On the waterfront


Trinity takes on UCD this Monday in rowing races down the Liffey but the competitive spirit hasn’t stopped love blossoming between rowers from different universities, writes LIAM GORMAN. Photographs by Alan Betson

IT STARTS WITH a tremendous grunt and a sound like a volley of champagne corks popping. Sixteen men pull with all their might; 16 blades cut into the waters of the Liffey at O’Connell Bridge as crowds watch from the quays and bridges high above. The Gannon Cup has begun.

The Irish Colours Boat Races, fought in four races between the women’s and men’s eights from UCD and Trinity this bank-holiday Monday morning, form an event like no other in Irish rowing. Some of the best athletes in the country will be watched by crowds of bemused tourists and cheering supporters who mount open-topped buses and bicycles in a mad dash down the main artery of the capital city.

The water slaps against two grey quay walls like open palms and the returning wash buffets the thin, rigid craft as they battle for supremacy under eight bridges down the 2km or so to St James’s Gate. “It is like rowing in an egg box,” says Andrew Coleman, who won three Gannon Cups with Trinity from 1997 to 1999. “The wash comes at you from all directions.”

There have been some remarkable stories: in 2010, Trinity won the senior women’s race, the Corcoran Cup, when UCD’s Amy Bulman “caught a crab” (missed a stroke) and her boat stopped dead as it approached the finish. Bulman showed character to come back in 2011 – and win. “It feels pretty good,” she says. Afterall, “it feels like I’ve had a year of being ‘that girl’”.

Last year, Seán Jacob, at 38, won his second Gannon Cup with UCD after a 17-year break, and Dave Neale took his fourth successive Gannon and will be back hoping for his fifth on Monday.

But even those tales will be topped this year. With echos of the rowing Winklevoss twins of Facebook and The Social Network fame, 20-year-old identical twins from Mayo, Turlough and Patrick Hughes, are competing in this year’s Gannon Cup – Patrick for Trinity, and Turlough for UCD.

Turlough took up rowing at King’s Hospital and competed for Ireland just two years later, finishing 10th at the World Junior Championships. Patrick only took rowing up at that point and now he is in the mix to represent Ireland at the World University Games this year.

Patrick says they have always been competitive. “Well I have, anyways. He pretends not to be [but] he doesn’t like it when I beat him.”

UCD is favourite to take this Gannon Cup and get closer to levelling the score over the 63 stagings (Trinity has won 35 to UCD’s 27, with one dead heat). Trinity trails in the Corcoran rankings, with UCD holding a 19-to-13 advantage.

The Gannon Cup was first run in 1947. The race was named for Ciarán Gannon, a UCD student who rowed with distinction in the 1930s and brought the college club to a new level. He graduated in medicine in 1939 and joined the Royal Army Medical Corps. He was killed in Burma in 1944, and friends instituted the race in his honour.

The Corcoran Cup was introduced in 1980 and was initially for women’s fours but became an eights race in 1993. The two novice races, the Dan Quinn Shield and Sally Moorhead Trophy, were added in recent years.

The reach of these races goes further than college rowing: one of the women who may represent Ireland at London 2012, Claire Lambe, rowed with UCD in 2009 and 2010, and there is an even stronger Olympic link with Darren Barber, who won the Gannon with Trinity in 1999.

Barber is a big, quiet man who rowed with Neptune. Once, when a club coach, who wanted to give his crew something to fight for, asked them: “What have you won?” Barber quietly replied: “Olympic gold, 1992.” He was part of Canada’s medal-winning eight at Barcelona.

But rowing at this level is not all about glory. Emma McAleese, the daughter of former president Mary, rowed for UCD in the Corcoran Cup in 2001, 2002 and 2003. She says the races were “great fun” though she did not win. She met Trinity oarsman Micheal O’Connell at Henley Royal Regatta in 2003 and they married in 2009. Michael rowed in the Gannon Cup in 1995, 1996 and 1997, winning each race.

Emma’s love of the sport goes back to her time as a teenager uprooted from Co Down because of her mother’s change of job. “If it wasn’t for rowing I would have never settled in Dublin,” she says. “Once I started rowing, I was happy. I made friends. It was something to occupy me that I really loved.”

Bring on the Colours.

Irish Colours Boat Races

Monday, March 19th, from O’Connell Bridge to St James’ Gate Brewery 8:30am Sally Moorhead Trophy novice women’s 9am Dan Quinn Shield novice men’s 9:30am Corcoran Cup senior women’s 10am Gannon Cup senior men’s See gannoncup.com