Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

 
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Interviews - SPORTING LEGENDS OF IRELAND

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TRACK RECORD

World Championships:
1983 (Helsinki, 5000m, Gold)

Olympic Games:
1976 (Montreal, 1500m, 4th),
1980 (Moscow, 5000m, 4th),
1988 (Seoul, 5,000m)

IAAF World Cup:
1981 (Rome, 5000m, 1st).

European Indoor Championships:
1979 (Vienna, 1500m, Gold).

European Outdoor Championships:
1978 (Prague, 1500m, Silver).

Irish Championships:
11 time winner over 800m, 1,500m & 5,000m

British AAA's Championships 1,500m 1979,

NCAA Championships:
(4 times champion 1975 & 1976 indoors & outdoors)

Millrose Games
(Wanamaker Mile, New York)
1977-87 (Champion, 7 times).

World Records

Master's Mile (over 40 years old) Boston, 1994 3:58.15

Indoor 2000m Los Angeles, California 1987 4:54.07

Indoor Mile Meadowlands, New Jersey 1983 3:49.78

Indoor Mile San Diego, California 1981 3:50.6

Indoor Mile San Diego, California 1979 3:52.6

European Records

Outdoor Mile Kingston, Jamaica 1975 3.53.3

Indoor Mile Meadowlands, New Jersey 1983 3:35.6

HONOURS & AWARDS

49th Texaco Sportstars Hall of Fame 2006.

Texaco All Star Awards: 7

RTE Hall of Fame 1998.

Grand Marshall of Dublin's
St Patrick's Day Parade 2008.

EAMONN COGHLAN - CHAIRMAN OF THE BOARDS

MIDDLE-DISTANCE SPECIALIST

Eamonn Coghlan is the only person over 40 years of age in the history of this planet who has run a mile in less than four minutes. In fact, he was 41 when he clocked 3:58.15 on the Harvard University indoor track. And for Eamonn, that feat is sweet to hold.

When Roger Bannister ‘broke’ the four-minute mile in 1954, the world gasped in wonder. Eamonn has run the mile in less than four minutes 83 times. For eighteen years, he held the indoor World Record for the mile.[i] He was also brilliant at the 1500m and 5000m and he remains Ireland’s only male World Champion gold medalist.

Patrick Coghlan, Eamonn’s grandfather, was a printer’s assistant from South Dock Street, off Shelbourne Road, in Dublin. Patrick died from a stroke at the age of 34 in 1922, leaving his widow Kitty with three small children, William Aloysius (known as Bill), Cora and Patrick, who died of tuberculosis in his infancy.[ii] She quickly returned to the Breen family home on South William Street where she had grown up.[iii]

The Breens were a staunchly Catholic family and the youngsters were obliged to attend mass at St Teresa’s on Clarendon Street every day. Under his mother’s careful supervision, young Bill became an altar boy. In 1947 he married Catherine King, a ladies blouse maker, who lived just off Bath Avenue in Dublin 4.[iv] They moved to Cooley Road in Drimnagh where they had five children.[v]

Eamonn, their fourth child, was born in 1952. He enjoyed a happy childhood, often in cahoots with his best friend and soul-mate, Brian Kerr, who went on to manage the Irish soccer team. ‘He was managing street leagues when we were kids’, laughs Eamonn. They were energetic boys and lapped up every sport they could – ‘Gaelic football, hurling, soccer, cricket, you name it’.

Eamonn played soccer for Rialto until he was thirteen. But he had also begun to take an interest in running. He learned the benefits of speed when, as a youngster puffing cigarettes and kicking a ball about on ‘the field’ in Drimnagh, ‘the toughs from Crumlin came over with hurling sticks looking for trouble … I was no hero. I ran’. At any rate, when the Rialto soccer timetable clashed with Sunday athletics, Eamonn chose athletics.[vi]

His interest in athletics was inspired by his father, Bill Coghaln, who became president of the Athletics’ Association of Ireland in 1979. Indeed, Eamonn’s broader introduction to the possibilities of sport came through his father’s work at Breen Electrical. Established by Eamonn’s great-uncle Louis, Breen’s was perhaps the best-known electrical contracting company in Ireland during the 1950s and 1960s. Amongst many contracts, they looked after the sound for matches at Croke Park and the former Shamrock Rover’s stadium at Glenmalure Park.[vii] Bill Coghlan was a key player in the business and his young son was never far behind.

‘Electrics was my passion as a kid’, says Eamonn. ‘Had I not been so successful in athletics, I would have become an electrician. And to this day, I sometimes get frustrated that I didn’t gain my apprenticeship. It would have been so natural to me. I went on as many jobs with my father as I could, putting up the wires and setting up the sound system. And every weekend I’d go to Croke Park or watch the Rovers.’

From the age of 13, Eamonn was educated amid the red-bricks and frog-filled waters of the Christian Brothers School in Drimnagh Castle. He joined a group of athletes in Celtic Athletics Club. And when the Celtic broke up, he joined Metropolitan Harriers who became arguably the best junior running club in the country.

‘We were all as good as one another really’, says Eamonn, who won the Leinster College’s 5000m title in 1970. ‘And yet I am the only one of that group of under 14 champions who pursued a career in athletics. There was an element of luck there, for sure, but I found out that I loved running. It became an expression of myself.’

His confidence was considerably boosted when he came into contact with his new coach Gerry Farnan. ‘Gerry saw something in me that he believed in and he instilled that self-belief back into me’. In 1971, following victories in the All-Ireland 1500m and 5000m titles, Coghlan was offered a scholarship at Villanova University, a private university just outside Philadelphia which specializes in training athletes to Olympic standards.[viii]

Over the next four years, he was coached by the legendary Jumbo Elliott, under whom he ran his first sub four-minute miles in Pittsburgh and then broke the long-standing European Outdoor Mile record. He also won four National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) individual titles.

Upon his graduation in 1976, he went to the Montreal Olympics and competed in the 1500m, finishing fourth.[ix] A commentator remarked, ‘he may not have won, but, by God, for four minutes he united Ireland’.

‘My running mantra is to relax, relax. A huge amount of adrenalin flows during the days before a race. You try to switch off because you want to save your emotional energy for the race. Once the gun goes, you’re in the zone. Sometimes the negative thoughts are still there and you’re thinking I wish I could trip on the side of the kerb and get the hell out but no, you switch them off and focus, focus, constantly focus, on staying relaxed, holding your position and waiting to make the right move. It happens very quickly in a four minutes race’.

Eamonn’s trademark ‘move’ was his kick and acceleration manouvre, made all the more memorable when Adidas tailormade his shoes which were ‘green for Ireland and stuck out a mile.’ In 1979, he used his kick to stunning effect, winning a much coveted Gold at the European Indoor Championships in Vienna.[x] He returned to a hero’s welcome at Dublin Airport. His homecoming was immortalized on film when he placed the gold medal around the neck of his newborn baby daughter Suzanne.

Eamonn’s favourite event was probably the Wanamaker Mile, an indoor one-mile race held annually in New York City's Madison Square Garden. A traditional magnet for Irish runners, Eamonn echoed Ronnie Delaney’s triple victory of 1956-59 and went on to trump it with a record-breaking seven triumphs between 1977 and 1987. As the track surface was made of wood, wags christened him ‘Chairman of the Boards’.[xi]

1983 was a massive year for Eamonn, when he bounced back from a career threatening injury to win Gold in the 5000m at the inaugural 1983 World Championships in Helsinki.[xii] This was the race in which he famously clenched a triumphant fist more than 100m from the finish line, knowing he had won. He also bettered his own indoor mile World Record to 3:49.78, which remains the second fastest indoor mile of all time.[xiii]

Following his graduation from Villanova in 1976, Eamonn married Yvonne Murphy, his childhood sweetheart. They settled in the USA for nineteen years, initially in San Diego and later in Rye, New York. Eamonn came back to Ireland every summer to compete on the European track circuit. In 1990, the Coghlans returned to Dublin for good and built their present house in Porterstown. ‘In America, it’s so easy to forget your roots and we really wanted our kids to know that Ireland was where they were from’, says Eamonn.[xiv]

In 1994, the 41-year-old secured his place in athletics annals with his Master's sub-4 minute mile. Since hanging up his spikes, he has been increasingly busy at home and abroad. He is a member of the Board of the Irish Sports Council and a director of the Children's Medical & Research Foundation in Our Lady's Hospital for Sick Children in Crumlin. He is a regular panelist on RTÉ for athletics programs. He does a lot of public speaking and motivational talks. He coaches Irish international runners with aspirations of competing in the London and Rio Olympic Games. Eamonn continues to jog regularly but says ‘I need carrots in front of me or else I'll lose interest’.[xv] He has run four marathons, the fastest in 2:24.15 in New York, and a fifth is probably in the offing.

FOOTNOTES

[i] Between 1974 and 1987, he won 52 of his 70 races at both 1500m and one mile.

[ii] Eamonn doesn’t know where Patrick or Kitty’s parents came from. There may be a connection to the Kingdom of Kerry and it is suggested that one of the Coghlans was a tailor.

Cora Coghlan, who died circa 2003, went on to marry Robbie Smith, who died circa 2002. ‘Uncle Robbie was a highly respected gentleman from the Bray-Shankhill area. He was very much involved in the FCA and local community and chambers of commerce and all sorts.’ The Smiths had two sons, Paddy and Willy, and a daughter, Geraldine, who lives in Australia. Robbie was compiling the history of both the Smiths and Coghlans at the time of his demise and it is believed his findings are now with his first cousins, also Smith, who still live in their Shankhill estate, having sold the bulk of their land in the 1960s.

[iii] They lived in three rooms spread over two floors of the South William Street house, sharing it with their mother Kitty, as well as her mother, her brother Mick and sister Molly. Kitty went to church two or three times a day.

[iv] Miss King was born just off Baggot St and lived in Derrylane Gardens.

[v] He has two brothers, Bill and Brendan, and two sisters, Anne and Mary.

[vi] ‘Brian Kerr and I grew up on Cooley road in Drimnagh. I was four months older than him. Our mothers were great friends. And we spent all out time together our on the street and we were really big soul mates. Later on, I chose athletics and Brian stayed with soccer. I went to Drimnagh CBS and he went to St James’s CBS, so we went our separate ways’.

[vii] Other contracts included Hume House, the American Embassy and the Christmas lights in Dublin City. Louis Breen died in 1969 and the business passed to his son-in-law, Ivan Hammond, husband of Louis’s only daughter Sarah. Eamonn’s father subsequently established his own company, Bill Coghlan Electrical, which Eamonn’s older brother Bill runs today.

[viii] Founded in 1842 by Augustinian monks, Villanova University has a Track and Field Team with a long and impressive record. Past pupils have scooped a total of 13 Olympic medals (9 gold, 4 silver) since 1948. Other Irish athletes who studied there include Olympic champion Ronnie Delaney and Sonia O’Sullivan, while Marcus O'Sullivan is the college’s head coach.

[ix] He graduated from Villanova with a Bachelor of Science degree in Marketing and Communications.

[x] Led by his brother, the Irish in the crowd bellowed out ‘The Soldier's Song’. ‘It confirmed my status in Ireland as a championship runner’, says Eamonn,

[xi] That was the name of Eamonn’s 2008 auto-biography, which he wrote in Spain and described as ‘a big release’. Eamonn wrote the book with the aid of his friend George Kimball. He describes writing the book as ‘a release’. ‘I wanted to write a book for years and years, especially at the height of my career, winning world games and Olympic disappointments, but it kind of scared me. My father used to call me ‘The Joiner’. I would join the Boy Scouts and leave it. I would join the Knights of Malta and leave it. I would join the Bosco Club … I was leaving because I couldn’t memorize the oaths and rules. And that is why I was afraid to write a book. I had a form of dyslexia. It was extraordinary the way all the highs and lows, the depression and disappointments, came rushing out when I was writing. The weight of the world was off my shoulders after I had done it.’

But when I did write it, and got into it, it was a big release’.

[xii] 1983 was also the year Eamonn’s father passed away and a major blow to the family. ‘He died in New York City when he came over to see me running’, says Eamonn. This was followed by an injury which ruled Eamonn out of the 1984 Olympic squad. Indeed, despite his extraordinary successes, an Olympic medal eluded Eamonn. He came fourth in 1976 and 1980, was foiled by injury for the 1984 games and was eliminated in the 5,000-metre semifinals in 1988.

[xiii] His 1983 record stood until 1987 and remains the European record. (Check!). It is also one of only four sub-3:50 miles run on American soil.

[xiv] ‘We wanted our kids who are now 21 to 31 to enjoy family roots. Both Yvonne and I have cousins in America and Canada and they don’t know each other so we felt that for our kids we want them to grow up knowing their brothers and sisters and cousins and so that’s why we wanted them to be in Ireland. My two youngest were born in New York.’ When people ask me how many children I have, I say: “None, I have four adults”.’ Eamonn’s daughter, Suzanne, lives nearby with his grandson. As for his three sons, Eamonn Jr is a PGA golf professional in Alabama, Michael is a stage actor in London and John, is one of Ireland's leading junior athletes (and a budding drummer). ‘I am very careful not to push’, says Eamonn. ‘I just guide.’
[xv] ‘I just do a little bit of jogging, maybe 4 or 5 miles. I coach a bunch of up and coming athletes. I would go for a while for 5 or 6 days a week and then I’d have a few weeks when I wouldn’t run at all. I need a carrot in front of me. I need carrots. I need goals or I lose interest.

‘Control is when you run without any feeling at all but when you’re out of shape, your legs get wobbly and then they’re sore. But within five days of jogging, you’re back into it again. You’ll get a bit of rhythm.’’


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Click here to see a full list of persons interviewed for the Vanishing Ireland project.