Friday 6 December 2019

Irish Schools Athletics holding its own in centenary year

Ronnie Delaney, John Treacy, Sonia O’Sullivan (pictured), Catherina McKiernan, Rob Heffernan and Derval O’Rourke are among Ireland’s best ever athletes who have won Schools gold medals. Photo credit; Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Ronnie Delaney, John Treacy, Sonia O’Sullivan (pictured), Catherina McKiernan, Rob Heffernan and Derval O’Rourke are among Ireland’s best ever athletes who have won Schools gold medals. Photo credit; Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Sinead Kissane

Sinead Kissane

This year doesn't just mark the centenary of the Easter Rising. 100 years ago in a hotel just off O'Connell Street in Dublin, another idea was formed.

On Monday, April 3, 1916 the Irish Amateur Athletic Association (IAAA) held its AGM in Wynne's Hotel. There was a fall-off in affiliated clubs because of athletes serving in World War I, so it was decided to organise the first ever Irish Schoolboys Championship at Lansdowne Road on Saturday, May 20, 1916.

Ideas of a different magnitude were forming around the same time. The Easter Rising meant the Schoolboys' Championship was postponed until Saturday, September 23, 1916. Nine schools took part in the inaugural competition with seven events and a relay for the senior boys and four events and a relay for junior boys.

Girls weren't part of the conversation back then. Later in 1934, the Reverend John Charles McQuaid, then President of Blackrock College and later Catholic Archbishop of Dublin and Primate of Ireland, said women competing in the same arena as men was "un-Irish and un-Catholic" and mixed athletics was a "social abuse" and a "moral abuse". It wasn't until 1970 that a schools track and field competition was introduced for girls.

A hundred years on, boys and girls over four age groups and across 120 events will compete in the All-Ireland Schools Track and Field Championships today. An estimated 650 schools have participated in this year's schools track- and-field competitions with 999 athletes qualifying for Tullamore today, a venue which has hosted the All-Ireland schools for the past 25 years. This final day of the schools track and field season is where big ambitions can really take off.

Sixty years ago, Tom O'Riordan dreamed of an athletics scholarship in the United States but didn't think it would happen. In 1955, Tom had "run a stinker" despite being fancied to win in the All-Ireland Schools for Tralee CBS. A year later in sixth year, he finished third in the South Munster Schools, second in the Munsters but two weeks before the All-Irelands Tom came down with the mumps. There wasn't much hope in the car as his uncle drove him to Ballinasloe for the All-Ireland Schools.

This week, Tom recalled that All-Ireland Senior Boys' Mile in 1956 as if it was yesterday. "You know the way it is, you hang in there and hang onto the leaders and that's just what I did. I couldn't believe it when I won," Tom admitted.

"It was remarkable. The picture of the finish was in all the papers the next day." Tom also broke the national schools record for the mile and became the first Kerryman to win an All-Ireland Schools gold medal. It was such a big deal that Tralee CBS gave their pupils a half-day.

The win changed Tom's life. The track and field coach of Idaho State University read about his race and wrote Tom a letter offering him a four-year scholarship. "I couldn't believe it," Tom said. "It was a wish but I didn't think it would come to anything". Tom would go on to represent Ireland in the 5,000m at the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo.

Tom, my uncle, set the trail for the rest of us in our family to try and follow. In the rich history of schools track and field, there are numerous examples of kids following in the footsteps of their parents and winning Irish schools titles including John and Eamonn Coghlan, Timmy and Tim Crowe and Philippa and Phil Conway.

Deirbhile Ryan and Claire McCarthy are one of four daughters and mothers who both won Irish Schools gold medals. Ronnie Delaney, John Treacy, Sonia O'Sullivan, Catherina McKiernan, Rob Heffernan and Derval O'Rourke are among Ireland's best ever athletes who have won Schools gold medals.

Current Ireland rugby players have also won titles including Alison Miller and Cian Healy with former players like Victor Costello, Gavin Duffy and Denis Hickie also winning during their time at school. There has always been a gold standard feel to the schools. The season could start with an afternoon dodging cow-dung and homework in a hilly field for the county schools cross-country but if you made it to the gates of Tullamore Harriers for the All-Ireland Schools finals day, it felt like a nervy Top Gun moment as the best of the best were there. The fact that every event is a straight final - no heats or semi-finals to make mistakes in - cranks up the pressure even more.

Since this event settled into the calendar the weekend before the start of the Leaving and Junior Certs, it was a day when 'Peig' and 'Soundings' were abandoned for the ultimate athletics test. Schools always felt bigger than under-age club competitions.

Winning a gold schools medal, at any grade, had to be earned - even if it involved embarrassing yourself as I once did by throwing myself over the finish line, falling and cutting both knees in the senior girls 400m Hurdles in the Munster Schools in the RTC track in Cork. I didn't care,

I got the medal I wanted and wore those cut knees like badges of honour right through that summer.

Schools athletics continues to hold its own. "Our numbers would be generally increasing but only marginally over the past number of years," admits Michael Hunt who has been President of the Irish Schools' Athletic Association for the past 20 years.

"In 2011, 16,063 competed in track and field and last year 16,671 took part".

The Schools Association isn't just about elite competition but also about getting schoolkids active. The 'School Mile Challenge' started in 2011 with 4,800 students taking part and last year saw a 32pc growth in participants. iRunForFun is a new Post Primary Schools Recreational Running Programme which is due to be rolled out to 60 schools in September and was created by Anthony White, Director of the Irish Schools Athletics Association. Earlier this year, Seb Coe and the IAAF awarded the programme $25,000 each year for the next four years.

The future is now for the 999 pupils who will compete in Tullamore today. This summer we will have the Olympic Games on our TV screens with questions over who and what we can believe. A day spent in Tullamore Harriers watching young athletes with big ambitions compete can be as real as it gets.

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