50 years of RYA Northern Ireland: How it all began

Maeve Bell, Curly Morris and Adrian Bell give their account of the birth of RYA Northern Ireland ahead of 50th anniversary celebrations
27 Mar 24
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2023 marked 50 years of the RYA in Northern Ireland, so this year is a landmark year of celebrations which will culminate in a dinner this October.

As is well documented in history, the 1970’s was a turbulent time in Northern Ireland’s history and in 1972, the breakup of the Stormont government led to direct rule from Westminster.

Following the restoration of a devolved government in 1973, The Sports Council was set up under the Youth and Recreation Order and among its functions it had powers to give grants to sporting bodies.

Despite the establishment of The Sports Council, Maeve Bell, who was the first ever female chairperson of RYA Northern Ireland, explained that sailing needed a National Governing Body to claim this funding.

She recounted that sailing in Northern Ireland had no organisation with an established constitution, so there was a need for the RYA to establish itself in Northern Ireland.

Speaking at Royal Ulster Yacht Club (the location of RYA Northern Ireland’s first meeting), Curly Morris added: “The UDRA (Ulster Dinghy Racing Association) effectively become ‘defunct’ but there was a need for the RYA to be in Northern Ireland.”

Maeve Bell’s husband Adrian said: “If you were going to get government funding you had to have some sort of organisation which would be respected, so the current Sports Council needed to have a body. This is where the ISA (Irish Sailing Association) couldn’t do that at that time.”

As we look back at RYA Northern Ireland’s history, there is so much to celebrate- From the improvement of diversity of the sailing and boating community, to landmark achievements such as sailors reaching The Olympic Games or competing at World Championships.

Curly Morris recognised, “We set up the development squad with Bill O’Hara as the first performance manager and it took off from there.

“Our athletes now get funding which is maybe not as good as the centrally funded athletes, but they get meaningful support that allows them to develop an international career.”

A message from RYA CEO Sara Sutcliffe

Sara is well aware of the achievements of RYA Northern Ireland over the last 50 years, however she is clear that we must continue to be ambitious in taking the sport to new heights.

She said: “While the UK-wide boating community shares many common challenges and ambitions, each nation and region has its own unique ‘personality’ and ways and means of inspiring, engaging and connecting with its participants.

“The work RYA Northern Ireland has undertaken over the past 50 years has been pivotal in understanding the unique needs of boaters in NI and in driving initiatives that enable and support more people to find their place on the water.

“There’s much to celebrate and we can be rightly proud of the shared heritage, history and hard work which has brought us to where we are today, but we mustn’t stand still. There are some challenges that we must continue to work together on to ensure as a sport that we are reflecting societal needs and expectations.

“There are common themes reflected across RYA Northern Ireland’s ‘Navigating the Future’ strategy and our own ‘Together on Water’ vision, including: How can we better connect with our localities? How can we become more reflective of the societies we represent? How can we attract the next generation into sailing and boating and keep them more regularly engaged? How can we encourage more volunteers to help support the work we do? What can the boating community do to play its part in the climate crisis and in protecting our waterways?”

If you have a story which relates to any aspect of RYA Northern Ireland over the last 50 years, get in touch with RYA Northern Ireland’s Marketing and Communications Executive, Peter Gilmore, by emailing peter.gilmore@rya.org.uk .

Additionally, subscribe to our bi-monthly newsletter to receive updates about the 50th anniversary dinner this October.