Dave FitzGerald lived a hundred lives, and he lived them to the full. His exuberant zest in existence expressed itself in everyday life, in his notable career as a miner, and in his joy in sport - be it sailing, rugby or hunting.
If any activity could be enhanced by what others might think of as a bit of mischief - however harmless- Dave would be game for it. Yet he had a serious side and could be a formidable administrator and manager when the situation required.
Born in Kerry, he was the son of a railway construction engineer whose peripatetic existence took him worldwide, resulting in the young David FitzGerald often travelling considerable distances alone to join his parents when on vacation from school. His own underlying seriousness was indicated by his boyhood ambition to be a miner at international level. To achieve that, he graduated from the Camborne School of Mines in Cornwall, which had been built around the Cornish tin-mining industry, and from it, he went forth to work in the world after being the School Boxing Champion and playing rugby for Cornwall.
Newly married to Jean, an early appointment was as manager of a chromium mine in Baluchistan in northwest Pakistan. It was wild country where he could hunt with a rifle, becoming fondly known as the Emir FitzGerald after he had out-performed the local chieftain in a sports shooting match. He claimed this was an unintended result – he’d meant to miss in order to maintain friendly relations.
His mining contracts took him over much of Asia, Canada and South America, and he was 8,000 feet underground in the St John D’el Rey Gold Mine in Brazil (the deepest in the world) in its final profitable years around 1960, when he received a faint and crackling phone call from Ireland to see would he be interested in opening up a new zinc and lead mining venture in Tynagh in East Galway. It was a rare opportunity to do the job he loved in his homeland, and his arrival in southeast Galway was to set his life path for very many years, and affect all those who got to know this remarkable man as he played a key role in bringing previously unimagined sources of income to an otherwise impoverished area.
As a sportsman, he naturally looked about for ways of attracting others to his areas of interest, and after trying to get a sailing club to thrive on the lake at Loughrea, he and fellow enthusiasts like the late Dave Whitehead reckoned that Galway provided the most likely opportunities. But he had the energy of ten men, and in addition to early attempts at getting sailing going on Lough Atalia within the city, Dave was much involved with Corinthians Rugby Club in the city, actively playing the game until well past the age when most men would have long since hung up their boots.
The hunting field was another passion, and he regularly rode to hounds with the Galway Blazers and the Northeast Galway Hunt. Being Dave, he seemed to specialise in hugely spectacular accidents, a typical one occurring near Athenry, of which he reported: “Luckily, I landed on my head….”
He continued to be concerned that the Galway city area was not availing of its great sea sailing waters, and he played a leading role in persuading Galway Bay SC that the future lay with a base at Renville near Oranmore. He led the way by acquiring a Snapdragon 26 called Pegeen on Dublin Bay, having usefully discovered that the Irish railway system still operated a prehistoric pricing system for the transport of boats on its flatbed trucks.
Pegeen being twin keel, she was ideal for this, and it cost him only seven shillings and sixpence (about 40c in today’s money) to have her transported from the Point Depot in Dublin across Ireland to the quayside in Galway city. Berthed at the little quay in Renville, Pegeeen was the beginnings of what is now the sizeable and modern Galway Bay SC fleet, and with her Dave played a key role in the club’s growth, introducing others to sailing even as he learned more of cruising the West Coast of Ireland until in 1966 he introduced a new thread to sailing in the bay by being elected a member of the Irish Cruising Club.
He was to go on to become the ICC’s first western-based Commodore, introducing many other new members of similar quality to the club. Yet while he was a great man for a party, he was equally renowned for the thoroughness of his approach to administration and management – longtime friend Pierce Purcell recalls how at GBSC committee meetings when Dave was the senior officer, he kept a little notebook in which he personally noted what each committee member had agreed to achieve before the next meeting, and the thought of the quietly probing question at that next meeting invariably ensured that the required action had been taken.
Yet this same serious administrator could be the life and soul of any party. While Commodore of GBSC, one of his duties was to be Santa Claus at the Christmas special, and in December 1981 he arrived into the clubhouse with the full Santa gear astride his hunter, demanding a whiskey for Father Christmas and a pint for the horse…….
As for work, while he was a demanding mine manager, he was deeply into the lore and culture of mining, and his favourite party piece was singing the miners’ anthem, The Ballad of Joe Hill. He sang it very well indeed with true feeling, and longtime friend and shipmate Peter Fernie recalled that sometimes, for extra effect when still in his prime, he sang it while standing on his head.
It was remarkable that a man so busy with work and so involved in sport and socialising was also much immersed in family life with Jean and their three daughters Grainne, Trish and Kathy, but Dave FitGerald was a devoted family man who was to go on to adore his grandchildren, while of his daughters it is Grainne who has most enthusiastically followed his delight in sailing, and particularly in cruising. She has become a leading figure in the Irish Cruising Club, having served on the Committee, then for a period as Honorary Secretary – a notably onerous task with such a diverse and widespread organization – and now she is back on the strength of the Committee while - with her partner Chris Curry - she ensured that Dave continued to sail well into his eighties.
Dave’s own boat-owning career followed the familiar path of gradually increasing in boat sizes as resources and physical powers permitted, and then easing back as the reality of the years took their toll. The little Pegeen was used to the maximum including an award-winning cruise to France, and then he moved up to the Fulmar 32 Pegeen Eile which – with Dave’s enthusiastic crews - proved well able for the challenges of Ireland’s Atlantic seaboard.
His largest craft was the one-off Holman & Pye-designed 40ft Partizan, whose crew needs well served his personal aim that anyone who turned up on the Galway Bay SC slip on an evening of the weekly league, and hoped to sail, would quickly get a place. As with his other boats, Partizan provided a welcoming berth on board for newcomers, and as helpful an introduction to sailing as could be managed by people whose zest for sailing sport was more than matched by their enjoyment of life in general.
With Partizan, Dave FitzGerald gained a place in Irish sailing history through being one of the eleven entries and taking second in line honours in the first Round Ireland Race from Wicklow in 1980, a ground-breaking event he did with such such seasoned shipmates as Denis Cudmore from Cork, Pat Fahey of Galway, Philip McAuliffe (then of Galway, now of Cork), Frank Larkin of Limerick and others. This ambitious project introduced a period when Partizan was a regular participant in events near and far, with Peter Fernie soon adding to the strength to provide Dave FitzGerald with the skilled and congenial ship’s company which made possible an extraordinary programme which almost invariably involved Partizan making an annual round Ireland passage, whether racing or not. Indeed, for a Round Ireland Race, she inevitably went round Ireland twice.
With time moving on, Partizan was becoming too demanding and a newer boat was needed. Dave FitzGerald made a very sensible change to the masthead-rigged Sigma 36 White Heather, which proved ideal for his needs in Galway Bay, yet was well able for longer distances, including a cruise to Spain.
But even for Dave FitzGerald, the pace had to slow. He’d retired from actively working in mining with a farewell party which is still the stuff of legend, and when Joan passed on after they’d lived for many years near Kinvara in Galway Bay’s southeast corner, he accepted that the focus of his family was now in the Dublin area, and settled in comfortable quarters near the south shores of Dublin Bay.
But his huge network of friends was maintained, albeit depleting by the year, and he maintained a lively interest in boats and sailing and club life to the end. His 90th birthday was celebrated at the end of January this year by a party of forty family and friends from mining, sailing and hunting at a special dinner in the library of the Royal St George YC in Dun Laoghaire, rounded out by the birthday boy giving a soulful rendition of The Ballad of Joe Hill, and then telling everyone that if he’d known he was going to live so long, he’d have taken better care of himself.
Now this great man is gone from among us. His funeral was held in Dublin on Friday, and then he was laid to rest in his home parish of Ardrahan in southeast Galway on Tuesday (May 29th), with the wonderful life of Dave FitzGerald celebrated by a congregation which well represented his many interests afloat and ashore, the attendance including Irish Lights Commissioners Chairman John Coyle, Galway Harbour Master Brian Sheridan, Michael Swan of the RNLI, and leading representatives of yacht and sailing clubs in the west and nationally including the Irish Cruising Club.