The head of the river

Rowing is a sport of endurance, strength, and finesse, a sport naturally suited to Galway where the river connects Lough Corrib with the sea. The earliest reference we have to competitive rowing on the Galway river is 1839. The first rowing club established here was the Corrib Rowing and Yachting Club in 1864 (149 years ago! ) and as other clubs formed, rowing matches became more competitive. In 1868, Commercial Rowing Club was formed and the inter-club rivalry generated a lot of interest in the sport.

Later came the Royal Galway Yacht Club; St Patrick’s Rowing Club which was also known as the Temperance Club; Celtic Rowing Club; Hibernian Rowing Club, later Galway Rowing Club; The Galway Athletic Rowing Club; The Citie of the Tribes Club; Emmett’s Rowing Club from Menlo; University College Rowing Club; and of course the two schools, the Jes and the Bish. The most recent addition to that list was Tribesmen Rowing Club, formed in 1976. Some of these organisations had a short lifespan, but the fact that there were always a number of clubs in the city meant healthy competition.

Most races were rowed in organised regattas, but then in the 1940s a new concept was introduced, the idea of a time trial where a crew would race against the clock rather than against another crew. They called this trial the Head of the River.

The first Head of the River in Galway took place in 1948. Rúcán Heaney was deposited on the ‘monument’ upstream from Menlo and he would dip a flag each time a crew passed. Timekeepers on Menlo Pier started their stopwatches on each successive flag dip, one stopwatch being used per crew. Once the last crew started, the timekeepers raced along the narrow roads of Menlo towards Woodquay to get to Steamer’s Quay in time to record the crews finishing. It was often a close-run thing. This method only worked with a small number of boats.

Around 1972, Michael Silke from the Galway Motor Club explained to the organising committee that any number of crews could be timed by the use of just two stopwatches, and so began a working relationship of the Motor Club, the Galway VHF Radio Club, and the committee. In 1978, the newly formed Tribesmen Club took over the running of the event. For the first time in Ireland, a rowing event was timed by computers, thanks to a team from Digital organised by Tom Shaughnessy and Steve Benson. Instead of waiting many hours, and sometimes days, for results, crews were being handed them as they pulled into the slip.

This year’s Galway Head takes place on Saturday from the ‘cut’ at the mouth of the lake to the Quincentennial Bridge. More than 300 boats will compete in three races starting at 10am, 1.30pm, and 4pm. Men and women will row in junior 16, junior 18, novice, intermediate, senior, and master grades. It is a wonderful spectacle and is best watched from the banks of the river or the Quincentennial Bridge.

So we have for you today the first UCG crew to row in the Dublin Head of the River in 1956. They are, from the left: Gay Whelan, Mícheál Geraghty, Tom Grealy, Bruce Blake, Pete Dunstan, John Bradley, Seamus Scanlon, and Barney Geraghty. In front is Bobby Molloy, the cox. They had to carry their boat down a waterfall on to the lower Liffey for the race which finished past O’Connell Bridge. They finished third in the ‘clinker’ section, six seconds behind the winners.

Conor Newman, the chairman of the Heritage Council, will deliver the John Monahan Memorial Lecture to the Old Galway Society this evening at 8.30pm in the Convent of Mercy School, Newtownsmith, at 8.30pm. The title of the talk is ‘The Sword in Stone’ and all are welcome.


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