Skibbereen, where the beating heart of town is in the boathouse

Young rowers from Skibbereen Rowing Club undertake a training session on the River Ilen at the end of a day of sunshine in West Cork. Photograph: Andy Gibson

Not long ago rower Tim Harnedy sat down to lunch with brothers Paul and Gary O’Donovan. Paul had just completed a 50km session on the River Ilen, which flows from Skibbereen in west Cork to Baltimore and the Atlantic Ocean.

Harnedy knows all about the long shadows on the water and training days folding into night, the loop run they have always done and the race from the ‘end of the river’. Punishing, rewarding months and years that took him to a World Championship silver medal and a journey of over 20 years.

He understands that from the outside peering in, rowing is seen as a brutal sport of arduous repetition and exhaustion management. But even those things can become your friend, the hardship an accepted consequence before a boat is even put on the water. In Skibbereen at least, passion, place and culture are the starting points. Not adversity.

“There’s so much talk of how hard rowing is,” says Harnedy. “Obviously it’s hard. But this talk of things being hard. Fuck it like, we know it’s hard. But it’s like going into the nightclub and complaining that the music is loud. Jesus Christ like, you are in a nightclub.

Mystical

“You are in a sport where you know what needs to be done. That’s the understanding in Skib. It is always there. Then it’s forgotten about. Paul was delighted, 50k before lunch. He saw it as a privilege.”

Skibbereen, for those who see a mystical quality to the small town’s oversized rowing achievements, can at least draw from reality to explain a bewitching history of success that draws parallels with Cuban boxers and African runners.

Parishes, local schools and family bloodlines like the O’Donovan brothers, Richard and Eugene Coakley, twins Jake and Fintan McCarthy are central to the beating heart in the boathouse. All of them from around the picture postcard headlands and inlets that have cast a fabulous reputation across the rowing world.

Skibbereen coach Dominic Casey pictured with Olympic silver medallists Gary and Paul O’Donovan. Photograph: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision
Skibbereen coach Dominic Casey pictured with Olympic silver medallists Gary and Paul O’Donovan. Photograph: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision

But it’s also about one man Dominic Casey, who has driven Skibbereen rowing and beautifully connected the parts. His gift has been to shape the prosaic into the magical.

Outlier books such as Mathew Syed’s Bounce, which asks why one street in Reading produced more top class table tennis players than the rest of the UK combined and David Epstein’s nurture or nature exploration in The Sporting Gene, also casts light on the coalescing forces of Skibbereen.

The numbers alone draw attention. In the Athens Olympics of 2004, Beijing 2008 and London 2012, three of the 15 Irish rowers, Eugene and Richard Coakley and substitute Tim Harnedy, came from the town and hinterland.

At the 2016 Olympics three Irish boats qualified with the O’Donovan brothers, two of the five athletes, or 40 per cent of the team, winning a silver medal.

Since Rotterdam 2016, Paul O’Donovan has won four World Championship gold medals, two on his own, one with brother Gary and one with Fintan McCarthy. Mark O’Donovan and Shane O’Driscoll added two more gold medals in 2017. All Skibbereen.

Talented coach

At European level Gary and Paul were European champions in 2016. A year later Shane O’Driscoll and Mark O’Donovan were European champions in the lightweight men’s pair. That year Gary and Paul added silver to gold with Denise Walsh in the lightweight single sculls also winning silver.

Gary and Paul did not slow and in 2018 won silver in Glasgow. Paul then won gold in Lintz with Fintan McCarthy, who earlier this year in Poland won a European bronze medal. All Skibbereen.

“The small town, not a lot to do and then you have a really talented coach, who saw something. I can’t stress high enough how one person Dominic Casey has changed lives. His drive. His energy. It never wanes,” says Eugene Coakley, who with Harnedy won the silver medal in the 2005 World Championships. Both Skibbereen.

“My brother Richard is about four years younger. I guess he saw me doing what I do and he got into it. If you are surrounded by people, I guess around the kitchen table . . . If you look at international rowing there have been a lot of successful brothers.

“The link between family is quite strong and you will find everybody has quite a unique technique in rowing. You’ll find siblings have that match of technical ability which is probably one of the reasons Gary and Paul work so well.

Paul O’Donovan pictures outside the Skibbereen Rowing Club boathouse in Co Cork. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Paul O’Donovan pictures outside the Skibbereen Rowing Club boathouse in Co Cork. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

“Paul is exceptional,” adds Coakley momentarily pausing. “Paul is one of a generation. The international world of rowing are looking at him and saying ‘Jesus he’s one of a kind’. His physiological make-up is phenomenal.

“His lung capacity is incredible. In an endurance sport like rowing lung capacity is your bread and butter. If you don’t have it you won’t be successful. I don’t exactly know the numbers but Tim and myself would have been 5.5 litres. Paul would be knocking around an extra litre on top of that. That’s enormous.”

At that level of competition on the Ilen or any Irish club it’s cutthroat, Coakley explains. You leave your emotions at the door. Then you find a place and you find balance. But in Skibbereen you know what you are getting. You know if you train hard and put yourself in the right position you will be given opportunity. And that could bring a European or World Championship. It’s fair and it’s uncomplicated.

“Centre of Excellence. It’s something Skib never had over the door,” says Coakley. “All that marketing kind of language. Skib grew organically as a club, where there was an understanding. If you trained hard, you did your best and got your results. No one speaks of high performance. It’s kind of a given. A couple of fancy buzz words, it’s not the real world.”

Public faces

It wasn’t always the way. But the sense now is what rowing gives Skibbereen, the town gives back. The real world has changed too, particularly after Rio. The town became a stakeholder as much as an interested party. Now, unexpectedly, it is exporting a rowing reputation.

“It always kind of struck me when you go to Skib you see everyone walking around with the splash tops. Instead of the county jersey you see a lot of them wearing the T-shirts,” says former international rower Heather Boyle. “There’s a pride in the rowing club. There’ll be collections at the local SuperValu. It’s part of the community, like embedded into the whole town.”

The O’Donovans are the public faces of Skibbereen success. But in rowing circles it often comes back to Casey. His name has been one of the constant drivers. There is nobody who can talk of the club’s rise without pulling Casey to its centre.

Casey is the guy getting everyone white T-shirts to keep the sun off at the national finals. He is the one scouting talent in the town, in local schools long before Britain pioneered identification programmes. He is the one feeding on information. At the beginning it was Casey tearing pages from international rowing magazines and pinning them on the clubhouse wall.

Richard and Eugene Coakley pictured during the Beijing Olympic qualification regatta in 2008. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
Richard and Eugene Coakley pictured during the Beijing Olympic qualification regatta in 2008. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

“He’s a really high level on all the things you need to be high level on, whether that be technical or how to rig up a boat,” says Harnedy. “We were embarrassed as kids when we went to Belgium in ’88 or ’89 and Dominic would be going around measuring other countries boats to see what their span was. Writing it all down. He’s an absolute fiend for collecting knowledge.

“His ID system was around the school. He’d be saying to us pick out the big lads in your class. Get them out to the rowing club. Literally around the town he’d know people who would be suited to rowing.

“For instance in ’97 there was a quad that went to the Junior World Championships and came sixth. There was a guy in that, John Whooley, who turned out to be a very good rower.

“Dominic would have said there’s a fella there works in Scannells. Eugene he’s in your class. Get him. Eugene went up to John, probably harassed him and he would have come out. Then 18 months later John is at the Junior World Championships in a quad.

Relentless ambition

“If you have the capacity to be a brilliant athlete and you end up in Skib rowing club, there is every chance you’ll be a brilliant athlete and you will represent Ireland. ”

There are just two or three people in Harnedy’s life across work, industry and education, he says, are like Dominic in his relentless ambition and drive to get results. With Dominic, he says, it has always been 24/7. He says if you are clever or competent in trying to achieve something and you spend an awful lot of time or all your time trying to achieve it, then you’ll get success. That is Dominic. That is his drama.

A pressing episode of that drama is who will row with Paul in Tokyo next year. Incredibly his brother Gary, with his Rio silver medal, is not a shoo-in certainty. That is also Dominic. That is also Skibbereen and how Irish rowing calibrates itself.

“There’s no one saying isn’t it really hard that I’m going for the double and I may not get in. Or, I won an Olympic silver medal and I might not get in. Or, I’m a world champion, in Fintan’s case, and I may not get it,” says Harnedy.

“You have it bate into you. You don’t even know it. What you know is, if I’m not fast enough I won’t be in the boat. You don’t pass a second thought about how hard that is. End of story. I live with Gary in Castletownsend and I know Fintan and Paul very well.

“It’s get up in the morning and ask what’s the best thing I can do to make the Olympics in the boat. It’s always in Fintan’s mind in every decision he makes every day. Same with Paul. Same with Gary. Same with Fintan’s brother Jake.”

Coakley remembers 2004 after competing in the Athens Olympics. He came back to Skibbereen and went shopping. The butcher threw in a few extra T-bone steaks. In the local pharmacy they gave him his vitamins. Small gestures that carried freight. They were rowers, not county GAA players.

The club success and the monolithic influence of Casey has become a kind of enobling adhesive in the town, the rowers, their ethos of accomplishment and grounded detachment from the fuss, a prized asset. All of it their own making.

But the capacity for frill-free ambition comes with knowing the first step through the door has to be taken with a belief in something bigger and with a preparedness to achieve it. Then, in achieving it knowing it is not the end.

“There’s a rowing race we used do in the club from the end of the river as we called it,” says Coakley. “Back up into the town. The distance has never changed over the years, 33 minutes.

“About three weeks ago I got word that Paul had done the course in just over 30 minutes. We can reflect with pride on what we did back in the day. We can also reflect with pride on a guy that can now go 30 minutes.

“Pride in he’s so far ahead of what we ever did.”