Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

 
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Interviews - SPORTING LEGENDS OF IRELAND

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TRACK RECORD

1500m
1956 Olympics – Gold.
1958 European Championships – Bronze.

800m
1961 World University Games – Gold.

RECORDS

World Indoor Mile: 3.

TITLES

Irish: 4.
Amateur Athletic Union (USA): 4.
National Collegiate Athletic Association (USA): 4.

AWARDS & POSITIONS

Freedom of the City of Dublin 2006.
Madison Square Garden Hall of Fame.
Helens Hall of Fame.
Texaco Hall of Fame 1982.
RTE Hall of Fame, 1996.
Honorary Doctor of Law, University College Dublin 2006.
Honorary Fellowship Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland.
President, Irish Olympians Association.
President, Irish Chapter Villanova Alumni Association.
Chairman of the Irish National Sports Council (1978-1990)

DR. RONNIE DELANY
MIDDLE DISTANCE RUNNER

In the decade before JFK got shot and Neil and Buzz strolled upon the moon, there was only one defining ‘where were you when it happened’ moment. And that was all about the warm, still December afternoon when Ronnie Delany, ‘the man from Eire’, crossed the finishing line at the Melbourne Olympics to win the 1500 metres and give Ireland its first Gold medal in 24 years.[i]

The Arklow-born students’ victory over the world’s best runners was a huge boost for Ireland at a time when emigration was running rampant and the economy was through the floor.[ii]

Regarded as an outside chance, Ronnie didn’t just beat his eleven rivals. He surged forward from 10th position at the bell to annihilate them in the last 400 metres, finishing in a record-breaking 3:41.2.[iii] For the 110,000 people who watched him in the stadium, it was a veritable epic.

Earlier that year, the 21-year-old Irishman had become only the seventh man – and the youngest of them all - to run a mile in under four minutes, clocking 3:59.0 in Compton, California.

Ronnie was born in Arklow in 1935. His father, Patrick Antonius Delany, known as ‘PA’, was a Customs and Excise officer. ‘The Delanys were dynastic farmers from Batterstown in Co. Meath’, says Ronnie. ‘They still farm the same land today.’ Three of his uncles stayed on the land. Ronnie was a frequent visitor to their homes during his childhood. ‘Oh yes, I was fed on good fresh country eggs from Meath’.[iv]

Ronnie’s mother Brigid was a nurse, as well as a qualified ‘cap and gown’ piano and violin teacher. Her father, Joe Hughes, was a Wexford-born publican and grocer who ran the premises now occupied by O’Brien’s pub on Leeson Street. ‘I slept in that pub until I was ten or eleven years old’, says Ronnie.[v]

Shortly after the start of the Second World War, PA was transferred to Dublin and the family relocated to Sandymount. This was where Ronnie grew up, playing tennis, hockey, cricket and lawn bowls with his brothers, listening to boxing matches on the wireless with his father.

As a teenager, Ronnie advanced from O’Connell’s Christian Brother School in North Richmond Street to the Catholic University School on Leeson Street. Ronnie and his elder brother Joe would often race each other home from O’Connell’s . ‘Unknowingly I was ‘putting in the mileage’ in running parlance, developing my leg strength and cardiovascular system’.[vi] The CUS was a school with a proud tennis record. Its alumni included tennis ace John Pius Boland, who won a gold Olympic medal in the Athens Games for Britain.

At the age of 17, Ronnie ran – and won - his first big race with an 880-yard sprint at the Leinster Colleges Championships. The experience confirmed his faith that he could win. ‘I also liked to race and in a perverse way I enjoyed the nervousness of competing and the butterflies in the tummy that went with it’.

Towards the end of his school days, he was preparing to race. 'Father, will I have a go at the record?', he asked the athletic coach. Father Lonergan replied, 'Ronnie, don't do anything of the sort. Run to win your race.' Ronnie says he never forgot that advice followed it ever after.

By the end of 1953, he was an All-Ireland champion and a bright athletic prospect at both the half-mile and the mile. The following year, he went to the European Championships in Berne and reached the final of the 800m. His performance helped win him an athletics scholarship to Villanova University in Pennsylvania. Ronnie studied economics, and later dabbled with the theatre. ‘I was an appalling producer. And I was an even worse actor. I played Colonel Pickering and I was truly awful.’

Fortunately, acting wasn’t why he had gone to America. Ronnie trained and Ronnie ran. Coached by the great Jumbo Elliot, he became known as the ‘Villanova Rocket’.

‘I ran indoors for five years in America without losing. I remember an article they did at the time called ‘Is the US a Second Class Sporting Nation’? They wrote it because there was this mad Irishman who kept beating them all the time!’

Between 1956 and 1959, Ronnie won an unprecedented forty straight victories on the “indoors” tracks in America, including 33-mile races. He won the Wannamaker Mile at Madison Square Garden four times, and he broke the World Indoor Mile Record three times. He also became known for ‘Delany’s Doubles’, where he won both the half mile and the mile, or the 1000 yards and the two mile, at the same event.

Then there was the small matter of an Olympic Gold which he picked up in 1956, capped by a Bronze won at the 1958 European Championships.

Ronnie represented Ireland in the 800m at the 1960 Olympics, but an injury to his Achilles’ tendon knocked him out at the quarter-final stage. The following year, he recovered his strength to become Ireland’s first Gold medallist at the World University Games, winning the 800m in Sofia, Bulgaria.

In Ireland, he was – and, to an extent, still is - cheered wherever he went. It was little different in the USA. His face was splashed all over the cover of Sports Illustrated and every other newspaper and magazine. ‘A young kid comes to America, makes good. My name was a lead story. I was in the papers all the time. Being a huge brand name in America, everyone wants you. I got offered things like to play the part of a cop in a Broadway musical. They thought my story was a romantic one.’

And then, in 1962, the 26-year-old announced his retirement from competitive athletics, citing recurring problems in his Achilles heel. On the same day he announced his engagement to Joan Riordan, who became mother of his four children.

‘One of my proudest moments was when my son said to me, later in my life, “Dad, I never knew that you were a famous sports person until I was about 10 years of age”. I thought that was beautiful. To him I was just Dad. I wasn’t Ronnie Delany the iconic athlete.’[vii]

The Delanys live in Carrickmines and are frequently visited by their children and fourteen grandchildren. ‘They are very keen and ambitious. I try and explain to them that they must never be worried about losing. I never had a problem about losing.’[viii]

Ronnie is not just an icon because he won the Gold. It’s also because of the follow up, his immense contribution to Irish sport in the decades since he won, all conducted with an old fashioned roguish Dublin charm, spliced with his intimate knowledge of the international sporting world. That is why there is a huge portrait of him by James Hanley in the National Portrait Gallery. That is why he got the Freedom of the City of Dublin. That is why his face has appeared on postage stamps from Ireland to the Dominican Republic and North Korea. And that is why, over 40 years after the 1956 Olympics took place, the Irish public voted him ‘Champion of Champions’.[ix]

FOOTNOTES

[i] Ronnie’s win was Ireland’s first victory since 1932 when Bob Tisdall (400m hurdles) and Pat O’Callaghan (hammer) scored in Los Angeles.

[ii] Amongst the most curious letters the Delany family received in the wake of Ronnie’s victory was one from Eamon de Valera who compared Ronnie's achievement to the exploits of Matt Donovan, a man he had known in his youth who was celebrated for his ability to plow a furrow straighter than a straight line. Like Matt, said Dev, Ronnie had won ‘for the credit of the little village.’
[iii] He produced a staggeringly fast 25.6 seconds for the final 200m.

[iv] ‘I never knew my grandfather, Pat Delany. He died before I was born. It was a case of the older man marrying the younger woman. The children, with the exception of Daddy and the girls (who stayed on the farm) stayed on the land … and ended up building four houses in the area from the one place … so I now have five cousins and a brother Paddy living near Batterstown.’ In his youth, Ronnie often went shooting at Growtown or visited his aunt Winnie Sheridan at Alexanderaide, just outside Navan.

[v] Born in Wexford in 1871, Joe Hughes wife was called Mary. He sold the pub in 1949. ‘I corked bottles in that pub too’, he says. ‘Families can be very interesting’, says Ronnie. ‘One of my aunts was a missionary in China. She was driven out by Chang Kai-Shek in the late 1940s and then moved to Philippines where she lived for ages. And now she’s in her 90s and back living in Ireland’.

[vi] Ronnie maintains that Joe was ‘probably the best athlete Ireland ever had. He was brilliant. He was my boyhood hero. But his Achilles heel was that he didn’t have the dedication and commitment which the real achiever has to have.’ At various times, Joe Delany was Ireland’s junior 400m, 200m, long jump and high jump champion. The two brothers often competed in championships together. ‘When I became successful - Joe was 3 years older than me and playing field hockey – I entered him in the Irish long jump championship because I knew he could do it. I persuaded him. On the way down, he said he’d love a pint. I said have one pint, it’ll make no difference. So he went into Clarke’s in Irishtown and had a pint. Then he went out and won the Irish championship. That meant he was on the Irish team all summer. So we were both on it together. He’s still my older brother. But that was lovely for us.’

[vii] I asked him did he ever do the egg and spoon race at school. ‘I think I was a good father. I detach myself. I put no pressure on them. When my son invited me to watch him play rugby, mostly I didn’t because the first thing they’d do would be to put him on a wing because he must be fast. I bought them the spikes, the hockey sticks, the tennis rackets – but I kept away. I think there is a huge parental influence that is not necessarily good for encouraging young people to be athletes.’
[viii] ‘I lost very few, but if I did that’s because I was running badly so I knew there must be a reason. I strategically ran badly once or twice, misjudging my timing, underestimating my opponent. In America, I’d run for 9 months and then I’d come home and run here. Maybe 40 or 50 races a year and the biggest championship was in August. I would be mentally tired. I lost one race in front of 50,000 in the pissing rain – they had to burn it off the tracks to get the rain off – and I was tired and misjudged the man and I was beaten. They have a photograph of me coming in a yard behind and I’m breaking my face laughing’. The man who beat him that day was Brian Hewson. I met him in Melbourne and he said who’s going to win today? And I said ‘I am’ and I did. But stupidly I said it back to him Stockholm and that time he said ‘I am’ and he told me why. ‘the conditions suit me and so on.’ And he beat me.’

[ix] ‘I still think I’m the greatest but I wouldn’t expect to win with email voting these days’, he laughs.

The portrait is by James Hanley, RHA. ‘I saw myself as blazer and polo neck sort of guy’, says Ronnie.

Flann O’Brien’s brother (Nolan) etched the illustration of him winning for Irish edition of Punch.

Has an honorary degree from the Royal College of Surgeons, despite the fact he has no medical background, ‘I am deemed to have made an important contribution to the evolution of medicine and sports science by my ability to challenge standards and the excellence of my career’, he says.



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