The Western Yacht Club has a very interesting and checkered history. The following article by Adrian O’ Connell traces its origins as the ‘Royal Western Yacht Club of Ireland’ up to the present day.It may seem strange for Yachtsmen and Sailors to band together to form a Club, the hallmark of all Yachtsmen and sailors is by going to sea , they gain total independence of everything that governs them and controls them on Land. The Sea being the only element on this Earth where man can travel where he or she likes without constriction and in as far as is practical total independence.

The ingenious ideas of Sir William Petty in the mid 1600’s in Dublin, when he constructed a Catamaran to prove that he would be able to transport the Royal Mail across the Irish Sea to Anglesey at over twice the speed of the then Mail boat, fell on deaf ears and eyes, though nearly 4 centuries latter, high speed Catamarans ply the same routes providing the same service. Patty’s ideas established Dublin as an area of maritime experimentation for many years to come, when a growth of Yacht and Sailing Clubs developed all around the coasts of Ireland in the 19th Century.

In 1720 or thereabouts the Water Club of the Cork Harbour was established by local gentlemen who had suitable sea going vessels. The organizers drew up a set of Rules to keep the membership in line and developing in the right direction, at first the membership was limited to 6 and then enlarged to 25, however exclusivity was the rule so as to keep out the usual unruly elements still to be found around the waters of Ireland today!. The Club at the time was based on Haulbowline Island, an appropriate place even today. The Club had a Rule where if the Club Secretary allowed a non-member into the Club House he would be instantly dismissed. Fortnightly Sailing excursions and Dinner parties were arranged to correspond with the Spring tides. The members neither cruised or raced but maneuvered under the command of an Admiral and carried out Fleet maneuvers in Naval fashion. The sailing discipline had to be adhered to at all times and the Fleet was controlled by Flag signals hoisted by the Flagship. The Club went into decline around 1765 but re-established itself in 1806.
One of the Water Club members was Col. John Bateman Fitzgerald Knight of Glin, when he built Glin Castle on the south shore of the Shannon Estuary, he had the Yacht Farmer a large 18 Gun Brig, built in 1780 to enjoy sailing and cruising all along the west coast. 5 years previously the Royal Thames Yacht Club of London was established when the Cumberland Fleet was formed. Apathy and acrimony destroyed the original club, the present club was established with a Royal Warrant being issued in 1830.

Down in Cork a rash of new Royal yacht clubs were being formed. In 1872 the Munster Model Yacht Club was founded as a Corinthian or Amateur Yacht Club to provide the basis of amateur racing without monetary rewards as against the professionally crewed Racing fleets of wealthy owners who raced for wagers. This Club was eventually named the Royal Munster Yacht Club and though club-less for many years it settled in the Clubhouse of the Cork Harbour Motor Yacht Club at Crosshaven in the 1930s.The Royal Munster merged with the dormant Royal Cork Yacht Club of Cobh which claimed its desendancy from the original Cork Water Club of 1720. In fact the Royal writ establishing the Royal Cork was given in 1831 and it subsequently established itself where it is today in Crosshaven ,where the Club organizes and runs the biggest Regatta in the world bi-annually.

On the Shannon Estuary with the Knight of Glins encouragement the numbers of Commercial local sailing trading vessels were growing apace, with the establishment of Towns and sea going trade along the Estuary. It soon became an established fact of life during the summer months, that interested groups decided to organize at each small port, regattas for all the types of craft to be found on the Estuary. The types of vessels comprised Trading Brigs and Cutters some as large as 250 tons and others as small as 6tons, Turf Boats , Hookers, Gleoitoigs, Canoes/Canvas Currachs, Gondolas, Briccawnes etc.

On the 6th February 1828 at a meeting held in the town of Kilrush, the Royal Western Yacht Club of Ireland was established. The Committee being as follows:
President : The Right Hon. The Earl of Dunraven
Commodore : George Courtney
Vice-Commodore : Stafford O’Brien
Secretary : Thomas O’Connell
Treasurer : Thomas Jervis
Committee Members : Crofton M. Vandeleur, Col. John Vandeleur, Maurice O’Connell (a son of the Liberator), The Knight of Glin, William Piercy, John Bindon Scott, John Hamilton, Poole Hickman, Hon. J.P. Verecker, Richard Quin Sleeman, Francis Spaight, Robert S. Unthank, Richard Russell, Daniel C. Hartnett, Thomas Barclay, Jonas Studdert, Stephen Creagh, Thomas Browne, William Monsell, John O’Connell (2nd son of the Liberator) and David P. Thomson.

The Club membership in 1837 stood at 201 with a total 82 Sailing vessels though not all the membership or vessels were based on the Shannon Estuary. The following being a brief analysis :

  • Shannon Estuary/Limerick based: 60 members with 18 Yachts of various sizes
  • Kerry based:10 members with 4 Yachts
  • Cork based:14 members with 7 Yachts
  • Westport Co Mayo based:4 Members with 2 Yachts
  • Galway based 3 Members with 2 Yachts:
  • Dublin based:10 Members with 6 Yachts
  • The balance being spread around the whole of the British Isles.

On the 16th January 1832 their Lordships at the Admiralty gave permission for the Royal Western Yacht Club of Ireland members to fly the a White Ensign with a Red Cross ,a Crown in the center with a Wreath of Shamrocks surrounding it and with the Union Flag at the head of the Ensign, the Ensign to be flown at the Taffrail or as now the Pushpit Flag Staff aft and the Burgee being White with a Red Cross with the Crown and Shamrock Wreath as previous which was to be flown at the Masthead. In 1832 the Club produced a very comprehensive Book of Signal Codes and all members were given their own specific Code Flag for ease of recognition at sea. The Code Book was produced in colour and was very advanced for its time, as it allowed members on meeting another member at sea or at anchor to inquire as to their health, whether they had drink, food or women on board etc as well as many less important requirements.

The Royal Western held Regattas at Galway, Sligo, Westport and Belfast which encouraged the establishment of the Royal Northern Yacht Club which subsequently moved across to the Clyde. The Rinvella Plate which resides on the Dining Room Sideboard at Glin Castle today was won by the then Knight of Glin at the Galway Regatta.
The Royal Western’s material resources were considerable in the mid 1850’s as they had a Club House at 113 Grafton St Dublin, a floating Club-House the 123ton Cutter Owen Glendower based in Dun Laoghaire Harbour for social functions afloat away from the prying eyes of the law.

In 1858 the right to fly the defaced White Ensign was withdrawn by the Admiralty as their Lordships had decided in 1842 that only Naval Vessels and members of the Royal Yacht Squadron would be allowed to fly the White. As a result the leave to fly the Ensign was withdrawn from all Yacht Clubs however the defaced White Ensign as issued to the Royal Western of Ireland was overlooked and after complaints had been made by the members of the Royal Yacht Squadron to the Admiralty about the matter, their Lordships at the Admiralty decided that for the present the Royal Western Yacht Club of Ireland could continue especially as being mainly based on the West Coast of Ireland and with a small membership, their continuation might go unnoticed. The membership of the Royal Yacht Squadron continued to object, on the basis that there was a major distinction between their membership and the lowly Irish, who needless to say had a considerable number of titled gentlemen on their membership list, however the yearly subscription was only 1 Guinea be a member of the Royal Western and one didn’t have to own a yacht!, as against the many hundreds of Guineas required to be acceptable for membership of the Royal Yacht Squadron, plus having to be personally an associate of the English Monarch.

The Admiralty issued a stay on the withdrawal of the warrant until the 31st December 1858. In the meanwhile a Memorial had been drawn up by the Club membership deprecating the disgrace of being deprived of the right to fly a flag that they had continued to fly for 25 years and which had become a time honoured and dearly prized privilege. The memorial ended with the addendum that if the right was withdrawn the Club would be disbanded, needless to say its state was nearly moribund at this stage.
The Admiralty met this request with a cold refusal to extend the right beyond the 1858 deadline, however some of the Irish Members of the Houses of Parliament raised the matter in the House and a further appeal was made to the Admiralty. The First Lords Secretary replied to the House that  until the papers pertaining to case could be examined at length and debated by the House, no final answer could be given on the matter. This long dispute caused much bitterness between all the various parties concerned, for until June 1864 the White Ensign was one of three ensigns flown by Royal Naval vessels at sea. Ironically the Red being the most senior , the White being second with the Blue being the third rank. The Red became the Ensign of the Merchant Service , the Blue the Ensign of the services partway between the Navy and the Merchant marine such as vessels of government services and certain Yachting organizations and still today requires an Admiralty Warrant for permission to fly. The White Ensign became the Ensign of the Fleet and can only be flown by Royal Navy vessels and members of the Royal Yacht Squadron.

By the beginning of the 1860’s the Royal Western Yacht Club had ceased to exist so that no order was ever received by the Club withdrawing its right to fly the White, so that today in the opinion of this writer it would take an Act of Parliament to finally withdraw the right, a highly unlikely scenario. Somewhere in Ireland today there exists the  Royal Writs and Admiralty Flag Warrants establishing the Club and were these to be located the Royal Western could continue as before and as such ‘’ thumb its nose at the English establishment ‘’.
The reason for there being so much rancor and effort put in by the Club membership to continue to fly a defaced White Ensign, can be traced to the fact that many of the membership quietly used their vessels for a little bit of covert smuggling and even a defaced White Ensign when seen from a distance at sea through the Telescope of the Officer of the Watch onboard a Revenue Cutter or patrolling Naval Vessel, the member’s yacht or sailing vessel could easily be mistaken for another Naval Vessel at sea going about its duty on patrol, rather than being a covert smuggler.

After the Great Famine of 1844/46 the population of Ireland had been more than halved, the West Coast had suffered the most, many boats lay rotting in the small harbours all around the coast with nobody to sail them. Their owners mainly Irish or Anglo-Irish gentry had bankrupted themselves as a result of the loss of Tennant revenue and in a lot of cases as a result of their attempts to help, feed and nurture their Tenants. They lost their estates under the Encumber Estates Act losing their Yachts/Sailing Trading Vessels as well, their properties being taken over by often absentee Landlords from the more wealthy areas of the UK who used their Irish residences as summer holiday homes rather than permanent bases. Many of these new Landed Gentry were products of the industrial revolution in England, an example being the Burtons of Carrigaholt who had a 50ft. plus Yawl which they sailed out of Carrigaholt.

As a result of the ravages of the Famine and the post famine era, the main centers of population continued to maintain and develop sailing and Yacht Clubs, though there had been considerable re-arrangement and amalgamation of clubs. The Dublin membership of the Royal Western had run very successful regattas in Dublin in 1854 and 1856, which were very popular and well reported. These regattas were run under the Corinthian principles : amateur and handicaps as today rather than for the then traditional wager or bets akin to horse racing with paid professional hands on deck, in fact a yacht competing had to leave all paid hands ashore and this is today portrayed by the Jockey Rule. With the demise of the Royal Western the membership reformed under the guise of the Kingstown Model Yacht Club in 1857 which was subsequently changed to the Prince Alfred Yacht Club in 1864 and later in 1870 to the Royal Alfred Yacht Club which today though the membership possess no Club House, organizes and runs all Yacht Racing in Dun Laoghaire, except for Club Regattas, all of this under the Corinthian traditions long established by the Royal Western and in fact traditionalists in the Alfred maintain through their Royal Western links, to be the oldest amateur yacht racing organization in the world.

Meanwhile down in Cobh in Cork the remaining Royal Western membership there, had in 1862 obtained an Admiralty Warrant to fly the Blue Ensign under the title Royal Western Yacht Club of Ireland based at the Queenstown Yacht Club which had been formed in 1860 and which was subsequently disbanded and replaced by its new title and distinctions. The new Royal Western obtained the following year the Queens Cup for Yacht racing from Queen Victoria and as previously mentioned all the Cork yacht clubs were subsequently amalgamated into the present Royal Cork.

Back in the Shannon Estuary Sailing was slowly beginning to revive and Tarbert on the Kerry Shore seems to have been the main base and I have in my possession a photograph taken of competing vessels at the 1896 regatta at Tarbert, at which the Flagship was the Low Freeboard Battleship HMS Collingwood which was Guard Ship for the West Coast based at Bantry and had obviously, while on patrol, paid a visit for the regatta. From the photograph the competing vessels seem to mainly trading Cutters and Schooners varying between 30-100ft OAL.

In early September of 1984 the Club was re-established as the Western Yacht Club at Kilrush its founding base and this was headed by such people as Brendan McMahon, Hugh McKiernan, Dan Beazley, Fintan Keating , Paudie Eustace, Richard Glynn and Gerald Griffin and many others interested in supporting the development of sailing. When Kilrush Marina was constructed in 1991 by Shannon Development to provide the infrastructure for the development of Yachting on the West Coast, as a result of the then Taoiseach Charlie Haughey’s farsighted policy to develop yacht mooring facilities around the whole coast of Ireland, to further the development of Maritime based tourism.

This new development provided the secure walk-on/walk-off mooring facilities so badly needed which over a period of time resulted in a major increase in the numbers of locally owned and based yachts, which in turn further developed the Club and increased its membership. The result being a very active Club in the traditions of the Royal Western of Ireland, with many good yacht racing events taking place and organized by the Club such as the yearly October series.

This coming year the Club will host the WIORA week which though a first for the Club in this century, the organization of yacht races along the whole of the West Coast in the 1830’s by the Royal Western pre-empts the present WIORA and NORA series, as well as the ISORA on the east coast by some 150 years.

So from Kilrush big oaks have grown from little acorns and we all may be extremely proud of the great traditions established so many years ago by sailors who were just as enthusiastic as we are today but hadn’t got the modern systems available to us today to communicate but who nevertheless succeeded in running some amazing sailing events. For example the 1832 Regatta held in Kilrush as reported in the Limerick Chronicle advertises prize money for the 6 Oar Currach Race at 8-00 first boat , 2-00 second Boat 1-00 third, the Gondola Race for Gondolas not the property of gentleman, 5-00 first boat, 2-00 second, 1-00 third. A Silver Challenge Cup value 10-00, to be for boats not pulling more than 6 oars to be pulled and steered by gentlemen, the Cup to become the property of the winner if won by the same person two years in succession. Likewise Briccawnes were to receive similar prize money as the Gondolas if using not more than 2 paddles. A prize fund of 50 guineas was set aside for the winners in the Turf Boat and Hooker Races respectively however all Yachts and Vessels raced by gentlemen adhered to the Corinthian Rules and Trophies/Cups were awarded with no prize money. These traditions long established so many years ago, lived on, on the West Coast of Galway where traditional regattas are run under the same guise today.

The Shannon Estuary and its sailors had an input into the Americas Cup in that Lt. Penn the son of the then Chief Justice of Ireland who lived at Paradise House on the Fergus Estuary competed against the New York Yacht Club entry in his Yacht which was reputed to be maintained on a mooring in the pool opposite to Paradise. Likewise the Earl of Dunraven instituted a challenge for the Americas Cup with his Yacht Valkerie which ended in court as a result of the rules being changed on the race course!.

In closing I would like to mention that much effort should be made to obtain the original Club Warrants and Establishment Writs, as much as to re-establish the present Clubs true identity as well as making the Club more attractive for visiting yachtsmen to join, so as to allow them obtain a Royal identity as such through the back door, a very attractive proposition for Americans as well as UK yachtsmen who might not be able to afford the luxury at their home port.

Another interesting point is that the Crown depicted on the Royal Western Flags is the Prince of Wales’s Crown and not the Monarchs Crown with the Orbs and Cross as Ruler of the Empire and Defender of the Faith. The membership of the Royal Western were being extremely democratic in selecting this emblem in that they were not accepting total allegiance to the Crown or the then established Religion. Thus the Royal Western established a Royal Club in name which encompassed all people of all religions and political persuasions in Ireland and all over the world where people went on sea in small vessels to enjoy the freedom of the sea.

The often spoke of adage the Land divides us and the Sea brings us together as one, is still as important today as it was so many years ago .
Adrian W. O’Connell.