Ireland and the Olympic Games

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 2 (Summer 1998), Letters, Letters, Volume 6

Dr Pat O’Callaghan—last in the line of native-born Irishmen who dominated the hammer in the Olympics, 1896-1932.

Dr Pat O’Callaghan—last in the line of native-born Irishmen who dominated the hammer in the Olympics, 1896-1932.

Sir,—I found it curious that Patrick O’Sullivan’s article ‘Ireland and the Olympic Games’ in HI Spring 1998 should fail to mention John Mary Pius Boland (1870-1958). Boland, a Dubliner, won two Olympic gold medals for tennis in the 1896 games in Athens, becoming the first Irishman to win an Olympic honour.—Yours etc.,

Co. Donegal

Sir,—I read with great interest Patrick O’Sullivan’s article ‘Ireland and the Olympic Games’ in your last issue. While factually correct in every way, I do think that in one or two particular aspects it was a trifle misleading, and readers may benefit from some clarification.
In the first place, the split that occurred in Irish athletics in 1925 should not be seen primarily as a political manoeuvre by any of the main protagonists at the time. The key reprimand made of an Ulster club by the NACA(I) was actually directed at the Belfast Celtic club, whose membership and following were primarily Catholic and nationalist. Celtic then received support from other clubs in the area, including the overwhelmingly Protestant and unionist Linfield club. The main area of dispute was, as Patrick O’Sullivan says, the payment of comparatively large cash prizes and the tolerance of gambling at meetings held by these clubs. It should be noted that most of the ten clubs that eventually broke away from the NACA(I) on this issue were in fact parts of limited companies, and as such did so for commercial reasons. They considered that their very survival depended upon continuing to attract large crowds of fee-paying spectators, and that such crowds could not be guaranteed if the attractions of prizes and betting were not maintained.
Furthermore Mr O’Sullivan’s suggestion that this internal dispute ‘might not have developed into a full-blown crisis were it not for the intervention of the English AAA’, should be qualified by later developments within Ireland. The emergence of General Eoin O’Duffy, the leader of the Blueshirts, as the president of the NACA(I), and his use of the organisation to promote his own political ideas, could have been calculated to alienate some northerners. The fact that Thomas Moles, a militant unionist, a former IAAA representative, the managing editor of the Belfast Telegraph, a Linfield director, and Speaker of the Stormont parliament, assumed some prominence in the new NIAAA, was equally likely to ensure the split became deeper and more enduring. Moles was probably behind a report in the Belfast Telegraph in 1925, concerning the  imposition by the NACA(I) of an approved official on an RUC sports meeting. The gist of the article was that the RUC were now taking orders from Dublin! Additionally Moles already had some experience of sport in the context of a divided Ireland, as he was an international selector for the Irish Football Association. This latter body had already split in 1921/2, though again not initially due to political considerations.
I do hope that your readers do not think these observations are pedantic. I rather think myself that they serve to illustrate that the history of sport in Ireland is a rather more complex entity than many might assume.—Yours etc.,

School of Modern History
Queen’s University


Author’s reply

As regards my namesake’s point, my article was not intended to be anything other than a broad exposé of Ireland’s development as a member of the Olympic family of nations and therefore a detailed list of every Irish gold medal winner lay beyond its scope due to demands of space. For example, I didn’t mention gold medal winners Pat McDonald, Clare (shot-putt, 1912 and 56lb. weight, 1920), Noel Purcell, Dublin, (water polo, 1920), Mary Peters, Belfast (pentathlon, 1972), nor indeed gold medalists in hockey and polo.
Nor was my research exhaustive on every point and I welcome Dr Garnham’s clarification on the NACA(I)/NIAAA split which is a useful contribution to our knowledge on the subject. Finally, a couple of errors found their way into the article as published: on p.42 the caption for the 1912 marathon should have read Kennedy McArthur; and on the same page, in reference to the hammer event, Pat Ryan’s victory was in 1920—the US victory in 1924 was the only dent in the record of  ‘native-born’ Irishmen in this discipline 1896-1932 inclusive.—Yours etc.,

Co. Cork


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