Tuesday 22 October 2019

Rare photo recalls heroics of TJ the 'Steam Engine'

The recovered photo
The recovered photo

Ralph Riegel

HE ranks as the greatest Irish athlete of the pre-modern Olympic era.

Now a photograph -- the only one known to exist -- has been discovered of TJ O'Mahony, whose athletic prowess was such that he was given the impressive title 'The Rosscarbery Steam Engine'.

The photo of the west Cork-born athlete was taken 123 years ago and was recently discovered in a collection in Kilkenny. It was in the possessions of Jack Balkin, a life-long athletics fan.

It will be handed over at a special ceremony today to the GAA Museum in Croke Park, with former RTE commentator Michael O Muircheartaigh hailing Timothy Jerome 'TJ' O'Mahony as the outstanding athlete of his era.

"He is an example to our young people that Irish athletes from even the smallest towns and villages can take on and beat the world's best," Mr O Muircheartaigh said.

T J O'Mahony ranked as the GAA's Irish champion in the quarter-mile (400 metres) for three years (1885, 1887 and 1888) and as the Irish Amateur Athletic Association's (IAAA) national champion in 1886.

The son of a Rosscarbery shopkeeper, he was one of the leading lights in west Cork GAA and was the first secretary of the Carbery Rangers club.

When the fledgling GAA organised a promotional and fundraising tour of the US in 1888, Mr O'Mahony became the star of the show -- defeating all the American champions he faced.

Because US athletes of the period were considered the finest on the planet -- even without Olympic or World Championship competition -- he returned home as the uncrowned world champion.

His exploits at a gala meet in New York's Madison Square Garden made all the US newspapers -- with one American paper describing him as the 'Steam Engine' for the manner in which he defeated all US middle-distance champions.


Mr O'Mahony arrived back in Ireland as a hero but his athletics career only lasted a few short years.

After retiring from the sports world, he took up journalism and set up home in Dublin. He worked as a sports reporter for more than 20 years before he died in Smithfield in Dublin in 1914 from heart failure when he was just 50.

His legacy was slowly forgotten over time but in recent years efforts have been made to remind people of his remarkable achievements.

Last October, the town of Rosscarbery unveiled a special plaque in his honour -- and an annual 5km road race has been set up, called the 'Rosscarbery Steam Engine Run'.

Irish Independent

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