The Derry rowers that beat the Olympic best

  • 19 July 2012
The City of Derry Boating Club team which beat the Australian 1924 world silver medallist team
Image caption The City of Derry Boating Club team which beat the Australian 1924 world silver medallist team

The 1924 Olympics will forever be associated with Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams as they sprint to gold medal glory to the strains of Chariots of Fire.

However, in Londonderry it was celebrated as the year a local team took on Olympic giants - and won.

The Australian rowing team were the world silver medallists and had narrowly missed out on a medal at the games when they decided to make the most of their long journey and take part in a tournament in Dublin.

Both their Olympic eight and four crews were decisively beaten on the Liffey by City of Derry Boating Club, in a victory that was heralded by the then mayor of the city, Alderman Maxwell Scott Moore, as "the greatest event since the siege".

Among the giant-killing crew were brothers Vin and Dick Ward, whose sister, Margaret McCarter, still lives in Derry.

Photographs of the team still line the walls of her hall, and she remembers her brothers reminiscing about their triumph.

"Of course I wasn't born in 1924, so all I know it what I heard from them, but they described it as a wonderful experience, and talked about the camaraderie they had with the crew members and the Derry people," she said.

"When they came back from Dublin they were greeted at the railway station by all the bands in the town, and were carried shoulder-high through the town.

Image caption Margaret McCarter, whose brothers Dick and Vin Ward were on the winning team

"Afterwards there was a wonderful reception for them in the Manville Hotel, and in fact I have a menu which was autographed by the crew which makes it very valuable to me because I knew a lot of those people."

Rowing enthusiast and friend Norman Hamill has been researching the famous Derry victory.

"I first heard about it from my late father in Coleraine, but with the passage of years it's been forgotten," he said.

"The mayor at the time said -with just a hint of overstatement - that it was the greatest event since the siege, but at the time the corporation was considering a second bridge in the city, and he said that rowing had provided a second bridge in the sense that they had brought the two sides of Derry's city together.

"The Australian boat actually came back to Derry - the Australians were so surprised at being beaten, and considering the expense of taking it back to Australia, they decided to give it to the Derry crew.

"It duly came back to Derry and stayed here for many years.

"Hopefully now the link to the Olympics in London mean that people will start to recall this great sporting achievement."

Eighty-eight years after her brothers' victory, Margaret is looking forward to watching the rowing events at this year's Olympics.

"I think at that time that Ireland as a country probably wasn't wealthy enough to afford to send them to the Olympics, so I'm pleased with what they achieved but sad they didn't have that opportunity," she said.

"Really, they should have been in the Olympics and they should have won a medal.

"I think they'd feel very proud of all this recognition, but I also think they'd be very modest about it all.

"I'm really looking forward to the rowing, I'll watch it on TV and think about what might have been."