Being in Skibbereen was special as the O'Donovan brothers delivered an incredible performance at the Olympics

Being in Skibbereen was special as the O'Donovan brothers delivered an incredible performance at the Olympics
Paul and Gary O'Donovan wave to the crowd during a homecoming parade in Skibbereen in 2016. Picture: Brian Lawless/PA Wire.

A GAA rewatch series stalls a bit in the 2010s.

There was a lack of Cork big days in the sun and if the local championships had noteworthy new winners at times, there wasn’t a sense of box-office around much of it.

Honestly, the most important, epic sporting moment of the last 10 years that was made in Cork was probably outside the GAA — even if its protagonists came from a strong GAA area and it was a bit of a shock to the system, mostly to see people from that part of West Cork who didn’t play football.

An Olympic silver medal is always worth a lookback though, especially when we were there.

We’re cheating a little here in that we weren’t actually there, like in Rio that August day in 2016 of course. On the biggest ever day for the sport of rowing in Ireland, it just so happened we had planned to be in Skibbereen for the morning anyway, sort of like finding yourself in Barcelona on the night they were playing a Champions League final in Wembley or in New Zealand for a Rugby World Cup final.

Fans line the streets during a homecoming parade in Skibbereen for the O'Donovan brothers. Picture: Brian Lawless/PA Wire.
Fans line the streets during a homecoming parade in Skibbereen for the O'Donovan brothers. Picture: Brian Lawless/PA Wire.

There is something different about watching in this sort of way as well. Let’s say a normal county final experience where a town or village commutes en masse to Cork and the place is left is like a ghost town. 

Here, everybody was walking up and down the street and then stopping for a chat about the race or wearing t-shirts about the race and every coffee shop and bar had posters and buntings up and it was all that every single person in town was aware of that morning.

There were Olympians walking down the street. It really was the centre of everything for one day, the best possible place to watch Ireland’s first Olympic rowing medal.

Rowing is not the greatest spectator sport and yet it’s perfect for non-experts — races are short enough not to expose shortcomings in knowledge and offer just enough chance for shouting at the TV without experiencing fatigue.

It’s not the greatest sport for look-back analysis either. We watched the race again and there’s no really obvious in-depth technical judgement or moments that matter or turning points or tactical genius that swung the race the O’Donovans’ direction.

Things we know about rowing? Well we’ve read enough training diaries from Sam Lynch and interviews with Paul Griffin and Georoid Towey to know how brutal it is, how the training and ultimate dedication to just sapping the body is probably right up there with any extremely punishing sport.

We know from talking to Eugene Coakley and Timmy Harnedy and from reading Kieran McCarthy’s excellent book ‘Something in the Water’ and from basically every interview that the O’Donovans have done the following: How important Dominic Casey was to the entire movement, how you can be a nice guy and still have that toughness to see it through, but how you need that element of slight madness as well to commit completely to that kind of life.

Dominic Casey with the O'Donovans. Picture: Provision
Dominic Casey with the O'Donovans. Picture: Provision

It was instructive to see an interview with Paul recently where he basically explained how lockdown wasn’t all that different for him in a training block anyways, how the routine when training of up, eat, train, eat, bed without too many social interactions wasn’t going to change that much, how they’d not even go to the shop too often when training just to conserve energy.

Paul also has something of that particular sporting Corkness in him especially, that hint of sparky contrariness that went through Roy and O’Gara and that gives him that competitive push to potential greatness.

Anyway, the race itself. The most noticeable thing from the shot of all the teams in the boats pre-race was the absolute awareness that they were about to empty themselves more than they’ve ever done in their lives. The commentary, Eurosport I think, mentioned the O’Donovans and Skibbereen and their chances of going with the French.

And for the first half of the race it looks pretty standard as the French took off in front, and at 1,000m Ireland were in fifth and I recall the thought that it might peter out a little here and that old Irish story of no fault for the effort would be the end result. And then, it just exploded.

Watching it again it happened so quickly, this sudden burst where Ireland looked only slightly out of things and then, like the next time the camera zoomed in, the Irish boat was right there, bobbing up and back with the French and a significant bit ahead of the others. 

Picture: INPHO/Dan Sheridan
Picture: INPHO/Dan Sheridan

We knew, of course, there was this already famed second-half push, that their tactics were to stay in it for the first half and then let loose, and still the effect caught us by surprise.

In the pub in Skibbereen, I just remember a massive surge of noise as the realisation sunk in that there was something happening and something big possible. Again, rowing is a strange watch in that it’s hard to know exactly from the camera angles where the Irish boat was and it seemed for a couple of moments like it might have gone into the lead, but the times at 1,500m confirmed second.

By the time of the last 100m or so, I recall most people had lost any sense of self-awareness at shouting for the boys.

The only other event I remember like that was Sonia in 2000. Seeing the last few lengths again there’s just this flash where you think maybe they might even snatch a gold, but then silver seems absolutely great at the same time.

Again, the emotion of Neville Maxwell on the RTÉ coverage post-race is a lovely watch even now. The remarkable effort that the O’Donovans gave is summed up by their inability to get out of the boat and walk properly afterwards.

The post-race interview of the lads is typically a bit different and yet it’s possible to see Paul, especially, sort of uneasy at the celebratory aspect, that while he’s happy to have medalled, there’s a sense that he really wanted a gold medal. I’ve seen references since that he doesn’t like watching the race back, that it was a dream ruined by not achieving what they wanted and he’s actively targeting gold in Tokyo.

This is an important aspect too, that this wasn’t seen as a once-off or lucky blip in some form, that the O’Donovans saw it as their natural place given the work and ambition they put in.

Rowing in Ireland was never the same after and never will be. Skibbereen rowing club won’t either.

Paul and Gary O'Donovan at a civic reception by Cork County Council. Picture: Denis Minihane.
Paul and Gary O'Donovan at a civic reception by Cork County Council. Picture: Denis Minihane.

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