Saturday 25 November 2017

Gorgeous Wrecks and Wilde days at the track

Sean Diffley

From the quite eclectic pages of 'Lansdowne', surely the outstanding sports book of the year, we learn that Oscar Wilde was a spectator at that athletic meeting in Trinity's College Park in 1873.

That was the first Irish championship meeting which resulted in Henry Wallace Dunlop barred from any further promotions on that famous green sward and influenced him in founding Lansdowne Road the following year.

So Oscar, famed for that righteous shaft that "football is all very well as a game for rough girls, but is hardly suitable for delicate boys," did manage to amble the short distance from his home at the corner of Merrion Square to watch athletes such as weight-thrower Maurice Davin, who was to be the first president of the GAA a decade later.

In those days, we learn, the national newspapers often included a list of spectators and this may be the first occasion of Oscar appearing in print.

'Lansdowne,' which traces the considerable history of the ground and not just rugby (O'Brien Press, €17.99), is a compilation of remarkable research by the authors, journalists Gerard Siggins and Malachy Clerkin, who punctuate the tale of the most traditional rugby arena with a host of intriguing gems.

For instance, there are the middle-aged or unfit volunteers in the First World War who drilled in Lansdowne Road, unarmed, and rejoiced in the title of Georgius Rex, named in honour of King George. In appropriate Dublinese, they were known as the Gorgeous Wrecks.

And then the rather strange mixing with I Zingari (The Gypsies), a travelling cricket club founded in England and who wore the blazered colours of red, black and gold.

Henry Dunlop picked those colours for Lansdowne rugby players and the mystery deepens when we remember that Bohemians FC, who converted 'Pisser Dignam's field' -- a vegetable plot -- into Dalymount Park, also wear black and red and are known as The Gypsies.

Did I Zingari play cricket at Dalymount or Lansdowne Road?

Then there is Billy Morton, legendary promoter of track and field and a bit less legendary in his everyday role of optician.

After World War 2, Billy would travel to London with bags full of eggs, bacon and butter which he used in those post-war years of rationing to lure top-class runners to Dublin, including Roger Bannister, Chris Chataway, Herb Elliot, Fannie Blankers-Koen.

Huge crowds would turn up at Lansdowne Road and once, when Billy took the microphone to make an announcement, he asked: "Can ye see me?" To which a 25,000 crown responded with a resounding "No". Them were the days. "Well, if ye can't," retorted Billy, "ye better come up to my shop on Monday and I'll fix ye up with a pair of new glasses."

And after the famous world record-breaking mile, with five people running under four minutes, the British athletics official Arthur Gold relates quizzing Billy about widespread rumours that he was paying athletes in those simon-pure amateur days. "Jaysus no Arthur. We couldn't afford that. I only pay the timekeepers!"

And something to rock us back on our heels -- when the new State in 1927 staged the first soccer international at Lansdowne Road, against Italy, the Irish Independent printed and distributed the official programme, free, or should that read FREE.

Irish Independent

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