Speech by President Michael D. Higgins on the occasion of a Reception for Skibbereen Rowing Club
Áras an Uachtaráin, 4 November 2017
Tá áthas orm fáilte a fhearadh roimh chuig Áras an Uachtaráin.
It is an immense pleasure for me to welcome members, supporters, distinguished Olympians, and community neighbours of Skibbereen Rowing Club to Áras an Uachtaráin, and in particular as it gives Sabina and I the opportunity to celebrate with you all today the historic achievements of an extraordinary club that, since its foundation has achieved so much, and which includes in the most recent period the great achievements of Paul and Gary O’Donovan at the 2016 Summer. The very fact that it is today that we are celebrating has an easy explanation.
It is a testament to their commitment and dedication, that the O’Donovan brothers were unable to attend the reception for Team Ireland which we held here in August 2016 as they were joining their club colleagues Aoife Casey, Emily O’Hegarty, Mark O’Donovan, Shane O’Driscoll and Fintan McCarthy at the World Rowing Championships.
While today provides me, as President of Ireland, the opportunity to celebrate the extraordinary success of Irish rowing, and the vital contribution of the Skibbereen Rowing Club which has been so evident in the performance of the Irish team at every major regatta. Deserving of a special mention is a parish which was famous for generations among all parishes for its butter, is now even more famous as a producer of rowing champions – the parish of Aughadown.
Today let us honour all athletes, and those who support them, but in particular our rowers. Mark and Shane have led the way by winning gold at all three World Rowing Cup regattas, the European Championships and, only six weeks ago, in the sweltering heat, at the World Championships in Florida.
Let us pay tribute to Denise Walsh for her inspirational performances this year, in particular at the European Championships in Czechia. Denise, the grit and determination you showed in the final quarter of the race was truly formidable.
Over one year ago in Rio de Janeiro, the O’Donovan brothers brought Irish rowing to the attention of the world, and to see them on the podium collecting their medals was an enormously proud, uplifting moment for the whole country. The authenticity of their commitment, their good humour, and the pleasure they so clearly took in their sport lifted the spirits of people not only here at home, but also around the world. There was something very special, human and authentic about their account of their effort, their preparation for it, and the honest pleasure of having achieved an excellence that put them together with the best in the world.
History records that the first rowing club on this island was founded in 1836 by students of Trinity College, Dublin. History also records that the Skibbereen Rowing Club was founded in 1970, and joined what is now Rowing Ireland in 1971. In a short period of time, you have amassed more national rowing championships than any other club, including some who have existed for over a century and half. You haven’t been wasting your time!
Thinking of comparisons, I had occasion very recently to reflect on this extraordinary record on my recent State Visit to Australia and New Zealand. While I was in Melbourne, a city of nearly 4 million people, I had view on a section of the banks of the Yarra, a 150-mile long river, which contained not less than six rowing clubhouses, all very well appointed, while the river itself was crowded with racing shells in singles, doubles and quads. Compare this to Skibbereen and its surrounding townlands, an area of 11,000 people, and the 21-mile length of the Ilen.
And yet, for all their advantages, the rowing clubs of Melbourne returned the same number of medals as Skibbereen for its country in the recent Olympic Games, an observation quick to the lips of my Executive Assistant, Kevin McCarthy, who was very well informed on such comparisions!
Skibbereen is probably best known, in places abroad, that is until now, as the site of events that are immortalised in a famous but poignant song. I had occasion to reflect on that more tragic, part of our history when I learned that we would be hearing a performance by Seanie O’Brien of ‘Dear Old Skibbereen’ here today.
We now know that song was written by Patrick Carpenter, a poet and native of Skibbereen, who emigrated to the United States, where his works appeared in those great journals of Irish-America The Pilot and the Irish World. The quiet grave the lamenting father speaks of in the song sits in the Abbey Cemetery across the River Ilen from your clubhouse. The Cemetery, with the Famine dead buried beneath it stands as a stark reminder of blianta an droch shaoil, the years of the bad life, which Ireland suffered during an Gorta Mór.
As to rowing itself, it has of course an older history than the establishment of formal rowing clubs in our country. As the wonderful volume edited by Críostóir MacCárthaigh, the Traditional Boats of Ireland – History, Folklore and Construction, reminds us, the use of the rowing currach and naomhóg long predates the establishment of any formal clubs.
Our ancestors may well have tested themselves against the elements and each other, braving the open oceans in boats carefully made with animal hides and frames of willow and hazel to race along the coasts of Cork, Kerry, Clare, Galway, Mayo and Donegal. We were people of the sea and all of our beginnings, I once wrote in a poem, were ‘sea beginnings’. This ancient lineage and heritage may perhaps play some role in a rediscovered native genius for competitive international rowing, given the contemporary expression by not only your club and the athletes assembled here today, but by the influence you have and and the example you have set for clubs across this island.
But our heritage could never but only explain a small part of the achievements of your club and of Irish rowing. The success of your athletes the whole of Ireland, and the wider world, must now know is above all else the result of dedication, discipline, resolve, relentless work on the River Ilen, possessing a certain disposition of the mind which is capable of impelling the body to do extraordinary things, even when it is exerted to its very limits, and for those who row in teams of two, four and eight, the capacity to work together towards a common goal.
Such success is also a tribute to those who coach, who instruct, who encourage, who train, who prepare, who counsel, and who, perhaps most importantly, impart a certain persistence in athletes for demanding competitions in sometimes difficult conditions.
Skibbereen and indeed Ireland have been fortunate that Dominic Casey has fulfilled that role over many years, shaping generations of rowers and producing – to date – five Olympians and numerous international athletes. I am told that the defining characteristics of the Skibbereen rower that we have seen in international competitions – perseverance in the face of setbacks, a steady faith in their own ability, and a confidence that through hard work they can overcome any obstacle – have been instilled by Dominic over the years.
I know that the nurturing, support and encouragement of friends and family is also crucial to undertaking what can be a grueling process of training and preparation. It is so often parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and brothers and sisters who provide that first interest in a sport, and who sustain that engagement throughout an athlete’s life.
It is surely also the case that a club like yours can only continue through the tireless work of volunteers, so many of whom are friends and family. Whether it be organising and stewarding regattas and other events, maintaining buildings, and fundraising - often at carried out weekends and through long winter evenings, the dedicated work of volunteers is vital. The success of this club, and its contribution to the country’s sporting success, is a tribute to your efforts, for which I commend and salute you.
In this new golden era of Irish rowing, many of your athletes have now become role models to a new generation of young rowers. The importance of this cannot be understated, as the examples of Timmy Harnedy, and Eugene and Richard Coakley – Irish rowing Olympians all, and Skibbereen rowers all – still inspire this generation of rowers.
Elite athletes give rise not only to other elite athletes but also play a significant role in encouraging the participation of young people in sports. We know that participation in sport tends to decline in the teenage years, and that efforts must be made to ensure that children participate in sport from an early age, throughout their education and in their adult life.
I want to acknowledge, as President, the role your athletes, by their example and by their conduct, have played in inspiring young people to join not only rowing clubs, but also to participate in sport at all levels.
I also want to acknowledge and commend the innovative ‘Get Rowing… Get Going’ initiative being implemented by Rowing Ireland and Sports Ireland, which is integrating rowing into Physical Education classes in schools. I have no doubt that the continuing success of Sanita Puspure and Denise Walsh will encourage young women to participate in this programme.
Finally, I wish to thank you all for the example your club has given to the country of what can be achieved when communities work together towards a common good. You have shown that when we come together with dedication to a common purpose we can, all of us, accomplish great and remarkable feats. The Community of Skibbereen now becomes known not only as ‘fierce friendly’ but ‘fiercely athletic’ as well.
Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.
We look forward now to listening to the Riptide Movement, and I look forward, in particular, to hearing the performance of Pat Good and Liam Kennedy.