The Rosses Point Regatta: 1920 to 1939

By Captain Frank Devaney

For years an Annual Regatta was held at Rosses Point during the month of August and young and old would look forward to this event, which continued until the beginning of World War II.

As a child I remember the sound of the hooves of horses, donkeys and ponies in the very early morning of the big day, trotting up the village road. They were the stall owners; all racing for the best stand points.

We would be full of excitement and go up to view the scene. The stalls would be lined along the wall from Island View Cottage down to Francie Feeney’s, which is now called Hackett’s, and they would have many kinds of goodies for sale; fruit, sweets, minerals, ices and buns. Others were shooting galleries, roll a penny and rings. I remember the shout Six rings for six pence and all you ring is your own. You would be very lucky indeed if you managed to get a ring over the article and block with such a small clearance.

Mr. Holmes, an Englishman, who lived in Sligo, would be there with his pony and cart selling ice cream. Do you want some rausbery on it?, he would enquire, and if you did he would give you a splash of raspberry cordial on your cone from a bottle. The ice cream then had a lovely taste compared with the modern version.

Old Ned O’Melia or Ned and the Bowl, as we called him, was a small man with a hump and a stoop. He would have his pitch on Elsinore Street where there were plenty of customers all day long entering and leaving the pub.

From a certain distance you had to pitch a penny cleanly into Ned’s little bowl on the street to get three pence back, but needless to say more pennies landed away from the bowl and became Ned’s property. He was a decent poor man and would often give us children pennies to buy sweets, which were then ten for a penny.

Another old character who would be there was Heuston Gillen who could only sing one song, The Foggy Dew. He would get up on a height before singing and then make a collection. Both Ned and Heuston were regular visitors to the Point during the summer and were much respected.

In the forenoon lorries would arrive with rowing skiffs from clubs on the many lakes such as Lough Gill, Lough Arrow and Lough Key, in preparation for the contest. Motor boats, yachts and rowing boats would also be arriving from Raughley, Culleenamore, Maugherow, Coney Island and Lower Rosses, all confident of winning their races. Much pride would be at stake and of course when they got a few half ones, the atmosphere often became electric.

On the roadside, some of the stallholders would sell dulce or dillisk as it is locally named. This seafood was very popular at open-air events in this period and you would get its perculiar salty scent from a long distance away.

In her cottage, Grand-aunt Bee McGowan, would be busy entertaining her many friends. Her front door was never closed and all, including strangers, were made welcome. Tea, scones and potoven bread were always freely available and many would be seated at the large kitchen table.

In his large cage by the fire the old parrot would be all excited due to all the fuss inside and outside the house. He hears the propeller noise of a ship passing in the River and shouts: Port, Port, Port, Put her on the bank and cant her. The bank was a jetty in the harbour. River Pilot Mickie McGowan lived in the house, hence the jargon. Sticking his head out through the bars nearest the table, he would keep saying Hello, until given a morsel of food and would continue with the routine until satisfied. The visitors would be amazed by his antics, but the locals knew him well.

Polly would let out a loud whistle and then shout: Trixie, come in here and the family pet terrier would run in wagging his tail by the cage. Out would come the beak and grab the tail and the poor dog would howl. Hoo, Hoo, Polly would mutter. Let him go you blackguard, shouted Auntie Bee. The cat would often be called: Pssh, Pssh, Pssh and would get the same dose. Bee would lift her long skirt, lilt a jig and dance and Polly would whoop out Hoo, Hoo, Hoo.

The visitors would then be given a special treat. The parrot would be placed alone in the sitting room with the door slightly ajar and would sing: Can anybody tell me where the Blarney Roses Grow? Loud laughs and whistles would follow this.

By late afternoon, the top end of the Village, Elsinore Street and parts of the shore, would be thronged with people. In the twenties the local charabancs owned by the Gilmartins of the Central Hotel and the Gillens would be running a shuttle service from Sligo, packed out on every trip. Many country folk would arrive on sidecars, pony traps and cycles.

The Gillen family of The Erin ran sidecars and longcars on the route well back into the last century. About 1930 the Gilmartins went out of business and the Gillens put more modern busses on the road. One Maggie Gillen became the only female in Europe to own and drive her own bus.

The greasy poll at the end of the old landing stage would be well coated with soft soap awaiting the first brave man to dare put his feet on it.

The SS Tartar would be anchored in mid river in her position as starting and stand vessel, dressed gaily overall with bunting. Her Chief Engineer, Francie Feeney, would get ferried ashore to make sure his bar was well bottled up for the day. All the village pubs would be packed out later on.

Michael James Ward from Coney Island would be rigging his narrow gutted little yawl for the sailing race and praying for light airs in which he would ghost her to the finishing line. With a mast stepped she would frighten everyone to death, bar her owner. I remember standing on her gunwale once and nearly landing in the river as she heeled over.

With a strong breeze the 18-foot square stern boat, St Rita, owned and sailed by Pilot John Gillen, would be the hot favourite to win.

On Elsinore Street, a crude stage would be erected consisting of planks on top of porter barrels for a step dancing competition which was called The Cake Dance and there would be no shortage of competitors waiting in the pub having warming up lotion. We called them the "heel and toe dancers". The winner received two pounds, and a lot of drink could be bought for that money in those years.

Mr. Arthur Jackson, on board his motor cruiser "Ikanhopit" moored offshore, would have many guests on board for the afternoon and many corks would pop. Mr. Wilbur Middleton with his twin-screw motor cruiser from Culleenamore, with his friend Dr. John Dunn and many guests would also arrive.

In the afternoon the races would start with the four oared square stern race where four rival districts would be in competition; Rosses Point, Coney Island, Maugherow and Lower Rosses. The course: up around "January Perch" on the flood tide, and back against it to the "Tartar".

With all boats trying to get around the Perch together there would be much shouting and cursing, as they were in close quarters; splashing with oars banging on gunwales with tillers finger bashing.

The first boat to break free had the best chance of winning, because she could get close to the shore and slack water for the punch against the tide.

Grand-uncle Pat Bruen, who gave the use of his pilot boat the Dasher, to one of the crews, would be on the road outside Undine cottage, roaring and sweating heavily. There might be a few punches thrown later that night in the pub over the rounding of January Perch.

One year the result of the race was as follows:

Michael James Ward at the tiller for Coney Island when approaching the winning post, was shouting as he crouched low with trilby hat pulled well down over his forehead to hide his bald patch, and blowing smoke and sparks from a cigarette, Come on lads we have them, pull.

T Hart, steering the Maugherow boat was roaring: Pull, damn ye, keep in stroke with the hind oar.

Michael James Kivlehan was scowling at the tiller of the Lower Rosses boat and shouting bury her and his brother, Big Peter, on the bow oar was threatening to do so with every powerful stroke.

Poor Jimmy Kilgallon, steering for Rosses Point, looked crestfallen and shouted: Ah what's the matter? Is that the best ye can do? To top it all a man from Sligo shouted: Arrah will ye look at the ould limeburners coming in last? Go home to yer mudders.

One day, I was standing on Elsinore Street, which was thronged with people during the finish of one of the rowing races. In front of me was the large frame of Joe McGowan from Coney Island, shouting: Come on Coney as the team fought out the finish neck and neck with Maugherow. About twenty yards away stood Johnny Conway who was born in Maugherow but lived and fished from Coney for many years. Come on Maugherow roared Johnny. With that big Joe, pushing bodies out of the way, rushed over to poor Johnny, caught him by the throat and said: How dare you shout Come on Maugherow, and me the only Coney Island man standing there.

Later in the afternoon we youngsters would keep an eye on the door of the packed Elsinore Pub when some of the tough guys would start trouble inside. We would then be rewarded with a back view of the massive frame of the proprietor Redmond John Bruen as he pulled them out two at a time. As the man himself who had been a rigger in a Boston shipyard, rounded the Horn in square-riggers and went on the Klondike gold rush, was often heard to say: No son of a bitch is going to make a bawdy house out of RJ Bruen's establishment. He would then give them a head but and send them reeling across the street. They would not dare to return again.

All for the greasy pole, get ready please, shouted River Pilot John Patrick Bruen, a fine cut of a man dressed in a new navy blue suit with gold watch and chain glinting in the sunlight. He was the official race starter, and was standing in the stern of a very small boat at the Elsinore slip with a high tide megaphone at his mouth. Suddenly someone pulled at the boat's mooring rope and poor JP went head over heels overboard into the water, ruining his suit, and his watch never ticked again. Of course, the amused bystanders gave him a rousing cheer.

On one very warm Regatta day, the tar on the village road became soft in places and the greasy pole competition had started. No man had got further than half way out the well greased pole after many attempts. One local daredevil, who shall remain nameless, dashed up to the road and got tar on the soles of his feet. He managed to win the competition eventually but pity his poor wife who had to remove the tar with butter and margarine before bedtime.

River Pilot Redmond Wow Bruen had a fine 24 foot yawl complete with a Model T Ford engine, which could lift most of her out of the water when in the right mood. The boat was named Nancylee and she was the fastest in her class and usually won a prize at the Regattas. He made a fine trawl to suit her, and I spent many days and nights fishing onboard. On a few occasions we had to row her home from the bay as the engine got more temperamental. Motor car engines were rarely a success in boats of that era.

The Haren brothers; Josie and Packie had a fine heavily constructed motor launch which was clinker built, also with a Model T Ford engine, which they kept moored at their home base, Coney Island. Her name was Annie and they purchased her from McCausland Salvage Company of Belfast; who spent some time here in the 1920's breaking up the Greek Ship, Diamantis Pateras, which broke her back in the Garavogue.

The Annie also took part in the motor boat races but was too slow to win.

There would be quite a few boats taking part in the Open Boat Sailing Race, which caused some local excitement. Men like Johnny Conway in his yawl Sarah McGowan, Owen Gillen in Drednought, Micky McGowan in Bella, and Long Bruen in Flora, but as I mentioned earlier, the race went according to wind strength to either John Gillen or Michael James Ward.

Several skiff races would be run during the afternoon amongst the lake crews but as we were not familiar with the contestants, we would not know who to cheer for, but they had their own followers present in great numbers and therefore an enjoyable time was had by all.

There were not many yachts around Rosses Point at that time, but the Pettigrew brothers from the town had a fast little sailing boat, which they moored at the Quays, and they were always the hot favourites to win at Regattas, and they usually did. At one Regatta in the 1930s, I was appointed gyb sheetman on the sturdy, slow little yacht Redwing, owned by John A Goulding and skippered by Redmond Wow Bruen. We were only there to make up the numbers.

A Major Myles from Killybegs had a large sailing yawl entered for the race, and she was reported to be very fast. He employed Pat McGowan, seaman, as he was local and could inform him about the tides. The course was to beat out against a fresh westerly wind and flood tide from the Stand Boat to the Bungar Buoy and back. Pettigrew was just ahead, with Myles a close second off Jackson's Pier, and we were third.

Myles was on the starboard tack towards Oyster Shore, and we were on the port tack towards Jackson's Pier, when, in mid-channel, I shouted a collision warning, and seconds later our bowsprit went through the mainsail of the Killybegs boat. By the time we got disentangled Pettigrew was clearing Dead Man's Point and had the race sewn up. It was said that later in the evening Pat McGowan was searching for my skipper hoping for a duel. Rule of the Road was forgotten on Regatta Day then?

Late in the evening the Cake Dance would start and would be presided over by Mr Edward Moffat NT, who would be in top form and shout encouragement to the local lads on stage. One who always took part was a big man called Michael Foley from the Lower Rosses who were nicknamed "Plug". He looked like the film star Victor McLaglen who was in "The Quiet Man". The fiddler would play a fast reel and Foley would leap around the stage. Good Foley… that's the cake, Moffat would shout. Pat McGowan would follow on stage and would do a bit of posturing before he could get his legs going:

Ah quit the figuring Pat, Moffat would shout. It really was good fun and I must say they were all good sports.

When darkness fell a firework's display would be held on Oyster Island, followed by a big dance in the Elsinore Ballroom. The famous Melville Band from Derry supplied the music and the hall would be packed.

The morning after the Regatta many would be suffering from headaches, aching muscles and black eyes, but not my school friend, the late Willie Thomas, who very much looked forward to that particular day. It was many years afterwards before he let me know his secret. He would get up at daybreak and go around the Elsinore Street, dance hall vicinity and foreshore, picking up coins and notes, which the crowd dropped the previous night. Willie said he would have plenty of pocket money for about a month afterwards.

Well, only twelve months to go until the next big day.