Countdown to Tokyo: The amazing stories of Ireland's original Olympic superstars

Dave Hannigan looks back at some of the pioneers of Irish sport in the earliest days of the Olympics
Countdown to Tokyo: The amazing stories of Ireland's original Olympic superstars

Matt McGrath in a pose that leaves no doubt about his power. McGrath competed in the hammer throw in four Olympics. The 1912 Stockholm games were his most dominant performance: his shortest throw was almost 15 feet longer than anyone else’s longest throw. His gold medal distance stood as an Olympic record for 24 years. Picture: Bain News Service

AS THE American team reached the point in front of the Royal Box where they were expected to courteously salute King Edward VII by lowering the Stars and Stripes, the flag-bearer Ralph Rose heard a Tipperary accent suddenly whisper menacingly in his ear.

“Dip that flag,” warned Nenagh native Matt McGrath, “and you’ll be in a hospital tonight!”

Old Glory stayed upright and the 1908 London Olympics began as they would end, engulfed in controversy.

McGrath went on to take silver in the hammer throw behind Limerick’s John J. Flanagan and the presence of bronze-winning Con Walsh, a Corkman wearing a Canadian singlet, ensured every place on the podium was taken by an Irishman.

Limerick hammer thrower John Flanagan trains for the 1908 London Olympics. He went on to win the gold medal for the US. Picture: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
Limerick hammer thrower John Flanagan trains for the 1908 London Olympics. He went on to win the gold medal for the US. Picture: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

From the mid-Cork village of Carriganima, nestling in the valley of the Foherish River, between the Derrynasaggart and Comeragh Mountains, Walsh was 27 years old the day he snagged his little piece of Olympic history.

By then, he’d already enjoyed a stellar career in another code. He’s listed in the forward line of the Nils’ selection (alongside Denis Irwin’s granduncle Tom) that was defeated by Dublin Geraldines (their team bulwarked by several imports from other counties) in the 1899 All-Ireland football final on a scoreline of 1-10 to 0-6.

Walsh also featured on the team that lost the 1901 final to Tipperary and gained fame too for his victory at the All-Ireland place-kicking championship (a big deal at the time) the same year, winning with an effort of 69 yards.

He retained that title in 1905 and 1906, and reportedly landed four other victories at that year’s All-Ireland athletics championships. Here was a genuine all-rounder. Within 12 months of that, he won the first of five consecutive Canadian national titles in the hammer, a prelude to his heroics at the Olympics.

Walsh set several world records in the hammer and the 56lbs weight throw, returned to play for Nils on the losing side in the 1911 county final, and later became a policeman in Seattle, Washington.

Con Walsh, a Corkman wearing a Canadian singlet, ensured every place on the podium at the 1908 Olympics was taken by an Irishman.
Con Walsh, a Corkman wearing a Canadian singlet, ensured every place on the podium at the 1908 Olympics was taken by an Irishman.

“Mr Walsh is a man of perfect physique,” went an entry in the Seattle Police Department Yearbook of 1923. “Six feet and a quarter of an inch in height, he weighs 210 lbs stripped. He is perfectly built with every muscle developed to its fullest. He is said to be one of the strongest men in the athletic world. Some years ago, Mr. Walsh picked up a quarter-miler, Teevan, with his left hand and held him out at arms length. Teevan weighed 171lbs in his track togs, no wonder Walsh can toss the 56lb weight with ease.”

Elsewhere at those 1908 Olympic Games, a pair of policemen representing London and Hull were down to grapple each other in a semi-final of the freestyle wrestling. On one side of the mat stood Ned Barrett from Rahela, near Listowel; on the other was Con O’Kelly from Gloun, just outside Dunmanway. As the crow flies, less than 80 miles separated the houses that spawned them both, and, here, at a tournament where Irish athletes had to compete under the flags of other nations, the Corkman and the Kerryman battled for a place in the heavyweight final in the colours of Great Britain.

That O’Kelly had even got that far was remarkable. In the early hours of March 4 that year, Hull city fire brigade was battling a fierce blaze at Soulsby’s Saw Mill when a gable end wall collapsed. Four firemen were buried beneath the bricks of two storeys, and after their colleagues had finally dug them out, the quartet were rushed to hospital. O’Kelly was the worst injured, the damage to his back and shoulders keeping him out of uniform for four weeks.

Within a matter of months, however, the 22-year-old was back tumbling around the mat in the sport described rather quaintly in the Olympic handbook as “catch as catch can”.

Born in Gloun in 1886, George Cornelius O’Kelly was educated at St Patrick’s National School in Dunmanway. Before emigrating to England in his mid-teens, he reportedly dabbled in cycling, boxing, and wrestling at local level. Arriving in the west end of Hull, an area thick with Irish at the time, he joined the local constabulary on September 18, 1902.

An imposing figure at six foot three and 16 stone, he was quickly seconded to the fire brigade, where, fortuitously enough, one of his new colleagues invited him to a grappling club to work out.

Con O’Kelly, the first Corkman to win Olympic gold.
Con O’Kelly, the first Corkman to win Olympic gold.

Almost immediately, he carved a reputation with Hull Amateur Wrestling club, causing a minor stir by upsetting the Northern Counties champion in a bout that took less than three minutes. Soon, he was the British Amateur heavyweight champion, and, ironically, it was Ned Barrett who relieved him of that title shortly before the 1908 Olympics. Both men were ultimately selected for the Games and when their paths finally crossed at Shepherd’s Bush, O’Kelly extracted revenge with an arm and crotch hold after just two minutes and 14 seconds of the contest.

With Barrett out of the way, only Norway’s Jacob Gunderson stood between O’Kelly and his pursuit of the title. Although it took him more than 13 minutes to win his first bout with the reigning American champion, the second clincher was secured in a quarter of that time. The boy from West Cork who told people his childhood nickname was “The clown from Goun” had just become the first Corkman to win an Olympic gold medal.

Despite lauding him for his victory and the publicity his achievement brought to Hull, the local authorities refused to allow him a leave of absence to try professional wrestling. In February, 1909, he resigned his job and went for it. Like so many others, he found the jump from the amateur to the paid ranks difficult to negotiate. Incredibly, his first-ever pro bout was for the world heavyweight championship, and though he lost, he appears to have made a good living, supplement his grappling income with cabaret work in the theatres.

Eventually, he moved to Boston, ostensibly to wrestle but ended up spending far more time in the boxing ring. Christened “The Harp” by American scribes, he managed nine wins from 12 fistic bouts, enough to ensure he returned to England a much richer man for the experience.

Upon retirement from the ring in 1914, he opened a pub, ran a crockery shop and dabbled in the local property market. He also became heavily involved in the eventful career of his son, Con junior, who boxed for Britain at the 1924 Olympic Games, fought professional in Madison Square Garden and later became a Catholic priest.

For a time in the 1930s, O’Kelly senior returned to Cork to run a poultry farm at Elm Park near Macroom, and though he was living in Stockport when he died in 1947, he, his wife, and children are all buried at St. Joseph’s Cemetery in Ballyphehane.

Back when he coached young boxers at a specially-constructed gym at the back of his house on Freehold Street in Hull, O’Kelly had a simple mantra he repeated often.

Come on lads, train hard and learn, it’s good for the soul. Use your energy and make yourself into a man!”

The creed he lived by.

Born in Fermoyle, two miles south of Banteer, on May 18, 1871, Denis Horgan broke the world record for the first time at Cobh Sports in 1897 when he flung the shot put over 48 feet.

By that stage, he was more than halfway through a run of seven British AAA titles in a row and already becoming a legend in the sport. To an eventual tally of 13 UK championships (a record which still stands), he also added a silver representing Britain at the 1908 Olympics, and at 38, won the American nationals too.

The tragedy of Horgan’s incredible career is that he was 37 when he travelled to his first Olympic Games in 1908. In Athens 12 years earlier, America’s Robert Garrett won gold with a throw that was seven feet shorter than Horgan’s best effort that season. It was a similar story at the following two tournaments. At both of those, the Olympic title was won by a throw inferior to the sort of distances the Corkman had routinely been making in competition elsewhere at the time.

There is no explanation why he didn’t enter the competition until he was too old to do better than silver. The obvious theory is that he couldn’t afford the travel expenses involved. This falls down a little considering that, for a time, he worked as a New York cop and competed extensively in America. Whatever the reason, that he was the best shot putter of his generation appears to be without question, especially given the extraordinary circumstances behind him finally annexing his own slice of Olympic glory.

COMEBACK KING

One year before competing in London, Horgan was on the beat in New York when he was set upon by a gang of Italian hoodlums. They struck him several times on the head with a fire shovel and left him for dead in the street. The doctors saved his life, put a silver plate in his head, and then marvelled at the way he returned to competition within a matter of months. The quality of his comeback may have had something to do with his unorthodox approach. He reputedly liked to warm up by consuming a dozen eggs broken into a pint of sherry.

Horgan lived the last years of his life in Crookstown, where he ran a pub with his wife, but he is buried nearer home in the churchyard at Lyre. This is a short distance from the Banteer sportsfield where a six year old boy once watched him throw. Although he was by then a veteran of 40, the sight of Horgan in full flight left quite an impression on the youngster. His name was Dr. Pat O’Callaghan and he’d go on to make Olympic history of his own.

In the annual international fixture against Scotland held in Belfast on July 19, 1913, Patrick Flynn won the four-mile race as Ireland defeated the visitors by seven points to four. From Ballinadee near Bandon, he was listed as representing Kinsale. Seven years later, the same man, now wearing the singlet of America’s Paulist Athletic Club, stormed to victory in the 3000m steeplechase at the US National Championships at Travers Island, New York. His winning time was nine minutes, 58.2 seconds. Between those two events, Flynn had moved countries, fought and was injured in World War 1 but never relinquished his Olympic dream.

The 1920 US championships doubled as the team trials for the Antwerp Games, and although more renowned at that point in his career as a long distance runner, Flynn had finished second to Michael Devaney in the steeplechase at the previous year’s nationals in Newark, New Jersey. There are several newspaper reports that he arrived in Belgium, a country still reeling after the war and ill-prepared in many ways to host the event, as the pre-race favourite.

Born in Ballinadee in 1895, Flynn came to national prominence in Ireland when he won the 1913 IAAA Championships in the four-mile. Having emigrated to America shortly afterwards, his career was interrupted by the war. When he finally got to Antwerp, there was more bad luck, his hopes of gold ultimately dashed by ill-fortune.

On a track turned to near mud by constant rain, a fall at the water jump put paid to his chances of winning the race. He still dug deep enough to finish a very creditable second behind Great Britain’s Percy Hodge. 

Some reports reckon he was 100 yards back from the Surrey AC man at the finish, more figure it to have been half that distance. What isn’t in dispute is that he took home a particularly hard-earned silver.

By the time Frederick Barrett trained Annandale to win the 1931 Scottish Grand National, it was the sort of victory that would only merit a footnote in the story of his life. After all, he won an Olympic gold medal in polo, trained horses for three English kings, and became a major in the British Army on the back of his contribution to World War 1. Somewhere along the way, between his home in Glanmire and the green fields of France, he even gained the more user-friendly nickname of Rattle, a moniker apparently a tribute to the number of bones he broke falling from horses during a stint as a jockey.

Born in Cork on June 20, 1875, the same year his father William bought Silver Spring House. The family can trace their lineage in Ireland back to the time of Strongbow in the 12th century and Rattle spent the first two decades of his life in the place where the hotel of the same name now stands. He joined the 15th Hussars in the spring of 1897, and by 1905, had attained the rank of captain and married Isobel Edwards, the sister of a brother-officer, the 6th Lord Kensington.

It was in polo, a sport he only began playing properly in his mid-30s that he came to leave an indelible mark. In 1914, he was captain and key player on the English team that won the prestigious Westchester Cup before a crowd of 35,000 at Meadow Brook, New York. More than 80 years would pass before that trophy crossed the Atlantic again, and Barrett’s outsized role in the triumph was underlined by the fact he had also become the first player from the British Isles to gain the ranking of a 10 goal handicap, the greatest accolade in the game.

INTERRUPTED

The outbreak of war cost him the next six years of his career, but he went to Antwerp for the 1920 Olympics as a member of the Great Britain polo team. The first to be held since 1912, the Belgium Games marked the debut of now coveted traditions like the five rings flag and the taking of the Olympic oath. Despite having by then turned 45, Barrett was a crucial figure in a squad that won gold after a 13-11 victory over Spain in the final. Interestingly, some record books list the winning side as Great Britain & Ireland while others just say Great Britain. Four years later, Barrett was again on hand to collect a bronze at the Paris Olympics before embarking on a training career that saw him saddle winners for Kings George V, Edward VIII and George VI.

Barrett had two children, a daughter Biddy who died tragically in a drowning accident in the thirties, and a son Dennis. Rattle himself passed away in 1949 and is buried in St. Bride’s, Pembrokeshire. The trophy he collected for his role in the 1914 Westchester Cup was awarded to Cowdray Park polo club in Sussex by his son in 1972. The Barrett Cup League remains one of its most prestigious competitions. Only fitting the name should endure in the sport it once adorned.

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