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Ireland's Eight America's Cup Challenges Are Now Remote History

27th February 2021
No longer at the races……The AC75 American Magic at an early stage of the selection trials for the current 2021 series, when she seemed well able to cope with awkward seas. But she was actually in smoother water some weeks later when she became airborne in squally weather on starboard tack, and in crashing back to sea level, the port foil snapped like a stick of celery, holing the hull
No longer at the races……The AC75 American Magic at an early stage of the selection trials for the current 2021 series, when she seemed well able to cope with awkward seas. But she was actually in smoother water some weeks later when she became airborne in squally weather on starboard tack, and in crashing back to sea level, the port foil snapped like a stick of celery, holing the hull

When the "low black schooner" America won what was to become an historic race around the Isle of Wight on Friday 22nd August 1851 from a small fleet of varied English yachts, thereby winning a silver ewer which was eventually to become The America's Cup, the British Empire was approaching its world-girdling all-powerful peak. As for the United States of America, they were expanding with such vigour that they overcame a destructive Civil War ten years later to enter an era of such growth and strength that inevitably, the USA became the world's superpower.

Yet in 1851, Italy was not even a nation state. It took until 1871 to achieve Garibaldi's Risorgimento, although the Kingdom of Italy was to be somewhat prematurely declared on St Patrick's Day 1861. You just can't beat St Patrick's Day for premature announcements – we can all guess what this year's one might be.

As for New Zealand, as the name indicates, the first Europeans to discover it were the Dutch. But they first saw it some hundreds of years after the voyaging Polynesians - who were to become the Maoris - had settled in the place. Yet even by 1851, New Zealand had only recently been declared a minor Colony of the British Empire, and the Maoris continued to significantly outnumber the new European settlers.

The beginning of a continuing chapter of sailing history. The schooner America crosses the line to win the race round the Isle of Wight on Friday August 22nd 1851The beginning of a continuing chapter of sailing history. The schooner America crosses the line to win the race round the Isle of Wight on Friday, August 22nd 1851.

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin remarked that it can take ten years to achieve a week's movement in human history, yet equally ten years' movement can sometimes happen in a week or even less. Whatever, the fact is that quite a bit of world-changing history has happened at varying speeds in the 170 years since 1851, but above all its turmoil there still emerges the America's Cup, the Auld Mug, the world's oldest international sporting challenge.

Yet it would have been beyond the wildest imagination in 1851 to visualise that by March 2021, the two national teams starting to race for it in less than a week's time will be New Zealand and Italy, with the former defending. Just try to imagine how outlandish this would have looked to a Victorian Englishman 170 years ago….

Light years from Cowes 1851. The 2021 defenders, Emirates Team New ZealandLight years from Cowes 1851. The 2021 defenders, Emirates Team New Zealand

The Kiwis are doing it with backing from an airline (an airline?) called Emirates from the mysterious Arab world, an airline based in a futuristic high-rise city around what a very few intrepid British explorers, soldiers and traders might have known in 1851 as dhow-filled Dubai Creek.

As for the Italians, the notoriously undisciplined comic-opera Italians of the 19th century? Well, 170 years later they suddenly seem to have re-discovered the ferociously efficient non-nonsense Roman Empire's way of doing things. And like the Roman Empire, they're racially blind, as one of their two star helmsmen is Australian. Yet their campaign appears to be supported by the fashion house of Prada (formerly humble dressmakers and seamstresses, forsooth), and some family called Pirelli, who are manufacturer of inflatable rubber tyres, whatever they might be.

The discipline of the Roman Empire sails again – the Luna Rossa challenger Prada PirelliThe discipline of the Roman Empire sails again – the Luna Rossa challenger Prada Pirelli 

Continuing to see this from the viewpoint of an English sailing enthusiast in Cowes in 1851, we're surprised to learn that the racing is taking place on the other side of the world at a place called Auckland, which calls itself the City of Sails. In 1851, it's a little harbour village that has been called Auckland for only ten years, and our English yachtie of 170 years ago would probably be much more familiar with the place of its ultimate name origins, the coal-mining town of Bishop Auckland up north in County Durham.

But the thing that would really floor our 1851 yachting enthusiast is the news that in order to reach next month's final, the Italians have – with brutal efficiency - seen off rival challenges by the USA, and what is now called the United Kingdom but in 1851 was forever England, the British team having been dispatched with a ruthlessness which hasn't been seen since the Americans saw off the British Sceptre challenge of 1958.

The image has moved on from a coal-mining town in Durham – the waterfront in Auckland, with America's Cup action being played outThe image has moved on from a coal-mining town in Durham – the waterfront in Auckland, with America's Cup action being played out 

By this time our Cowes observer of 1851 will be so discombobulated that – with growing hysteria – he'll be demanding to know if the Chinese and Indians are involved? To which the answer is not yet, but it's surely only a matter of time…..

So as world sailing's self-styled greatest contest so vividly illustrates the pivoting of global centres of sporting power and economic muscle, it's timely to remember that in the 36 challenges for the America's Cup since the first officially-recognised one was made off New York in 1870, no less than eight have had Irish origins.

That's 22%, for heaven's sake. These challenges were made between 1886 and 1931. And each one gives us some telling insights into the Ireland of the time in which they were made, none more so than the first in 1886.

There'd already been three unsuccessful challenges, in 1870, 1871 and 1876, but it was only the latter which bore any resemblance to the modern match-racing format, as the 1870 British challenger James Ashbury had found he was racing against a fleet of 23 boats, and was only tenth overall, with the winner a shoal-draft schooner which took her victory by taking a short cut across "thin water" with her centreboard raised.

So for 1871 the Americans agreed Ashbury would race against only one boat. But they reserved the right to select their boat-for-the-day from a flotilla of four specialized boats, the choice being weather-dependent, and not surprisingly Ashbury's Livonia – which had already had to make a Transatlantic passage to comply with the challenge rules – found herself outclassed.

Things became more serious in 1876, as the challenger was Canadian, and though she'd to get to New York sailing on her own bottom, it didn't require the same ocean-going demands as crossing from Europe. The boat was the Countess of Dufferin, named for the very supportive wife of the notably able Canadian Governor General Lord Dufferin, of sailing into High Latitudes fame. So I suppose we might claim yet another Irish link there. But as Canadian yachting was in its infancy, the strict new match-racing format underlined the American superiority.

This was further emphasised by another Canadian challenge in 1881 when the Americans won the clinching race by 38 minutes and 54 seconds, a margin which has never been matched since. But things were a bit closer in 1885 when the British returned to the fray with Richard Sutton's Genesta, yet the Americans clearly kept the cup. But despite that, Cup fever was building, and the first Irish-flavoured challenge of 1886 was to do much to build popular interest.

Lt Paddy Henn from County Clare, America's Cup Challenger of 1886, was never happier than when sailingLt Paddy Henn from County Clare, America's Cup Challenger of 1886, was never happier than when sailing

Lt William "Paddy" Henn RN (1847- to 1894) was a scion of the Henn family of County Clare, who'd originally bought lands on the west shore of the Fergus Estuary on the north side of the Shannon Estuary in 1685 from Henry O'Brien, 7th Earl of Thomond.

As the O'Briens of Thomond weren't exactly renowned for their probity, it's a moot point whether or not the land sold to the Henns was really the O'Briens' to sell in the first place. But the newcomers proved to be popular landlords, while for their part they liked the place so much that when they built their modest country home, they called it Paradise House.

The driveway to the Henn family's Paradise House, with the Fergus and Shannon Estuaries beyond The driveway to the Henn family's Paradise House, with the Fergus and Shannon Estuaries beyond.

Paradise House in 1936 Paradise House in 1936

Many of the Henns were early recreational sailors, and young William was so keen he joined the navy primarily to sail the oceans of the world. But didn't get nearly as much sailing as he hoped, so he bought himself out of the service – an expensive enough ploy – but proudly retained the modest Lieutenant title, and thereafter was known as "Lt Henn, the jolly Irish tar".

That he was now able to sail whenever he wanted was made possible by a judicious but very happy marriage to a Scots heiress,
Susan Matilda Cunninghame-Graham-Bartholomew (1853-1911), where every hyphen represented yet another fortune. She shared his enthusiasm for sailing, and they commissioned the 102ft iron cutter Galatea from designer John Beavor-Webb, who was to make his name in America designing such craft as the succession of ever-larger and very elegant Corsair steam yachts for financier J Pierpoint Morgan. Originally, however, he hailed from Enniskillen in County Fermanagh, which made this even more of an Irish challenge.

But as it was funded by Mrs Henn's large if depleting fortune, the challenge was made through the club with which her family was linked, the Royal Northern YC in the Clyde. Nevertheless, Galatea spent some time in Ireland anchored in a useful pool below Paradise House before making the required Atlantic crossing with the crew including Mrs Henn and her pet monkey Peggy.

Galatea racing. In reality, she was a comfortable cruising yacht which happened to set an enormous spread of rather good sails.Galatea racing. In reality, she was a comfortable cruising yacht which happened to set an enormous spread of rather good sails.

Galatea was in a reality a very comfortable cruising yacht which happened to set an enormous spread of rather good sails. Paddy and Susan Henn were very content with living aboard her for long periods, and few enough of their domestic items were brought ashore to lighten the ship for racing, so not surprisingly they were roundly beaten in the series off New York sailed in the Autumn of 1886.

However, as it was sailed in light airs, the Henns said they were game to stay on aboard Galatea in New York through the winter to race again in the stronger winds of Spring. Such was their popularity that the New York Yacht Club agreed, and the scenes of domestic bliss aboard Galatea in wintry New York - with Peggy in the ascendant - provided ready fodder for New York's tabloid press.

Galatea's solidly comfortable saloon. Paddy and Susan Henn and their pet monkey Peggy lived aboard in New York through the winter of 1986-87Galatea's solidly comfortable saloon. Paddy and Susan Henn and their pet monkey Peggy lived aboard in New York through the winter of 1986-87

But the brisk winds of Spring, with Paddy and Susan Henn enjoying themselves hugely, still failed to do the business, so they took fond farewell of their many New York friends and spent eight years cruising the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, saddened only by the death of Peggy after seven of those years – she was given a proper burial at sea with full naval honours.

Further sadness came with the relatively early death, aged only 47, of William Henn in 1894, but the gallant Susan kept the Galatea in commission, and continued to sail her and live aboard for long periods unto her own death in 1911. After this, the much-loved ship was broken up, which rather puts paid to the story that she lurks in the mud below the ruins of Paradise House, which the Henn family continued to occupy until 1936.

However, in nearby Ballynacally there's a memorial to the Galatea Challenge whose unveiling in 2009 was attended by Brigadier Frank Henn, great-grand-nephew of William Henn, who fondly remembered happy family sailing holidays at Paradise House in the 1930s, a direct link which ended as recently as last November 2020, when Frank Henn died aged 99.

Monica and Frank Henn at the unveiling of the Galatea Memorial in Ballynacally in 2009. Frank Henn (died November 2020) was the great-grand-nephew of Lt Paddy HennMonica and Frank Henn at the unveiling of the Galatea Memorial in Ballynacally in 2009. Frank Henn (died November 2020) was the great-grand-nephew of Lt Paddy Henn

While the Galatea Irish challenge engendered nothing but international goodwill, the next two Irish Challenges, in 1893 and 1895 by Lord Dunraven of Adare in County Limerick just across the Shannon Estuary from the Henn lands, became noted for their acrimony. Dunraven was extremely competitive, and the stakes were higher, for by this time the America's Cup had so entered public consciousness that the first US defenders to lose it would find themselves cast into total outer darkness.

Although only seven seasons had passed since the Galatea challenge, big class yacht racing designed had moved forward in light year terms, and Dunraven's 1893 challenger, the 117ft Valkyrie III (he'd Wagner on the mind), represented such advanced thinking from the G L Watson yacht design office in Glasgow that, as a gesture of support and in order to provide Valkyrie III with a training partner, the Prince of Wales ordered the almost identical Britannia, and the two were built side-by-side in D & W Henderson's shipyard on the Clyde.

Subsequently, Henderson's was taken over lock, stock and barrel by Harland & Wolff of Belfast, which explains why you can now see Valkyrie's superb builder's half model in the Royal Ulster YC in Bangor if you're looking for another Irish connection. But meanwhile, the supportive involvement of the inevitably headline-getting Prince of Wales was yet another example of Dunraven's misfortune. For although Valkyrie II was undoubtedly the first big class of the type, subsequently the magnificent new hull form became known as "The Britannia Ideal", while in terms of sailing history the name Valkyrie is most readily associated with one of the most acrimonious episodes in the history of the America's Cup.

Britannia at full power in her first season of 1893. Although she is virtually a sister-ship of the slightly earlier Valkyrie II, nowadays the design is venerated as "The Britannia Ideal", while the name of Valkyrie is associated with an acrimonious America's CupBritannia at full power in her first season of 1893. Although she is virtually a sister-ship of the slightly earlier Valkyrie II, nowadays the design is venerated as "The Britannia Ideal", while the name of Valkyrie is associated with an acrimonious America's Cup

This came as a result of Dunraven's second challenge in 1895 with Valkyrie III, also Watson-designed. Watson's designs were pacing well with the creations of the great Nathanael G Herreshoff for the defenders, but in 1893 the Americans had superior sails and sailed better.

Things seemed to have moved forward for the Dunraven camp in 1895, as it was hugely resourced from his own funds from a family fortune built on steady land-buying by the Quinn family of County Limerick since the 17th Century, subsequently augmented by an ancestor's marriage to a Miss Wyndham, who happened to own a field in Wales. But as it was a coalfield, and the biggest one in Wales at that, the added income was beyond counting.

Plus that, Dunraven was also backed by other partners such as the morbidly wealthy McCalmont family of Mount Juliet in County Kilkenny. But that's forgotten nowadays, for he got into such a row with the New York Yacht Club about the control of the spectator fleet that he withrew from the series after the tense situation was exacerbated by a collision. So many bad-tempered claims and counter-claims were flying about that the New York Yacht Club cancelled Dunraven's Honorary Membership, while his wealthy supporters' syndicate disappeared into the undergrowth.

It became a full-blown international confrontation right up to government level, the complete opposite to the affable Galatea Chalenge. But in fairness to Dunraven there were two sides to the story - his just didn't get heard at the time. And the more thoughtful sailing histories have been kinder to him, while his many achievements in other fields have shown him to be one of the outstanding people in the Ireland of his time.

The Earl of Dunraven of Adare, Co Limerick. There was much more to him than a dispute at the America's Cup of 1895The Earl of Dunraven of Adare, Co Limerick. There was much more to him than a dispute at the America's Cup of 1895.

However, back in the 1890s, the America's Cup had now reached a new peak of international fame or notoriety, depending on your point of view, and it took a marketing genius to see its full potential. Betty Armstrong has already recounted in Afloat.ie how the five challenges by Thomas Lipton between 1899 and 1930 through the Royal Ulster Yacht Club are now commemorated by the presentation by RUYC of the Lipton Cup to the winner of the Challenger Series, and Italy's Luna Rossa has already been given the 2021 honours in Auckland. But any overview of Lipton and his news-making campaigns can barely scratch the surface of a chameleon-like figure, whose achievements in developing shopping, marketing and publicity projects were prodigious.

It's not for nothing that one of the books about him has been called "The Man Who Invented Himself", for he could be anything that his people or his audience wanted him to be. You want him to be Irish despite his Glasgow associations? Well, probably he did come from Monaghan, but in case there's any doubt, he called all his racing yachts Shamrock, and his elegant supporting steam yacht was called Erin.

Made it! Thomas Lipton gets the ultimate contemporary recognitionMade it! Thomas Lipton gets the ultimate contemporary recognition

And through his encouragement, big yacht design moved on through the ultimate development of the stylish classic craft created by Watson and Fife in Scotland until, for his fourth challenge in 1914, he changed tacks completely to use the design and build services of Charles Nicholson of Gosport, who produced a truly revolutionary giant scow in Shamrock IV.

Her launching was a classic display of Lipton razzmatazz. It's going to be in Gosport? So what's the most famous ship afloat in Gosport? Nelson's Victory of course, for this was before she was permanently consigned to dry-dock. So we'll get HMS Victory to provide the background. Can't be done, she's a national monument. No such phrase as "can't be done" when Lipton's on the campaign trail. The photo says it all, though you can't help but wondered how, with those enormous topsides, the Victory even managed to sail to Trafalgar, let alone fight and win a mighty battle once she got there.

Only Tommy Lipton could have arranged it that Nelson's Victory should be the "Ship in Attendance" at the May 1914 launching of his very innovative Charles E Nicholson-designed Shamrock IV.Only Tommy Lipton could have arranged it that Nelson's Victory should be the "Ship in Attendance" at the May 1914 launching of his very innovative Charles E Nicholson-designed Shamrock IV.

But the fates were against the extraordinary Shamrock IV and her undoubted potential. Although she got across the Atlantic, the Kaiser Unpleantness of 1914-1918 and the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1919 postponed the next America's Cup until 1920, by which time the lightly-built Shamrock IV had reputedly sagged in her storage cradle of six years, and the American had ample opportunity to assess her revolutionary lines.

Yet even so, she almost did it. But almost is not enough, and Lipton's final challenge in 1930 with Shamrock V to the new J-Class Rule painfully demonstrated the superiority of the latest American technology.

And after Shamrock V, that was it for the eight Irish involvements with the America's Cup. Yet back in the 1880s, it didn't seem at all odd that Paddy Henn should make his Quixotic gesture, for at the same time, Foster Connor, one of the leading members of the RUYC in Bangor, had in 1886 commissioned an America's Cup design study from rising star G L Watson.

The end of the line. Even aged 80, Lipton was still on the ball with publicity, and he arranged that his 1930 challenger Shamrock V featured in a double-page spread in The Illustrated London NewsThe end of the line. Even aged 80, Lipton was still on the ball with publicity, and he arranged that his 1930 challenger Shamrock V featured in a double-page spread in The Illustrated London News

Ultimately nothing came of it, but such was the growing energy and wealth of Belfast at the time that it didn't seem at all beyond the realms of possibility. Equally, the hectic involvement of Lord Dunraven was simply the sort of thing that a hyper-energetic persona in his position would do in the 1890s. As for Thomas Lipton making a bit of a thing out of his Irishness, sometimes there was a hint that it was slightly more serious than it seemed, and at the most basic, it was a good career over.

But now, we watch from the margins, and grasp at any links. In 1970, it emerged that Eric Strain of RNIYC at Cultra, 1947 Dragon Gold Cup winner, fourth-placed in the 1948 Olympics, and subsequently a successful Dragon helm in Sydney after emigrating to Australia, was sub-helm to Gordon Ingate on Frank Packer's almost-successful Gretel II campaign in 1970.

Then our own Harold Cudmore in his prime may have been highly valued as a sparring partner to sharpen the starting skills of both defenders and challengers in several high profile America's Cup series. And when Michael Fay of New Zealand was much involved with his nation's campaigns, we were charmed that he made so much of his Irish background and connections.

But in 2021, with two countries that didn't even exist when it all began now facing up to go into battle in the America's Cup final in less than a week's time, we can only sit back and watch in wonder.

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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