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21 August 2008 Edition

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Matt Treacy

Ireland’s most successful Olympics

According to one of Flann O’Brien’s characters the Irish were always renowned for their ability to jump. Unfortunately it is a field of sporting endeavour that we would appear to have abandoned over the years and alas we are no longer a force in the jumping. Or indeed in any of the track and field events judging by the performances of Irish athletes in Beijng.
The one bright spot has been the boxing. Something that Ireland has always been good at over the history of the sport and one of the few sports in which we have produced world champions. That tradition has been maintained in China with Paddy Barnes of Belfast and Kenny Egan of Dublin qualifying for their semi finals and thus assured of at least winning a bronze medal each and bringing the Irish total of boxing medals won to 11.
An intriguing statistic I have gleaned is that Irish athletes have done far better either when contesting for other countries or before the establishment of the Southern state in 1922. Most of the medals won by Irish people have been won as “British” contestants or under the Star Spangled Banner. Indeed of the 30 gold medals won by Irish people 22 were won by people contesting for Britain, the US, South Africa and Canada. And I don’t think that covers them all.
The first gold medal ever won by an Irish person was by John Pius Boland a Dublin born Irish Party MP who represented South Kerry in Westminster and was one of key organisers of the fund to build the Parnell monument. He won the tennis singles of all things in the first modern games at Athens in 1896. At the same games Thomas Burke of Boston won gold in the first 100m and 400m finals. I doubt he was of Levantine descent.
While some Irish Olympians were content to be part of the British teams, others were not. In 1906 Peter O’Connor, Con Leahy and John Daly were entered into the 1906 Intercalated Athens finals by the Irish Amateur Athletic Association and the GAA, which at that stage was still organising athletics events. The British objected and they were refused separate recognition. However after O’Connor came second in the long jump he climbed a flag pole during the award ceremony and hoisted a green ‘Erin Go Bragh flag’. He then won gold in the triple jump and Con Leahy won gold in the high jump. So you can see where Flann O’Brien’s faith in the Irish and jumping originated.
At the 1908 games in London there was an interesting clash of cultural and political allegiances. The Irish men’s hockey team, who judging by their surnames were possibly of unionist persuasion, was happy to compete as part of the British team and won the silver medal. Those Irish athletes competing for the United States were not. Nor were some of the Irish born track and field athletes designated as ‘G.B.’
At the opening ceremony in White City the different national delegations dipped their banners in recognition of King Edward VII. All of them that is other than the Americans whose flag bearer was given the option by NYPD blue and Tipp born hammer thrower Mattie McGrath of ignoring His Majesty or ending up in hospital.
McGrath won silver in the hammer with the gold going to John Jesus Flanagan of Kilbreedy, County Limerick  and the bronze to Cornelius Walsh, born in Cork but competing for Canada. Flanagan also won gold in 1900 and 1904 and a bronze in 1904. Martin Sheridan of Mayo won gold in the discus and bronze in the standing jump. He holds the record for the most medals won by any Irish athlete at nine in three separate games.
Denis Horgan won silver in the shot putt but he was counted as a British contestant. Mel Sheppard, a member of the Irish American Athletic Club and born in New Jersey won golds in the 1500m, 800m and the medley relay. Con Leahy of 1906 fame won silver in the high jump. And medals also went to Irish Americans Daniel Kelly, silver in the broad jump, and Charles Bacon who won gold in the 400m hurdles. Irish born Robert Kerr won gold in the 200m and silver went to Bobby Cloughlen of New York.
Tim Ahern won the gold for Britain in the triple jump but the major event of the games was the marathon. Italian Dorando Pietri collapsed near the finish and was carried over the line by an official. Behind him was Johnny Hayes, the New York born son of Tipperary parents. The Americans objected and Hayes was awarded the gold. Of 23 individual track and field events, ten were won by Irish or Irish American athletes! Without doubt Ireland’s most successful Olympics.
The American team stopped in Dublin on their way home where they were greeted by what was described as the largest crowd since Parnell’s funeral. There was no doubting either the significance read into the Games by Irish Americans, as evidenced by the ballad written by EP McKenna:

So Flanagan and Sheppard, McGrath and Sheridan
Showed them all the kind of stuff’s in a good Cork Yankee man
At jumping too, and running they showed the English tricks,
Although they knew John Bull could sprint since back in ‘76.
They chewed them up, and spat them out, and trounced them good and sound,
That’s how the Yankee beat the world in good old London town.
So let the Eagle scream, me boys, from ‘Frisco to New York.
From Dublin town to Galway Bay, from Derry down to Cork.
Hang out the starry banner and never take a dare,
For they still raise brawny Yankees in Donegal and Clare.

An Phoblacht Magazine

AN PHOBLACHT MAGAZINE:

  • The first edition of this new magazine will feature a 10 page special on the life and legacy of our leader Martin McGuinness to mark the first anniversary of his untimely passing.
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