club compete against each other for the title. Carlow Rowing Club also travels to regattas and other events across Ireland, and the rowing teams continue to be a pleasant sight in Carlow Town when they practice almost every evening.

As I left Carlow late on Saturday, I was reminded of another dictum from the pen of Lord Acton: ‘The knowledge of the past, the record of truths revealed by experience, is eminently practical, as an instrument of action and a power that goes to making the future.’

Saturday afternoon at Carlow Rowing Club (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

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