When the Menlo Crew Won
Galway Observer, February 22, 1930.
This article below reprinted from the "Leader" a weekly Dublin publication was written by Mr. Tom O'Gorman, author of "Roadside Trifles".
The thirty mile stretch of Lough Corrib, running nearly north and south, divides County Galway into two parts; the one towards the sea might be called a granite district, and the other a limestone one. While Galway granite is a beautiful stone to look at, as in the large blocks in the breached pier at Spiddal, its presence is an enemy to tillage, the soil where it abounds being cold and unproductive and the people depending on that soil poor and miserable. But where you have the limestone, as round Tuam and Headford, you have the big Galway sheep with the extra white fleeces.
Within three miles of the City of Galway the lane narrows and flows as the Corrib river, and tumbling over the weir, drops seventeen feet in this passage through the city.
Diverted to each side of the weir is a volume of water that plays "hide and seek" through bridges, tunnels, and mill—wheels, here, at various points, it cascades back to the parent flow. Before it reaches the weir the river is easy flowing, and, winding conveniently by the city, invites in an especial manner the pastime of rowing. As a result you have on its banks five rowing clubs, each with a fleet of rowing boats, and each with a set of racing draft as well. Every Galway person knows how to row a boat, and many of her young men know, how to put their backs into the pull of a racing oar. This latter is not confined to the young men; at last Regatta I saw a Ladies Race in which three 'fours' competed. Rowing as gracefully as the men and keeping as well together, the winning crew was stroked by a young girl who wore her hair in a long plait down her back. Seeing her, I thought that the strength of character that enabled her to ignore the prevailing fashion, stood to her when her staying powers were called on.
A Unique Affair
Like the Galway Races, the Galway Regatta, is a unique affair. The rowing is up against the river, and the enclosure is the strip of ground in front of the battlements of Menlo Castle. Till twenty years Menlo Castle was the home of the Blakes; then an accidental fire brought their long reign to an end, and now the castle adds another to the many ruins that stands on a two mile length of the Corrib. On one side you have Menlo Castle, nearer the city, the remains of an iodine works; and nearer again are two Norman Castles. On the other side, coming from the city, there is an extensive remains of a jute factory, then a derelict distillery; and facing Menlo Castle are the old walls of a nunnery.
But although the ghosts of other days keep sentinel on each side of this stretch of Galway water, it would be a mistake to assume that Galway City is a decayed place. Galway City is one of the few places where a regatta of thirty—five events could be run to the tick of the clock.
The Normans made the City of Galway, the Cromwellians stabled their horses in its Cathedral; now the Milesians are striving to restore its Norman prestige, and in the restoration another race, the Firbolgs are lending a hand. Three thousand years ago the Firbolgs were driven to the waste places where they had to be content with a lot that was the envy of none; and now, after a long eclipse, a change in their fortune is taking place. Already they are the owners of the land round the great cairn at Moytura where their last king lies buried. On a fine spring day I saw them planting potatoes, and they had the appearance of men who would be alive to eat them. "Above them the old king lies" I said to a little old man. "Above them he lies", he repeated, and he spoke in a casual manner as if the thought had already occupied his mind. "this land is much better now" I said, "than when I was last here, thirty years ago." "There was no good land here then" , was the reply I got. After leaving these progressive and hopeful men, I met a boy who was playing a fiddle as he walked along, and whether he was a Firbolg genii or not, I cannot say.
These things I saw at the northern end of the Corrib lake; and at the Galway City end I saw signs of Firbolg progress too. In the primitive village of Menlo, standing at the entrance to Menlo Castle, Firbolg blood is strong. In the olden days some of the villagers worked for the Blakes, others rowed boats to the bog for turf, fished on the lake, and tilled little patches of land between the rooks. Now it is the Blakes who are gone; and it is the villagers who are the owners of the land. Their dividing ditches run through that place; and when the Galway people wish to erect an enclosure for the regatta it is from these Firbolg landowners that they must get permission.
Heretofore the Menlo young men were content to be spectators at the Galway Regatta; now they are competitors. Natural oarsmen, and knowing the river well, they felt like testing their prowess with the city men, and towards this end they became members of one of the boat clubs. During their juvenile years of rowing they were victorious every place they rowed; and when last year they became senior oarsmen, the Irish Amateur Rowers' Union Cup — the blue riband of Irish rowing — was competed for off their own river; and on this cup their minds were set. Galway City people realizing that in these Irish speaking oarsmen there was material that would bring credit to their city, procured a special coach to train them for this All—Ireland event. Hopes ran high in the City of the Tribes.
On the eve of the regatta some of the least important events were run off, and on that evening I saw groups of the elderly Menlo men talking to each other. Wearing black soft hats and white flannel bauneens, they stood erect with their hands in the cross pockets of their trousers; and the trousers made from strong material stood out without a sag and gave them a firm set appearance.
"Will you boys win tomorrow?" I asked, and in the confident tone of the man's reply, I recalled the Moytura potato planters "Well, said he, "if they don't win, they wont' be beaten by much".
The race was for "eights", and competing in it was Scotch blood represented in a Belfast crew; Cromwellian blood in a trinity College crew; Milesian blood in a Limerick crew and in an Irish—speaking crew from the village of Menlo, Firbolg blood was represented. The race was kept to the end of the programme, and amongst the big crowd of spectators excitement ran high as to the result. Trinity disposed of Belfast in the first heat, and then Menlo and Limerick got ready and waited for the starter. At the word, Limerick took the water better. For half—way it might be anybody's race; Limerick, with a long steady stroke, sent their boat ahead; and Menlo, short and fast, depended on their wind to stay the pace. When the boats reached to where the first of the spectators were on the banks, Menlo had a lead, and then a Firbolg cheer arose. Like a wave it followed the boats, and increased in volume till a climax was reached when Menlo were the winners of the heat. The excitement caused by the result seemed to have affected the elements; the sky took on an ominous leaden hue, and large drops of rain came down. When, for the final, Menlo and Trinity rowed to the stake boats, the floodgates were unloosed, the lightning split the clouds, and, right above the Corrib, high—toned thunder claps rang out. But no one moved to shelter; men rather strained their necks and stood on tip—toes for a sign. More tremendous than the other was the one that now rang out. And the rifle shot that proclaimed a Firbolg victory was drowned in the roar of a crowd gone mad.