Thursday 29 September 2016

Party bonfires are lit as west Cork hails O'Donovans' heroics

Ralph Riegel in Skibbereen

Published 13/08/2016 | 02:30

Uncle Peter O’Donovan, aunt Sandra and cousin Roisin (centre) celebrate the brothers’ silver medal finish in Skibbereen Credit Union. Photo: Michael MacSweeney
Uncle Peter O’Donovan, aunt Sandra and cousin Roisin (centre) celebrate the brothers’ silver medal finish in Skibbereen Credit Union. Photo: Michael MacSweeney

The traditional celebration bonfires were lit at crossroads around Skibbereen hours before darkness fell as west Cork wildly celebrated the Rio Olympics heroics of two local brothers.

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Skibbereen may have ground to a standstill as Gary (23) and Paul (22) O'Donovan won silver in the men's lightweight sculls final in Brazil but it was in tiny Lisheen, the boys' home village, that locals truly went crazy.

Everything stopped at 2.30pm from Castletownbere to Bandon as west Cork roared on the two brothers as they made Irish Olympic rowing history.

President Michael D Higgins last night paid his personal tribute to Ireland's first medal winners of the 2016 Games.

"On behalf of the people of Ireland, I want to congratulate Paul and Gary O'Donovan on their silver medal today, Ireland's first ever Olympic rowing medal," he said.

"They have captured the nation's imagination and their skill, determination and positive outlook make them outstanding ambassadors for their sport."

The O’Donovan brothers celebrate after getting their silver medals with fans including their mother (far right) Picture: Sportsfile
The O’Donovan brothers celebrate after getting their silver medals with fans including their mother (far right) Picture: Sportsfile

Their uncle, Peter O'Donovan, fought back tears of pride as he said the two brothers had won the silver medals, not just for Ireland but for every rural Irish community where sport is part of the DNA.

"They've won those medals for Lisheen, for Skibbereen, for west Cork and for Ireland," he said.

"They may come across as jokers in those TV interviews but those two lads had put their hearts and souls into training for Rio.

"They're lovely lads and they truly represent the very best of a proud rural Irish community."

Their parents, Teddy and Trish O'Donovan, were in Rio to see west Cork sporting history being made.

Trish fought back tears as she said it was "an unbelievable moment - I'm so very proud of them both".

A supporter watches the race at Skibbereen Credit Union. Photo: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision
A supporter watches the race at Skibbereen Credit Union. Photo: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision

Teddy, who is a former rower and introduced the boys to the sport at Skibbereen Rowing Club, said he had anticipated a medal for his sons after their strong performances in the heat and semi-final. "I felt they had a lot left in the tank after that semi-final," he said.

"It was hard enough before to get my head around the fact all my children are Olympians. Now, they are both Olympic medal winners. It is a dream come true for us all."

The brothers hail from Lisheen, a tightknit community on the outskirts of Skibbereen.

Lisheen National School, which the brothers attended, will now stage a special Olympic ceremony to mark the opening of the school year in just over two weeks' time.

Lisheen NS principal Catríona O'Driscoll said Gary and Paul would have been welcomed home as heroes irrespective of their performance in the final.

"We were always going to be dancing at the crossroads at Lisheen for them," she said.

Read More: 'Huge commitment' and a great team behind them key to brothers' medal joy

"They have always embodied the ethos of our school, their sport and the whole Olympic movement, which is to be the very best that you can be.

"They have dared to dream and every single person in this community is so proud of them."

In Skibbereen, time froze at 2.30pm as locals cheered on the Irish female rowers in their final before focussing on the O'Donovan brothers' race.

Skibbereen Credit Union had erected a giant screen so the Rio rowing events could be watched by fans.

One local restaurant, Annie Mae's, offered a Gary and Paul lunch special which was "steak and spuds".

The O'Donovan relatives who couldn't travel out to Rio led the local celebrations instead.

The boys' gran, Mary Doab, at whose Ballincollig home the rowers stay when they are training in Cork city, watched the race with friends.

"The excitement was unreal. I'm still pinching myself that the two boys are out at the Olympics representing Ireland," she said.

"I'd feed them whenever they come by from training," she proudly explained.

Jackie and Dan Neville, the boys' aunt and uncle, said not just west Cork but the entire country will be proud of their achievements in Brazil.

"They worked so hard for it. They trained in all kinds of weather. They deserve every bit of it," Jackie said.

Another aunt, Regina Coombs, said the boys will stand as role models of just what can be achieved in Irish sport through dedication and hard work.

"They're amazing lads. They love rowing and are so modest about all their achievements," she said.

Read More: Profile: The quiet lads who are always laughing – and deadly serious about their sport

Skibbereen Credit Union manager Donal O'Driscoll organised the Olympic big screen, which included a viewing area for children from Lisheen NS.

Hundreds of enthusiastic viewers attended as the credit union advised customers that all transactions were suspended between 2.30pm and 3pm.

Staff wore Brazil-coloured T-shirts which advised, in honour of Gary and Paul: "We're well used to a bit of wind."

"My son, Diarmuid, who is in Rio with Gary and Paul, was a part of the rowing four when the lads started back at eight years of age. They won everything before them," Donal said.

"This is a long time coming. They've been training hard for this moment since they were small boys," said Mr O'Driscoll.

Irish Independent

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