How Skibbereen took over the world: ‘Let’s start our own rowing club’

The moment that led to the start of a journey that has culminated in Olympic gold for Ireland
How Skibbereen took over the world: ‘Let’s start our own rowing club’

THUMBS UP: Sean O’Brien, left, captain, and TJ Ryan, secretary of Skibbereen Rowing Club, celebrate the gold medals won by Skibbereen rowers Paul O’Donovan and Fintan McCarthy at the Olympic Games in Tokyo. Picture: Eddie O’Hare

Richard Hosford is the reason that Gary and Paul O’Donovan won Olympic silver medals in 2016 in Rio, that Paul and Fintan McCarthy won Olympic gold in 2021, and that Emily Hegarty won Olympic bronze at the Tokyo Games, too.

Richard is the reason that Dominic Casey was named World Rowing Coach of the Year in 2018. He is the reason that Eugene Coakley, Timmy Harnedy, and Richard Coakley are all Olympians. He is the reason the club is the best in the country. Long before Gary and Paul were born, and for years before Dominic became involved, Richard was the man who kept the rowing club afloat.

He is one of the three founding members. It wasn’t him who thought of the idea, but Richard was there the moment the rowing club was conceived. He soon became the driving force on and off the water.

That first summer in the 1970s was a good one in Skibb. The annual Maid of the Isles Festival packed the town again with something for everyone. The roads were busy, pubs and restaurants were booming, and tourism was strong.

The Erin Foods factory on Marsh Road, on the edge of the town, was a major local employer, with hundreds working there. Mart days in the middle of town brought big crowds too. Skibbereen was number one in West Cork, the capital. It had midweek discos in The Eldon Hotel, there was the cinema on Townshend Street and there was Tops of the Town, regular pantomimes and plenty of pubs too. Skibb also had Hosford’s store on Bridge Street, run by Richard’s brother John. This was a grocery store that would go on to become the first supermarket to open its doors in Skibbereen. It was a novelty at the time. It was a shop without a main counter.

Richard trained as a butcher and was a jack-of-all-trades around the store. He was the youngest of five and slight at five foot two inches tall. The initial plan was for him to work in the millers behind the store, but asthma put an end to that. Then a back injury suffered when he crashed against the base of a post while playing for Skibbereen Rugby Club slowed him down too and kept him sidelined for a spell. But he had other interests, like fishing on the Ilen.

So did Danny Murphy. The day after they met for the first time, when Danny was gardening at Richard’s brother’s house — a six-bedroom Victorian manor, Rosebank, two miles outside town — the two went fishing.

Danny’s an islander and was a lot more used to the water than Richard. Danny grew up yards from the water on the west side of Heir Island, which is nestled midway between Baltimore and Schull in Roaringwater Bay. It’s tucked away from the masses. His family’s link to the island and the water stretches back generations. The first view out his small bedroom window was the Atlantic Ocean stretching off into the distance. To be christened, he and his family had been forced to travel to the mainland, a trip that takes five minutes by boat and
connects two very different worlds.

In those days he couldn’t swim, but that wasn’t unusual for an islander. Surrounded on all sides, he was taught to never fear the water but to respect it. As an only child, he’d wander down to the sandy beach to where the ocean touched the island, walk in ankle deep and feel the cold water lap against him. Curiosity always encouraged one more step, up to his knees at least, only for his parents, watching on, to bark after him, ‘Come up out of that, Danny, you’ll drown.’ He lost count of how many times he heard those words. He stopped inching forward. Superstition is one of the reasons he never learned, or was taught, to swim. There were islanders and fishermen who believed that being able to swim was inviting trouble. Also if your boat sank out at sea, not being able to swim meant a swifter death. Danny did learn to swim years later, however.

That summer of 1970, he was twenty-eight years old and life revolved around the water. It gave him work too, on fishing boats and tugs. Living in Skibb with his wife, Triona, and two kids, Karen and Patrick (Sonia and Daniel followed in later years), Danny worked on the tugs with Bantry Bay Towing Company, guiding tankers in and out to the jetty at Whiddy Island Oil Terminal.

He worked there until the Whiddy Island disaster on 8 January 1979, when an oil tanker, Betelgeuse, exploded at the offshore jetty on Whiddy Island killing 50 people. Danny was working on the tugs that night and he saw too much. It’s a nightmare that never leaves.

But in that first summer in the 1970s, Danny had moved out of his rented apartment on Main Street and bought his first house on the mainland: 61 Mardyke Street in Skibb town. A local carpenter, Donie Fitzgerald, the boyfriend of Danny’s cousin Eileen Collins, looked after the renovations. As it turned out, he was the final piece of the puzzle.

One Sunday afternoon that June, Donie walked into town from his home, which was one mile outside on the western side. He came in search of a road bowl, to go bowling with his friends later that evening. John O’Donovan’s pub on Lower Bridge Street, which was right beside Hosford’s yard and Richard’s home, was a local supplier. John O’Donovan also owned a taxi and so, when Donie turned up, he happened to be out on a job. The pub was shut. (If John had been in his pub that day and sold Donie the bowl, Skibbereen Rowing Club might never have existed.) Donie couldn’t buy the bowl. But it wasn’t a wasted trip. He saw Richard and Danny, next door in Hosford’s yard, plotting plans for the evening. Donie joined them.

The three jumped into Richard’s dark-red Renault Four. It was a car well known about town. Immaculately kept and in mint condition.

Richard had owned an Austin A40 before this, but his Renault Four hatchback was different. He had bought it from O’Brien’s car dealership on Townshend Street. He loved that car. It had its own personality. It would go on to become a character in the rowing club’s early days, ferrying as many as could fit into it, and boats on top, to and from training and regattas. It would lose its driver door at a regatta in later life, coming off worse when a bottle was wedged in the opening and the door was banged shut.

This particular evening, Danny sat in the back with his head between the two front seats. The conversation drifted to a recent rowing regatta that had been held locally.

Danny knew his stuff when it came to rowing and he could row. He needed to, after all, to leave Heir Island. Of the three twenty-somethings, he was the only one who had rowed competitively before, in coastal regattas between the islands.

Now an idea struck him. ‘Let’s start our own rowing club here in Skibbereen,’ Danny blurted out.

Something in the Water book cover
Something in the Water book cover

- This is an edited extract from Something in the Water: How Skibbereen Rowing Club Conquered the World by Kieran McCarthy, who is sports editor of the Southern Star newspaper in West Cork.

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