Thousands gathered in Wolfe Tone Square to celebrate the 200-year-old longboat used in Tone’s unsuccessful attempt to bring French troops to Ireland in 1796. President Michael D Higgins arrived by helicopter to massive applause in the early afternoon sunshine, greeting 16 teams of participants decked out in their home county’s colours to take part in the 2012 Atlantic Challenge Bantry Bay Gig World Championships.
The President said that although the failed attempt to land French troops in Bantry Bay could be perceived in hindsight as somewhat “shambolic”, it was borne out of “principled intention”.
“The idea of the boat, stored in different places, lodged as it was here, brought to the boathouse at Bantry House and finally to Collins Barracks museum where Wolfe Tone himself was detained, reminds us in a way of how an object can become a symbol of something entirely different into the future,” he said.
More than 300 participants are being housed in classrooms at the new Coláiste Pobail Bheanntraí secondary school, members of teams from Indonesia, Canada, Russia, and the US and elsewhere.
President Higgins told the crowd that, in reading the background of the Atlantic Challenge event, he was struck by the capacity of the sea as a medium for education.
“It is as if the Irish people are turning their face to the sea again, not only with enthusiasm but with great thought as to what it can yield... I was most impressed by the concept of the sea as a great challenge, as a great tool of learning, as a great space for the building of character,” he said.
The President was presented with a stone by Oceans Sevens champion Steve Redmond, who took it from the shores of his final destination on completing the Tsugaru Strait in Japan seven days earlier.
Scenes of colourful longboats under sail and oar in Bantry Bay’s stunning sparkling waters will be broadcast around the globe.
Opening celebrations were carried out with ease thanks to an incredible organising effort by teams of volunteers.
Atlantic Challenge committee chairman Diarmad Murphy paid tribute to all involved, and noted the significance of the ceremony taking place under the watchful eye of the Wolfe Tone statue that dominates the main square.
“While we are gathered here in Wolfe Tone Square, with Wolfe Tone looking down on us, the history of this event becomes very real,” said Mr Murphy.
The capturing of the original Bantry Bay longboat on Bere Island was the real beginning of the Atlantic Challenge.”
The boat is now one of the “most successfully replicated vessels of our time”, Mr Murphy said, more than 70 boats modelled on the original have been built around the world.
“It is humbling for those of us organising this event, that the level of support we have received from local businesses, community and sporting groups, friends and family... is second to none. By coming together as a community, we have produced this. The atmosphere is fantastic, the atmosphere is amazing,” he said.
* See www.bantry2012.com for the full line up.