1950’s Wicklow Town – pre rowing club
The racing of skiffs in Wicklow predates the annual Wicklow Regatta Festival, they were introduced to help the local fishermen and sailors in a period of extreme poverty when catches were small and work was scarce. This was the only way in which these proud men would accept the charitable donations, they raced for the cash prizes. The races were later included as a part of the first Regatta in 1878 and have remained so ever since. Wicklow did not have a rowing club until the 1950s even though rowing races were a featured part of the Regatta for decades. In 1956 J. E. Cox opened his shop in town, a new telephone exchange was proposed for the Mall. The local council adopted and approved the first coat of arms for the town, and let a field at Dunbur Road to the GAA. There was also a new lifeboat arriving at the local station, the J. W. Archer.
1956 ‘A vibrant new club ready to take on the visitors’
The Wicklow Regatta Committee of 1956 suggested that a Rowing Club be established in the town and an inaugural meeting was held soon afterwards. At this meeting a unanimous decision was made to form a club. Those present included Fr. Hans, J. Mitchell, C. O’ Toole, T. Doyle, A. D. Finlayson, J. Carroll, (senior and junior) P. Smith, G. Nicols, J. McCall, B. Doyle, J. O’ Rourke, P. J. Fitzsimmons, A. and R. Fitzpatrick and S. D. Conroy, all elected as officers of the new club. ‘Timbers’ Carroll had already started his own fundraising initiative and turned up with £3.00 raised from visits to the local pubs. A new skiff was under construction in Ringsend and arrived in town in early July. It was constructed of silver spruce. After Sunday Mass the skiff was blessed at the New Pier by Fr. Hans and christened St. Mhantain 1. The regatta Committee skiff would be used in the Open Race and a crew would have to be trained. James Everett on behalf of the Regatta Committee handed it over to the club: ‘for many years past a skiff was coming to Wicklow for the annual August Regatta,’ he stated, now there was a vibrant new club ready to take on the visitors, and in their own skiff. St. Patrick’s Pipe Band attended and played the National Anthem. The boat was then handed over to the four young lads registered with the club, brothers Jimmy and Billy Cleary, Paddy Duggan and Noel ‘Major’ Brennan. The four then took the skiff out for a trial run. The Wicklow Regatta of 1956 was held in brilliant sunshine, following a torrential downpour. There was heavy traffic and crowds flocked to the seaside. They watched the Juniors win the race in the new skiff. By the following November, Mr. Michael Byrne of Bond Street had submitted a tender for a new skiff to the fledgling club, this was accepted and the second skiff for the club would be locally built.
In 1955 Mr. Byrne had built his third square sterned boat for Mr. John Corkish of Summerhill. It was made of African white wood and Oregon pine with some larch and oak sourced in Rathnew and was 18ft and 6 inches in length. It was christened ‘The Golden Rose.’ Mr. Byrne at that stage had already built four skiffs and was well qualified to work on the new skiff for the rowing club.
1957: New skiffs and the first female members
1957 was the year that the RNLI held it’s centenary celebrations, in 100 years the RNLI had saved 4,600 lives. A new Catholic church for Brittas Bay was discussed and sites were being looked at. The 1700AD bell from the Church of Ireland Church in Wicklow would be erected outside the chosen site. The new AN1 motor registration was announced, Sydney Sheane purchased the last of the N I 9999 series. The writing was also on the wall for the future of the Leinster Road Races, the council felt that closing the roads was a bad idea, people were being hurt and killed in the car and bike races and it was felt that there was little or no financial benefit to the town from the races. The new skiff for the rowing club was delivered in April and blessed on Easter Monday, another crew would now be needed and the recruitment drive intensified. The skiff was taken out for a trial run which proved very successful. A large crowd was in attendance that day and it was announced that two boats would now race in the Wicklow Regatta. The boat was christened St. Mhantain 11. A fundraising dance was held and was advertised in the local Wicklow People newspaper for the Mall Ballroom, dancing from 10pm to 2am and admission was 3/9-. Another dance was held in June for the same purpose. The Wicklow Rowing Club held it’s AGM in June at the Marion Boy’s Club. Fr. Hans was elected Chairperson, John Mitchell, Vice Chairman, Thomas Doyle, Treasurer and Secretary was S.D. Conroy. At a Wicklow Regatta Committee meeting chaired by Jim Everett it was confirmed that the two skiffs would race in August and also in other regattas. The rowing club held a meeting shortly afterwards to pick the crews. A group of girls met the committee and stated that they also wanted to join the new club and race. They pointed out that this was already being done at Greystones. It was a new and interesting development for the club and was adopted. The regatta was an unqualified success with thousands pouring in by train, bus, car and hiking. It was a fine day with a calm sea, yachting events and swimming races entertained the crowds as did the chair-o-planes and dodgems at the amusements. Music was amplified at the New Pier, the pipe band played on the prom, and the evening was rounded off with dances and fireworks. The rowing club was successful with Mhantain 1. winning the Senior Race and Mhantain 11 coming in 4th place. That night the rowing club celebrated at a victory dance in the Mall Ballroom.
1958: A Maybush Festival and swimmers turned rescurers
In 1958 only 12 animals appeared at the Annual Horse Fair. In times past some 2,000 horses would be displayed. It was the end of an era and another link with the past.
The idea of a Maybush Festival was revived at the Barrow Green, such a festival had stayed in the memories of older people in the town and a woman living at the Barrow Green decided to bring it back. A dead tradition found a new life that year as a party was held there, with dancing and singing going on all night. The festival would run as an event for children for several more years. A pavilion was proposed for Wicklow Swimming Club, on a 75 year lease for a nominal rent of £3-3-0. The town council was very busy searching through the records to find out who actually owned the Black Castle and a wall collapse at Batchelor’s Walk ended the swimming race. Spectators leaning on the wall joined the swimmers in the water and the swimmers then turned rescuers.
The rowing club AGM took place in May at the Marion Boy’s Club and the elected officers were Fr. Hans, Chairperson, J. Mitchell, Vice Chairperson, Secretary, S.D. Conroy, Treasurer, G. Conroy. The committee consisted of T. Quinn, J. Fitzgerald, J. Devlin, K. Byrne, J. O’ Rourke PC, (regatta committee) P. Doyle (UDC) and E. Kavanagh. (UDC) At the end of May a new skiff race was announced. ‘The Factory Race’ would give local workers a chance to compete against each other. Regatta preparations were well in hand and the rowing club were fully behind it. Five teams were entered in the East Coast Rowing Championships along with the factory race. There was good news for the club when the Senior crew were victorious in the Ringsend Regatta, the crew consisted of Tony Kelly, Jimmy Cleary, Paddy Kelly, Jim Devlin and Paddy Byrne, Cox. St. Mhantain 11 came in 3rd. The crew were Joe Fitzgerald, Wally Hill, Jackie Sillery, Matty Sillery and Kevin Byrne, Cox. They came 2nd in the Minor Race also. The crew of St. Mhantain 1 were Joe Byrne, Mick Hayden, Jack Murphy, Terry Fox, Jack Doyle and Kevin Byrne, Cox. The crews travelled with two lorries and the skiffs. A crowd of townspeople gathered to meet them as they arrived home. The Wicklow Regatta was always close when McAulay’s amusements and the circus hit town. The bank holiday proved to be a glorious weekend, the pipe band played on the promenade as thousands of visitors arrived into town. In the factory race, the crew from Hopkins & Sons won, the crew were J. Boyce, Cox, J. Redmond, P. Byrne, M. Brennan and A. Hopkins. St. Mhantain 1. Won the Senior Race and a challenge was issued for the following Sunday by Stella Maris. St. Mhantain 1. would compete with Stella Maris in the big race, with five other races also being held, for a prize fund of £50.00. It was unfortunate that these races took place in lashing rain. Weather aside, the local club celebrated winning the big race and four others. Shamrock fertiliser won the factory race and the juniors celebrated their win also. By November it was back to the business of running the club, undertaking a membership drive and fundraising. They held a dance in St. Patrick’s Hall, music was supplied by ‘The Musical Knights Orchestra,’ dancing from 9pm to 1am with an admission price of 3/9-. A Local Skiffle group appeared on the stage as a bonus.
1959: Film stars in town and football on the Murrough
1959 saw Milo O’ Shea and Leslie Phillips filming in Wicklow Town. The venue was the Strabrega Hotel. The front of the hotel was changed to facilitate filming ‘This Other Eden.’ When the film hit the local cinema crowds of locals flocked to see it. John Hudson of the Market Square applied for a lease of land for a caravan park on the Murrough. The council however were divided on the issue, they felt that if such a business was to be set up on the Murrough it should be by themselves. The proposed caravan park at Brittas Bay was already a threat to the idea. The land proposed, from the Marine Hotel to the Chemical Works was also where Coupier Works had an option. There was already anger over the loss of the playing fields on the Murrough, with a factory to be built on the big pitch. Plans were also laid down for a public footpath from the Parnell Bridge to the Metal Bridge on the town side of the river. In May the rowing club held the school and factory challenge races in glorious weather, thousands poured into the county to take advantage and many made for the seaside. St. Mhantain 1. Won the Senior Schoolboys Race with the crew consisting of S. Anderson, Cox, G. Wall, T. Byrne, B. Hickey and F. O’ Neill. St. Mhantain 11 was 2nd with a crew of T. Wall, D. Vickers, E. Kilcoyne, N. Bates and T. Byrne. Hopkins & Sons won the Factory Race in St. Mhantain 1. The crew consisted of P. Byrne, N. Brennan, V. Keogh, J. Donnelly, M. Roche, J. Quinn, G. Reilly and J. Byrne, Cox. The Senior Open Race winning crew were T. Dunne, K. Dunne, J. Sillery, D. Murphy and W. Doyle, Cox. The 2nd placed crew were P.J. Rice, B. Kearns, R. Rice, T. Conroy and J. Fitzgerald, Cox. The Senior Challenge Skiff Race was won by Tony Quinn, W. Cleary, J. Devlin, W. Kelly and John Byrne, Cox. The 2nd placed crew were W. Hill, J. Brien, J. Fitzgerald, J. Jameson and M. Sillery, Cox. The rowing club also displayed their new flag, blue and white diagonals with WRC embroidered on it. The flag was made by Miss Donna Cleary. Wicklow Regatta 1959 would be opened by Minister Erskine Childers, the rowing club was already celebrating winning the Senior and Junior Races at Ringsend Regatta. This was their first time winning the Junior Cup. A bus loaded with supporters had travelled with the crews. They returned bedecked with decorations and paraded up and down Main Street. The crew were Senior: T. Quinn, J. Devlin, W. Kelly, W. Cleary and J. Byrne, Cox. Juniors: J. Sillery, K. Dunne, T. Dunne, J. Murphy and L. Dover, Cox. There were two weekends of skiff racing planned for the Wicklow Regatta. The carnival was crowded, football matches were played on the Murrough with drama and dances entertaining visitors and locals alike prior to the long weekend. Trains and extra buses were laid on for the long weekend, yachts were becalmed on the water and the rowing club emerged victorious in the Minor and Junior Races. A challenge race was also in the pipeline. The Dublin and Wicklow Manure Company emerged victors in the Factory race beating Hopkins & Sons and Shamrock Fertilisers. A novel race The Shovel Race proved very popular with spectators. Taking part were T. Quinn, N. Brown, T. Hayden, J. Fitzpatrick, D. McAulay, B. Walsh, V. Byrne, P. Sillery and P. Sutton. The rowing club won both the Challenge Race and the Minor Race.
There was good weather for the skiff races as the rowing club took the Senior and Minor races with the FAM crew winning the Factory race. The crew was T. Conroy, J. Fitzgerald, C. Dunne, J. Sillery, W. Kilbride, Cox. St. Patrick’s Pipe band Wicklow changed their name for the first and last time to date when they became ‘Wan Lung’s Chinese Band’ for the day. They led a Fancy Dress parade down Main Street with the Junior crew and skiff at the front. At the Pavillion on the seafront the bandsmen were granted ‘the freedom of the amusements.’ Winners of the Fancy Dress Parade included Yvonne Rice, Frances and Anne Gillespie, Joan Murphy, Ruben Dover and Lila O’Connor.
By November the Wicklow Rowing Club were discussing the idea of building a clubhouse for themselves and began working to make this become a reality. The fundraising drive started with a dance at the Mall Ballroom. The Jay Byrne Band supplied the music with dancing from 10pm to 2am with the admission price of 2/6-. A ‘’midnight surprise’’ was also promised. The clubhouse would soon become a reality.
From strength to strength.
The victories of Wicklow Rowing Club continued through the decades, they have scored many notable achievements up to the present day, the names of those involved with the club still reflect those families who signed up in the early years as well as those who joined since. The Wicklow Rowing Club 2011 is a very strong organisation with a vibrant youth section which will ensure the club’s continuation into the future.
My thanks to Ciara Brennan, Robert Butler and the staff at the County Library, Boghall Road, Bray, Co. Wicklow.
Courtesy of the Director of the National Library, Kildare Street, Dublin.
Wicklow People Newspapers, various editions 1955-1960.
Wicklow Newsletter and County Advertiser newspapers, various editions 1876-78.