How the Liffey swim, our 'national temperament in all its idiosyncrasy', brought Olympic glory
Published 06/08/2016 | 02:30
Who won Ireland's first Olympic medal? It's a perennial pub quiz question. Most immediately plump for Dr Pat O'Callaghan, the powerful medic whose massive hammer throw won gold at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics. Close, but no cigar.
In fact, Ireland's first ever Olympic medal winner achieved legendary status four years earlier at the 1924 Paris Games, and without shedding even a droplet of sweat. Artist Jack B Yeats, younger brother of the poet WB, won silver for his painting, 'The Liffey Swim', in a category then known as the Concourse d'Art.
In those early Olympic years, cultural works were a permanent category up to 1948, with medals awarded for 'supreme artistic endeavour' inspired by sport. "In the high times of Olympia, the fine arts were combined harmoniously with the Games to create their glory," declared Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the aristocratic founder of the modern Olympics. Jack B's epic oil on canvas of a famous Irish event was deemed every bit as important as the muscle-straining victories on the track and arena by a judging panel comprised of artist John Singer Sargent and composers Ravel, Bartok and Stravinsky.
While all eyes will be focused on our boxers and runners in Rio over the next few weeks, it seems fitting this opening day to remember that era when Ireland's reputation as an 'island of saints and scholars' still brought glory of the highest kind.
The Liffey Swim, happening today, was first held in 1920 and immediately captured the public imagination with huge crowds lining its mile-and-a-half length from Victoria Quay to Butt Bridge.
For the expected 400 taking the plunge today, the route reads like a lexicon of the city's history as it passes beneath bridges named after James Joyce, Father Mathew, O'Donovan Rossa, Grattan and O'Connell.
As the only capital in Europe to host a swim race through its heart, this aquatic Fair City love letter owes much to the event's founder, Bernard Fagan. An engineer with Dublin Corporation, he devised that first race "to demonstrate to the citizens the good quality of the water running through the centre of our noble capital."
Women's participation was a constant contentious issue, with Archbishop John Charles McQuaid backing the banning with a quote from Pope Pius X's encyclical that "the Christian modesty of girls must be safeguarded, for it is supremely unbecoming that they should flaunt and display themselves before the eyes of all". Good luck selling that one to the Beyonce generation, your Reverence.
The Liffey also helps define the unique character traits and peccadilloes of the tribes it bisects. Like the Hudson, Thames and Seine, it reigns as a north-south divide that's generated a peculiar kind of wit only a true Dub would appreciate. How does a Northsider propose? You're bleedin' wha? Difference between northside and southside girls? Northside girls have fake jewellery and real orgasms. I could go on. Ironically, all neighbourhoods north of the Liffey were the ultimate yuppie aspiration of the Georgian era, until the Earl of Kildare looked south to build his des res on the street named after him and started the cultural war that still rages.
Probably the most famous Liffey span those swimmers will splash beneath today is the Ha'penny Bridge. Famous for the controversial 1913 proposal to replace it with an art gallery across its length, it induced native son George Bernard Shaw to remark: "I admit that there is something romantic about a gallery thrown across a river on a fairy bridge, but the Liffey would take the romance out of anything!"
Another tale dates back to the 1916 Rising, when a group of Volunteers were ordered from the GPO to Boland's Mills, where reinforcements were desperately needed. Attempting to cross at the most convenient point, the bridge's tollman emerged from his hut officiously demanding a shilling to let the two dozen rebels pass. Legend has it he was convinced to forgo the charge when introduced to the butt end of a Lee Enfield rifle.
Later on today, after the swim has been swum, why not take a stroll across the city's heart to the National Gallery to gaze upon that artistic masterpiece showing us the way we were almost a century ago.
Detailing the crush of humanity leaning forward over the railings on Bachelor's Walk for a better view, Yeats' confident strokes convey the excitement, movement and spectacle of an urban Ireland like no artist had previously managed. "Few artists have so completely identified themselves in their painting with the expression of a national temperament in all its idiosyncrasy, and no national temperament is more idiosyncratic than the Irish," said art critic Eric Newton. "Yeats painted as his countrymen talk - garrulously, humorously, charmingly, poetically." A suitable epitaph for the man who brought home our first Olympic medal.