The Boat Race – Cambridge v Oxford & Trinity v UCD

Wednesday, January 22nd, 2014

Watching the 158th Cambridge v Oxford annual boat race on the Thames in London last week, got me thinking about our Irish equivalent. There were dramatic scenes with a protester causing the race to be stopped and then restarted.

However, it was another aspect of the race that got me thinking.

190313-UCD-wins-three-of-four-Irish-Colours-Boat-Races-and-takes-Gannon-Cup-for-sixth-year-in-a-row-rhsAn estimated crowd of over a quarter a million spectators lined the course in 2010 to watch the race. The race itself is a huge tourist attraction and winning it, a great source of pride to the thousands of alumni of either Cambridge or Oxford.
In Ireland we have the Gannon Cup, first held in 1948 between University College Dublin and Trinity College.

Liffey route

Held on the river Liffey, the route has changed down through the years, but the essentials remain the same.  
Having studied as an undergraduate and a postgraduate at UCD, I can say definitively that in my four years of study in there, I never once heard about this race. Not in the years since I graduated, have I ever seen anything or heard anything about it.

This year, however, it became part of the St.Patrick’s Day Festival and was held on Monday March 19th. I discovered this race due to the promotional work of the St. Patrick’s Day Festival.

So I went along, making my way to O’Connell Bridge in Dublin, for the starting point. Watching the earlier races, before the Senior Men’s Race (Gannon Cup), I realised that the best vantage point was further down the Liffey, closer to the finishing point at St. James’ Gate.

There were no signs, no obvious directions for locals or tourists to know where to go or where to stand along the Liffey. It had the feel of a private gathering, as huddled groups of UCD or Trinity crew members and their families spoke in the lingo of their sport.

Tourists looked on, wondering why there were groups gathered along the Liffey and the various bridges. Tourists didn’t linger, it was hard for me to know what was happening, and I had researched it the night before on the internet to ensure that I didn’t miss a thing.

UCD victory


So I made my way along the Liffey towards to finishing line and had the pleasure of enjoying a great UCD victory, by a clear length. The crowd cheered and clapped as they approached the finishing line. I was looking forward to seeing the Gannon Cup presentation, but just like much of the rest of the University Race, that was not for tourists or those not in the know, to attend. The crowds moved away quietly, perhaps to go somewhere else. It wasn’t clear to where or for what, but perhaps the organisers like it like that.

It was enjoyable to attend and watch the races and I suppose, fitting, that my Alma mater did me proud in the men’s senior race. But on a bank holiday weekend where there tens of thousands of tourists as well as the locals, the crowds were disappointing. It’s hard to gauge, maybe a thousand people lined the route, including those that cycled alongside the river.

So when I saw the hundreds of thousands, line the banks of the Thames last week to watch Cambridge v Oxford, I asked myself, ‘why were there so few people in Dublin to watch Trinity v UCD?’

Who knows exactly – but it has potential, to be a top sporting attraction. The athletes I witnessed were at the top of their sport, clearly showing dedication and commitment for the early morning practices that rowers are known for. But sport is at its best when it is enjoyed by spectators.

If the Gannon Cup is ever going to be a big attraction, it needs to focus on the spectators, not just the circle of committed followers, but also those who would like cheer or just to watch.