PG North/South/East/West: The Pittsburgh Irish Rowing Club celebrates 25 years of homeland heritage across the Atlantic

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Anniversaries have a way of stirring up memories. Some pleasant, some not so pleasant.

But in the case of Elaine Manning, the gracious proprietress of St. Brendan's Crossing in the shops at Station Square, the 25th anniversary of the Pittsburgh Irish Rowing Club floods her memory with pride and happiness.

In 1984, she had an idea to introduce a bit more Irish culture to Western Pennsylvania. She commissioned two curraghs (pronounced Kurr-ah) be built in County Kerry in Ireland and shipped here for display at her import shop.

What could be more appropriate? After all, her place is named after St. Brendan, the sixth century monk who according to legend discovered the "New World" in such a vessel, mustering a crew to row from Ireland to Newfoundland.

Members of the Pittsburgh Irish Rowing Club won't be going that far Saturday. Instead the club, 25 members strong with 16 abled rowers, is carrying on what has become an imported and important aspect of Irish culture by being the host for curragh races.

Clubs from Albany, N.Y.; Annapolis, Md.; Boston; Columbus, Ohio; Milwaukee; New London, Conn.; and Philadelphia will compete in the St. Brendan's Cup Regatta that will consist of races involving one-, two-, three and four-man crews.

The curragh most currently used in Ireland is a combination of simplicity and competence.

On first look, the 26 1/2-foot-long, all purpose boat resembles a wicker basket covered with canvas as tight as a drum skin. In earlier times animal skins were stretched over the framework of the hull. Boats normally range from 250 to 350 pounds.

Getting both boats to the Irish import shop took some doing. They were shipped from Ireland to Rotterdam to New Jersey where L. Jay Manning and a friend had been dispatched to haul them to Pittsburgh on a flat-bed truck.

It was a typical Irish evening when they arrived. It was raining!

"That's when the fun began" L. Jay Manning recalled. "We had to find people who knew how to row the things."

Word of the curraghs had gotten out and a welcoming committee was already in place when the boats arrived.

The men from Galway, who came to this country in the late 1950s and early '60s, could hardly wait to get the boats out of their crates and into the water before sundown. Their spirits were as high as the tide in Galway Bay that July night in 1984 as they happily dismantled the crating.

For most it had been quite a few years since they had seen a curragh.

There were two minor roadblocks, however. First, the boats had been shipped minus the wooden pins on which the stilt-like oars ought to have been mounted. That was quickly resolved. With a wink and a smile retired rower Jimmy McDongh, said, "We broke a few broom handles that night."

The second concern was for the safety of the men. Elaine Manning wanted them "to at least wear life-jackets." Unbridled in their enthusiasm, they told her, "Life-jackets are for sissies." Nonetheless, jackets were purchased the next morning.

With that they were into the Monongahela River, rowing from Station Square to the parking wharf, and back again, filled with exuberance of their youth.

Within days a crew was assembled. It consisted of native Irishmen, who had used the curraghs in their homeland, and Pittsburghers in their 20s who had never seen one until then.

The training began in earnest and paid off in August of that same year at the Three Rivers Regatta. After only one month's orientation on the boat, the Pittsburgh team won the curragh competition, beating teams from Annapolis, Md., and Boston.

Buoyed by their success the original group set out to attract new members. More young Pittsburgh natives, exposed to a part of their heritage that they had read about or heard stories of, joined the ranks.

Ireland, with its hundreds of miles of coastline, is filled with inlets, harbors and strands, making the mastery of water transport clearly important. Along with having the sophisticated skills of boat building, the ancient Irish fishermen battled wind and sea in the sturdy boats.

On the small islands that dot Galway Bay, the smaller version of the racing curragh is used to go to school and church.

The Pittsburgh Irish Rowing Club has recorded victories against Columbus and Philadelphia so far in an eight-race season.

Pat Clark, a 40-year-old math teacher from the North Hills School District, has been the club's president the past eight years. For the Brighton Heights resident, rowing establishes a connection to Irish heritage.

"It is fun and I enjoy it. Just as important, it shows respect for the original members," Clark said.

Clark's sons, Kevin, 11, and Matt, 9, are the youngest members of the group. Larry Coudriet, 63, from Sewickley, a Carnegie Mellon University graduate and an engineer, is the oldest.

Drawn by the rugged charm of curragh racing, women such as Barbara Antel, Ann Flynn Schlight and Dawn Foltz thrash the water with the best of them.

"When I'm on the river I can do only one thing, row, as opposed to being mother, artist, and teacher," said Antel, a Dormont resident who teaches art at Duquesne University.

There will be nine events Saturday, including the "Marcus Flaherty Cup," a special four-man race in memory of the club's late original coach and president, taking place on a 3-mile course on the Ohio River passing under the I-79 bridge.

Races are slated to start between noon to 1 p.m. and last until 4 to 4:30 p.m.

Coming up

Here is the schedule for the Pittsburgh Irish Rowing Club for the rest of the season.

Date Location

Saturday Ohio River at Glenfield

Aug. 15 Milwaukee

Aug. 29 Albany, N.Y.

Sept. 19 Annapolis, Md.

Correction/Clarification: (Published July 24, 2009) Barbara Antel, a Dormont resident who teaches art at Duquesne University, was quoted in this article on Irish curragh racing and not properly identified in July 23, 2009 editions. Her quote was mistakenly attributed to Dawn Foltz.


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