Trevor Laffan: Day I joined pantheon of sport stars, so where’s my statue?!

Trevor Laffan recalls his sporting days of glory
Trevor Laffan: Day I joined pantheon of sport stars, so where’s my statue?!

Olympian Sonia O'Sullivan with a life size bronze statue of herself, in her home town of Cobh. Picture: Clare Keogh

MY buddy, John O’Connor, was trawling through the Irish Examiner archives when he came across a photo of me that was taken in 1966 at a school sports day in Cobh.

There are three of us in the photo and I’m the one in the middle, having taken third place in the under 9’s, 100-yard dash.

The sports day took place in what was then known as the College Field, a popular sporting venue in its day, but a housing estate, College Manor, now occupies the site.

My memory is shocking at the best of times, but this photo reminded me of something that had confused me as a child. I remember the day clearly for a very good reason. The presentation ceremony in particular sticks out in my mind, if you could call it a ceremony, because after the race we collected our ‘trophies’ at a little table in the centre of the field.

I can’t remember what the other lads got, but my reward for coming close to beating the world record was certainly out of the ordinary. It looked for all the world like a biscuit tin, and there was a good reason for that. It was a biscuit tin.

When l lifted it up, I spotted straight away that it was very light and there was a reason for that too; it was empty.

Trevor Laffan (right) pictured in the Evening Echo on May 31, 1966. 
Trevor Laffan (right) pictured in the Evening Echo on May 31, 1966. 

I think that was the moment I decided that sport might not be the best way to make a living, although it worked out differently for two other Cobh legends, Jack Doyle, AKA ‘The Gorgeous Gael’, and Sonia O’Sullivan, both of whom also came from the harbour town.

Doyle was the second of five children and grew up in a tenement building on Queen Street, along the water’s edge in Cobh, and according to Richard Fitzpatrick writing in the Irish Examiner, the Doyle family didn’t have it easy.

The children weren’t well off and survived thanks to ‘the penny dinners’, which were basic meals of bread and soup supplied by the local convent.

Jack left school at 12 years of age, and eked out a living working as a labourer, shovelling coal, and carrying luggage for guests at the local Commodore Hotel.

At 17, he joined the Irish Guards, at a recruiting station in Pembroke, Wales, and told his mother as he departed: “Don’t worry, mother. I’m a big boy now. I’ll take care of myself. And soon I’ll be famous. You’ll see.”

He was right about being a big boy as he grew to a height of 6ft 5in. He was right about becoming famous too.

Doyle found success as a boxer because of his explosive power and a haymaker of a punch, but that wasn’t his only talent. He was well able to sing, could act a bit, and was a good-looking guy. Women loved him and flocked to see him, but he had his weaknesses. He was demented and dangerous when he was drunk and that eventually brought him to his knees.

Doyle ended up living on the streets in the UK until he died in 1978 from cirrhosis of the liver. His body was brought back to Cobh for burial and a plaque was placed on a wall on Connolly Street where he lived as a child. 

I pass it most days when I’m out for my walk and it reminds me of his story.

I pass something else on my daily walks as well and that’s the bronze statue of Sonia O’Sullivan. It’s impossible to miss because it’s right in the centre of town, where it should be, because Sonia is one of our own and a real hero.

Sonia began her running career in the Ballymore Running Club and went on to become one of the world’s leading female 5,000 metre runners. She was known for her dramatic kick at the end of races and her crowning achievement was a gold medal in the 5000 metres event at the 1995 World Athletics Championships.

She won silver medals in the 5,000 metres at the 2000 Olympic Games and in the 1,500 metre event at the 1993 World Championships. Sonia also won three European Championship gold medals and two World Cross-Country Championship gold medals and deserves recognition for those efforts.

Speaking to the Irish Examiner at the unveiling ceremony of her bronze statue, Sonia acknowledged that it was a special day for her.

“This statue is about everyone who has supported me - everybody who has got me to this point in time. It started for me as just a normal little girl running through the streets of Cobh.”

While she was apprehensive about having a statue commissioned in her honour, she said it was a tribute to all those who had supported her over the years. That’s typical of Sonia’s modesty.

With all that she has achieved, she has never lost sight of her roots, which isn’t surprising when you look at her parents, Mary and John. John was a good sportsman too in his day and played with Cobh Ramblers for many years.

Fair play to Doyle and Sonia. I have no issue with them being recognised officially and I fully appreciate what they have achieved, but I do have a crow to pluck with whoever is responsible for making these decisions, because my third-place finish as an eight-year-old back in 1966 has never been recognised.

Jack Doyle got a plaque, Sonia O’Sullivan got a statue, and I got an empty biscuit tin.

There isn’t a flower or a weed anywhere in the town to acknowledge my existence.

That needs to be rectified, and there should be something to honour the memory of my athleticism.

I think all sporting heroes should be treated equally, so stand by for my campaign for justice.

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