Monday 23 October 2017

How the Liffey swim, our 'national temperament in all its idiosyncrasy', brought Olympic glory

'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.' Photo: Sportsfile
'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.' Photo: Sportsfile

John Daly

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.

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