Our forgotten Olympians

IRISH individuals have a particularly proud record in the Olympics.

As John Treacy was completing the lap of the stadium to win the silver in the Olympic marathon at Los Angeles in 1984, Jimmy Magee rattled off the names of 11 Irish people who won 12 medals representing Ireland at the 13 Olympic Games since Irish independence.

He actually omitted the names of the first two medalists representing the Irish Free State at the Paris Olympics of 1924. They have generally been forgotten, because their medals were for the arts in connection with sport.

Jack B. Yeats won his silver medal for his painting of the Liffey Swim, while Oliver St John Gogarty won a bronze medal for poetry with his Ode to the Tailteann Games.

In the seven Olympic Games prior to Irish independence in 1921, people born and reared in Ireland won a total of at least 64 Olympic medals. In the very early modern games, the idea of national teams was played down.

Many of the foreign athletes made their own way to Athens in 1896. Some went as spectators and decided to enter on the spur of the moment.

John Pius Boland of Dublin went to Athens as an observer and then entered the tennis tournament. He duly won the men’s singles and also the doubles with a German partner. At the end of the games, when the medals were being presented and the national flags were raised, there was no official Irish flag.

Boland said that they should have had a gold harp on a green background, but there was no time to get one, so the Greeks used the Union Jack, as Ireland was then still part of the United Kingdom.

Although Boland has been frequently described as the first Irish Olympic gold medalist, the winner’s medal at those games was silver medal, and a bronze was awarded to the runner-up. This was a great departure from the ancient Olympics, where only winners were recognised.

Ireland had much better tennis players than Boland at the time. Harold Mahony from Kerry won the men’s singles at Wimbledon just weeks after the Olympics. At the next Games at Paris in 1900, Mahony went on to become the second Irishman to win an Olympic medal.

The gold medal was introduced in the Olympic Games of 1904 at St Louis. The silver and bronze were relegated to second and third places.

The first track and field athlete from any country to win a gold medal was Tom Kiely from Ballyneale, Co Tipperary. He made his own way to St Louis to compete for Ireland, and he appropriately delivered his blow for Irish independence in America on July 4, 1904.

Kiely declined to join the Irish-American Athletic Club in New York before the Olympics, even though it offered to contribute towards his expenses. “He challenged as a representative of Ireland,” the Cork Examiner reported on July 6, 1904. “He refused to be identified with any American-Irish or Irish clubs in America.”

Record books often list Kiely as British, but the British did not attend the games in St Louis. The words Britain or British do not appear in the 1904 Olympic reports, whereas Ireland does appear after the names of Kiely and John J Daly, who won the silver medal in the steeplechase.

The Olympic Games were held in Athens in 1906 to mark the tenth anniversary of the Olympic revival. The Irish Field newspaper raised funds to send three Irish athletes, who went prepared with a green flag with “Erin go Bragh” embroidered on it. But they were not allowed to use it in the opening ceremony, at which the British royal family were guests of honour. Britain’s Queen Alexandra was actually a sister of the reigning King George I of Greece.

Although the press usually referred to the British team as “Britain”, it was officially “Great Britain and Ireland”. Wearing distinctive green caps and blazers, embroidered with a gold shamrock, Peter O’Connor, Con Leahy and John J Daly walked a discreet distance behind the British team to distinguish themselves as Irish.

O’Connor believe this robbed him of the gold medal in the long jump in which he was the world record holder. Two judges were assigned to the contest. One was the manager of the American team, and O’Connor objected after he gave the advantage to the American Olympic champion of jumping out of turn.

O’Connor pleaded with Charles Perry, the British judge, to fulfill his role as appointed judge, but Perry refused, because O’Connor had disassociated himself from the British team. The American judge refused to measure O’Connor’s two best jumps. He ruled them fouls because he said O’Connor fell backwards.

“I never fell back after landing, but pitched forward on my hands,” O’Connor insisted. “I was half insane over the injustice.”

At the end of the contest, as the flags of the countries of the three medalists were raised on the poles in the infield, O’Connor protested against the use of the Union Jack for his silver medal place. Shimmying up the 20-foot pole, he waved his own green flag, while Con Leahy stood guard at the foot of the pole.

The reaction to this protest was mild compared to the diplomatic incident that the Irish were accused of provoking at the opening of the Olympic Games in London in 1908. As the US team was approaching the royal box containing King Edward VII, hammer thrower Matt McGrath, a native of Nenagh, reportedly warned the American flag carrier: “Dip that flag and you will be in hospital tonight.”

“That flag dips before no earthly king,” another Irish member of the American team — Martin Sheridan, a native of Bohola, Co Mayo — proudly declared afterwards. As a result of this incident, it became an American practice that the flag should never be dipped for anyone.

Sheridan’s younger brother Joseph was actually married to Katie Collins, a sister of the Big Fellow, Michael Collins. The royal snub was a profound announcement of the presence of the Irish at the London games.

Irish-born athletes made a clean sweep of the medals in the opening athletic event. John J Flanagan of Kilbreedy near Kilmallock, Co Limerick, and Matt McGrath of Nenagh won the gold and silver medals representing the US, while Con Walshe of Carriganimma, Co Cork, won the bronze representing Canada.

Those London Olympics were by far the most successful for Irish-born competitors, who won a total of seven gold, 21 silver, and four bronze medals. Beatrice Hill-Lowe’s bronze medal in archery was the first Olympic medal by an Irish woman. Ironically, the only Irish medalist at the next Olympic games in London in 1948 was Letitia Hamilton, who won bronze in art for her painting of the Meath Hunt’s point-to-point race.

In the 90 years since independence, Irish track and field athletes won four gold and two silver medals competing for Ireland. In the 24 years prior to independence, on the other hand, men born and reared in Ireland won a total of 17 gold, 12 silver, and four bronze medals in track and field.

Those people were not any less Irish because they had to emigrate. Sadly, many of the early Olympic accomplishments have been largely forgotten.



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