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National Yacht Club's History is the Story of 150 Years of Ireland Through a Special Perspective

21st November 2020
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The National Yacht Club today. At the heart of the modern complex is the building constructed as the Kingstown Royal Harbour Boat Club 150 years ago The National Yacht Club today. At the heart of the modern complex is the building constructed as the Kingstown Royal Harbour Boat Club 150 years ago Photo: Beau Otteridge

Most yacht and sailing clubs begin with a group of like-minded friends sailing and racing - sometimes together, sometimes against each other - until activity reaches such a level that some sort of organisation is required, and in time it's created. The classic Irish cynic will then tell you that, following the formation of a group of some sort, the second item on the agenda is almost inevitably The Split.

Be that as it may, with split or not the nascent nautical organisation may well function for some time – occasionally a very long time – before it feels the need for any premises, waterside or otherwise. And a few will actually have it written into their constitution that they won't have a clubhouse at all, in order to keep the emphasis on boats, and being on board them.

The building in its first incarnation as the Kingstown Royal Harbour Boat Club in the 1870s. When the tide was in, the kind-hearted discerned some resemblance to a miniature Venetian palazzo The building in its first incarnation as the Kingstown Royal Harbour Boat Club in the 1870s. When the tide was in, the kind-hearted discerned some resemblance to a miniature Venetian palazzo

But the National Yacht Club, nestling in its snug southeastern corner of Dun Laoghaire Harbour for 150 years, is noted for doing things differently. And it's an attitude which the club displayed from the get-go. On November 26th 1869 a group of seemingly solid citizens of what was then Kingstown decided to form a Boat Club in order to accommodate what they felt sure was an unfulfilled wish to go rowing.

Or at least that was the core of their proposed club. They decided the best way forward was to build a waterfront clubhouse on a site – "a plot of land" - to which they were somehow entitled. Thus on April 20th 1870, the foundation stone was laid for what was to become the very real headquarters of the Kingstown Royal Harbour Boat Club before the year was out.

The famous "plot of land" in the 1860s, before the clubhouse was built, with the Royal St George YC already in existence beyond. When the tide was in – as here – the "plot of land" was non-existent. Photo: Mick BreenThe famous "plot of land" in the 1860s, before the clubhouse was built, with the Royal St George YC already in existence beyond. When the tide was in – as here – the "plot of land" was non-existent. Photo: Mick Breen

It was and is a pleasant Wiliam Stirling-designed building which, if viewed kindly from seaward in its original form as the water rose above half tide, looked not unlike one of the less pretentious Venetian palazzos, as the "plot of land" which the developers had so vigorously promoted as being conveniently available for a clubhouse was well under the sea at high water.

Maybe so, but the building literally rose above it. And thus while ideas are intangibles to which specific dates are sometimes only attached with difficulty, the existence or otherwise of a stone-built building it not a matter for disputation. So what we now know as the National Yacht Club has been in existence since 1870, and there is a 150th Anniversary – a Sesquicentennial no less – to be celebrated in 2020 by what is now one of the most active and inventive yacht clubs in Ireland.

In the countdown towards this significant anniversary, the erudite Donal O'Sullivan – whose services to sailing as long-time Honorary Secretary of Dublin Bay Sailing Club would have been enough "duty done" for most folk - was in the throes of producing a history of the NYC, this other club which he loves with the same passion as DBSC, of which he wrote a Centenary history back in 1984.

Donal O'Sullivan – a keen Dun Laoghaire sailor since the 1960s, he served for many years as Honorary Secretary of Dublin Bay Sailing Club and wrote its history for its Centenary in 1984, and now he has written the history of his home club, the National YC, for its 150th Anniversary in 2020.Donal O'Sullivan – a keen Dun Laoghaire sailor since the 1960s, he served for many years as Honorary Secretary of Dublin Bay Sailing Club and wrote its history for its Centenary in 1984, and now he has written the history of his home club, the National YC, for its 150th Anniversary in 2020.

Meanwhile, the many voluntary administrators and sailors who put so much effort into making the National what it is were upping their game under the inspired leadership of Commodores Ronan Beirne and more recently Martin McCarthy, and as 2019 drew to a close, all the signs were that while the National Yacht Club may have had slightly eccentric beginnings back in 1870, in 2020 it was going to be right in the mainstream of sailing as it celebrated a special 150th year.

But with the Pandemic tightening its grip through February and March, the likelihood of anything like the full proposed programme receded. And though Commodore McCarthy was unmistakably The Gaffer for the traditional choreographed launching of boats from the club platforms at the end of April, any indoor events were already severely curtailed.

The Gaffer – NYC Commodore Martin McCarthy with a hands-on approach at the launching of the NYC fleet at the end of April.The Gaffer – NYC Commodore Martin McCarthy with a hands-on approach at the launching of the NYC fleet at the end of April. Photo: Afloat.ie/David O'Brien

Fortunately, individual sailing could begin under eased restrictions by the end of May, junior training classes were also possible, and by early July the basic Dublin Bay SC programme was under way, albeit in a tightly supervised form. As well, a limited Irish Sea Offshore Racing Association programme was implemented under the direction of former NYC Commodore Peter Ryan, who also looked after the start and provided the Yellowbrick trackers for Irish sailing's 2020 highlight, the Fastnet 450, which was linked to the Royal Cork YC which - like the NYC – was generally frustrated in its 2020 plans, in its case for the Tricentennial Celebrations of the oldest yacht club in the world, which would have been an event - had it happened - of global significance.

Olympians Finn Lynch and Annalise Murphy -  both NYC members – took the opportunity for competition with the vintage Dublin Bay Water WagsSailing at last – racing was finally permitted in July, and Olympians Finn Lynch and Annalise Murphy - both NYC members – took the opportunity for competition with the vintage Dublin Bay Water Wags. Photo: Con Murphy

Meanwhile in the NYC, the mood was very subdued, with sailing other than junior training closed down again in mid-September with the arrival of COVID-19's Second Wave. Thus in addition to the Fastnet 450, the only way the National Yacht Club's Sesquicentennial was going to be significantly marked was through the publication of the history, which was performed last weekend through Zoom in a very socially-distanced style by Commodore McCarthy, author Donal O'Sullivan, and Councillor Una Power, Cathaoirleach of Dun Laoghaire/Rathdown County Council.

launching for the new NYC History with (left to right) Commodore Martin McCarthy, Councillor Una Power (Cathaoirleach of Dun Laoghaire/Rathdown County Council, and author Donal O'Sullivan)  Socially-distanced launching for the new NYC History with (left to right) Commodore Martin McCarthy, Councillor Una Power (Cathaoirleach of Dun Laoghaire/Rathdown County Council, and author Donal O'Sullivan)

Donal O'Sullivan has very sensibly subtitled his new book "The Chronicles of a Dun Laoghaire Yacht Club", and its production costs have been covered by Bourke Builders Ltd, a company that has Mayo origins from 1960, but is now active in the Dun Laoghaire area in so many ways that director Brian Bourke was awarded the NYC's Muglins Cup for the most interesting family cruise in 2019, a generations-shared venture to St Kilda far west of the Outer Hebrides with his Oceanis 35 Zoe B.

This fine cruise well indicates the level of multiple achievements in both racing and cruising, and in dinghies and keelboats, that the National YC membership takes in its slide in a normal year, and underlines just how hobbled we all have been in 2020.

But equally, as Zoe B's cruise reminds us of the complexity and sheer energy expended afloat – both locally, regionally, nationally and internationally in a wide variety of sailing specialities by a club of the modern NYC's calibre - we soon realise that a bald narrative of what was done, achieved and won would produce a suffocating amount of data which would confuse rather than inform.

Yet by choosing to take the Chronicles approach, the author gives himself and his readers freedom to enjoy many choice vignettes about club life and the rugged seafarers involved, without becoming swamped in endless sailing and club administration detail.

Double-spread of cover of new NYC history, which has been sponsored by Bourke Builders. Bottom left is Freddy Brownlee's Uffa Fox-designed Flying Fox NYC from 1953, bottom right is Annalise Murphy returning to the club with her Olympic Silver Medal in August 2016, and top right is the then-accessible roof/viewing platform of the original club.Double-spread of the cover of new NYC history, which has been sponsored by Bourke Builders. Bottom left is Freddy Brownlee's Uffa Fox-designed Flying Fox NYC from 1953, bottom right is Annalise Murphy returning to the club with her Olympic Silver Medal in August 2016, and top right is the then-accessible roof/viewing platform of the original club.

With Dun Laoghaire Harbour's special situation of being more or less the only convenient access point to Dublin Bay sailing for the decidedly affluent population of South Dublin, much day-to-day sailing business has devolved on Dublin Bay SC, and the clubs can focus more energy on their members' immediate boat needs, junior and adult training, the requirement for full shoreside personal facilities, and an energetic and sometimes only vaguely sailing-related social programme.

Add in the fact that the three other yacht clubs - the Royal St George and the Royal Irish on the waterfront, together with the Dun Laoghaire Motor Yacht Club on the Inner Harbour - have their histories, character and functions more clearly defined, and the way is thus left for the for the National Yacht Club with its mysterious origins to pursue its own individual course with a slightly Bohemian character, a vibrant link to Dublin's over-lapping worlds of culture and creativity, and some very strong and distinct political and business connections which have given it a unique flavour.

This is the way it has turned out, but back in the 1870s things didn't look so rosy. The promoters persuaded one of the local big cheeses among the land owners, Lord Longford of the Pakenham family, to lay the foundation stone on April 20th 19870, and provided him with a very ornate and inscribed trowel to do the business. This much-embellished article, which gave added meaning to the notion of laying it on with a trowel, was provided by one of the members of the new club, Thomas Brunker, who had a jewellery shop in Grafton Street in the heart of Dublin.

The stone-laying ceremony went off with style, and the building went ahead with such quality of the basic stonework that - when added to the extra challenge of effectively building on the foreshore – the members saw the final price come in at around £4,000, about twice the original estimate, and calculated to be about €4 million today.

Thus the original promoters were financially up against it from the start, and though several of them were sailing men who could use the club as their base, Dublin Bay SC was not to come into being until 1884, the mainstay of sailing was only the Saturday afternoon racing, and so regular use of the clubhouse facilities in anything reminiscent of today's style relied on the hoped-for presence of rowing enthusiasts, who failed to materialize despite the club having a membership of around 200.

Aerial view of the southeast corner of Dun Laoghaire Harbour at low water Springs in 1933Aerial view of the southeast corner of Dun Laoghaire Harbour at low water Springs in 1933, when it had been largely unchanged in 50 years. There was still virtually no platform space at either the National YC (left) or the RStGYC (right).

By the end of the 1870s, the Kingstown Royal Harbour Boat Club was in serious financial difficulties, and in February 1881 it was put into liquidation. Among those being named as officers of the club at this time was the unfortunate Thomas Brunker, who had made the ornate silver trowel back in the glad days of 1870 for Lord Longford to lay the foundation stone.

However, in September 1879 the building in Dublin with Thomas's shop centred in it collapsed into Grafton Street, which wasn't good for business, and then in February 1881, his beloved club in Kingstown collapsed into liquidation. Donal O'Sullivan recounts all this in a certain deadpan yet droll style, such that only a heart of stone could resist the impulse to mirth. But sad and all as the Brunker fate was, it gives us an insight into how the life of the club was intertwined with the middle class social and sporting life of Kingstown and Dublin Bay, and the business and commercial life of Dublin, a theme which is fascinatingly evident throughout the book.

For although the first iteration of a club may have evaporated, the multi-use prime location building was still very much in existence.
It was sold at a knockdown price of £1250 to "a syndicate of gentlemen thoroughly interested in the progress of Kingstown." But they were equally interested in their own financial safeguards, so the new organization they brought into being to run the club was finalized in 1883 as the Kingstown Harbour Yacht Club Ltd., though for sailing purposes the "Ltd" somehow managed to disappear, a necessary step as the club had become more active in organizing sailing races.

Quite what the quality in the Royal St George YC and the Royal Irish YC made of these goings-on just along the waterfront we can all too easily guess, and it wasn't improved by some of the goings-on of the KHYC members among themselves, with two of them ending up in the Exchequer Court in 1884 over the running costs of a yacht they jointly owned. And soon the KHYC itself was no stranger to the Four Courts, for on 8th March 1887 the Master of the Rolls gave an order for the club to be wound up, and by the end of the month the building was for sale for the second time in its short life of 17 year, the attractive William Stirling-designed clubhouse surely a golden opportunity if only the right person was interested.

Cometh the hour, cometh the man…..Charles Barrington (1834-1901) was an astonishing achiever in almost every interest he took up. He was very much of Ireland's "energetic and industrious Quaker type", being one of the Barringtons of Fassaroe in North Wicklow, and married to another industrious Quaker, one of the Grubbs of Tipperary. There doesn't seem to be any family connection to the contemporary Barringtons who now play such a leading role in Dun Laoghaire and Irish sailing, but back in the late 1880s, CB - as everyone seems to have known him – was definitely The Man.

Charles Barrington (1834-1901)Charles Barrington (1834-1901) is now largely unknown, yet he was quite the man in late 19th Century Dublin. In 1858, although largely untrained in mountaineering, he made the first ascent of the Eiger during his only visit to Switzerland. In 1870 he won the first Irish Grand National, anonymously riding a horse he'd trained himself. And in 1887 he bought the building which is now the National Yacht Club, and made it into a popular commercial success for hospitality as the Absolute Club, while improving its qualities as a yacht and sailing club

He was the first to climb the Eiger during his only trip to Switzerland in 1858, a feat properly praised by the great Heinrich Harar, he also won the first Irish Grand National in 1870 on a horse he trained himself, riding as jockey under an assumed name as involvement in a sport involving gambling would have offered his co-religionists. And by the 1880s he was so much into sailing – well supported by the family soap business which merits a mention in Ulysses – that he had two substantial sailing yachts in Kingstown Harbour, the larger a 77ft schooner called Avalanche, which may have been a nod towards the fact that, while descending from his insouciant conquest of the Eiger in 1858, he and his team were almost swept away into oblivion by an avalanche.

He also had a couple of curious hobby businesses: two gentlemen's clubs – the Ormond and the Sheridan - in Dublin's clubland near Stephen's Green. We'll resist the temptation to draw any analogies between a noted contemporary Dublin Bay sailor who is also a renowned innovator in the very different 21st Century clubland scene in the city, but the fact is that on 12th July 1887 Charles Barrington snapped up the empty KHYC premises for £1300, promptly renamed it the Absolute Club, turned it into a hospitable place with women visitors made particularly welcome, and somehow managed to retain the sailing club ethos while making it all a bit of fun – with frequent special events – all of which turned a modest but essential profit.

Who knows, but as Ireland's yacht and sailing clubs in due course emerge from the ill-effects of the pandemic, in order to fulfil their true potential and continuing existence we should maybe look a bit more realistically at the Barrington approach, and see how commercial viability, a friendly atmosphere and shared enthusiasm can provide the environment in which sailing can prosper and be enjoyed.

party time for all at the National Yacht ClubCharles Barrington would have approved…..party time for all at the National Yacht Club.

By the time Barrington died in 1901, it's arguable that the unique atmosphere which still pervades the National Yacht Club had been firmly put in place thanks to his benevolent and energetic presence. Subsequently, the club has been through two further name changes, it has survived at least eight fires - two of them major ones - it has seen its lower floors – originally the KHBC boathouse – flooded out completely, and it has come through some very good times economically when it expanded its facilities, but like everyone else it has also had to hang in by the finger-nails through various setbacks to the world economy.

Then, of course, there was the time it served as the new Free State Government Reception Area in the 1920s, when delicate negotiations between the Cosgrave government in Dublin and the London government required a private suite of rooms convenient to the Mailboat Pier in Dun Laoghaire, and the Edward Yacht Club - as it had been since Barrington's death - readily obliged.

It was an arrangement which was never officially minuted, yet everyone in a "need to know" situation was fully aware of it. Thus it was that when, in 1931, the noted international yachtsman the Earl of Granard (instigator of the One Ton Cup) willingly agreed to be Commodore of the club when it was re-named the National Yacht Club, (after he'd surprised many by emerging some years before as a Catholic Nationalist), he hosted an extraordinary reception in the club attended by just about all of the Great and the Good of the new Ireland, including some who less than ten years earlier might have quite cheerfully assassinated each other.

Bernard Arthur Patrick Hastings Forbes, 8th Earl of Granard KP, GCVO (1874-1948) became first Commodore of the re-constituted National Yacht ClubThe Man Who Surprised Everyone. He may have been best known on the world sailing scene as the man who donated the One Ton Cup for international competition in 1899, and in Ireland he was best known as Commodore of the North Shannon Yacht Club. But when Bernard Arthur Patrick Hastings Forbes, 8th Earl of Granard KP, GCVO (1874-1948) became first Commodore of the re-constituted National Yacht Club in Dun Laoghaire in 1931, it emerged he was a Catholic Nationalist whose inauguration ceremony in the NYC was attended by many powerful figures in the new Irish Free State.

Despite this gala launching, things were quiet enough for the club in the humdrum economic realities of the 1930s, but new names such as designer/builder John B Kearney and his close friends became a distinct focus group, and in the early '30s the Mermaid class from his design began to emerge, a useful general-purpose 17-footer which by the 1950s had become the biggest class in Dun Laoghaire.

Noted skipper and designer John B Kearney was a leading figure in the National YC in the 1930s, 40s 50s and 60sNoted skipper and designer John B Kearney was a leading figure in the National YC in the 1930s, 40s 50s and 60s.

The advent of more modern dinghies after 1945 swept through the National YC as it swept through other clubs, and over the years the quaint "Venetian palazzo with an Irish accent" began to disappear behind new slipways and boat platforms to accommodate classes as diverse as the 505s and the Optimists, with the NYC leading the way in introducing Ireland to the latter kids boat, thanks to Johnny Hooper, Carmel Winkelmann and Paddy Kirwan.

The basic structure of the clubhouse was still largely unchanged in the early 1960s……The basic structure of the clubhouse was still largely unchanged in the early 1960s…

the club led the way in adopting the Optimist for Junior Training, launching facilities were initially very primitive…..and as the club led the way in adopting the Optimist for Junior Training, launching facilities were initially very primitive.

In addition to interesting cruisers such as Freddy Brownlee's Uffa Fox-designed-and-built Flying 35 Flying Fox, by 1960 the NYC were into the Olympics with an Olympic Race win for Johnny Hooper and Peter Gray in the Flying Dutchman in Rome in 1960.

And when boats like the 505 proved too expensive, the NYC were among the leaders in the move into more economical Fireball, a move made to such good effect that in 1995 John Lavery and David O'Brien of the NYC won the Fireball Worlds staged by the NYC.

John Lavery and David O'Brien on their way to winning the 1995 International Fireball Worlds at the National Yacht Club for the National Yacht Club.John Lavery and David O'Brien on their way to winning the 1995 International Fireball Worlds at the National Yacht Club for the National Yacht Club.

Offshore, the National YC has always played a leading role in ISORA, and in the Round Ireland race its skippers – particularly Eamonn Crosbie – having left a lasting mark of success, while the club's own user-friendly Dun Laoghaire to Dingle race – inaugurated by Martin Crotty and Peter Cullen on a biennial basis in 1993 is a hugely popular event.

Perhaps there's an enduring legacy from the time of Charles Barring in the fact that women members have always been in leading roles afloat and ashore, with the first Woman Commodore being Idea Kiernan in 2000-2002, and that after she'd made a major contribution to developing Irish sailing through running the Dun Laoghaire Sailing School for many years.

Ida Kiernan was first female Commodore of the National YC in 2000-2002, and was a training pioneer with the foundation of the Dun Laoghaire Sailing SchoolIda Kiernan was first female Commodore of the National YC in 2000-2002, and was a training pioneer with the foundation of the Dun Laoghaire Sailing School.
We get an idea of the breadth and depth of the National Yacht Club's basic strength and vitality in realizing that it has been the Mitsubishi Motors Sailing Club of the Year five times, in 1981, 1985, 1996, 2012 and 2018 - a very significant score.

The National YC achieves this through being its own friendly self while aspiring to the highest levels of achievement. A long time ago, the recently-widowed Mrs Mac Aleavey had a daughter who was keen to sail. and had been given the present of a 420. But the small family were relatively new to Dublin, and hadn't been able to find a club with the facilities and friendliness which the young tyro sailor hoped for.

Then they tapped on the front door of the last club along the Dun Laoghaire waterfront, and were immediately made at home. In 1988, the daughter Cathy represented Ireland in the 470 in the Olympics Then in 1993, she and her husband Con Murphy (whom she'd introduced to sailing and who went on to be a National YC Commodore) brought Steve Fossett's 60ft trimaran Lakota to Ireland, and – sailing from the National – established a round Ireland Record which stood for 22 years.

Con Murphy and Cathy Mac Aleavey at the party in the National YC to celebrate their new round Ireland record in 1993Con Murphy and Cathy Mac Aleavey at the party in the National YC to celebrate their new round Ireland record in 1993.

Then in 2016 their daughter Annalise returned to the greatest welcome home reception ever seen at an Irish yacht club. It was, of course, the National YC, and she'd won the silver medal at the Rio Olympics.

There's all this and much much more in Donal O'Sullivan's well-illustrated The National – Chronicles of a Dun Laoghaire Yacht Club. It's utterly absorbing, the variety of the stories and the characters of the main players are remarkable, and yet it's of that ever-to-be-blessed size which can be comfortably read in bed. Its pure lockdown luxury and you can get it for €15 or €20 posted.

WM Nixon

About The Author

WM Nixon

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William M Nixon has been writing about sailing in Ireland for many years in print and online, and his work has appeared internationally in magazines and books. His own experience ranges from club sailing to international offshore events, and he has cruised extensively under sail, often in his own boats which have ranged in size from an 11ft dinghy to a 35ft cruiser-racer. He has also been involved in the administration of several sailing organisations.

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William M Nixon has been writing about sailing in Ireland and internationally for many years, with his work appearing in leading sailing publications on both sides of the Atlantic. He has been a regular sailing columnist for four decades with national newspapers in Dublin, and has had several sailing books published in Ireland, the UK, and the US. An active sailor, he has owned a number of boats ranging from a Mirror dinghy to a Contessa 35 cruiser-racer, and has been directly involved in building and campaigning two offshore racers. His cruising experience ranges from Iceland to Spain as well as the Caribbean and the Mediterranean, and he has raced three times in both the Fastnet and Round Ireland Races, in addition to sailing on two round Ireland records. A member for ten years of the Council of the Irish Yachting Association (now the Irish Sailing Association), he has been writing for, and at times editing, Ireland's national sailing magazine since its earliest version more than forty years ago

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