Tuesday 21 November 2017

Time to show pride in the New Irish

Just as we champion those who didn't wear green, we must back our foreign-born stars, says Eamonn Sweeney

Once we were Kenyans, the wonder of the athletic world, unassailable in our chosen field of endeavour. What the African masters are to distance running today, the Irish were to field events in the opening decades of the last century. We were excellence incarnate.

At the 1908 London Olympics Irish-born athletes won nine gold, six silver and six bronze medals. Yet, in the record books, none of those medals are credited to Ireland. As this country had yet to win its independence, many of them were won by men competing for Britain. And others were won by a group of Irishmen competing for the USA, the country to which they had emigrated in search of work. They called them The Irish Whales.

The Whales were a remarkable bunch. Martin Sheridan hailed from the Mayo village of Bohola and in London won golds in the discus and the greek discus (where competitors threw from a raised platform) and bronze in the standing long jump. He'd also won gold in the discus at the 1904 Olympics in St Louis. But the full range of his talents was most apparent at the 1906 intercalated games in Athens, once regarded as an official Olympics, where he won gold in the shot-putt and discus and silvers in the standing long jump, standing high jump and stone throw.

Limerick's John Flanagan was an equally awesome proposition. He won three consecutive hammer gold medals in 1900, 1904 and 1908. Only two athletes in Olympic history, discus thrower Al Oerter and long jumper Carl Lewis, have bettered that hat-trick.

The extent to which the Irish dominated the throwing events at this juncture can be gauged by the fact that when Flanagan won his third gold, the silver went to Matt McGrath from Nenagh, also representing the USA, and Con Walsh from Macroom, representing Canada, took the bronze.

As a young man in Ireland, McGrath had idolised Flanagan, walking long distances to see him in action at local sports, and it was fitting that he took over where the great man had left off, winning gold at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm with a throw of 54.74 metres, which would remain an Olympic record for 24 years. McGrath, an athlete of extraordinary durability known as 'The Prince of Whales', became one of the oldest medallists in Olympic history when he won bronze in 1924 at the age of 48.

Paddy Ryan from Pallasgreen in Limerick, a recent emigrant to the States, wasn't eligible to participate for his new homeland in 1912, but the following year heaved the hammer out to 57.77 metres, a world record which stood for a quarter of a century. Denied a probable title when the Olympics didn't take place in 1916 due to World War I, he had to wait till 1920 and the Antwerp Olympics to win gold.

Then there was Pat 'Babe' McDonald, from the Clare village of Doonbeg, who became the first man in history to throw the shot over 50 feet when winning gold in 1912, a feat he matched in 1920 in the 56lb event. Had it not been for the war he would surely have equalled Flanagan's three-in-a-row. Like McGrath, Flanagan and Sheridan, McDonald was a member of the NYPD and tour guides would point him out as he patrolled Times Square.

Not all the Irish gold medallists were throwers, represented the US or came from this side of the border. Enniskillen-born Robert Kerr, who'd emigrated to Canada at the age of five with his parents, won gold in the 200m for his adopted country at the 1908 Olympics, having earlier won bronze in the 100m. And four years later Kennedy McArthur, from the Antrim village of Dervock, won the Olympic marathon in Stockholm for South Africa where he was a member of the Johannesburg Police.

The Whales were the product of a vibrant native athletics tradition. Flanagan was already the world record holder when he emigrated and had earned his first significant hammer victory in 1895 at a meeting in Tipperary town, where James J Ryan broke the world high jump record, which, up until three years earlier, had been held by Carrick on Suir's Pat Davin. Davin's brother Maurice would become the first president of the GAA and the very name of the new organisation which mentions athletics rather than football or hurling shows the primacy of track and field in Ireland at the time.

Those days of Irish athletic dominance are long gone and so are the days when native-born Irish athletes had to compete for foreign countries. These days the movement is in the opposite direction. Of our current Olympic team, Johannesburg-born 5,000m runner Alistair Cragg, who qualifies because of an Irish grandparent, could be viewed as a reverse Kennedy McArthur. Similarly, California-born Tori Pena will compete for Ireland in the pole vault because of an Irish grandmother.

England-born gymnast Kieran Behan's connections with the country are somewhat less tenuous, both his parents are from Ireland. And while it's hard to think of cyclist Nicolas Roche as anything other than Irish given that he's the son of one of our greatest ever sportsmen, the fact is that he was born in France and initially declared for that country at international level.

If the Roche situation is something of a special case, the presence of Cragg, Pena and Behan can be seen as a result of the traditional pattern of emigration, which brought The Whales to foreign shores.

But there are a couple of members of the Irish squad who are the product of the historical change which saw Ireland move from a poverty-stricken backwater to one of the richest countries in Europe and a desirable destination for those who, like Flanagan and Sheridan, sought opportunities not available to them at home.

Our team for London will contain two representatives of what are sometimes called, 'The New Irish.' Latvian rower Sanita Puspure, who moved to this country in 2006, lives in Ballincollig and has two Irish-born children, will represent us in the single sculls -- the first time we've had a representative in this event since the days of the great Frances Cryan who finished seventh at the 1980 Games. And Polish canoeist Andrzej Jezierski, a world championship gold medal winner in 2002 and 2005 with his native country, will represent us in the men's canoe sprint.

Their presence in our team shows how fluid questions of national identity are in the new globalised world. For that matter, it's hard to pin a handy identity tag on dressage rider Anna Merveldt, born in Canada and raised in Naas.

But, just as we can take pride in those great athletes prevented by history from wearing the green jersey, Irish sports fans will also be getting behind our foreign-born stars. We do it in football after all.

Perhaps while we're doing so we might think of that anomalous Olympian Tom Kiely from Ballyneale near Carrick-on-Suir. Kiely was approached by both the Americans and the British to represent them at the 1904 St Louis Olympics in the all-round competition, a 10-event precursor to the decathlon. He opted to represent neither and financed his own trip to America by selling many of the prizes he'd amassed during a distinguished career. When he won the gold, Kiely let it be known that he had been representing Ireland. The country might not have officially existed yet as an independent entity but, even if the record books didn't mark him down as Irish, Tom Kiely knew full well who he was representing.

You'd suspect he wasn't the only one.

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