Belfast boxers have secured nine of the 16 Olympic medals won by Ireland in the sport that transcends the city’s sectarian divide. The success story began with John McNally’s silver medal in Helsinki in 1952 before John Caldwell and Freddie Gilroy (Melbourne), Jim McCourt (Tokyo), Hugh Russell (Moscow), Paddy Barnes (Beijing and London), and Michael Conlan (London) joined the Belfast roll of honour winning bronze medals. Wayne McCullough went one better in Barcelona losing out to Joel Casamayor (Cuba) in the bantamweight final after an extraordinary courageous performance by the Shankill Road pocket-rocket. Barnes is the exception: the only Irish boxer to win two Olympic boxing medals.
The first all-civilian team to represent Ireland in Olympic show jumping competed at the Barcelona Games of 1992. James Kernan from Crossmaglen, riding Touchdown, was a member of the team that finished 14th in a competition of 18 entrants.
TJ Kearns from Rathvilly is Carlow’s outstanding Olympian. Kearns consistently produced quality performances in the major international meets in the technically demanding 110m hurdles event and in Seoul, Barcelona, and Atlanta he qualified from his first-round heats on each occasion, setting national records in the latter two Games.
The county’s most distinguished athlete, Cornafaen’s Catherina McKiernan, represented Ireland in Barcelona and Atlanta. In Atlanta, McKiernan qualified for the 10,000 metres final, and finished in 11th place in a time of 32:00.38 on what proved to be her last major track final as she turned her focus to the marathon.
Cork’s roll of Olympic honour includes several significant firsts. Hammer thrower, Dr Pat O’Callaghan won Ireland’s first Olympic title in Amsterdam and successfully defended his title in 1932 and is the only Irish athlete to win successive titles. Sonia O’Sullivan became the first Irish female to win an Olympic medal, in Sydney in 2000. Walker Rob Heffernan is the only Irish athlete to have been upgraded to the medal winner’s podium.
His fourth-place finish in London in the 50k walk was upgraded to third place when the winner Sergey Kirdyapkin was stripped of his gold medal for doping infractions. And the Skibbereen brothers, Gary and Paul O’Donovan became Ireland’s first rowing medallists when they finished in second place in the lightweight double sculls event in Rio in 2016.
Pat McMahon, a native of Liscannor, was Ireland’s first genuine world-class marathon runner and ran a superb race in the heat and high altitude of Mexico in 1968 to finish in 12th place (2:29:21.0).
The county has a poor record of producing Olympic competitors but for the Munich Games of 1972 four competitors from Derry city were selected, Liam Ball (swimming), Terry Watt (judo), and boxers Neil McLaughlin and Charlie Nash. Both boxers were involved in unsuccessful bronze medal boxing bouts. On their return, a community organised welcome-home celebration was organised, and the four athletes were given an open-topped lorry tour, in the pouring rain, through the Creggan estate.
Letterkenny sisters, Sinéad and Caitriona Jennings have represented Ireland in two sports. Caitriona showed remarkable resilience in London in 2012 to complete the marathon despite carrying a serious foot injury. She dragged her ailing body over the 26 miles course in a time of 3:22:11 to finish in 107th and last place almost an hour behind the winner. In Rio, Sinéad Jennings partnered by Claire Lambe qualified for the final of the lightweight double sculls rowing final and finished in sixth place.
The town of Holywood, Co Down has been a prolific producer of Olympic competitors, with residents representing both Great Britain and Northern Ireland and Ireland. Recent athletes from the town to have represented Ireland include marathon runner Paul Pollock in Rio in 2016 and swimmer Melanie Nocher in Beijing (2008) and London (2012).
Dublin is Ireland’s most successful Olympic county with competitors from the county winning four gold, five silver and three bronze medals. Boxing’s long-awaited Olympic title was finally secured in Barcelona in 1992 when welterweight Michael Carruth coached by his father Austin and Cuban Nicolás Cruz, delivered a masterclass in tactical boxing to defeat the multi-titled and reigning world champion, Juan Hernández Sierra (Cuba).
It was only the fifth occasion an Irish competitor had won Olympic gold. Michelle Smith’s triple gold medal-winning feat in swimming in Atlanta delighted and divided the Irish public in equal measure. Jack B Yeats (silver in painting) and Oliver St John Gogarty (bronze in literature) began the Dublin medal-winning habit in 1924; Fred Tiedt bridged a 32-year-gap in Melbourne when he won boxing silver, an achievement matched by Kenneth Egan in Beijing where middleweight Darren Sutherland also won a bronze medal. Michelle Smith also won a bronze medal in Atlanta; Cian O’Connor did likewise in London in show jumping. Annalise Murphy (Rio, 2016) and David Wilkins and Jamie Wilkinson (Moscow, 1980) are Olympic silver medallists in yachting.
Three-time Olympian Declan Burns represented Ireland in various canoeing events in Montreal, Moscow, and Seoul.
Boxer, Francis Barrett made Olympic history in 1996 when he became the first member of the Travelling Community to represent Ireland at Olympic level. The occasion was given additional significance when Francis was chosen by the Olympic Council of Ireland to carry the Irish flag at the Opening Ceremony.
A Kerry competitor has yet to win an Olympic medal representing Ireland. Eamonn Fitzgerald from Caherdaniel has come closest. In 1932, Fitzgerald, a member of the Kerry team that won the All-Ireland football title in 1930 and 1931, finished in fourth place in the triple jump competition with a leap of 15.01 metres just 11cm short of third place.
On July 6,1924, high jumper Larry Stanley became the first athlete to represent Ireland in Olympic track and field competition. Stanley undermined by the ‘strange food, strange sights, and strange experiences’ performed poorly and failed to clear the 1.83 m (6’ 0”) required to reach the final. Stanley received some compensation on 28 September 1924 when he played full-forward on the Dublin football team that beat Kerry to win the delayed 1923 All-Ireland senior football final.
Kilkenny-native Maeve Kyle made history in 1956 when she became the first woman to represent Ireland in Olympic competition in athletics. Kyle, a pioneer of women’s athletics in Ireland, competed in the 100 and 200 metres in Melbourne and Rome and in Tokyo in the 400 and 800 metres where she qualified for the semi-final of both events.
Another county scarce on Olympic representation. Anne Keenan-Buckley competed in Seoul in 1988 where she finished 24th in the women’s 3000 metres event. Keenan-Buckley’s achievement was in qualification: ‘It’s up to you to go out and prove you can do it. No one can stop you,’ she commented at the time.
Carrick-on-Shannon rower, Frances Cryan made history in 1980 when she became the first Irish woman to compete in Olympic rowing. A fourth place finish in the semi-final of the single sculls in Moscow deprived Cryan of a place in the final by just 0.16 seconds.
JJ Keane a native of Lackendarragh, Anglesborough, was the great evangelist of the Olympic movement in Ireland and began his campaign to have Ireland included as an independent entity in 1919. The founding member of the Irish Olympic Council was elected to the International Olympic Committee at a meeting held in Paris on 9 June 1922. This cleared the way for Ireland to compete and Keane firmly resisted attempts to have Irish representation confined to the 26 counties of the Irish Free State. Ireland’s presence as a competing nation in Paris was a personal and political triumph for JJ Keane, a remarkable sports administrator.
Derek Burnet from Kenagh, is a four-time Olympian who represented Ireland in trap shooting in Sydney, Athens, Beijing, and London. Burnett’s joint seventh position achieved in Athens remains the best result by an Irish competitor in Olympic shooting.
Tony ‘Socks’ Byrne captained the Irish boxing team in Melbourne and honoured the occasion by winning a bronze medal in the lightweight division. On his welcome hone reception, the Drogheda Independent reporter provided what he called ‘The nutshell’ picture of the scene. “Bedlam … screaming kids … excitement-gripped men … booming trumpets … torch-bearers … bone-breaking hand-shakes … glowing tributes … in an absolutely thunderous atmosphere. Rock ’n roll never incited anything like this … and how Liberace would have turned green with envy.”
Seán Lavan, a talented all-round sportsman, is credited with having introduced the solo run to Gaelic football. He also represented Ireland in the 200 and 400 metres event in the Paris Games of 1924 and the Amsterdam Games of 1928.
The last Irish competitor to win a medal in the art competitions was Letitia Hamilton who was born at Hamwood, the family homestead, in Dunboyne, Meath. Hamilton won a bronze medal in 1948 for her painting entitled Meath Hunt Point-to-Point Races. The 1948 medals were the last to be awarded for art competitions.
Barry McGuigan travelled to Moscow in 1980 with a gold medal as the objective after months of professional preparation that allowed him to compete on a level playing field with the dominant amateur boxers of the era. Unfortunately, a surprise and mildly controversial loss to Winifred Kabunda (Zambia), ‘a big, tall, stringy featherweight’ in his second bout crushed McGuigan’s Olympic ambitions.
Tullamore athlete Pauline Curley was on holiday in her favourite Spanish resort in Torremolinos when she was informed that she had been selected to represent Ireland in the marathon at the Beijing Games. Curley’s ‘wild dream’ had come true and three weeks later at the age of 39 years and 161 days, she was the oldest competitor in the field of 81 that assembled in Tiananmen Square for the start of the race. Curley finished 63rd, content that her goal to finish the race was accomplished.
Men who have won All-Ireland football medals and competed in the Olympic Games are rare. Bill Jackson, a member of the Roscommon All-Ireland title winning team of 1943 and 1944 is a member of this elite group and represented Ireland in basketball in London in 1948.
Ireland’s soccer players were the first representatives of Ireland as an independent state to engage in Olympic competition when they defeated Bulgaria 1-0 in the Stade de Colombes on May 28, 1924. This qualified Ireland for the quarter-finals of the Olympic competition where Holland provided the opposition and were 2-1 winners after extra time. Sligo native, John Joe Dykes was centre-half in both matches and earned his place on the team without playing in any of the three trial matches staged.
Bob Tisdall, the Tipperary man born in Sri Lanka, was one of the stars of the Los Angeles Games of 1932 as he won the 400 metres hurdles title in spectacular fashion in a time of 51.7 seconds despite knocking over the final hurdle in what was only his sixth race in the event. Tisdall was the first athlete to break 52.0 seconds for the distance but unfortunately, under the rules of the day, Tisdall’s world and Olympic record time was not recognised as he had knocked a hurdle during the race. It would be 51 years and 312 days before an Irish hurdler ran faster.
Olympians are a scarce commodity in Tyrone. Tommy Corr of the Clonoe Boxing Club is an exception and qualified for the Los Angeles Games of 1984 where he out-pointed Arigoma Chiponda (Zimbabwe) in his first bout in the middleweight division at Los Angeles in 1984 before losing a majority decision to Jerry Okorodudu (Nigeria) in the next round.
John Treacy’s spectacular marathon debut in Los Angeles when he covered the distance in 2:09:56 to win a silver medal behind Carlos Lopes is the standout moment in the Olympic history of the county that has had a competitor in every Games since 1980 across a range of sports including athletics, cycling, equestrian sports, and golf.
Bantamweight boxer, John Joe Nevin secured Ireland’s first medal of the London Games of 2012 and later introduced the ‘Mullingar Shuffle’ to an international audience in the semi-final against the world champion, Lazaro Estrada Alvarez (Cuba). Nevin epitomized the ‘sweet science’ in a virtuoso performance against the great Cuban. RTÉ reported that an average of 1.18 million people tuned in to the final where Nevin was narrowly outpointed by Luke Campbell (Great Britain).
Billy Walsh’s Olympic experience as a competitor in Seoul in 1988 was an unhappy won. His first-round opponent was a local boy that he had knocked out six months earlier in a pre-Olympic tournament. Walsh suffered a cut eye in the opening round and the contest was eventually stopped after he consulted the ringside doctor.
Walsh was a key figure in transforming the fortunes of Irish boxing with the establishment of the sport’s High-Performance Unit, and he was head coach at the Beijing Games when Irish boxers won three medals and in London when four medals were won.
Arguably the most influential and inspirational Olympic gold medals won by Irish competitors were those won by Wicklow’s Ronnie Delany in Melbourne in 1956 and Katie Taylor in London in 2012.
Ronnie Delany’s 1,500 metres victory in the new Olympic record time of 3:41.2 provided the foundation for a new tradition in Irish athletics and inspired a generation of world class middle-distance runners. Delany was the holder of an athletic scholarship at Villanova University and his victory confirmed the importance of the system as a means of achieving athletic greatness.
Rarely has an Irish sportsperson had such an impact on her chosen activity as Katie Taylor has had on women’s boxing. Incrementally, she advanced the sport as a suitable one for women, initially at the domestic level and then on the international stage until it was eventually included in the Olympic programme.
Katie Taylor captured the public imagination like no previous sporting icon and the Irish nation halted for the occasion of the Olympic lightweight final in which she narrowly defeated Sofya Ochigava (Russia). After the president of the OCI and IOC Executive Board member Pat Hickey presented the gold medal, Irish sport was provided with another iconic image as Taylor galloped around the edge of the ring with her Irish flag fluttering behind her and a gold medal draped around her neck.
The American media network ESPN superbly captured the significance of the victory.
There was a sense of a taboo evaporating in London, partly because of Taylor’s stature and the adoration her fans displayed, partly because the overall speed and strength and reflexes and yes, grace exhibited by the champion among this group of women, could make a convert out of the most hard-hearted traditionalist.