A Concise History of Tribesmen Rowing Club


At the request of the committee of Tribesmen Rowing Club, the following is an abridged and much shortened version of the book I initially started in 1995. At that time the club had rightfully gained a reputation for producing competitive crews – a reputation continuing into the 2010, at which time the ethos changed, eschewing the rigours of national championship pursuits to a more leisurely, social, environment as exists today.

From the days of its inception Tribesmen has maintained a high profile and has seen many of its rowers selected to represent Ireland internationally at Junior, Under-23 and Elite grades during this period.

Tribesmen also demonstrated an innovative flair. In changing the structures of the Head Of The River in Galway they raised the standard for Irish Heads of the River forever. In doing so, the “Tribes Head” gained respect as the largest, best run event of its kind between 1978 and 2015, up until its demise in recent years.

A lot has occurred since 1976. This is as short as I can make the narrative.

Many had a role to play in the conception, inception, and progress of this young club over the years – the visionaries, the manipulators, the brow-beaters and grafters; the persuaders, the volunteers, the athletes and the managers. Many hours of personal time was generously donated. Many personal resources were contributed without question. And many families supported those single minded activists.

This is their story.

[Mike McCrohan: May 2019]


Rowing in Galway has a long and chequered history. Since 1875, Corrib, Commercial, The Temperance Club, the Royal, Hibernian, Galway Rowing Club, Ancient order of Hibernians, Emmet’s, Citie of the Tribes, St Joseph’s, Col Iognaid and UCG/NUI-G, have represented the city with distinction, maintaining an ever evolving and competitive rowing environment in the city.

Though most of the clubs had enjoyed success at various levels through the years, the senior Championship was an infrequent visitor to Galway – Emmet’s victories in 1929 and 1931 being the
exception. The desire to redress this would lead to the formation of the Tribesmen Rowing Club.

As the 1960’s were drawing to a close, rowing in Galway was at a low ebb. Most of the clubs mentioned above had disappeared entirely, and it had been years since an outrigger had boated from either Corrib or Commercial. UCG contested the Maiden (Novice), and occasionally Junior events at the Wylie inter-varsity championships. The two local rowing schools, St Josephs (The “Bish”) and Colaiste Iognaid (The “Jes”) were very much the also-rans compared with the powerful Northern schools. And Galway Rowing Club was on the verge of extinction.

It might surprise the reader at the low level of equipment in the city in those days. The three active clubs each possessed a clinker Eight, Jes and College had a clinker four, and College had an ageing “Fine” eight. GRC also had a clinker four, occasionally borrowed by Bish in order to compete at the Head of the River or the Colgan cup. Seven boats in total! A glance at the crowded boat racks today goes some way to illustrating how times have changed.

A “clinker” boat is one built with overlapping timber planks. Rowlocks and fittings were brass, oars were wood, sleeves were leather. In short, a heavy vessel compared with todays plastic and carbon-fibre boats.

Local dental student Mike Kavanagh, along with Sean Coll, influenced by developments in rowing coaching in Germany, brought the 1969 Bish crew to success, gaining the School Eight Championship for the first time ever. Across the river, Jes had also come on in leaps and bounds, finishing second to Bish in ’69, ’70, ’71.

One side effect of this leap in rowing power in Galway was the influx of a steam of talented rowers to the UCG club. Kavanagh, in pursuit of his dream of winning the “Senior Pot”, i.e. the Senior Eights Championship of Ireland, relocated to College, and came close to achieving his goal with the 1972 crew.

While innovative approaches were being made on the rowing front, it was recognised that innovation was also needed in the Regatta. The old river courses with their bends were recognised as being unfair, and championships in the future would only be run on multi-lane, straight 2000m courses. The regatta committee embarked on a brave experiment to take the regatta to Oughterard, to be raced at Borasheen Bay on Lough Corrib. There was much interest in this project, and great support from the local community, but the weather gods doomed it to failure when the regatta was cancelled due to wind the first year, and hampered by the same wind the second. There was no third.

The Head of the River would also receive attention in due course. Of that, later.

In the meantime, Galway Rowing club was in process of returning from the doldrums, and promised a base for those rowers wishing to row in the senior grades, but not attending university.

Initially this worked. However the main attention in GRC at the time was to start developing young rowers at the junior grades. Somewhat of a conflict of interest arose, and the small Senior panel, coached by Leo Wall found that they now had purchased their own outrigger, oars, launch and engine.

In short, a club within a club.

So, a meeting of the minds was inevitable, and on Christmas week 1976, in Freeneys pub in High Street a small group of enthusiasts, headed by Mike Kavanagh and Leo Wall, got together and decided that the only way to bring the senior pot back to Galway was to form a brand new club whose primary aim was to achieve that goal. Present were Ger. O’Maille, Sean Heavey, Frank Mulligan, Mike Kavanagh, Billy Lawless, Leo and Irene Wall, Martin Dolan, Tom O’Shaughnessy, Jim Silke, Eamonn Colclough and Tom Kenny. Most were veterans of the Borasheen effort, and can have been under no illusions of the work facing them. A marathon meeting took place, going well into the night. Elections were held and many decisions to be made. A committee was elected, with Leo Wall to be the first President and Sean Heavey the first Captain.

Martin Dolan was, by far, the senior member of the committee. While many fanciful schemes were aired and discussed, Martin was wont to pull the discussion back and inject some pragmatism. So much did this happen, and with such success, that it was decided to formalise the role during the formative years, and the Devils Advocate became a committee position.

The choice of name was more difficult, and took many hours of discussion, suggestions and rebuttals. Many Galway themes were explored before Tribesmen was decided upon. Choice of colour came more readily. At the time the New Zealanders were at the pinnacle of world rowing, and so much were they admired that the new club elected to adopt their colour – black. Not black and gold or black and white. Black.

The first Tribesmen RC Committee
President Leo Wall
Captain Sean Heavey
V-Captain Billy Lawless
Hon.Sec. Tom O’Shaughnessy
Hon.Treasurer Irene Wall
P.R.O. Tom Kenny
Devils Advocate: Martin Dolan
Coaches Mike Kavanagh,Frank Mulligan, Ger. O’Maille

The crest was designed by Dick Byrne, and captured the spirit of Galway on the water by incorporating the Claddagh Ring with crossed oars. The objectives of the club was to bring top class rowing back to Galway. There were two ways to achieve this, first, for the club to win pots themselves, and, second, to take over the Head of the River and build it into a significant event, and vehicle for the promotion of the new club.

The club was officially launched at a reception in Kenny’s art Gallery. It was attended by the President of the IARU, Fr Eddie Diffley, S.J., and the Mayor of Galway, Councillor Gerry Colgan. Addressing the meeting, Leo Wall noted how Rowing was growing healthier than ever, with Irish participation at the highest levels of the world stage. Leo stated that, in Tribesmen, there would be great emphasis on technique, the inclusion of sports medicine, and on the development of the oarsman as a top class athlete. Leo emphasised that the club was not a breakaway from existing clubs, but on the contrary, had their good will.

While the fledgling club did not have a premises, Fr Eddie Diffley and the Jes Club kindly hosted Tribesmen.

The first Tribesmen crew was Tony Freeney (Bow), Jim Silke, Eamon Colclough, Billy Lawless (Stk) and Sean Heavey (Cox)

1978 Progress….

On land

An aggressive marketing campaign and associated fundraising was launched
for the new club. A stand was taken at the 1977 Galway Boat and Leisure Show in April. The objective was to promote the new club, explain its aims and objectives, and to let people know that they were now in the business of collecting money. Brochures were printed for distribution.

Discos were run. Raffles for cars were aggressively pushed, and any possible stratagem likely to raise a few bob was pursued with vigour. While the members invested their time and efforts in managing all this, the club needed more. Purchasing an Eight and two Fours cost £5,000, and in order to help fund this, a system of life membership was introduced. Each life member contributed £100 (in 1970 money), and this provided the initial cash injection needed the buy the equipment. The Karlisch IV was to be aptly named “Overdraught”.

On water

Coach Leo Wall confers with the Senior crew

Coach Leo Wall confers with the Senior crew

Early regattas for First Senior Four and at Maiden level elicited no silverware, but began to establish the Tribesmen reputation that : “you might beat a Tribesmen crew, but you’ll know you’ve been
in a race!” . Finally, success at Cork when the Senior B four of John O’Toole, Jim Silke, Colm Dalton, Pat Burke and Terry McEvoy beat Garda after a dead heat and a rerow.

Tribesmen opened 1978 with crews at opposite ends of the scale, a pool of raw novices and a small core of experienced Senior-B/SeniorC. The Tribesmen Junior-8 (=Intermediate today), Coached by Mike Kavanagh and Leo Wall, had a good season but faced the favourites Garda amongst an eight-entry field. Guards led to half way. Tribes made their move a and led by a half-length approaching the enclosure. Garda replied and a dogfight ensued as both crews gave their all.

Two Feet. Tribesmen had secured their first championship win. On its second year of competitive rowing.

Tribesmen made the first of two trips to Henley in 1980. Sadly they were beaten in the first heat of the Thames Cup by Layton City Orient. The distance being a mere canvas.

Tribesmen returned to Henley in 1985. In their first heat of the Thames Cup, they met Reading University, coached, ironically, by captain Sean Lawless’s ex Digital boss, John Beveridge. Tribes
won by ¾ length, and then beat Queens by three lengths to qualify for the quarter finals. At this stage they met up with the UCD elites whose weight and experience told in the end, and UCD won by two lengths.

Head of the River – Innovation at its best

From 1948 the “Head” had been run by the Galway Regatta Committee, and was a simple affair, but Tribesmen were about to change all that. Until 1978, and given the limited number of boats available in the town the event took place in two three-boat “divisions”. The timing was crude, to say the least!  Ruachan Heaney was deposited on one of the Monuments with a flag. The timers were located on Menlo pier, with a stopwatch for each boat. As each boat passed the start line, Ruachan dropped the flag; the associated stopwatch was started, and when all three boats were under way, the timers raced by road back into Galway and to the finishing line at Steamers Quay. Just in time to see the first crew round the bend and sprint for home. The watches were stopped, the times noted, the boats were re-crewed, and the process repeated.

Clearly this would not scale to a larger event. Until it was discovered that the timing could be achieved with two watches. And come computerisation would help. And radio links. And “professional”
timers. And a wider range of race offerings. And trophies. And a party. Every one of these differentiated Galway from any other Head in the country once Tribesmen took over its running .

An almost professional alliance of Tribesmen (organisers), Galway Motor Club (Timing), Galway VHF club (Radio Communications), Digital (Results tabulation & Communication), Civil Defence (Safety), and scores of volunteers, along with a multi-race format, Scullers events, Women events, etc. guaranteed success.

At its peak, the Head attracted over 400 entries and was the largest rowing event in the country. See Chart.

However, this was due to change. Changes in club membership, an ill-fated attempt to run in a 50:50 collaboration with NUI-Galway students, weather-caused cancellations and competition from elsewhere caused a decline in interest.

Thus, the grand experiment that was Tribesmen Head on the Corrib is no more.

A new experiment based on Lough Rinn is in its early days at time of writing (2019), and time will tell whether the lofty heights of “Tribes Head” can be replicated.

Gotta’ Have a Home

Commencing in 1978, efforts were underway to secure a permanent base for the club. A portion of land on the Dyke road, adjacent to Commercial was identified as potentially suitable for development as a permanent location.  Objections to the development were lodged on the basis of conservation, and were responded to at the end of the day all came to nought and the club lost the opportunity for a clubhouse at a perfect location. Today the land which might have been the site for Tribesmen Rowing Club has been filled in and used for other purposes.

Billy Lawless discovered an old pram painting shed, the property of Hunters Prams at Earls Island, and it was decided that it would make the perfect location for a boathouse for the fledgling club. Ted Hunter was approached by Billy and an agreement made for Tribesmen to rent the premises at very attractive terms. It is readily evident that the club was already adept at exploiting favours and reducing its costs when one solicitors letter of the time concludes with the bemused: “So ends a profitless transaction”.  Teams of labouring Tribesmen and their friends descended on the one-time paint-shed to convert it into a rowing clubhouse. Years of paint build-up had to be chipped away; old pram frames disposed of; canal to be dredged and slip built; re-roofing, and so on. Finally it was brought to the point of being a bona fide clubhouse. Many people outside of the immediate Tribesmen community were instrumental in having the clubhouse renovated. The names of some of these can be gleaned from a letter of thanks written about that time. They included Joe Maude, Brendan Madden, Joe Cleary, Joe Kearns, Dermot Sweeney, Jim Lillis, Christy McLoughlin, Jimmy Holloran, Paddy Walshe, John Dempsy and Jimmy Curran. The building was officially opened on the 28th of October of that year by Mr Robert Molloy, TD, then Minister for defence, and onetime Jes cox. Mr Molloy complimented the many volunteers and helpers who selflessly gave of their time and resources to transform a defunct warehouse to gym, boat-house, committee room and showers. Ted Hunter was complemented on his generosity in giving the Club a lease on very good terms. Fr. Diffley blessed the club.

Hot competition

Domestic success

Key to Scullers Names PF: Paul Flannery GG: Gerry Griffen SM: Sue M LD: lisa Dilleen SMcC: Siobhan McCrohan

From its inception, Tribesmen established a solid reputation as a formidable competitor especially in the men Intermediate and junior grades initially. Fallow years were bracketed by periods of plenty. In the earlier days, Tribes had successes at Intermediate – especially the Four. Then in 1994 the Junior 8 and Fiur titles ere annexed by Tribes. Mike Heskin and Gerry Small coached.

In the early 2000 a talented women squad emerged coached by Ronan Dilleen and David Small, winning all before them in Junior and Intermediate.

A second such womens squad came on the scene in the mid 2000, coached by Gearoid Mitchell and Robin Winkles and had similar success.

Remarkably, Tribesmen, in its short existence had secured a haul of national championships second only to NUIG in Galway.

The most recent Tribes win was Siobhan McCrohan double of Senior Open and Lightweight Single sculls in 2015.

Tribesmen Women Junior Eight – Irish Champions 2004


Nearly every generation of Tribes rowers has produced candidates for selection for international competition at all levels; The “Homes”; the Coupe-de la Jeunesse; World Juniors; World U23; European Chmpionships; World Championships; World Cup. Tribes coaches have also participated – Mike Heskin, Gearoid Mitchell for example.

Tribes rowers have brought back medals from Coupe, Junior worlds. The most recent is Siobhan’s podium finish at the prestigious Lucerne regatta.


During the fallow years referred to above, the Masters rowers kept the door open until the next phase of the club surfaced. They also trained hard, for they too had their goals. The first taste of international masters competition was in 1985 in Sweden where it became evident that no medals could be earned unless the crew was strong, fit and fast.

A trip to Bled the following year had a better result, winning gold in Master C and D Fours.

Fast forward to the turn of the Millennium, and a Tribes Masters crew had rowed three times at the Boston Head of the Charles, finishing 7 th , 7th and 8th in their grade – well up the pecking order. And so to Prague 2002 and gold medals for the Coxed and Coxless Four.


After 2010 “Misty” and Robin Winkles retired from coaching, and the club was again in the doldrums. But a different future was appearing in the form of a Rowing Ireland initiative encouraging use of touring boats to develop the recreational side of the sport. This initiative was enthusiastically embraced in Tribesmen at two levels.

  • Row to Recovery. Facilitated by Robin Winkles, provided for a fun-filled outing for cancer survivors, where the exercise was of theraputic benefit.
  • Introduction to Rowing for a wider audience. Tribesmen discovered that there was a latent demand for provision of exercise in a social, non-mainstream context.

Such was the uptake – especially by women – that Tribesmen is now, possibly, the leading provider of social rowing in Ireland.

An episode with a warning to all.

As the winter training programme got under way, a dangerous incident nearly claimed the lives of a number of oarsmen, coaches, boatsmen and others on November 14th 1982. A crew of novices, got
into difficulties during a freak squall and overturned just above the old railway pillars near the salmon weir. Unlike now, there were no protective pontoons above the weir. One of the oarsmen, had his foot trapped in the stretcher, and his coach jumped into the river to rescue him.

Bish and College coaching launches spotted what was happening and raced to the rescue. Oarsmen and cox were hauled into two launches and with outrigger in tow they powered toward the Corrib club, when, to everyone’s horror, the launches capsized almost simultaneously and twelve people were deposited into the water.

Most were lucky enough to cling to a fisherman’s rope near where the boats overturned, but three of the group ended up away from this rope and were swept right onto the safety chains above the weir. Without going into details, all were rescued through the bravery of a number of individuals.

£4,000 worth of equipment was lost; As a direct result of this incident a boom system was installed above the weir to forestall or at least minimise the potential danger for future such incidents.

And winter flow conditions today are at least as severe as 1982. The reader can draw their own conclusions about water safety especially about lingering above the wier.

In Closing

Though this short document seeks to give a sense of what Tribesmen endured and achieved, it cannot adequately convey the perilous financial situation face by the club at different times; the meetings discussing whether it should be wound up; the desperate fundraising efforts; the personal financial commitments made by the members. Those people were made life members for a reason. Their efforts and sacrifices mark them as a special breed. This is why they are Life Members.

They were, and are, truly Tribesmen.