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Dublin: 6°C Saturday 27 February 2021

'I just sat at the back thinking, 'These lads' lives have changed beyond all comprehension'

Kieran McCarthy is this week’s guest on Behind the Lines.

Gary and Paul O'Donovan arrive home as Olympic silver medalists.
Gary and Paul O'Donovan arrive home as Olympic silver medalists.

THIS WEEK’S GUEST ON Behind the Lines is Kieran McCarthy, sports editor with the Southern Star and author of Something in the Water, about the O’Donovan brothers and the Skibbereen rowing miracle. 

(Behind the Lines is our sportswriting podcast, exclusive to members of The42. You can subscribe and gain access to a 36-episode back catalogue at

On the show, Kieran recalled being adjacent to the O’Donovans’ success in qualifying for the Olympics…before they were discovered by the rest of the world.

“They came eleventh at the 2015 World Championships and got the last place [at the Olympics] that was on offer. They flew into Ireland, spent a night in Coppers, and then came down to Cork.

“I was in the office and got a text off Gary to say ‘We are out in Kilkilleen and having a bonfire, come out. 

The Star was going to print and was saying, ‘Jesus, I’m up against deadlines here’, but you can’t say no to an invitation like that so I put everything on hold. It was just a special night. Family, friends and neighbours celebrating Gary and Paul qualifying for the Olympics.  There were doors thrown up on the bonfire, drinks were passed around, and the local priest said a couple of words. 

“It was an intimate and private celebration of what these two local lads had achieved. T0 be part of that was quite special.” 

Things were radically different after Rio. 

“There was a press conference at the club and you and every TV station and radio station in the country at it. I just sat at the back thinking, ‘These lads’ lives have changed beyond all comprehension.”

We also spoke about the process of writing a book, which McCarthy found challenging. 

It was mostly torturous with moments of huge enjoyment sprinkled throughout it. It was with Mercier Press and when I started off they said it would be tough. But I was probably a bit naive. We’ve all read books but you don’t appreciate until you write one yourself the amount of work that goes into it. 

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“There were some very tough moments – when you don’t get the interview you want or you don’t get the details you want. And there’s a lot of self-doubt, to be honest. There were countless moments I thought, ‘This isn’t working and isn’t what I want it to be.’ 

“But then there are these small moments when it clicks, and that makes it all worth it. These moments in which you’re sitting on your own in a dark room, and then you’ll get an intro that works or an end to a chapter that leads nicely into the start of another, and those moments made it worth it. 

“One moment stands out. [Coach] Dominic Casey is the mastermind of all this. And Dominic hates interviews. Oh my God, if I’ve ever met someone who doesn’t like to talk on record it’s Dominic Casey. At the Star I’d be chatting to Dominic, we’d finish up the interview and next thing, ‘Now Kieran, you can’t use any of that.’ 

“What was the point of the last 15 minutes!? 

“For this process I spent five or six nights in Dominic’s house with him, sitting down in his conservatory. It was great to get to know the real Dominic. But even at that, he wasn’t furnishing me with all the details I knew were there and that I wanted for the book.

I put out the call to a few of the Skib rowers about Dominic’s legendary emails. When I got a hold of them, what struck me was just before the lads went to Rio, Gary and Paul were on a training camp in Spain with Dominic. It was the same weekend as the Irish rowing championships. where Skib became the most successful club in the country. 

“Dominic was constantly on email to the rowers back home – ‘Well done’, ‘Keep up the good work’ – and that Monday, still in Spain with Gary and Paul, he sent an email to the rowers at the club as he had looked ahead to 2017 and saw a gap in the calendar where the club could put together a boat with eight rowers.

“So even though he was preparing Gary and Paul for the Olympics, he was still looking at the club and looking at 2017, so sent out an email to all of the male rowers to say ‘Lads we have a chance here, we will put a plan in place.’

“It was an insight into the man. He puts the club first in everything and even though he was preparing for his first Olympics, he was still thinking of the club.” 

Listen to the full interview by subscribing here. 

About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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