On the ninetieth anniversary of the Kanturk man’s Olympic triumph,looks at the life and career of Dr Pat O’Callaghan
NINETY years ago this week, the Tricolour was raised skywards in the new Olympic arena. The city was Amsterdam and the event was the hammer.
July 30, 1928, was the first time the Irish flag had been raised at an Olympic games and tremendous pride was etched on the face of Dr Pat ‘The Doc’ O’Callaghan. Pat had surprised all his competitors by snatching the gold medal from the clutches of his Swedish and American rivals. Upwards of 20,000 ecstatic fans cheered and waved at Ireland’s new hero.
Pat’s story began in the barony of Duhallow, Derrygallon, near Kanturk, County Cork. He was born on January 28, 1906. From the age of two he attended school and by the time he could cycle he would ride a 30 mile round trip to the Patrician Brothers’ Monastery at Mallow.
Pat never missed a day at school and successfully passed the matriculation exam at sixteen and went on to study medicine at the Royal College of Surgeons. Remarkably, Pat graduated at aged twenty becoming the youngest surgeon to graduate and winning the first of many medals the ‘Carmicheal medal’ for surgery.
Pat was the youngest surgeon to graduate at that time. He was so young in fact that he couldn’t practice medicine in Ireland so he worked for a time in an RAF hospital and in the middle east.
Sport was in Pat’s blood, they say that many of the Duhallow men descend from a race of giants. Pat spent his youth fishing and playing sports. He played football for Banteer Football Club and was the nephew of Tim Vaughen the Cork footballer.
Pat’Cs two brothers Seán and Con were gifted athletes also. Con competed in the 1928 Olympics in the decathlon. Pat was an all-round athlete but eventually settled on the hammer. He ‘acquired’ a cannonball from Macroom castle, asked a local blacksmith to attach a handle and off he headed competing around the country.
Only quickly realising his hammer was several pounds heavier than his competitors, he won anyhow. Pat would often cycle over 50 miles to compete in an event only stopping to rehydrate along the way by milking a cow.
Pat, after winning the Irish title headed to Amsterdam with the Irish Olympic team; paying their own passage. When he arrived in Amsterdam the sight of the purpose-built Olympic stadium greeted his eyes. This was an Olympic games of firsts: The first Olympic flame burning on the marathon tower outside the stadium; the first parade of nations; the first standard 400 metre track; the first sponsor ( Coke); the first time women were allowed compete. All in all 2,937 athletes competed from 46 countries.
While the athletes settled into their houseboats the games began on July 28 and continued until 12 August. Pat managed to get though the opening rounds and the final put him up against Ossian Skiold (Sweden) as well as the fancied American Edmund Black.
Pat sprung a shock by throwing his hammer 51.39 m, a few centimetres farther than the Swede Skold, 51.29m. Fans clapped and waved Pat as he received his Olympic gold medal. Thousands turned out for Pat’s return in his native Kanturk.
He said, “ there were crowds at every crossroads and a platform was built with people spouting.”
Pat reflected later as to what his victory meant, “ I am glad of my victory, not for the victory for myself, but for the fact that the world has been shown that Ireland has a flag, that Ireland has a National Anthem, and, in fact we have a nationality.”
Dr Pat O’Callaghan was appointed assistant medical officer at Clonmel District Mental Hospital (St Luke’s Hospital) in 1931. From 1934 he set up a general practice at ‘Roseville’ and he began his long association with the town. ‘The Doc’ became one of the most talked about people who ever lived in Clonmel. Everyone has ‘Doc’ story. He loved fishing and the outdoors and he believed that the rivers belonged to the people. Doctor Pat maintained his interest in sport and went on to compete and win gold at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1932.
(having had to hunt down a hacksaw and a file in the groundskeeper’s shack and cut off the spikes on his shoes that didn’t suit the new cinder surface that he hadn’t been told about, being used to competing on grass or clay.)
Pat, along with Bob Tisdall, won gold medals for Ireland. Eamon DeValera gave them a state banquet in the Mansion House, Dublin.
Pat was deprived of a third gold medal in Berlin 1936, because of a political dispute within the athletics body, Ireland did not send a team. Pat sat as guest in the Fuhrer’s private box and watched the German Karl Hein throw the hammer 2 metres shorter than Pat’s personal best. Historians have uncovered evidence that Hitler was obsessed with the hammer event and had Pat filmed before the 1936 Olympics.
During his long life, Pat met many famous people and was even asked by Louis B Meyer to take on the role of Tarzan in the Hollywood film series. Pat declined. In 1934 he went to America and fought some wrestling exhibition matches. On the back of it Pat was offered a contract worth, 6 million dollars in today’s money, again he declined.
After 22 Irish titles, one English AAA title and one American hammer title, Pat wanted to settle into a quiet life in Clonmel.
Pat inspired local athletes like Clonmel’s John Fitzgerald. John a former Irish International said, “ Pat was always accessible and ordinary in his greatness.” Paddy Buckley, Chairman of Cork County Athletics Board, responded, “ Pat deserves recognition his was a once in a lifetime achievement.”
Pat received many honours in his life, documentaries have been made about his achievements and a wonderful statue has been erected in Banteer, Co. Cork. He will always be remembered as a champion of the poor here in Clonmel and when he passed away aged 85, December 1st 1991, dignitaries came from all over the world to say their goodbyes.
The last word should be left to Kanturk’s David Guiney(deceased) who was a lifelong friend of Pat’s. David ended his oration at Pat’s graveside plaintively, “Sleep gently, Pat, gentle giant.”