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Eamonn Sweeney: O'Donovans' triumph carved from solid Skibb


Pupils from Lisheen NS watching the O'Donovan brothers. 'The school has three classrooms and 70 pupils. And two Olympic medals.' Photo: Michael MacSweeney

Pupils from Lisheen NS watching the O'Donovan brothers. 'The school has three classrooms and 70 pupils. And two Olympic medals.' Photo: Michael MacSweeney

Pupils from Lisheen NS watching the O'Donovan brothers. 'The school has three classrooms and 70 pupils. And two Olympic medals.' Photo: Michael MacSweeney

1 Before: It is two o'clock on a Friday afternoon and there is a traffic jam in the middle of Skibbereen. There are so many people on the streets a foreign tourist would be excused for thinking that it's St Patrick's Day

Outside the town Credit Union Máire and Richie Keating from Skibb Rowing Club are selling T-Shirts with 'We're well used to a bit of wind' written on the back. They sell all 100 of them inside 20 minutes. Several hundred people line up and prepare to cram into the building to watch Gary and Paul O'Donovan row in the Olympic Lightweight Double Sculls final. This is the best place in the world to watch what's just about to happen.

2 Prophecy

A couple of hours before the O'Donovan campaign begins on Monday, I bump into Eugene Coakley on the street. Because he was an Olympic finalist in rowing himself and a world silver medallist, I put the obvious question to him. "I think they'll win the silver," he says. "Seriously?" Because at this stage the general prognosis is that while Ireland have an outside chance at a bronze, France and Norway have the first two spots sewn up. "Seriously, I think they'll be too good for the Norwegians." And given that Coakley, like all elite athletes, is not a particularly sentimental guy, I am suddenly much more hopeful about Skibbereen's prospects.

3 The Race (Part 1)

Practically everyone inside the Credit Union knows that the O'Donovans do their best work in the second half of the race and are unlikely to figure at the front early on. Nevertheless when the duo find themselves fifth out of six after 500 metres a certain nervous tremor runs through the building. The town is primed for explosion but suddenly the prospect of anti-climax rears its head. In that moment everyone remembers just how hard won Olympic medals really are.

4 The Rowers

In Skibbereen the Rowing Club is regarded with awe. 'The Rowers' are seen as a shining example of how to do things right. Skibbereen recently became the most successful club in Irish rowing history. They have produced world medallists and Olympians. In terms of punching above their weight, they are one of Ireland's great sports clubs, maybe the greatest. Recently the local arts centre showed an exhibition of photographs by a woman named Debbie Heaphy, entitled 'Row' which showed the club in action over the last four years. I found myself peering intently at the photos, wondering if they might yield up the secret behind all this success. If you could replicate what Skibbereen Rowing Club do on a nationwide basis, we'd be the best little nation at the Olympics.

5 Getting There

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Everyone knows about the O'Donovan brothers now. But back when they initially qualified for the Olympics the jubilation was largely confined to Skibbereen. Last September at the world championships in France, there were 11 Olympic qualifying spots going. The boys from Skibbereen took the 11th by finishing fifth in the B final, a mere 0.28 of a second ahead of Greece. Just getting to the games seemed like a triumph. The French, British and Norwegian pairs who'd medalled in the A final seemed to belong to a different universe. Few medallists have come so far in so short a time.

6 The Race (Part 2)

Inroads are being made. Definitely. At half-way France lead from the USA and Norway but the O'Donovans, in fifth, are now within striking distance and visibly upping the pace. All around me people are shouting encouragement as though the duo can hear them. The nerves have gone up a notch too, you can feel the tension in the room as though the crowd was a string stretched tight and waiting to snap.

7 Country Lads

Gary O'Donovan perhaps put it best after the final when, commenting on the huge reaction to their post-race interviews, he quipped: "You've just been asking us questions and we've been answering them." It perhaps says something about Irish life that so many people seemed to find something extraordinary and exotic about country lads giving straight answers to questions in their own rural accents. An awful lot of people in this country sound like and express themselves in the same way as the O'Donovans. Someone described their interviews to me as "the most West Cork thing ever." Which they were, not least in their use of insouciance to mask seriousness of purpose. As Breandán ó hEithir said, referring to Jack Lynch, "There's nothing more dangerous than a nice Cork gentleman."

8 Dominic

It is unlikely that anyone in Skibbereen has ever mentioned the rowing club without mentioning Dominic Casey in the following breath. For 30 years he has been the driving force behind Skibbereen's success. And now he's been the driving force behind Ireland's because one of the main factors behind the rise of the O'Donovans was the fact that they were allowed to stay under the direction of their club coach. He may in fact be the finest sports coach in Ireland. Certainly he's the finest one you'd never heard of as Casey's capacity for self-effacement is as famous as his intelligence and attention to detail. I'm not a great fan of books on how to succeed but I'd read Dominic Casey's.

9 The Race (Part Three)

And now the battle is truly joined. With 500 metres to go the O'Donovans have made their move and lie second, behind the unbeatable and overwhelming French. But the margins between them and South Africa and Norway are desperately small. There is no two ways about it. This denouement is going to involve quite a lot of agony, not just for the rowers but for their supporters. I remember those Olympic fourths from my childhood, Seán Drea, Eamonn Coghlan twice and how there was nothing more devastating.

10 Lisheen

I suppose it's worth pointing out at this stage that strictly speaking the O'Donovans are not from Skibbereen but from Lisheen which is about five miles west of the metropolis.

Lisheen National School, where the lads went, is their first port of call after every victory and has celebrated every step on their Olympic journey. The school has three classrooms and 70 pupils. And two Olympic medals. When the O'Donovans won silver at their first World Cup event this year the result, which marked them out as medal contenders, was read out at First Communion Mass in Lisheen. At the Mass was the O'Donovans' mother while Dominic Casey's son sang a solo. Dominic Casey is also from Lisheen. In the words of local teacher Niamh McCarthy, "They say it takes a village to raise a child. Here in Lisheen we don't have a village but we raised two Olympians."

11 The Roar

I have been in bigger crowds. I have been in more famous stadia. I have heard louder noises. But I have never heard anything quite like the roar which went up in Skibbereen Credit Union as the O'Donovans battled for their medals in the last 500 metres in Rio. The shouts of advice were gone, the chants of 'Ireland, Ireland' which had rung out in the semi-final were not to be heard. There was just this fierce guttural, almost feral roar which represented a refusal of the idea that having come so far and gone so close the O'Donovans could go away unrewarded. I would say few athletes at the Olympics were cheered on with such fervour. Hearing it, I found myself wishing that they could hear this and be spurred on by it, that they could know how much this meant to the community they came from. And then it struck me that they probably did. Everything about the way the brothers behaved at the games had the hallmark of men who know how much they are loved by their own people. I knew they'd make it.

12 The Race (Part Four)

For one glorious moment it seemed as though Ireland might even get past France, who had been odds-on favourites ever since betting opened. But in the next moment it seemed as though Norway would get past Ireland for the silver. No fictional cliffhanger could have been so beautifully set up. Nothing for it but to, as the boys had said themselves, "close the eyes and pull like a dog." And then the boats were past the line, France 0.53 of a second ahead of Ireland who were 0.16 of a second ahead of Norway. There were kids jumping up and down, my own daughters among them, there were grown-ups crying and Skibbereen was having its very own Italia 90 moment.

13 Grace

Why do so many people like the O'Donovans so much? A key lies in their post-race interview. As often happens with successful sportsmen, they mentioned sacrifice. But not their own sacrifice, the one which bothered the brothers was that made by Dominic Casey in giving up time with his young family to spend it coaching them. You can't fake that kind of unselfishness and grace. People know decency when they see it. But perhaps the greatest gift the O'Donovans gave to Irish sport last week was that they made it look like fun. Some of those jumping kids will take up rowing because of that and Skibbereen Rowing Club, being what it is, they will go to the Olympics too.

14 After

A man in a huge head-dress carrying a big pair of bongos led a conga down the street, people stood out in the middle of the road shaking their heads and trying to put some shape on what they'd seen. And down the town people from the club were drifting into the Corner Bar which has always been a rowing club watering hole. Owners William and Valerie O'Brien's family won 17 All-Irelands between them in their day and there is a photo of the O'Donovans with Dominic Casey in the front window. An old man came in, shook his head disbelievingly and said, "Lisheen will come to a standstill." It had been a great day for Ireland. It had been a great day for West Cork. But above all it had been a great day for Skibbereen Rowing Club. The little club had done it on the biggest stage of all.

This is the Olympic spirit.