Dublin is Tony Ryan’s city. Born and reared. He knows every inch of Drimnagh and beyond, from the Phoenix Park to Kilmainham Gaol.
It is where he grew up, where he met his wife and where they raised their kids. But seven years ago, he discovered a new version of his city. His entrenched view of the capital turned inside out. Tony Ryan knew the lie of the land in Dublin, but he didn’t know its waters. Soon that all changed.
“I started rowing almost seven years ago,” he explains. “I go down with a group of friends. We have a four-person boat. There is five of us in our group, so one has to cox and steer the boat. The eldest in the boat is Peter and he is down there eight years. It was him who started it all really.
“We have been friends for a long time. We would meet often, for a drink or whatever and every time he would say ‘come on down for a row’. Eventually, we did.”
They operate from the Dublin Municipal Rowing Centre. The physical benefits are plentiful but for Tony Ryan, it is as much about seeing as it is doing. Thanks to their boat and the river Liffey, the five men have unearthed hidden gems and stunning greenspaces. A whole new world right on their doorstep.
“We go down towards Chapelizod and there is a bridge there before two pedestrian walkways. We go under that bridge and once you do, I am not exaggerating here, you could be anywhere in the world. It is just beautiful. Everywhere you look there are trees and plants.
“Over the least two years we have seen so much, we did a charity row on the other end of the Liffey near the 3Arena. Everyone knows the buildings on the river but when you are in the water looking up on them, they look completely different to anything we had seen before.”
Above all, what Tony values most is the community. It is the people, not the property, that make a city and that is particularly true for his experience. The rowing club is an important focal point for this band of friends. Twice a week they can get together and be together, enjoying great views and better company.
“I think really it was something to do. Look, the exercise is brilliant but the main thing really is that when we are down there, we have a bit of fun. That is more important to us than the physical thing. We go down, have a laugh and joke in the boat.
“The people make it. Even the crew down in the rowing club have been fantastic to us. They are a great group of people. Every one of them. The staff has changed and everyone who has come in has been wonderful.
“They are good to us especially. See, they know us now. They let us go out even when the weather is a bit stormy because they know our strength and that we can handle it. They never stop us going out.”
“We even have great interaction with people on the banks of the river. John in the boat has a terrific sense of humour, he always has something to say to people. They usually have something to say back!”
That connection is particularly strong amongst his squad. Other members have come and gone but that core remain, persevering together. In his youth, Tony thrived in individual sport. He was a black belt in Karate and good at athletics. But now he has his team, a system of strength and sport.
“The relationship we have together is the most important thing. For whatever reason, we always stayed. Loads of other people used to go down, men and women. We are the only ones who stayed at it over the years.”
Like life itself, the key to rowing is to keep going. Resistance will come but it is conquerable, particularly when people come together. “You have to work with the people around you or your oars will go the opposite way and you will end up smashing into each other, going nowhere” he says with a laugh. His voice laced with unmistakable expertise forged through experience.
They’ve shared good times and supported each other in bad ones. That is what it is all about really. An activity, an outlet, a chance to unload. Not only a break from life but a chance to make sense of it. Their journey has taken them far beyond the length of the Liffey but it is there where they can reflect on it.
“We go twice a week and I suppose for all of us that is the main thing… A lot of us have gone through bad times over the last few years. Two of us lost our wives. Two have treatment for cancer. But we can get out and get our head together, instead of sitting at home thinking it over. That is really what it does.
“Just to get you out and get your head onto some other subject or get you together with your friends. Sport is brilliant for that.”