Rio heroes’ homecoming: Samba time in Skibbereen as thousands celebrate O’Donovan brothers’ return

Paul and Gary O'Donovan wave to the crowd during a homecoming parade in Skibbereen, Co Cork. Picture: Brian Lawless

Well, you don’t get to welcome home Olympic medalists every day of the week.

Gary and Paul O’Donovan received a hero’s welcome back in West Cork last night as thousands of people lined the streets to watch an open top bus parade, with Skibbereen in full Italia ’90 mode by the time it pulled into the Fairfield.

There was a carnival atmosphere in the town for a number of hours before the parade got under way, summed up by the sign in one shop window explaining early closure due to “mardi gras”.

Commemorative T-shirts were everywhere, with the green and yellow “Gary and Paul’s Crew” version shading it from the alternative red option.

The chat all week before the homecoming had been of the achievements of the rowers in Rio, and subsequently, Paul’s World Championships gold medal just last Saturday. References to rowing could be heard everywhere. “Welcome to Skibbereen,” said one man greeting a friend. “Have you any oar or a bit?”

Earlier in the day, their mother, Trish, had put forward the theory that if the Olympics had been anywhere closer than Brazil, all of Skibbereen would have gone over to lend their support. Instead, they were all there last night, the expected crowd of 10,000 surely exceeded, and then some.

The homecoming parade began on the Cork Rd at 7.10pm, the bus bearing the words ‘Home are the heroes’, moving into North St and then turning right onto Main St before arriving at the Fairfield, where a big screen had been set up to allow those gathered another chance to see the race which propelled the lads to national and international stardom, albeit this time without the frantic biting of nails.

Every vantage point was taken on the route, people peering or leaning out of every window, people standing on cars. Leading the way was the St Fachtna’s Silver Band, then vehicles for the Coast Guard, Cork West Civil Defence, the ambulance service, and a unit of the fire brigade with a set of oars plastered across the front.

Those on board the bus were every bit as giddy as those staring up at them, and the cheers as they turned the corner onto the Main St were deafening.

Businessman John Field, whose family is synonymous with the town, summed it up. “It’s the most exciting thing that has ever happened in Skibbereen.

“You only have to look around here tonight to see how exciting it is. These are great young men, great ambassadors, and we are extremely proud of them.”

At the lower end of the age scale were nine-year-old Rachel Connolly and her sister Chloe, five, both holding their homemade signs declaring “well done Gary and Paul” and crayon drawings of the lads. “They were mad to get here,” their mother, Colette said. Rachel said the scene around her was “good”, before quickly upgrading it to “brilliant”.

It was brilliant, a brilliant day in a town that feels rejuvenated. At the press conference at Skibbereen Rowing Club in the afternoon, the brothers had added a few more memorable one-liners to their canon (“when we heard Pat Hickey got arrested, it was ‘who’s Pat Hickey?’”) and also paid glowing tribute to their coach, Dominic Casey, the man their mother joked is the only person they listen to. Their sense of place, their appreciation of their community and supporters, and their impeccable comic timing, all shone through.

Last night, the throngs of well wishers poured into the Fairfield, a car park transformed into a place of celebration. They heard songs from children at Lisheen National School while on stage the dignatories included Rowing Ireland high-performance director Morten Esperson, but everyone really just wanted to hear from Gary and Paul. They duly obliged.

“Just a standard Monday night in Skibbereen,” said Paul, surveying the huge crowd, the pair laughing at the sheer scale of it. Someone had said it was a bit like “that Conor McGregor chap” — “only bigger”.

They freely admitted that “it’s kind of hard to take it all in”, with Paul joking the scale of the positive reaction might be affected “when they find out what big eejits we are”. They were asked how life had changed. “Oh, we’re rock stars now,” Paul replied, deadpan.

Having disarmed the country, they were now home. As one of the speakers on stage put it, “it is so great to have a good news story”. The O’Donovans could well have many more great days ahead of them, and when they win, maybe we all win in some way.

Keep pulling, lads.


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