This coming weekend my brother Robert and I will participate again in the RNLI fundraiser the Mayday Mile. This year, we are rowing the River Suir from Carrick to Cheekpoint. And to whet the appetite David Carroll has contributed a guest blog. David explores the life and work of another man of the river Maurice Davin, who like ourselves found such joy and excitement from being out on its waters. If you would like to support the RNLI, you can make a donation to our page as part of team Dunmore East, or indeed seek out you own local lifeboat which is participating also. Take us away David.
Carrick-on-Suir was the birthplace of Maurice Davin. He was born on June 29th, 1842, the eldest son of a prosperous farming family at Deerpark, who also owned a successful river trading business. With the security that a comfortable upbringing provided, Maurice could afford to indulge in a wide variety of sporting interests.
Regarded as one of the world’s finest all-around athletes – he was also a rower, rugby player, boxer, and cricketer – he was a respected household name across Ireland. Like his brothers Tom and Pat, he was a wonderfully talented competitor and achieved international fame in the 1870s when he broke several world records. However, he is best remembered for being one of the founders of the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) in Thurles on November 1st, 1884. He chaired the meeting and became the first president of the GAA.
On the death of his father in 1859, he joined with his mother, a woman described as being of great acumen, to run the family’s river haulage business and the large farm at Deerpark, rented from the Marquess of Ormond.
In 1994, Séamus Ó Riain, a former President of the GAA wrote a biography, entitled: ‘Maurice Davin (1842-1927): First president of the Gaelic Athletic Association’. In the book, he gives us a wonderful description and account of the river trade, in which the Davin family were most prominent:
“The other arm of the Davin economy was the river trade, which was of long standing, having been initiated by Denis senior in the previous century. Succeeding generations maintained and developed the enterprise…
The first team pulled the noddy as far as Ballydine, the second took it forward to Kilsheelan and the third completed the journey to Clonmel. A towing path was constructed on the northern bank which made it possible for teams of horses to do the hauling. Goods were conveyed from Waterford in ‘lighters,’ boats capable of carrying up to sixty tons. The usual cargo was coal, iron, timber and feeding stuffs. Sweeps of oars propelled the lighter with the tide to Carrick where the cargo was transferred to smaller craft called ‘yawls.’ These boats were constructed by Kehoes of Carrickbeg who had earned a high reputation as boat builders. They used Oregon pine which was robust and durable enough to withstand the pressures of the strong river currents and heavy merchandise they had to carry.
Four and sometimes six horses formed a team to pull the yawl. At least two teams were needed and took alternate trips, so each team got a rest period. Big bony horses were chosen and specially schooled for the work. The strongest and most reliable animal was given the lead position and the other horses were positioned in line behind him. They were hitched with strong ropes to a forked post of oak set in the deck on the yawl. While all the horses had halters, only the lead one had a bit in his mouth. A fold of hay was fixed to the halter on the river side to act as a blinker so that the horse would not shy from the water.
Two men took charge of the yawl and four others attended to the horses, guiding them along the tow path as they hauled the boat against the current. Haul marks were cut in places along the way and if the water rose above this height, as it would whenever the river was in flood after heavy rain, the horses had to be stopped because they could not contend with such a force of water. The skipper worked the tiller which had a yarn arm attached to it to provide greater leverage in guiding the yawl.“
“Work started at six in the morning when the cargo was transferred from the lighter to the yawl, which could hold from twenty to thirty tons. The hauling commenced at nine o’clock and it took five and a half hours to make the twelve miles to Clonmel. The horses were stabled and fed, and the cargo unloaded on to the dock. The yawl was poled (propelled) back with current (without the use of horses), taking two and a half hours to reach Carrick in the evening before seven, with a cargo of pigs, dairy produce, poultry, and grain.
When the horses were rested, they were trotted back by road to Carrick. It was a long day and strenuous work for men and beasts. The horses were treated well, fed on gruel, oats, and yellow meal (i.e., maize) and stabled comfortably. The haulers were specialists who were devoted to their work and the Davin family, to whom they gave a lifetime of service.
They were emotionally attached to the river and the life thereon. The depth of this feeling is illustrated in the last wish of a hauler: ‘Bury me in Churchtown where I can hear the creak of the yawlman’s tiller and the crack of the hauler’s whip.’ Churchtown cemetery, situated beside the river on the Waterford side, is the family burial ground of the Davins. The arrival of steam tugs on the river and the increase in the transport of goods by rail brought a decline in the hauling trade which the Davins abandoned in the early years of the 19th century.“
Boxing was one of Maurice Davin’s early athletic pursuits, but he then changed direction, being drawn to what was his first love, the river, and its boats. In the early part of the nineteenth century, there was a great tradition of boat racing in Carrick. The annual regatta would have been a popular event, enjoying the sponsorship of the gentry. The regatta had become a casualty of the general depression that followed the great famine, with the last successful regatta being held in 1848. However, in 1863, Waterford revived its regatta and in subsequent years it became successful with a greater number of entries, including some from Carrick. This prompted Carrick to revive their own traditional regatta in 1865.
Maurice Davin developed a passion for rowing and was phenomenally successful and fully committed to the sport. He decided to build his own four-oared racing gig. It was named Cruiskeen Lawn, a name chosen by his mother. At the Waterford regatta in August 1871, the silver cup event was won by Cruiskeen, with Maurice as stroke, his brother Tom also in the crew and the cox was his other brother Pat. On the same day, the race for two-oared boats, known as wherries, was won by Maurice Davin’s Gypsy. Cruiskeen scored a lengthy list of successes at subsequent regattas at Clonmel, Carrick and Waterford. Even when he retired, his boat continued to have success with a new crew.
Maurice Davin’s first appearance at an athletic meeting as a competitor was in 1869 at Gurteen, near Kilsheelan, which came by chance. But within a brief period of time, Maurice and his two brothers, Tom, and Pat, were dominating Irish athletics and would do so for over a decade. In the 1870s, it was said that they had half the world’s records for running, jumping, hurdling, and weight-throwing. Maurice excelled in weight-throwing and through a series of major victories over leading British athletes, he achieved international fame.
But his love for rowing and his beloved Cruiskeen Lawn never diminished. In an interview with a New York newspaper, given in 1907, Maurice Davin said:
When he gave this interview in 1907, Maurice Davin was sixty-five years old. The Tipperary Museum of Hidden History, in Clonmel, has noted that the interviewer remarked that he could have passed for a man twenty years younger.
Maurice Davin had great veneration for his boat, which is also referred to by its Irish name Crúiscín. It had given him immense pleasure over the years, and he could not see his way to having it broken up – hence his determination to keep it, in the hope that it would be appreciated at some time. It was hidden away in a cowshed on the farm at Deerpark for over one hundred years.
In 2005, Pat Walsh, a grandnephew of Maurice Davin was living at Deerpark and farming the land. He knew of the existence of the boat on the farm and made up his mind to donate it to the County Museum if they agreed to take it. Pat brought the existence of the boat to the attention of Shay Hurley of the Workman’s Boat Club in Irishtown, Clonmel. Shay was astonished at the beauty of the boat. He and his committee members very quickly came on board (no pun intended)realising the potential that it had to be conserved as a national treasure. They became leading figures in a project that received grant aid and sponsorship. The project saw the boat’s removal from the cowshed and arrived on May 17th, 2006, at the Conservation Centre in Letterfrack, Co Galway, under the direction of Sven Habermann, a historical object conservator. The boat came back to Clonmel on November 24th, 2006, for permanent display in the museum. Michael Kennedy, a shipwright from Dunmore East was also heavily involved in the conservation work.
Around the same time in 2006 that the Cruiskeen was being conserved in Letterfrack, the Gaelic Athletic Association honoured Maurice Davin by renaming Croke Park’s Canal End, originally built in 1949, after the Association’s first-ever president. The stadium’s southern stand was re-constructed and re-opened in its current state in 2003.
Maurice Davin was unique amongst presidents of the GAA as he is the only man to have held two terms in office. He played a crucial role in steering the GAA through its turbulent initial period when its very survival was in doubt. For many years this was scarcely recognised.
He was a man of considerable moderation, and he believed in sport without boundaries and was opposed to banning GAA members from playing foreign games. This led to his resignation in February 1887 but an intervention from Archbishop Croke and a sustained clergy-led campaign brought him back to the presidency in January 1888. Following a second resignation in January 1889, he never again played a significant role in the GAA. Instead, his love of sport remained undimmed, and he took an active part in community affairs while continuing to promote Gaelic games at a local level. Seeing the need for a sports field in Carrick-on-Suir he developed an enclosed GAA pitch on the family farm where the 1904 All-Ireland Hurling Final was played.
Maurice Davin never married, and he died on January 27th, 1927. Poignantly, he is buried close to his beloved river Suir at Churchtown graveyard on the Waterford bank of the river Suir, midway between Carrick-on-Suir and Kilsheelan in the parish of Dysart.
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Séamus Ó Riain ‘Maurice Davin (1842 -1927): First president of the Gaelic Athletic Association’ , Geography Publications, 1994.
‘A Man and His Boat – MAURICE DAVIN’ by Marie McMahon, Curator, South Tipperary County Museum. This is an online document that may be accessed from a link on : https://www.hiddenhistory.ie/conservation-items/the-cruiskeen-project
‘Hear the Boat Sing’ website https://heartheboatsing.com/
Dictionary of Irish Biography: ( Contributor: Prof. Paul Rouse)
‘The remarkable life and times of Maurice Davin.’ This is a 24-minute interview by Joe Molloy of ‘Off the Ball’ with Professor Paul Rouse of UCD.
‘The Davin Boat.’ A 5-minute video with Damien Tiernan ( Now of WLRFM) visiting the cowshed at Deerpark.
‘The Cruiskeen – a river racer.’ A 36-minute video that documents the entire conservation project of restoring the Cruiskeen from Deerpark to Letterfrack where the conservation processes are explained. In addition, technical information on the boat is given and finally the journey back to Clonmel for permanent display is recorded.
I would like to thank Dr Pat Bracken of Tipperary Libraries for his helpful advice when I began to research this story. Dr Bracken has written two books on the history of sport in Co Tipperary:‘The Growth and Development of Sport in County Tipperary, 1840-1880’ (2004) and ‘Foreign and Fantastic Field Sports: Cricket in County Tipperary’ (2018).
Many thanks to Dr Pat McCarthy for giving me access to his copy of ‘Maurice Davin (1842 -1927): First president of the Gaelic Athletic Association.,’ and to Mr Willie Nolan of Geography Publications for giving permission to transcribe the chapter entitled ‘River traders’, from the book.
Thank you also to Ms Jayne Sutcliffe, Documentation and Collections Officer, Tipperary Museum of Hidden History, Cultural Services, for all her assistance and to Dr Naomi Feely of Clonmel.
Sven Habberman, the historical object conservator based in Connemara, was recently involved with another project with a nautical theme. This was the conservation of the ship’s cabin in which Sir Ernest Shackleton died. It was found as being used as a makeshift garden shed in Norway. The cabin was originally part of the Quest, the ship that Shackleton used on his final voyage. The Co Kildare explorer died of a heart attack on the island of South Georgia in the Southern Atlantic Ocean on January 5th, 1922. Following conservation work by Sven Habberman and his team at Letterfrack, the cabin is on display in the Shackelton Museum, Athy, Co. Kildare.