From Galwegians Yearbook 2011-12

HarryBlake-3cmIt would be very wrong to try to provide a potted history of the Galwegian Sevens without giving some background to the man whose name proudly adorns the trophy. Henry St. John Blake (forever known as Harry) and father of our esteemed past President, Bruce and grandfather of Carl, was, by any yardstick, a most extraordinary man.

He was, of course, a member of one of the tribes of Galway and a well known Solicitor, running his business in Rosemary Avenue just off Eyre Square. He was very active in legal affairs and had the honour of becoming President of the Law Society of Ireland in 1946/1947.

It was on the sporting front, however, that Harry excelled, in particular as an administrator. He was a founding member of Galway Swimming Club which continues to thrive to this day. He became involved with Our Lady’s Boy Club and was also very active on the tennis front becoming President of the Galway Lawn Tennis Club in 1957 and even managed the time to become President of the Irish Lawn Tennis Association on a few occasions. However, when it came to rugby football, he really thrived.

He was a founder member of Galwegians in 1922 and succeeded Henry Anderson as President in 1931. Extraordinary, he remained on as President right up until his death on the 15th May, 1957. He presided over his last Club Meeting only a week beforehand when final arrangements were discussed for the Annual Dinner which was held, in those days, in the Great Southern Hotel.

SevensProgrammeCover-4cmAnother couple of interesting facts are that Harry Blake’s home, and where he died, was next door to Glenina at Belmont and also that he died forty years to the day before that other great Galwegian Chris Crowley who left us on the 15th May, 1997.

Following Harry Blake’s death, the Club tossed around ideas as to the best means of honouring his memory. There being no great urgency in those days, the issue was put on the long finger and, whilst it was mentioned at various times, nothing was done until the following season’s AGM when the late Jack Fitzgerald reminded the Club Members of the suggestion made the previous year that “some form of a token prize be given each year to honour its memory of Mr. Blake”.

The incoming Committee was charged with the task of doing something about it. To be fair to them, they did not waste too much time and decided, at a meeting on the 5th August, 1958, to run a National seven-a-side competition on the 21st September – just a few weeks later – at the Sportsground. In a great burst of optimism, no less than 230 Clubs were circularised, including many in Britain. The trophy would be called the Harry Blake Memorial Trophy and it was decided to spend up to £40.00 on it’s purchase but the Members would be asked to help pay for it’s cost.

In the event, the trophy was commissioned and inscribed by Fallers in Williamsgate Street, a firm thankfully still very much with us to this day. In the wonderful spirit of amateurism of the time, each member of the winning team was to be presented with an Aran gansey and each member of the runner up team with an Aran crios! The first competition was held on Sunday 21st September at the Sportsground and won by Lansdowne who beat Trinity College in the final.

Original Galwegians Bakes Sevens side: Back: Rynal Coen, Danno Heaslip, ?, John Callanan. Front: Sean McHale, John Ryan, Joe Costello

As they say, great oaks from little acorns grow but it is fair to say that the Sevens took a little while to really get going. The event was again organised for September 1959 when the trophy was carried away by UCD who beat our Seven in the final. Once again, Aran ganseys were presented to the winners. One wonders if any of our losing Seven still has his crios!

A momentous decision was made by the Committee in February 1960 that the date of the Sevens would be moved from September to Easter 1961. The Club Committee, being way ahead of itself, felt it would be a good idea to seek sponsorship. The only potential sponsor approached, however, was John Player Limited who, as it turned out, offered 1000 cigarettes for a raffle which, let it be noted, sold well and actually made money! The first Easter Monday holding of the event turned out to be something of a success and was won by Galwegians who beat UCD in the final.

A small profit was made and all agreed that the Blake Sevens should remain a fixture for Easter Monday every year. It remained difficult, however, in the early years to attract entries. A week before Easter in 1962,for example, only seven teams had entered and the draw was delayed until after Mass on Easter Sunday! For the record Ballymena beat Corinthians in the final that year.

The Competition rapidly became an established part of the Irish rugby calendar and entries became increasingly easy to attract. For the event in 1963, enquiries came from far and wide, in particular from Clubs in the North. As it happened, however, UCG emerged the winners, defeating Malone. In the final …

Following the opening of Glenina in November 1963, the Sevens were held for the first time at home and, by all accounts, the competition was hugely successful. Galwegians made the final but lost to Terenure College.

From then until the late ‘80s the Blake Sevens enjoyed their golden age. Easter weekend itself became one of the main fundraising planks for the Club and the Committee always endeavoured to host matches on Saturday and Sunday as a prelude to the Sevens Competition itself. In that period such well known and distinguished Irish Clubs including Queens University, NIFC, Monkstown, Wanderers, St. Mary’s College, Cork Constitution and Garryowen, to name a few, won the Blake Trophy.

The Competition enjoyed enormous status in Irish rugby and, at its height, Glenina became the place to be on Easter Monday. This was even more so with the Cross Cup ladies hockey event also taking place in Galway. With dances on both Easter Saturday and Sunday nights, Glenina was very much the centre of social activity in Galway over the holiday weekend.

Wanderers in 1976 (aka “The Crowbars”)

In later years, with the construction of the squash courts, the hugely successful Connacht Open Tournament was also held over Easter adding to both the craic and, also, much needed finance. Indeed, in it’s heyday, the Squash tournament attracted all the top Irish players and even some from across the water.

WomensCommittee-6cmSadly, with the advent of the All Ireland League in 1990-1991 and with it much extended Club Fixture Lists, it became increasingly difficult to attract the top sides in the country to Galway at Easter. Times were changing and it was increasing difficult for Clubs to commit to the Tournament and for the players the expense of a weekend in the west.

We struggled on into the ‘90s and occasionally attracted touring sides from the UK. Indeed, in 1989 and 1992, two such sides Ailesbury and Loughborough carried away the trophy. Efforts were later made to re-brand the competition for Junior Clubs but without any great success. The Connemara All Blacks won the trophy for three years in a row in 1994, 1995 and 1996.

The Competition had, however, enjoyed a wonderful innings over a period of some forty years but eventually succumbed to the onward march of professionalism and the more pressing needs of Clubs to survive.

Peter Crowley