Swimming in Tuam

Tuam Swimming Club was due to celebrate its 70th birthday in May 2020, but alas, the arrival of Covid 19 put paid to that event as the country shut down in an attempt to prevent the spread of the virus. Preparations for the birthday bash, under the direction of long-time club member Helen Kealy, were at an advanced stage when the lockdown started as old editions of local newspapers were scoured in an attempt to trace the history of swimming in Tuam since the club was founded in 1950.

While there is a significant body of information available on the early years of the club and the people who were instrumental in its inception, the trawl through the archives also uncovered other interesting snippets of information on the history of organised swimming in Tuam. While 1950 is often regarded as the start date of a swimming club in Tuam there is a lot of evidence of swimming clubs in the town in the 1930s and 40s which seem to have lapsed after an initial flurry of activity.

There are records of attempts to hold a swimming gala in 1931 on the Clare River which had to be abandoned because the day was very wet and John Henry Corcoran, a town councillor and a swimmer and diver of note, wrote to the editor of the Tuam Herald to apologise to all those who were disappointed by the postponement.

The Tuam Herald of July 1933 reports on a very successful gala being held at Ballygaddy bridge with a large crowd of spectators (almost 2,000) in attendance with all the events being well contested. Along with the swimming races, diving and water polo, some novel events were also reported on such as a Pillow Fight, Raft Wrestling, Greasy Pole and a Tub Race. E. Ridge from Galway Rd won both the Pillow Fight and the Tub Race! I’m not sure if modern day Health & Safety regulations would permit such events.

A swimming club was formed on the initiative of John Henry Corcoran at a public meeting in the Town Hall on July 13th, 1934. The club affiliated to the Connacht Branch of the Irish Amateur Swimming Association the following year. Some of those involved with this club included Leo Lydon, Patrick Quinn, William F. Allcock, Bobby Burke, P. Purcell, Jack Garvey and Peter O Brien.

In the following years the Tuam Herald reports on various galas being held on the Weir River, Ballygaddy and on the Grange River. Diving competitions and water polo matches were also included in the programme. Local tradesmen were engaged to erect temporary diving platforms for the diving competitions. The Tuam Herald of August 25th 1934 reports that an unusual event took place at the end of the Grange gala…’ An unusual incident occurred after the High Diving competition. Two persons dressed in black skirts and with shawls over their heads started an argument on the bank. The argument soon led to blows and after a furious struggle finished in the River much to the amusement of the onlookers. It was thought by some people that these two persons hailed from Dublin on account of their accents’.

Further evidence of interest in and enthusiasm for swimming in Tuam can be seen in an ad in the Connacht Tribune in July 1932 where tenders were sought for the construction of a swimming bath in the town. Nothing seems to have come of this or of further efforts in the 1940s to provide a pool for the town. The Tuam Herald of November 1945 reports on a list of subscriptions to the Tuam Swimming Pool Project when £350 was raised with Archbishop Joseph Walsh making the largest contribution of £30. Despite these and other efforts over the succeeding years it was not until 1971 that the dream of a pool in Tuam was finally realised with the opening of a fine five lane heated indoor facility. This was the culmination of years of campaigning and fund raising by swimming club members and other enthusiasts in the town.

Swimming seems to have been an all-male domain in the early years of club activity. The Connacht Sentinel of July 9th 1935 reports on the Tuam Gala…’A very enjoyable evening was spent by a large crowd along the Weir River, Tuam last Sunday, when for the first year Tuam Swimming Club held their annual gala under the rules of the Irish Amateur Swimming Association. The young men responsible for the promotion of this very interesting and manly sport are to be congratulated on the great success of their efforts, and as the judge and official handicapper, Mr. Cox, Galway, remarked, it was one of the best events of its kind yet seen in an inland town.

It is to be hoped that this sport, which does so much for the moral and physical development of boys and young men, will grow in popularity and receive in future years the due measure of support it deserves from all classes.’

The first evidence we can find of girls being involved is from June 1952 in the UCG gala in Galway when ‘three lady members of the club competed in the under 17 event and though unplaced made a very good showing for beginners.’ The ad in the Herald in February of that year announcing the AGM in the Town Hall, stated that ‘The Club is anxious to form a ladies’ section’. There was obviously some response to this plea.

There can be little doubt that all of these pre 1950 efforts helped develop a very strong interest in swimming in Tuam so that when it was decided to start, or re-start, the club that year there was already a dedicated and talented cohort of swimmers, divers and officials in the area.

Fergus Barron in his history of Irish Swimming – Swimming for a Century – catalogues the early years of the Tuam Club…. The present club was founded by Al O Dea, a native of Kinvara, Billy Heskin and Leo Stockwell. Those involved in its early years included Miko and Hilary Walsh, Gay Moloney, Kevin and Paschal O Brien, Eamon Lynch, Mick Barrett, George Lyons and Mickey Leo. The club had only three competitors on its first day in open competition, but quite remarkably all three were, in time, elected President of the Irish Amateur Swimming Association – Gay Walsh (1964), Mons Dermot Moloney (1976) and Gay Heskin (1984).  The club dominated the Connacht Championships over a period, Gay Heskin being unbeaten in the province in springboard and platform diving for nearly 30 years. In 1954 Dermot Moloney won the Irish Boys 100m Freestyle title and added the Men’s 1500 Freestyle Championship in 1957 – the first Connacht man to win a national swimming title.

The early years of the club were not easy. Training facilities were the local Clare River – mainly near the Ballygaddy Bridge and later at the Weir Bridge. The unusually fine and warm early summer of 2020 sent youngsters all over the country in search of the cooling waters of the local river or lake. The Gardai in Tuam had a real challenge at Ballygaddy Bridge – a traditional cooling off spot – trying to enforce the lockdown rules as youngsters did what previous generations also did on the rare occasions when the summer sun shone brightly.

Al O Dea did most of the training of the young swimmers in the early years of the club and in spite of the frigid, swirling waters of the river that were never that inviting, an enthusiastic group travelled to compete in galas in Galway, Castlerea, Ballina, Sligo, Bundoran, Ballyshannon, Ballaghadereen, Longford, Enniscrone and Carrick on Shannon. Fr. Joe Moloney was also active as a coach mainly coaching his younger brother Dermot, who was competing in national galas and actually represented Ireland in Lisbon in 1956 in the Catholic Student Games.

The fledgling club had to cope with other challenges as it strove to compete at galas in Connacht. The local papers report that in the summer of 1952 the lack of transport to galas was a major issue. A frustrated report in the local paper stated… ‘On the 13th of July the Club entered eleven swimmers in a gala at Longford but only four could be transported there. Nevertheless, the club won four prizes. Again, last Monday only one carload could travel to Sligo, but the swimmers came home with nine prizes.

Surely there is someone in Tuam who is sufficiently interested in this sport to see a gala or two – and bring one or two competitors who otherwise must stay at home and listen to more talk of swimming in Tuam.’

The club continued to compete successfully in the sixties at galas all over the province. Training was mostly at Ballygaddy with club activity also taking place at the Weir Bridge and for a time on Lough Hackett in Caherlistrane when the Corrib drainage scheme muddied the waters of the Clare River to such an extent that it made training there impossible.

At this time the Club was devoting more energy to the campaign to get the County Council to provide a pool for the town. Gay Walsh and Tommy Henihan, who were both living in Dublin at this time, were very much to the fore in this campaign and kept up the pressure on the County Manager and officials to sanction the building of the pool. Countless meetings with officials, fund raising drives and dogged persistence finally yielded a reward when in June 1971 the five-lane heated indoor pool was opened by Minister Bobby Molloy, himself a long-time devotee of swimming. The new pool was thronged that summer with locals with the diving board proving to be a huge hit with daredevil youngsters. Gay Heskin put on a diving display at the opening of the pool and this undoubtedly inspired many of the youngsters present to attempt to emulate his elegant and graceful technique which had made him a champion diver for many years.

With the opening of the new pool, the Club saw a huge surge in membership and Fr. Dermot Moloney was the first coach for the club in the new pool. It wasn’t long until Tuam swimmers were once again to the fore on the national stage as a new generation of stars was born. A conscious decision was made to strive to preserve the voluntary ethos of the club – an ethos which has survived up to the present day despite the raging winds of capitalism which are seemingly all pervasive. Notwithstanding its amateur ethos, the Club can boast that it is a very professional and modern swimming club, catering to a very wide catchment area with some of its swimmers today travelling up to 25km to attend training.

The new pool in Tuam was the first of its kind in Connacht and others quickly followed with Ballinasloe and Leisureland in Galway opening the following year. The Tuam club was very active in organising swimming lessons for children and from these a new generation of very successful competitive swimmers began to emerge. Even though the competitive swimmers make headlines in the local press, the Club has always been keen to stress that its primary function is to promote swimming and that the club is not just for competitive swimmers. This is still true today. The club ran a very successful programme of lessons for children and adults over many years and there was always a dedicated group of club officials willing to give their time voluntarily to teach these classes. Thousands of people from Tuam and its hinterland benefitted from these and are competent swimmers as a result of this effort by the Club.

The National Swimming Championships were held in Tuam in the summer of 1972 and the arrival of all the top swimmers in the country to the town created great excitement. RTE cameras were there too to cover the finals with well-known personality, Jim Sherwin, providing commentary.

In the early years of the new pool some names featured frequently on the local sports pages for competing successfully at provincial galas: Marie Browne, Catrina and Jim Reilly, Jim Colleran, Jim Hahessy, John Horan, Alan McIntyre, Dermot Canavan, Padraig Mitchell, Paul Coady, Marion Hughes, John Brennan, Gerard and Martin Francis, Judy Heskin, Maria Frawley and Fiona McCormack to name but a few. Marie Browne and Catrina Reilly were both named as Galway Swimming Sports Stars of the Year in 1976 and 1978 respectively. In later years other Tuam swimmers were also honoured as Galway Sports Stars of the year: Timothy Begley in 1985, Louise Purcell in 1988 and 1990, Elaine Murphy in 1992 and 1993, Mary Corless in 1996, ‘97 and ’98 and Michelle Tighe in 2000, ’01 and ’02. In 1992 Elaine Murphy won the girls 200m Breastroke Championship of Ireland, thus becoming the first Connacht lady to win a National title.

Elaine’s breakthrough at national level paved the way for other Tuam swimmers to impress at national level. Jim Carney in his excellent ‘The Tuam Swimming Club Story’ feature in the Tuam Herald to mark the Club’s 60th birthday wrote…’Mary Corless, another 200m breaststroke specialist, had a glorious career at all levels of this most demanding sport, including four national senior titles plus an individual medley in 1998. At the turn of the millennium along came the brilliant freestyle swimmer Michelle Tighe, Tuam’s other winner of national titles, and also destined to be remembered for sensational performances in the high-prestige Leisureland meet.’

The oil crises of the late 70s and early 80s threatened the very survival of the pool in Tuam. Club activities were hugely restricted as the pool was closed fourteen times as the oil shortages put the pool on a three-day week. The club once again came to the rescue, when the committee, with strong support from some local business people and politicians, set up a limited company which managed the pool until its closure when it was replaced by the modern facility which is now run by the Coral Leisure company.

With strong support from Galway County Council the new pool opened in 2005 and the club was delighted to avail of the modern facilities in the new six lane pool. Many people comment on how a new generation of coaches, teachers and officials has emerged who are only too willing to contribute and help. The club is rightly proud of the fact that it is one of the few swimming clubs in Ireland, which is run entirely as a voluntary club with a team of fully qualified and Garda vetted coaches to promote swimming in the Tuam area. Many former swimmers who are now parents of young swimmers in the club are helping with coaching.

John Brennan has for many years been the Club’s head coach and his own children, Seán and Sorcha, are accomplished swimmers. He is very widely respected at provincial and national level and his voluntary commitment to coaching young swimmers is commendable. Another stalwart of the Club’s coaching structure is Club Chairman, Enda Burke. John and Enda have both given countless hours to preparing, encouraging and developing young Tuam swimmers and have been rewarded with so many successes at provincial and national level.

Some who have benefitted from their outstanding tutelage and who achieved success at local and national level were Celia Courtney, Aoife Kelly, Marie Tighe, Shane Hurst, Michael Waters, Sean, Michael and James Lally, Daniel Hardiman, Colm Waters, Brian, Amy, Marie and Liz Hardiman, Lisa Judge, Sinead O Donnell, Anna and Aileen Newell, Edel Tighe, Diarmuid Elliffe, Jonathan Brinn and Ciarán Burke.

Over the years many others have given unselfishly of their time and talents in the training of young swimmers. Joan Tighe, Mary Hardiman, Peter Long, Marka Gilhooley, Martha Newell, Daithi Quinn, Timothy Begley, Celia Davin, Helen Kealy, Joe Long and Aidan Burke are among that number. The current cohort of coaches includes Norma O Rourke, Helen Waters, Simon Coffey, Mer Lulling, Margaret Parker, Helen Kealy and Mary Corless.

Running a modern swimming club is complex and time consuming. Modern day codes of best practice as set down by Swim Ireland have to be fully implemented and this means that a committed team of volunteers, all of whom have been Garda vetted and completed safeguarding children courses, is needed to deal with coaching, entries for galas, organising rotas for parents on duty in the pool during training sessions, managing the finances of  the club, registering swimmers, managing social media sites and  keeping track of the online payment platform.

The current pandemic has interrupted Club activities, but the club will face these challenges with the same determination that previous generations confronted whatever obstacles they encountered in their time. The club is fortunate to have a talented group of swimmers at the moment who are distinguishing themselves at local, provincial and national level. Oisín O Rourke, Daragh Gormley, Rory Igoe, Meadbh O Rourke, Emma Begley, Odie Melia, Seán Brennan, Diarmuid O Rourke and Lukas Begley are some of the current senior squad in training. Before the lockdown, the Club was catering for very large numbers of younger swimmers with the Junior Squad and the hugely enthusiastic group who were attending on Saturday and Sunday evenings for training. Many of these youngsters will never progress to competitive swimming and Club Chairman, Enda Burke, stresses that the Club is very happy to cater for these by providing top quality instruction in stroke technique and improvement in an enjoyable, friendly and safe atmosphere.  It is hoped that when things return to something resembling normality that the Club will resume training all of these younger swimmers who will ensure that the Club has a very bright future and that the 70th birthday bash can take place and suitably mark another significant milestone in the history of one of Tuam’s most successful clubs.

Each year the Club holds a confined gala for members and one of the highlights of this gala is competition for the very prestigious collection of cups and trophies which have been donated to the club over the past 70 years.

McEnnis Cup –  Mens 100m Breaststroke.

This cup was presented to the club in 1952 by Brendan McEnnis. Brendan was a native of Milltown and worked as grocery manager in Martin S. Walsh and Sons in High Street. He lived in St. Benin’s Terrace.

O Dea Cup – Mens 50m Freestyle

This cup was presented to the club in 1951 by Al O Dea, the present club’s first chairman in 1950. Al was a native of Kinvara and worked in Tuam in the office of The Abbey Service Garage, Galway Rd – now Corrib Oil. He was also a talented musician and had his own dance band which was well known throughout the West. He was very dedicated to the work of the club as a coach and administrator.

Leufer Trophy – Womens 50m Freestyle

Aron Leufer of the well-known Tuam business family presented this trophy to the Club. Aron was very supportive of the Swimming Club and admired its work in the sport and in the community.

Flynn Cup – Girls 50m Freestyle

This cup was presented by John P Flynn. He worked in administration in the Tuam Sugar Factory and lived in Airglooney. His family were involved as swimmers in the club and he was active in club administration.

Henihan Cup – Mens 100m Backstroke

This cup was presented by the Swimming Club in memory of Tommy Henihan, Athenry Rd. Tommy was very actively involved in the club as a competitive swimmer in the late 1950s and early 60s. He was Secretary of the club for a number of years even when he was living in Dublin. He later lived in Menlo and was a lecturer in GMIT.

Reilly Cup – Womens 100m Backstroke

The Club presented this cup in memory of Catrina Reilly, Blackacre. Catrina was a very successful competitive swimmer winning a National Age Group final and was named as Galway Swimming Sports Star of the Year in 1978. She served as Club Secretary for many years and when the Club took over the running of Tuam Swimming Pool she was appointed Pool Manager.

Moloney Cup – Boys Under 15 50m Freestyle and Female Swimmer of the Year trophy

Mons. Dermot Moloney presented this cup and trophy to the Club. He has been very actively involved in the Club at all levels since it was founded in 1950. A special presentation was made to Mons Dermot at the 60th anniversary celebrations in 2010 to mark his outstanding years of service to swimming in Tuam. He was also honoured at the Galway Sports Stars of the Year banquet in 1977 when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Male Swimmer of the Year Trophy

This trophy was presented to the club by Gay Heskin. Gay was involved in the club from the early years and is remembered as an outstanding diver who dominated the competition in Connacht for over thirty years. He was also actively involved in the efforts to secure a pool for Tuam and was President of the club for many years. He was elected President of the Irish Amateur Swimming Association in 1984.

Most Improved Swimmer Trophy

Joe Long presented this trophy to the club. Joe has been involved in teaching and coaching since the early seventies and is currently President of the Club. He was very involved in water polo in earlier years and helped Tuam to several Connacht championships.

Acknowledgements

Tuam Herald

Connacht Tribune and Sentinel

Jim Carney

Fergus Barron – Swimming for a Century

Paul Coady