'Honour and glory' at Leeside ceremony for Cork's Olympic heroes

'Honour and glory' at Leeside ceremony for Cork's Olympic heroes

Gold medallists Paul O'Donovan and Fintan McCarthy alongside bronze medallists, from left, Emily Hegarty, Fiona Murtagh, Aifric Keogh and Eimear Lambe. Picture: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

For the Olympic rowers, Saturday evening might have been an example of perfect symmetry. 

From the Land of the Rising Sun, here they were, back on the banks of the River Lee, being rightly feted as that same sun slowly dropped over the horizon.

They were - almost - all here, at the Rowing Ireland National Centre. 

Paul O’Donovan and Fintan McCarthy, the gold-medal-winning pair in the lightweight double sculls. 

The women’s quartet of Eimear Lambe, Aifric Keogh, Fiona Murtagh and Emily Hegarty, who won a bronze medal in the women’s fours. 

Ireland's Bronze Medalists: Aifric Keogh, Eimear Lambe of Ireland, Fiona Murtagh and Emily Hegarty. Picture: Tom Weller/DeFodi Images via Getty Images
Ireland's Bronze Medalists: Aifric Keogh, Eimear Lambe of Ireland, Fiona Murtagh and Emily Hegarty. Picture: Tom Weller/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

And many of the others who propelled themselves around the courses of Japan at the Tokyo Games, prompting a bleary-eyed nation to rise at 5am to watch them take their place on the world stage.

With the Lee broad and majestic as backdrop, Taoiseach Micheál Martin led the praise, stating that the team had succeeded in "bringing honour and glory to our country".

He said that apart from the medallists all those on the rowing team had contributed, including in a string of top 10 finishes, while competing with "dignity and respect" and in a way which reflected on the communities in which they first engaged with the sport.

"You have made history, which at such a young age is a wonderful thing in itself," he said.

The Taoiseach added that the success in the Tokyo Games had propelled hopes of between eight and 10 medals at the 2018 Games.

Others to pay tribute to the rowers included Cllr Gillian Coughlan, the Mayor of Cork County, who said the rowers had "inspired a whole new generation", and Minister for Sport, Jack Chambers, who said while Skibbereen Rowing Club may now be the pre-eminent rowing outfit in the world, the women's team which scored bronze had been drawn from all four provinces. 

He also paid tribute to the absent Sanita Pušpure, the ground-breaking athlete who sparked so much through her efforts in the London 2012 Games. 

Pictured at the official homecoming for the Olympic rowing squad at the National rowing centre in Farren woods Co Cork were medal winners Paul O'Donovan and Fintan McCarthy and Taoiseach Micheál Martin. Picture: Denis Boyle
Pictured at the official homecoming for the Olympic rowing squad at the National rowing centre in Farren woods Co Cork were medal winners Paul O'Donovan and Fintan McCarthy and Taoiseach Micheál Martin. Picture: Denis Boyle

The sport has come a long way: the CEO of Rowing Ireland, Michelle Carpenter, recalled how she had to first begin rowing "in secret" because she was a girl. 

It's safe to say it's different now.

Then it was the turn of medallists Aifric Keogh and Paul O'Donovan, nominated from the crew, to say a few words. The former admitted she regularly takes out her medal, responding to requests from people to see it, while the latter admitted: "I forget mine behind me half the time." 

As usual with Paul - Jesus-like in appearance, Dave Allen-like in his superb comic timing - it's difficult to tell when exactly the tongue is in the cheek, such as when he remarked "I am fairly introverted anyway", and adding that when it came to heightened fame "we kind of made a mess of that a few years back", most likely referring to the initial surge of attention with brother Gary which landed them on Graham Norton's couch, among other premium locations.

But there is no doubting the dedication and skill, nor the appreciation of the efforts of those around them and the knowledge that more talented rowers are now coming through the system, no doubt inspired by what they have seen in recent years.

Aifric admitted that it was taking time for their achievement to sink in, and Fintan McCarthy expressed a similar view.

"I haven't had too much time to reflect, it's been on to the next thing, but I am sure now when I get a few weeks off I'll have time to think about it and kind of appreciate it I guess," he said. 

As for his medal, he said: "One evening I had it in my pocket after showing it off for the day and yeah, it's a bit surreal, just having an Olympic gold medal in your pocket."

Ireland's Gold Medalists: Paul O'Donovan and Fintan McCarthy. Picture: INPHO/Laszlo Geczo
Ireland's Gold Medalists: Paul O'Donovan and Fintan McCarthy. Picture: INPHO/Laszlo Geczo

Fintan said he'd been home just three days in the last three months, so there was also little time to see his family which had also sprang to national attention with their joyous early morning celebrations. And yes, Fintan does think he looks like Matt Damon: "I can't lie, I can see it. I have been getting it all my life since I was 12-years-old, so it came as no surprise." 

No plans for him to enter acting, however, and anyway, maybe Matt could play him in the biopic.

It was all smiles and laughter as the sun set, the only thing missing a glint of gold, duly delivered as the flashes from cameras hit the Olympic medals on display. 

On a weekend when most young people are reaching for their hurleys, some are also going for the oars, with more success likely on that horizon, whether back on the water here or scenes far away. The river, it keeps on flowing.

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