With a working life in which sailing, business and friendship are so intertwined that it is difficult if not impossible to tell where one begins and another ends, it will be a sweetly sad bit of news for many folk that Pierce Purcell of Galway Bay is officially retiring from active involvement in the marine industry at the end of January writes W M Nixon
Many of his friends will have known that he has been contemplating heading towards new horizons for some years now. Yet it will still feel more than a little strange to be driving through the attractive village of Clarenbridge in the knowledge that it is no longer possible to stop off and drop into the marine Aladdin’s Cave of marine equipment goodies which was Purcell Marine, there to have a yarn with the man himself about everything that was going on in and around boats and the people with them in the western area.
To say that boats and sailing are Pierce Purcell’s life is understating the case. Yet so keen is he to help others get afloat in so many ways that it could be argued that this evangelizing enthusiasm got in the way of his own sailing. So once he has finally handed over the Clarenbridge premises for other use to the new owners, with any spare marine gear and goods and equipment moved to the very fine shed which he has built out the back of his attractive house down towards the famous Moran’s of the Weir, there is a good chance that he will be able to increase the use of his own immaculately-maintained Snapdragon 27 Ocean Spirit.
There’s talk of cruising Galway Bay and Connemara in detail, and maybe even a spot of mild adventure inland on Lough Corrib, or across and onto the Shannon at Lough Derg. It’s all within easy reach. Yet with his many commitments and his endless rotas of voluntary work, until now he has been unable to do justice to these sailing paradises which his friends and customers have so readily enjoyed.
But although everybody now thinks of Pierce Purcell and Galway Bay as being synonymous, in fact, he’s from a noted Dublin Bay sailing family, and his father – also Pierce – was Commodore of the National YC from 1945-1948, owning the noted John B Kearney yawl Sonia in partnership with his brother Denis.
However, Pierce Senr’s early death ended those idyllic Dun Laoghaire sailing days with young Pierce aged only eight, and when in 1968 his mother was remarried and they moved west to live in Galway, the only tangible link with family sailing on the east coast was a half model of the Sonia. This was hung on the wall of the teenager’s Galway bedroom, representing recollections of increasingly dimness as he immersed himself in the life of growing into adulthood in Galway.
Boats and sailing were very much part of it, and between 1973 and 1979 he was involved in promoting the Galway Boat & Leisure Shows with fellow enthusiasts like Larry Swan, Barry Martin, Ferdinand Riordan and Brian Siggins. But more importantly in the long run, he had been a founder member of Galway Bay Sailing Club in 1970, where some of his early sailing had appropriately been on the John B Kearney-designed Mermaid class Kirkee May.
However, a certain impatience with the speed of development made him realize that an active sailing school was also required, and he set up the Galway Sailing Centre in 1973. Meanwhile his voluntary work with the club continued, such that in 1980-81 – aged just 30 – he was GBSC Commodore. But having done his duty and more with the voluntary effort, he stepped up involvement in the marine business, in 1983 adding a boat sales and chandlery business to new premises in Oranmore.
There, fortune smiled in him, for as it happened he had found those premises in a roadside location which also proved ideal for a filling station to be added in 1989 to service the rapidly increasing Oranmore traffic. Thus he ended up with the unlikely combination of a sailing school with boat and marine store combined with a thriving filling station and cafe, bringing overall business to such a level that in 2001 he was able to sell the entire establishment for a well-earned profit, and move the boat and equipment business as Purcell Marine to the very congenial surroundings of Clarenbridge.
It’s a picturesque village strategically located at the head of Galway Bay in such a convenient way that he drew on a clientele from at least the two counties of Clare and Galway, and in reality much further as well. And by this time he was long since settled into married life with Susan and their sons Pierce Jnr and Mark – the former is now in the strength of CH Marine in Cork.
The Purcell family built themselves a dream home on the east side of Clarenbridge, an enchanting house with the big boat and equipment shed out the back, and a sheltered garden where you can see red squirrels at play while enjoying a leisurely breakfast as the morning sun illuminates the scene.
It provides the ideal base for a man who regularly and frequently bursts forth with nautical energy into the wider world, putting in so much voluntary work for sport afloat that he became the Irish Sailing Association’s “Volunteer of the Year” in 2008, and founded the “Galway Afloat” cruising group in 2009 – to date, their biggest success has been a 50 boats-plus rally to Kilronan in the Aran Islands.
That in turn led on to membership of the Cruising Association of Ireland of which he became Vice Commodore, and then in 2012-2016 he served as a Director on the Board of the Irish Sailing Association (now Irish Sailing), where he put in much work with Muriel Rumball of the Irish National Sailing School, developing the Try Sailing initiative.
In 2016 old family links were formally renewed when he was elected an Honorary Member of the National Yacht Club, where he had always been a welcome guest, particularly in 2013 when the only John B Kearney cruising yacht still in existence in Ireland, Dickie Gomes’s 1912-built Ainmara from Strangford Lough, ventured southward for some days to the Dublin Bay area, and sailed into Dun Laoghaire with Pierce Purcell on the helm for a reception at the National Yacht Club, where the half model of Sonia played a starring role in a convivial gathering of John B Kearney enthusiasts.
But while he enjoys a party as much as the next man, and has many friends in boats and sailing throughout Ireland, Pierce Purcell is keen that this camaraderie of the sea should be readily and generously available to newcomers.
However, with volunteering being second nature to him, he admits that at times he might expect too much of others in the same way, ruefully acknowledging that in the early days of Galway Bay SC when effort was expected all round, he became known as the “Have You Got a Minute” Man.
Yet nowadays when people are moving away again from the expectation that paid staff are inevitably necessary to run any significant organisation, he finds that club officers can be pleasantly surprised by the positive response they get simply by phoning someone and making a reasonable request for voluntary effort – “We mustn’t see members as customers” is his mantra.
A new turn in his involvement came in 2017 when he was persuaded to be administrator of Galway Ocean Sports Club in the city’s docklands, and his support for Disabled Sailing has also been an almost lifelong interest. But he admits that the total availability of all forms of modern communication has resulted in a diminution of good old-fashioned get-togethers to sort out problems and get things done – he hugely relishes the mixing of boats and sailing and sociability.
However, after 45 years and more in the boat business, it is definitely time to become more of a consumer himself. Ocean Spirit will soon be ready to go afloat again. The sea and the lakes and the waterways call. And at every port he visits, Pierce Purcell will find he is among friends old and new. We wish him all the very best, the heartfelt thanks of Ireland’s sailing community, and the fairest of fair winds.