The Tokyo success of Fiona Murtagh and Aifric Keogh — the first Galwegians to win Olympic medals for Ireland — is set to give rowing a huge boost in Galway and the west of Ireland.
Their success along with Eimear Lambe from Cabra in Dublin and Emily Hegarty from Skibbereen in capturing Ireland’s first women’s Olympic medal when they won bronze in the coxless fours, has sparked great celebrations in Galway.
Both are from just west of the city, with Aifric hailing from Furbo on the coast road between Barna and Spiddal, while Fiona is from about 10 kilometres away in Moycullen near the banks of Lough Corrib.
The city has enjoyed a great rowing culture — the famed Emmetts crew from Menlo brought the Blue Riband of Irish rowing, the elite VIIIs, back to the city for the first time in 1929 and since then NUIG and Galway Rowing Club have also landed the top prize in national rowing.
There have been many international successes but this is the first time Galway rowers have landed a medal at the Olympics and Mike Heskin, Director of Sport at NUIG, said it is a huge boost for the sport in the area.
“They are wonderful role models and they have now shown that you can go all the way from here and win a medal at the Olympics,” said Heskin, himself a former oarsman who was Irish rowing manager at the Beijing Olympics and a former CEO of Irish Hockey.
The sport was always traditionally strong in city schools such as St Joseph’s (The Bish) and Coláiste Iognáid (The Jes) and continued into NUIG and into clubs such as Galway Rowing Club and Tribesmen, but there has been a proliferation in the number of female participants as well as other non-traditional schools fielding crews or amalgamations.
“The success of Aifric and Fiona will now boost that growth even more. We have a strong tradition of producing successful rowers but to now have not one but two who have won medals at the Olympics is just such a massive boost.
“Every year in Galway there are a few more rowing, every year in recent times it has stepped up, and now Fiona and Aifric have proven that the system is good enough to produce an Olympic medal winner,” said Heskin.
Murtagh has returned to NUIG to complete her Masters, while Keogh is also a former student who rowed for the college which is nestled on the banks of the Corrib.
The current Irish rowing team manager Feargal O’Callaghan, formerly of Munster Rugby, is the NUIG High Performance Sports Lead while Italian Ciro Pisco, the Irish junior coach who is also in Tokyo, heads up the college coaching crew.
Heskin said the success of the two Galwegians in Tokyo is timely as NUIG are about to develop a multi-million watersports facility.
“The college is about to spend up to €6m on a watersports centre on the campus and we hope to have it done by 2025 and that is just a further investment in watersport in Galway.
“But that would never have happened without what the rowing and kayaking programme has done over the last 15 years and these two medals completely endorse that decision,” added Heskin.
The Corrib is busy these weeks as all the clubs and schools in the city prepare for the national championships and Murtagh’s home club, Galway Rowing Club in Woodquay, were on Wednesday celebrating her success.
“It’s huge for the club, it’s fantastic. Everyone in the club is on a high,” said clubman Rory O’Brien. “It’s such a huge boost.”
And even before they got to see the Olympic final, there was a further boost for the club when one of their Junior 18 girls Evelina Zakarauskaite was selected for the Irish team in the Coupe de la Jeunesse squad along with Patti Mullin from Belfast RC.