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'The Pope would struggle to gather such a crowd if he came to Skibb'

The O’Donovan brothers’ Olympic homecoming is recalled in this extract from ‘Something in the Water’.

Olympic medallists Paul and Gary O’Donovan parade through Skibbereen on an open top bus.
Olympic medallists Paul and Gary O’Donovan parade through Skibbereen on an open top bus.

THE FOLLOWING PASSAGE is an extract from ‘Something in the Water’ by Kieran McCarthy.

Brian Hennessy, the owner of Hennessy’s Londis on Bridge Street, maintains that he never saw a crowd like it in Skibbereen before. From mid-afternoon through to closing time, his wife, Kathleen, and himself were serving the queues that stretched from the counter to the back of the shop. The drinks and bars shelves were almost bare by closing time.

It was the busiest night ever too for William O’Brien in the Corner Bar. The second busiest had been after Gary and Paul O’Donovan won silver. On both nights the crowds spilled out the doors.

On that same artery into the town centre, the Busy Bee Fast Food Restaurant recorded their busiest night since the Welcome Home Week Festival had been in full flight decades before. It was the same story all over town. Business was booming.

The Southern Star newspaper produced a special souvenir publication on Gary and Paul that week. It was called ‘Lisheen Legends’. 20 pages dedicated to rowing. That was unheard of, but this was the Gary and Paul effect. Posters of them were plastered on every window.

Tricolour bunting stretched across the streets. Ireland and Brazil flags popped up everywhere. ‘Gary & Paul’s Crew’ T-shirts were the must-have fashion accessory.

The narrow streets were flooded with locals and outsiders bringing Skibbereen to a standstill for one magical night. The population of the town is 2,500. There was four or five times that number packed in as Gary and Paul shut down their hometown.

It was the biggest gathering in Skibbereen in modern times. When the local GAA club, O’Donovan Rossa, captured the All-Ireland club Senior football title in 1993, a large crowd had welcomed them home. But this was on a different level.

Skibb mattered again. For too long it had been a forgotten town. The recessions of the 1980s and 2000s hit this market town hard. Businesses shut. Big employers such as Erin’s Food closed up. Buildings along the main streets sat empty. Locals emigrated. Every year young people left in search of the opportunities that Skibb and West Cork didn’t provide.

They wanted to stay. It’s a special place. Artistic. Eclectic. Diverse. Inviting. Colourful. Beautiful. But the opportunities weren’t available.

So instead the town stagnated and suffered. It’s a story echoed all over rural Ireland.

The homecoming injected new life into Skibb. Another positive national headline. The year before, Skibbereen had become the country’s first gigabyte town with the opening of the Ludgate Hub on Townshend Street, a shared office space designed to attract and keep more entrepreneurs and young families in the town by offering a place to work at the highest possible broadband speed. Proper broadband speed in Skibb at last. That was a good-news story. But Gary and Paul’s story was better again.

The organising committee for the homecoming left nothing to chance. At one stage, and with concerns over the huge numbers expected to attend, the suggestion was put forward to host the homecoming in the new mart grounds on the edge of the town, but alarm bells went off regarding safety concerns, so that idea was quashed quickly. The Fairfield car park, the old mart in the centre of town, was the preferred option for the organising committee.

Everyone in town helped with the preparations: the Skibbereen District Chamber of Commerce, the gardaí, the coastguard, civil defence, volunteers. Skibbereen Rowing Club Captain Seanie O’Brien stayed camped in the Fairfield car park that Monday, keeping an eye on proceedings and hunting away out-of-town chip vans that spotted an opportunity to pull up the handbrake.

From early afternoon the carnival atmosphere built. Shops closed early. The air was buzzing. Constant noise. By evening time excitement had reached fever pitch. The Fairfield car park was already crammed, thousands watching the big screen that had been erected to show replays of the Olympic final, while the stage sat empty, waiting for the men of the moment. The boys would soon be back in town.

Just outside town, near the Spar shop on the Cork road, Shane O’Driscoll rolled up in his Volkswagen Golf with Gary and Paul in the back. A red double-decker bus was waiting there. Its first floor was packed. Gary and Paul took their places, dressed in their official Team Ireland white and green tops, light grey tracksuits, with their medals around their necks.

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Dominic was there too, swapping his shirt and pants from earlier in the day for a suit with a patriotic dark-green tie. Any Skibb rower that competed internationally for Ireland that year took their place on the bus, as well as committee members and family. Denise Walsh. Shane O’Driscoll. Aoife Casey. The twins, Jake and Fintan McCarthy. Emily Hegarty. Lydia Heaphy. T. J. Ryan. Tony Walsh. Kenneth McCarthy. Up the front sat Trish with Nana Mary Doab, Mick, Teddy and Jackie Neville, Gary and Paul’s aunt.

At 7.06 p.m. the bus bearing the words ‘Home are the Heroes’ left the Cork road, turned left at the first roundabout and inched down North Street. The St Facthna’s Silver Band marched in front of it. The closer it nudged towards Main Street and then the Fairfield, the more the crowd swelled. Hand-made posters were waved. Fans hung out of first-floor windows. They stood on cars. Kids waved from their parents’ shoulders. Every vantage point was taken.

Gary and Paul waved to their fans. They were like rock stars. The noise was deafening. The Pope would struggle to gather such a crowd if he came to Skibb.

Eventually, the bus stopped outside the Fairfield and Gary and Paul were ushered through Abbeystrewry Hall and then onto the big stage, where RTÉ’s Jacqui Hurley was the emcee for the night. The crowd went wild.

Paul announced it was ‘just a standard Monday night in Skibbereen’.

‘It is hard to take it all in,’ he told the thousands and thousands. ‘The scale of this is giving us a shock. Events like this make us proud to say that we are from Cork, we are from West Cork, but most importantly, we are from Skibbereen.’

Standing to the side was Trish, wrapped in a tricolour, her hands joined in the prayer position, trying to take it all in. Not long after, when festivities at the Fairfield were over, she used Mick as a shield to negotiate her way through the crowds and get to the West Cork Hotel. Gary and Paul were already there, live on The Nine O’Clock News on RTÉ.

Such were the numbers at the hotel, Trish and Mick couldn’t get through to the function room that was closed off for just family, friends and the club. Barry Looney, son of hotel owner Tim, had to lead them through the kitchen.

Later, Gary and Paul escaped to the Corner Bar, less than a minute’s walk away. They went in through the side door and sat at the back for a chat with friends. They were still naïve enough to think they might be left alone. Shane, Diarmuid, Denise Walsh, they were all there. But word soon got out where Gary and Paul were. It was already like their wedding day, but this was too much. They had no time to themselves. Grown men and women were pulling at them. The onslaught of attention was ferocious. All they wanted was a quiet pint. William’s son, Mike, took the two lads upstairs. That’s where they stayed for most of the night of their homecoming, away from the crowd.

Life had changed, they were quickly realising. Down below, the party lasted into the bright hours. Skibbereen was rejuvenated. It was one of the best nights ever in the history of this town, thanks to the rowing club.

Kenneth got a taxi late that night. Des Quinn was the driver. He was all chat about rowing. The Olympics. Gary and Paul. Their races.

Paul’s gold in Rotterdam. He knew it all. That conversation stayed with Kenneth for a long time after.

After all, there had been a time when some in the town didn’t even know where the rowing club was. Before Eugene Coakley travelled as a sub to the Sydney Olympics in 2000, the club hung up posters around town to let people know the news, but they hadn’t paid too much attention. The rowing club is smack in the middle of a powerful GAA stronghold, surrounded by the O’Donovan Rossa, Castlehaven and Ilen Rovers senior football teams. They’ve always taken precedence. Men like Don and Anthony Davis and ‘Small’ Mick McCarthy are three of the town’s finest-ever footballers, all inter-county players. Fachtna Collins of Ilen Rovers. John Cleary and Niall Cahalane of Castlehaven. All men with a status locally. Known throughout. All respected.

There’s the rugby and soccer clubs in Skibb as well. The rowing club wasn’t even an option for most. It took in cast-offs from other clubs, youngsters who couldn’t kick a ball straight or had no co-ordination, and then moulded and turned them into national champions, and then international champions. It survived on a shoestring and hard work. And now, after years of pulling at peoples’ coats and asking for money to keep the club afloat, they were the pride of the town and the rowing club was the reason Skibbereen was plastered all over every national newspaper and TV station in the country.

Something in the Water by Kieran McCarthy is published by Mercier Press. More info here.

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