Boat Club Reminiscences
By Major M. P. Leahy
It was in 1899 that I joined the D.U. Boat Club, which I captained in 1904. Dear old John Craig Davidson and ‘father’ Abraham (Stoker) of Botany Bay (who became a famous writer) were the first to initiate me into the joys and sorrows of rowing. The joys were many and the sorrows few: blistered hands and (with apologies) a blistered seat were the only sorrows I have memory of.
Before my time there were two clubs rowing in Trinity (the Boat Club and Rowing Club). They rowed at Ringsend, mostly in choppy sea water, with planks, dead rats, and flotsam and jetsam of all kinds around them. The boats were frequently filled, and almost as frequently sank, in the choppy seas on which they performed. I think it was in ’98 that the two clubs amalgamated and moved to the upper reaches of the Liffey, where they built a delightful Boat House and had a course of one and a quarter miles between Chapelizod weir and Islandbridge weir, just opposite the Boat House. Our colours were black and white hoops on the rowing vest and a royal blue shield bearing the arms of Trinity.
In those days we were lucky in our strokes, Arthur Barton, who stroked the successful Tourists’ VIII of 1901, was one of the living best. There was only about eight stone of him, but I never met with a better eight stone of man, and I rowed with him all that year. He is now Archbishop of Dublin. Other fine strokes of the day were Haire Forster, and Frank Usher: the general opinion was that Usher was the best stroke at Henley in 1902, and again in 1903 when we won the Thames Cup and lost the ‘Ladies’ by three feet.
The latter race was rowed at eleven in the morning, and we were completely rowed out when we narrowly lost to Magdalen, the ultimate winner, and the head of the river at Oxford. One of our men, a gallant and powerful oar, was so completely exhausted that he vomited for two hours, and had to be doped with brandy for our final in the ‘Thames’. We were a sad and sorry crew when we were driven up to the start in two one-horsed phaetins for the race against Kingston R.C. at five that afternoon. However we got going and , after a gruelling race for three-quarters of a mile, Kingston cracked and we won easily enough in the end, though our opponents hung on with great determination and rowed themselves completely to a standstill. When we got to the slip, we were paid a complement we shall never forget, for the Leander crew, who had won the Grand, were waiting for us, helped us out of the boat, and said that if we cared to join the Leander they would be glad to have us. If we cared! There was no greater honour we could desire.
Dear old Andy Jameson sent us a crate of Champagne, and that night we didn’t know much of what happened on earth. I do remember Arthur McNeight and I determined to put out all the lights in Henley High Street. He took one side, I the other and we each had two other men to hoist us up the standards to reach the gas jets: we had nearly completed our mission when the Henley police got into action, but we got the two last lights out, leaving the street in darkness, and then ran. I have painful recollections of scaling a high wall studded with glass, which removed the seat of my trousers and a large portion of my tail. Arthur, the long legged devil escaped unhurt.
The oarsmen of our day owed a lot to the coaches, William Towers, a six-footer, the G.O.M. of rowing in T.C.D. in my day, Andy Jameson, Ernest L. Julian, who was killed at Gallipoli leading his men in attack, Hetty Ryan, Billy Townsend, and Rudy Lehmann, a famous Cambridge coach who came to Ireland, at Jameson’s invitation, to coach us before Henley. Townsend figured in a dramatic act put on as an interlude after some Term Races. Billy, who had a most important part, was to be shot. The gun, a huge revolver, was pointed at him and went off with a shattering report, which made Billy completely forget his lines. He stood, trying to remember, then, inspired, clutched his breast, gave a choking gasp, and fell to the ground, muttering, ‘My God! My God! I’m poisoned!’ The applause was terrific.
The crew who won the Thames Cup in 1903 were – Frank Usher (stroke), J. du P. Langrishe (7), H.B. Mayne (6), Horace Emerson (5), Arthur McNeight (4), M.P. Leahy (3), John Cunningham (2), W.F. Fox (bow), and E.B. Bate (cox). John Cunningham was a son of Dan Cunningham, Professor of Anatomy, and his brother became Admiral of the Fleet in the 1939-1945 war. How well I remember when, on my fourth effort, I passed my half M.B., dear old Dan came up to me to tell me I was through. He grasped my hand in both of his and fixed me with an eye. In tones of portentous gravity he then proceeded to say, ‘Leahy, I congrratulate you! You’ve displayed the maximum of ability. You got through on the minimum of marks. You got one mark more than was necessary.’ Dear God, and the glint in his eye!
I think it was in 1902 that an eight, drifting, rowed out, after a hard race, went over the Islandbridge Weir. Before they knew what was happening the stern of the boat hit against the pillar supporting the sluice gates, and the eight snapped in two just between cox and stroke. The cox managed to scramble out, with the agility of which superb coxes are capable, but the rest went over the weir, and so did half -a-dozen sportsmen who followed in pair-oared boats in an effort to help them. Some one with brains managed to get on to the plank at the sluice gates, cast a rope, and hauled the struggling warriors out one by one. No-one was hurt, and God smiled on us again.
When training for Henley, we used to do a long paddle from Islandbridge to the mouth of the Liffey at Ringsend, carrying the boat down the weir when there was not too much water going over. We then paddled under the bridges which crossed the river, down to its mouth at Dublin Bay. The trip was sometimes exciting for when the lads of the village saw us coming they lined the bridges, and dropped anything from pebbles to brickbats on us as we shot the bridges. The kept us on the alert and called for ‘Six hard strokes, boys’ to circumvent their attentions. Down at Ringsend we realised what our forbears had had to contend with, rough water, planks, dead rats, and big ships, or at least big to us in an eight. But life is fun, and that was great fun.