Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

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Men's Lightweight Single Sculls

World Championships
1991 - Gold
1994 - Silver

Duisburg Regatta 1994

Olympic Games
1996, 2000, 2004 (6th)

World Record
649.49 for 2 km (1991).

Texaco All Star 1994


It is now 1,200 years since Turgesius the Norseman’s longship sailed up the River Liffey in pursuit of place to establish a trade outpost. The men who powered his longship must have had brawny shoulders for Dublin is a long way from Norway. Presumably Turgesius scouted around the small island where the Liffey meets the River Camac. Certainly Vikings lived on this island; eighteen of them were buried in a gravel ridge along its southern bank.

Today, the island is known as Islandbridge, the heart of Dublin’s rowing quarter. Half a dozen rowing clubs amble along the Liffey’s shores. Amongst these is the Commercial Rowing Club, established in 1856, which, as the name implies, drew its members from Dublin’s commercial quarter – primarily bankers, tailors and shopkeepers.[i]

The same waters that lapped against Turgesisus’ longboat now wash upon the Commercial’s causeway. On the opposite shore, seagulls and guillemots swirl around a folly in Longmeadows Park. The air is still, the river bubbles, the trees are green. You could be in the middle of rural Ireland. But then a familiar whiff of hops drifts on a westerly breeze from the Guinness Brewery at St. James’s Gate. Niall O’Toole breathes it in with mixed emotions.

Niall was Ireland’s first rowing World Champion. His family have worked with Guinness for several generations. Seamus O’Toole, his grandfather, spent his life working as a shipwright, or ship’s carpenter, for the brewery. ‘He used to work on the boats that brought the Guinness over to Liverpool’, says Niall.

Jimmy O’Toole, Niall’s father, served with the Merchant Navy in the Congo during the 1950s, before he too became a shipwright with Guinness. For many years, Jimmy was based at Birkenhead in Liverpool where he was entrusted with fixing up Guinness ships like the Lady Patricia and Lady Grania [sic]. He later returned to Ireland and settled in Terenure, Co. Dublin, where, as well as working with Guinness and other nixers, he began building boats in his backyard.

‘My father was a legend’, says Niall. ‘He was the ultimate family man and way ahead of his time. When all the other fathers were down in the pub, he’d come home from work and take us down to the boat clubs, or onto the Lady Patricia, or out to the seaside. That was quite unique. No other fathers were doing that. He had a great affinity with boats and water and he involved us in everything.’

Niall left school at the age of seventeen and began a two-year carpentry apprenticeship. ‘My dad maybe wasn’t the most talented carpenter in the world’, he laughs. ‘But he was a man of amazing patience and character. I was hanging off him 24-7, helping out, and I wanted to be a carpenter just like him.’

However, a new career option was simultaneously opening up to him. The O’Toole’s are prodigious rowers. Niall’s father rowed. So did his brother and so did his three sisters. In 1985, Niall began to row competitively for the Commercial and ‘I realised I was reasonably good at it’. It started with his older brother. ‘You always want to beat your brother, don’t you?’ he smiles. ‘And then you want to beat the guy who beat your brother. There’s a whole psychology of chasing the next victory’.

In 1989, the 19-year-old decided to put his carpentry career on hold and turn professional as a single sculler. ‘My mother was dead set against it but my father was full on, follow your dreams son’.[ii]

‘I was probably the first Irishman to start training systematically and full time’, he says. ‘I had a very good coach called Mick Desmond. He was a massive influence. But there was nothing really going on here in the rowing world in the late ‘80s and there was nobody I could measure myself against. That made it kind of a lonely gig.’

In order to find someone on the same level to train with, Niall went abroad. ‘I spent a lot of time training in places like Italy and Belgium. That gave me access to their resources and I got to see how they trained and also how vulnerable they were. When you don’t know someone, you can have all these magical, mystical beliefs about how brilliant they are. But when you live with them, you really get to know them and you see they’re as fragile and fallible as you are, and that you could be as good as any of them.’

In 1991, Niall represented Ireland at the World Championships in Vienna and won the lightweight Single Scull to return home with the country’s first Gold medal in rowing. He simultaneously established a new World Record, completing the 2000m distance in 649.49.

‘I guess I was the first person in Irish rowing to make the breakthrough, but we’ve had a lot of success since then.’ His victory kick-started a massive rowing revival in Ireland. ‘We were lucky that our glory days coincided with the Celtic Tiger’, he says. ‘We were getting the results so the National Lottery were happy to pay for a new clubhouse here at the Commercial.’ The Irish Government also funded the National Rowing Centre at Inniscarra, Co Cork.

Form a personal perspective, the new influx of Irish rowing enthusiasts was a positive for the 6’3” sculler. ‘It was great to have people to train with. You live like a monk when you’re rowing. I didn’t want to be in a pub on a Friday night. I preferred to be rowing and training. So socializing went out the window. But there is great camaraderie and great craic between rowers. And there’s absolutely nothing better than that collective feeling. You might give up certain stuff but you get your rewards. There’s a trade off.’

In 1999, Niall married physiotherapist Fiona O’Toole, who is now the Irish rowing team’s physio, and took some time out from rowing. ‘Rowing is one of the most physically demanding sports in the world. When we were training, we’d do about 35 hours a week. You need the power, but its also about your endurance and muscles. I used to be an animal about it and I never thought about the risks or diets or things like that. But it was taking me a lot longer to recover. I had a few repetitive strain problems and my back was giving me pains from lifting too many weights. And all the guys I was up against were much younger than me. So I began to get more scientific about it all and I started picking my battles’.

With Fiona’s encouragement, Niall went to the 2004 Olympics in Athens with the Irish team; they came home sixth. ‘I was always better in the singles’, says Niall. ‘Being on a team is very different. You can’t be moody. You have to encourage your team-mates and they will do the same for you’.[iii]

He did not take part in the 2008 Olympics but instead focused on establishing a post-rowing career. ‘Like many sports, you tend to forsake your career for a long time. I didn’t have my first job until I was 27 so I needed to get onto the ladder’. Having run his own business for a couple of years and worked with Golden Pages, Niall has now completed [has he? / what?] degree at the Smurfit Business School. He is presently Director of Sponsorship for Business & Finance.[iv] Niall and Fiona have two children and live in Terenure.


[i] The Commercial started in Ringsend but moved upstream to Islandbridge in 1942.

[ii] Niall was devastated by his fathers’ death in July 2009. ‘He had been my anchor all along. He was a massive, massive influence on me. Without him, I wouldn’t have gone anywhere.’

[iii] The team trained in Sweden with the Swedish national coach. Before that, Niall’s training in Ireland involved: ‘getting up in the morning and do two hours, come back, drop the kids off, do some work, then go to a gym and do another two hours on weights or a rowing machine. Then back to work, get the kids and then another two hours on the water’.

[iv] ‘When I was rowing in the early 1990s, there wasn’t a lot of money around’, he explains. ‘So I found myself knocking on doors. That was a strange predicament because I’m quite a shy person. I created portfolios about myself to help with the introduction and then I’d move in for the hard sell. That’s how I fell into sales as a line of work.’


Click here to see a full list of persons interviewed for the Vanishing Ireland project.