A scene from the Lough Ree Yacht Club Regatta in 1974.

Lough Ree Yacht Club: still sailing after 250 years

Lough Ree Yacht Club is justly proud of its status as the second oldest sailing club in the world. It was founded in 1770 and, therefore, the Athlone club celebrated its 250th anniversary last year.

However, in common with so many other sporting organisations, its plans for 2020 were significantly disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic. For example, the club had to postpone their flagship celebratory event, Clinkerfest.

Indeed, Lough Ree Yacht Club (LRYC) members were fortunate that they kicked off their 250th anniversary celebrations before the coronavirus began to impact upon public gatherings. The club held a half-day symposium in February of last year at its base in Ballyglass, Coosan. It was a well attended event during which several contributors spoke about different aspects of the club’s history.

Among the speakers who addressed the gathering on the day were noted historian Harman Murtagh, who discussed historic boating on Lough Ree and club activities in the mid-20th century. Dr Murtagh also coordinated the event which proved popular with locals and visitors alike.

Both sailing historian Vincent Delany and local historian Gearoid O’Brien spoke about the early years of what was then Athlone Yacht Club (it was renamed Lough Ree Yacht Club in 1895). Mr Delany also discussed different boat types such as the Shannon One Designs.

Dr John Keane recalled the ‘Ambush at Ballyglass’, which took place on October 17, 1920 during the War of Independence.

Last year, then LRYC commodore Garrett Leech admitted that the pandemic “seriously impacted” on the club’s 250th celebrations, which meant the club was unable to do justice to the milestone in 2020.

Mr Leech has since been replaced as commodore by John McGonigle, but the understandable delay in holding the club's annual general meeting caused Garrett’s tenure to continue for longer than originally envisaged.

The Leech family has been steeped in sailing for many years, with Garrett’s late mother Lola (née Milligan) becoming Ireland’s first female commodore in 1976. Indeed, she was almost the first female commodore in the world, being beaten to the honour by just one year. She actually served as commodore for two separate spells and was also a club trustee.

Lola Leech had a considerable claim to fame prior to becoming commodore as, in 1953, she became the first woman to sail in the lengthy inland race between Lough Ree and Lough Derg. Lola was one of two crew, there was no buoyancy in the boat and she had no lifejacket. “At Banagher, the midway point, someone dropped a bottle of gin off the bridge to us. I was told to try it out… anything would have tasted good at that stage. But we won that race, and the next boat was actually within five minutes of us, which was quite extraordinary,” Lola told the Irish Times, in an article published in 2012.

Lola’s son John was commodore of Lough Derg YC and Garrett continued the family tradition by becoming commodore of LRYC (their respective terms overlapping for a year).

At the symposium on the history of Lough Ree Yacht Club held in February 2020, L-R: Dr John Keane, Gearoid O’Brien, Garrett Leech (then LRYC Commodore), Dr Harman Murtagh and Vincent Delany. Photo: Ann Hennessy.

Early years

The tradition of sailing or pleasure boating in the Athlone area dates back further than 1770. There are reports from 1731 that a regatta on the Shannon was to be among the “diversions” promised for a festival week in the town. This was referred to by renowned TCD historian and Athlone native, Prof G.T. Stokes, with the events stated to have taken place from July 26 to July 31, 1731.

To mark the bicentenary of the club in 1970, N.W. (Billy) English wrote an interesting and informative historical article entitled ‘Lough Ree Yacht Club: a memoir’.

Mr English noted that many “survivors of the old landed families” were associated with the club in the early days. It is believed that members in the early years included the Smyths of Portlick and the Handcocks, along with the Hodsons and Gunnings of Hodson Bay and St John’s.

Gearoid O’Brien, when speaking at the aforementioned symposium, stated that “apart from members of the landed gentry and perhaps some leading business people of the day” the membership was “most likely boosted by the officers serving in the local garrison as well as any retired army or naval officers who were living in the vicinity of the lake”.

The headquarters of the club were located at Carberry Island, up until 1834. In 1837, Samuel Lewis in his ‘Topographical Dictionary of Ireland’ noted that “a regatta is annually held on Lough Ree in August and continues for four days, and races take place occasionally at Ballykeeran”.

In his address to the symposium, O’Brien quoted from an article written by Captain Woulfe-Smyth and published in 1950. “Founded as it was in the year 1770 or thereabouts, the Lough Ree Yacht Club is the second oldest club in the country, the Royal Cork Yacht Club (based in Crosshaven) being the oldest,” wrote Woulfe-Smyth.

A rival local club, known as Killinure Yacht Club, was set up about sixty years after Athlone Yacht Club. In his aforementioned article, Woulfe-Smyth stated that “the club was divided into two political groups, one of which broke away to form the Killinure Yacht Club”. Woulfe-Smyth went on to mention that Killinure Yacht Club had their clubhouse on Friar’s Island.

Harry Rice in his renowned book ‘Thanks for the Memory’ records that Killinure Yacht Club used both Temple Island and Friar’s Island as their base.

“The breakaway club was short-lived, however, lasting perhaps only five seasons, because by 1836 two of the founding members: Edward Hodson and John Digby, were once again serving on the committee of Athlone Yacht Club,” O’Brien noted.

Although Killinure Yacht Club did not last long, some of its rules make for interesting reading, for example: “Wine not allowed at mess, but the best spirits to be provided by the Purser. When the fleet is to return home after dinner, one glass of grog only allowed. Any member disobeying this order will be fined five shillings, which shall be demanded by the Secretary on the fleet coming to their moorings.”

The first known programme for an Athlone Yacht Club Regatta dates back to August 1836 when the club organised a three-day regatta with a rendezvous point at Ballyglass.

Sumptuous entertainment

Mr English said the first edition of the Westmeath Independent in June 1846 referred to the activities of the yacht club. In the regatta of September 1853, the paper reported that “a large muster of yachts appeared at the rendezvous, including several from Lough Derg and a number belonging to the 62nd Regiment”.

The Westmeath Independent article went on to state: “The aquatic gentlemen were most sumptuously entertained by the Lough Ree club at Madam De Ruyter’s Railway Hotel, where every delicacy of the season was provided and wines of the choicest vintage”.

Early activities appear to have involved a rendezvous at some agreed place and a cruise in company in the manner of a naval flotilla, but competitive racing eventually developed. The lion and roses from the Athlone coat of arms were adopted as the club burgee at an early stage.

Lough Ree Yacht Club took part in races against other clubs such as Skerries, Clontarf and Lough Erne. The minutes of a meeting in 1953 stated that “it was doing the club no good” to have members going away to numerous teams races “as it was taking interest away from the club”. This viewpoint brought participation in such events to an end, though annual races against Lough Derg continued until they became so acrimonious that they were discontinued.

The club’s current premises at Ballyglass was purchased by the club in the early years of the 20th century. In April 1914, the Westmeath Independent reported that the club would have in the coming season “the advantage of a much needed clubhouse, which has been erected on the shore of Ballyglass Bay”.

It was stated that Ballyglass had been “the venue of many enjoyable gatherings in the past” but that club members were previously “limited to the accommodation which a couple of temporary tents afforded them”. During the First World War of 1914 to 1918, no regattas were held but there were weekly yacht races.

At last year's symposium, Gearoid O’Brien quoted from a diary kept by John Keegan, a young man from Moate who worked with the Ordnance Survey.

One of Keegan’s diary entries from May 1837 stated: “Ballyglass Hill lies between Ballykeeran and the Shannon. It is here that the tents are pitched and the people assemble annually to witness the regatta on Lough Ree. Thornley and I went there in August, and a pleasant day we had, although we got wet to the skin in crossing from Westmeath to the Roscommon side, where the regatta was held this year.”

The need for a competitive and less expensive dinghy resulted in the Shannon-One-Design, designed by Morgan Giles, and introduced to the club in 1922. The introduction of this dinghy was a significant factor in the development of many sailing clubs such as LRYC.

Junior sailing was introduced to the club in 1968 in the form of a dozen Optimist dinghies, and this fleet has expanded and thrived most successfully since that time, being joined by Mirrors and Lasers in recent years.

Billy English credited Alfred Delany for initiating junior sailing in the club. Delany represented Ireland in sailing in the Olympic Games of 1948 in London (the sailing events took place in Torquay/Torbay) and of 1952 (Helsinki). He had been nominated by LRYC for Irish Olympic trials. The aforementioned Vincent Delany is a son of Alfred, and another son, Owen, represented Ireland in sailing at the 1972 Olympics in Munich.

A number of future LRYC commodores, including John Keane, Graham Kearon and David Dickson, first became involved in sailing through junior sailing.

Proposal to move premises

An interesting episode came in 1954 with a proposal that the club move from its current base in Coosan to Hodson Bay, on the western shore of Lough Ree. It was felt that a more sheltered position on the western shore would be more desirable. The development of the Hodson Bay Hotel, then under the proprietorship of PJ Lenihan, who later became a TD, was also perceived as a factor in favour of the move.

As Mr English recalled: “The idea was to sell the Ballyglass premises to Westmeath County Council for a swimming club. Plans for a new two-storey clubhouse were drawn up. The expense involved and the fact that the council considered the site unsuitable finally ruled out this idea.”

Although the club didn’t move promises, annual regattas were held at Hodson Bay for a number of years until, as English wrote, “overcrowding from the general public and the growing use of the Hodson Bay jetty by other boats ultimately brought about the decision to return to Ballyglass”.

According to Mr English, the late 1950s and early 1960s were “something of a crisis era for the club”. With many of the older generation having moved away or died, there had been a failure to introduce young people to sailing.

“This state of affairs was largely reversed by the efforts of one man: Syd Shine, who was elected commodore in 1965,” wrote English. Among other things, Shine was lauded for introducing young people to sailing, encouraging the building of new boats and generally putting fun and life back into sailing.

“Thanks to Syd Shine, the club turned the corner, recovered its way and began to expand. Many of those he encouraged to sail went on to become commodores of the club, including Harman Murtagh, Peter Mulvihill, Jimmy Reid and Alan Algeo,” said English.

In 2007, a new clubhouse was opened at its Ballyglass base in Coosan, and a new boathouse followed shortly afterwards. Eileen Browne was commodore of the club at this time. Eileen’s grandparents owned the well-known Gertie Browne’s pub in the town and her family had a long association with sailing, with Eileen’s grandfather having been a builder of lake boats.

In concluding his excellent memoir, English said that LRYC is “extremely proud of its great and long tradition”. He added that it is “a great family institution and indeed a large, if occasionally turbulent family, in its own right”.

More from this Topic