Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

 
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SPORTING LEGENDS OF IRELAND

A SPORTING INTRODUCTION

And so the final whistle sounds. Our journey to create a book about 44 of Ireland’s greatest living sporting icons is at an end.[i] We started in the autumn of 2009, gathering the names of 100 potential legends from sporting enthusiasts across Ireland. We wanted a book that was not simply about GAA or rugby or horse-racing but representative of a broader spectrum of sports generally.[ii]

Armed with this list, we set to work trying to establish contact with them all. It was no easy feat. Sporting legends are always in demand. Everywhere they look there is another person fast-approaching, hoping they might sign an old jersey, star in a reality show, present a school prize, perform in a veteran’s tournament, pose for a photograph, comment on a match, give a speech, patronize a charity. Some have understandably built a protective circle around them so that even getting a message through is a formidable challenge. Others have upped sticks and relocated to distant lands where they are delighted to be not quite so famous.[iii]

But of course there were many who were thrilled to be asked, or eager to help in any which way they could, particularly if it promotes the notion of sport generally and their discipline in particular. The 44 legends we present in these pages were interviewed and photographed in Ireland over a six-month period. James photographed them with whatever they were wearing when we met, working within the confines of the locations where our meeting took place.[iv]

As a historian, I gave my interviews a historical bearing. I was interested to know how far back the sporting gene went in each individual pedigree. The longest instances were for those involved with horses. Jessie Harrington’s forbears were lynchpins of the Co. Meath hunting scene 200 years ago. Charlie Swan’s great-grandfather rode the winner of the 1863 Derby. Both Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh also belong to equestrian dynasties for whom the horse has been of central importance for as many generations as anyone can recall. Likewise, greyhound maestro Ger McKenna walked his greyhounds along the very same roads of Co. Tipperary that his grandfather walked his back in the 19th century.

By learning what a given persons’ grandparents or parents did for a living, the reason why they fell into a particular sport often becomes apparent. World rowing champion Niall O’Toole is the son and grandson of men who built boats for Guinness. Rally-driver Rosemary Smith is the daughter of a garage owner. Eamonn Coghlan’s father was an electrician who looked after the sound system at Croke Park. [v]

It undoubtedly helps to have a sibling to compete against. Of the legends in this book, Packie Bonner, John Tracey and Angela Downey-Browne are twins, while Michael Carruth is a triplet. Jessie Harrington and June Ann Fitzsimons competed for Ireland alongside their brothers. Des Smyth played golf with his brothers. Ronne Delany ran alongside his, as did Mary Peters. Willie Mullins rode out with his, while Niall O’Toole was determined to out-row his.

But a surprising number of legends are once offs, the first of their family to make a go of it in the sporting world. Willie John McBride, Cora Staunton, Eddie Macken, Sonia O’Sullivan, Jack O’Shea, Maeve Kyle, Conor O’Dwyer. All simply took a liking to their chosen sport by dint of personal taste and circumstance.[vi]

Geography is also key, perhaps most notably in terms of Gaelic games.[vii] Take Co. Kerry, for instance, where everybody lives for Gaelic football and no conversation about the sport is complete without mention of Mick O’Dwyer, Mick O’Connell or Jack O’Shea.[viii] That local zeal for the game is undoubtedly why Co. Kerry, with its population of circa 160,000 people, has utterly dominated the All-Ireland Football Championships, winning the title on 36 occasions.[ix]

The last time Co. Kerry’s hurlers won the All-Ireland was in 1891. Conversely, Co. Kilkenny remains defiantly at the very bottom of the Gaelic football league. But give them a stick, and the men and women of Kilkenny are likely to run away with the show. The county has won 32 All-Ireland hurling titles, with Eddie Keher and DJ Carey to the fore, while Angela Downey-Browne helped Kilkenny win twelve All-Ireland camogie championships.

If the right infrastructure is in place, there is a very good chance that people from your locality will excel at that sport. Handball is a case in point. The Countess of Desart built a handball club in Kilkenny City; the club has since won over 100 All-Ireland senior medals, including 38 for Ducksie Walsh. Over in Newport, Co. Mayo, Charlie Magee constructed a rather more modest handball court; his son Peadar went on to win 18 national medals. Down in the Wexford village of Taghmon, they ensured the court came complete with badminton lines; Mary Sinnott of that village won eight All-Ireland badminton titles. The story is echoed in other sports. Des Smyth grew up beside a golf course, Jack O’Shea beside a football pitch, Alan Lewis beside a cricket club.

On the international stage Ireland has had a staggeringly successful sporting record, not least considering our population is the same size as Birmingham.[x] Sport of one type or another has presumably been played here ever since the first legs reached Ireland’s shores. The Tailteann Games, perhaps the oldest sporting event in history, are believed to have commenced in the second millennium BC and consisted of a thirty-day festival on the banks of the River Blackwater in Co. Meath with gymnastic, equestrian and athletic events, including chariot-racing and an early form of hurling.[xi] The Anglo-Norman invasion of 1171 is held accountable for the demise of the festival at about that time.

The great plain of the Curragh in Co. Kildare was another popular site for chariot racing in Celtic times. Mastery of the horse was a vital tool for military conquest.[xii] William Marshall, the original occupant of Kilkenny Castle, managed one of the finest jousting teams in Medieval Europe. Those same knights, many of whom lived in Ireland, were also amongst the most fearsome fighters on the crusades to the Middle East. Five hundred years later, the Anglo-Irish elite who ruled Ireland developed their racing obsession, first along the beaches of Dublin Bay, later on tracks such as Leopardstown, Punchestown, Phoenix Park and Fairyhouse. Hunting, steeplechases, polo and eventing evolved in tandem.

During the age of Empire, the British developed the idea of team sports where groups of, say, 11 or 15 men were effectively given a ball and instructed to work as one unit, mastering trust, communication, leadership, responsibility and such like. Team sports were particularly well suited to the British military ethos and it is no coincidence that many of Ireland’s garrison towns became strongholds for such games. Kilkenny, Tipperary, Cork and Carlow were epicentres for cricket. Sligo and Donegal developed as soccer meccas. Rugby also took hold in pockets across the country with a high density of soldiers or gentry.[xiii]

Golf became a sport of choice for the well-to-do, and the Irish coast is exceptionally well suited to links golf, combining great beauty with the ideal sands and rugged terrain. Tennis also developed into a hugely popular game amongst the upper classes and during the 1890s and early 20th century, Ireland’s tennis elite racked up nine Wimbledon titles, as well as two Olympic Golds, the Australian Open, the US Open and, effectively, the Davis Cup.

It is hard to think of another country which has politicized sport to the same degree as Ireland. South Africa probably comes closest. During the late 19th century, many landed estates in Ireland were able to field teams for both hurling and cricket matches. Several of those who played in the first All-Ireland Hurling final were considered excellent cricket players. However, the Gaelic Athletic Association’s ban against any of its members playing “garrison games” or “foreign sports” was one of the most defining aspects of Anglo-Irish relations for much of the 20th century.

Likewise, few events symbolized just how awful the fight for independence was than the Sunday afternoon in November 1920 when British guns opened fire on the players and crowd gathered for a Gaelic football match in Croke Park. It is to the great credit of the Irish people that they accepted that the crushing defeat inflicted on the English rugby team at Croke Park in 2007 was a fitting time to conclude the horror of ‘Bloody Sunday’.

Northern Ireland continues to confuse the international circuit in terms of its sporting identity. Hence, many of its athletes represent Great Britain at the Olympics, its rugby players wear the green jerseys of Ireland and its soccer players perform proudly under the flag of Northern Ireland itself. To delicately leapfrog such issues, we have included in this volume seven Northern Irish sporting legends of miscellaneous disciplines.

Away from politics, the GAA has achieved an enormous amount in re-establishing indigenous Gaelic games across Ireland, albeit with new and ever-changing rules. Gaelic football, for instance, has utterly evolved from an inter-parish ‘free for all’, without rules, or even a defined playing area or time limit.[xiv]

There is of course a difference between those who play sport at professional level and those who remain amateurs. Most sports have now become professional, as Sky Sports and such like seek to reap the financial benefits. The amateur sportsman retains a considerable charm. Willy John McBride, the rugby lock who worked as a banker in Belfast. Peter Canavan, the footballer who teaches PE at a school in Cookstown. Denny Hyland, the pole-vaulter who made hydraulics in Carlow. Michael Carruth, the boxer who marched out with the Irish army. By and large, all of these legends played their games, celebrated or commiserated accordingly that night, and then returned to their day jobs.

But for many, when the option came to turn pro, they accepted it.[xv] It must be some compensation for the likes of Ruby Walsh that as he is catapulted from the saddle towards another broken rib, he at least knows he is being paid for it. The same cannot be said for GAA players such as ladies footballer Cora Staunton who, now 28, expects to be fully arthritic by her early 40s.

Nine of Ireland’s twenty Olympic medals have been won by boxers. That surely says something about the Irish mindset and how we seem to relish the prospect of being an underdog and having to fight harder. Certainly, the legends in this book are resilient souls.[xvi] Mick O’Dwyer broke both his legs in 1964 and continued to play football for the next three decades. Stephen Martin was told he would never play sport again and went on to win an Olympic Gold medal. Barry McGuigan nearly retired from boxing when he killed another man in the ring; he stayed on and became world featherweight champion. Rosemary Smith thought she would never drive again when her navigator went crashing through the windscreen of their rally car; she went on to become the greatest lady driver of her day.

Many legends are remarkable versatile, enabling them to excel at several sports at once. As a handballer, hurler DJ Carey has won three All-Irelands and two World titles. Willie John McBride started as a pole-vaulter before moving to rugby. Steve Collins has swapped the boxing ring for the hunt. Mary Sinnott Dinan was considered one of the greatest camogie players ever when she switched to badminton. Poker champion Donnacha O’Dea was the first Irishman to swim 100 metres in less than a minute.[xvii]

Much about sport changes, just as everything becomes more physical and professional.[xviii] It’s not quite such an affordable pastime as it once was.[xix] Shoes are cushier.[xx] Games are shorter. Stoppages are more frequent. You’re allowed to rehydrate yourself. The ball is more predictable. Fifty years ago, for instance, a football absorbed the weather conditions on the pitch so that, if it was raining, the water and mud would seep in and the ball would get heavier by the minute. Rules are also ever evolving, as international rugby and GAA players alike discovered in 2010. Even something as time-honoured as horse-racing is facing change, not least since the identification of the so-called ‘speed genes’ possessed by every winning thoroughbred.

But while some things change, our need for heroes remains. If Luke Sorensen won Wimbledon, no tennis court in Ireland would be empty. When Jack Charlton’s army ran rampant in the World Cup campaigns of 1990 and 1994, every schoolboy in the country took a fancy for soccer. The ongoing golden age of Irish rugby has seen youngsters from all four provinces turn with a passion to the game with the curiously shaped ball. Golf too is now hugely attractive to many younger players, with Paul Harrington and Rory McElroy now regulars in the sports’ global elite. Cricket has also enjoyed a renaissance ever since Ireland’s cricketers defeated Pakistan in the 2007 World Cup. And of course the fervour of the annual All Ireland Gaelic championships continues to weave its magical spell across the land.[xxi] Whether or not Gaelic games ultimately goes down the road to professionalism, it remains imperative that the continued development of sporting infrastructure at local level continues across Ireland for all sports.

The reason why so many of the faces in this book have, or should have, adorned a national postage stamp is that they are pioneers of their game, people who have converted their zeal and stamina into victory, men and women who had the commitment and the will to win, trailblazers who challenged things and raised the bar for everyone else.[xxii] For some it involved endless practice. For others it was sheer instinct. All are legends and to them we take a bow.

FOOTNOTES

[i] The best history teacher I ever had told me to imagine everything from a Martian’s perspective. And so, as I reflect upon the journey we took to create a book about 44 of Ireland’s greatest living sporting icons, I ask myself what would the Martians make of it all? Can they fathom what drives so many hundreds of thousands of Earthlings to kick, hit, head, slam, whack, slice, punch and flick such a strange miscellany of balls around grassy fields and wooden halls, with the ultimate aim of directing said balls into a net or over an elevated bar or perhaps simply off into the middle-distance? And for that matter, can they understand why Earthlings like to wrestle or box or run against one another? And what do they think of those who do it all in a motorcar or in a boat or on horseback?

[ii] Mary Sinott, a six-times national badminton champion, believes a lot of minority sports in Ireland still don’t get the recognition they deserve. There are also those who feel that the GAA should be making more concerted efforts to develop the sport outside of Ireland. (Australian Rules and Cora’ tours aside).

[iii] There are many we tried but we were either declined or unable to get our request to the right person. Mike Gibson, Paddy Hopkirk, Johnny Giles, Eddie Irvine, Jack Charlton, Katie Taylor, Roy Keane, Liam Brady, Paul McGrath, Keith Wood, Brian O’Driscoll, Sean Kelly, Bernard Dunne, Aidan O’Brien, Mick Kinane. Karl Mullen and Vincent O’Brien passed away just as the concept of the book was taking shape. There are also numerous other sports we might have looked at, from marbles to motorcycling, yachting to polo, squash to surfing, volleyball to the bobsleigh. But time is necessarily a massive factor in projects like this. We went into overtime and these are the 44 legends we got by the final whistle.

Success sometimes creates an element of loneliness. One thinks of Ducksy Walsh who sometimes returns to the handball courts where he learned to play but who doesn’t like the idea of being a local hero. Barry McGuigan has a likewise discomfort in Clones. Ken Doherty plays a quiet game at his new hideaway, far from the banter of Jason’s of Ranelagh. Many of them cannot walk a street without being accosted – I think of those who hollered and applauded Mick O’Dwyer and Sonia O’Sullivan as we spoke.

[iv] Neither myself or photographer James Fennell have the remotest claim to sporting glory. I captained my school’s 6th XV rugby team for one season, winning about half our matches; my team mates comprised all those who had learned to chain-smoke cigarettes at 13 years of age and several early examples of the computer geek. My ancestors were cavalry officers and rowed for Oxford; I get dizzy on a rocking horse and cannot tie my shoelaces properly. James’s claim to fame is that his grandmother Cynthia Allen once played both golf and tennis for Ireland. In fact, he’s pretty handy with a tennis racket himself.

[v] Fatherly inspiration is huge whether it is simple encouragement as per Conor O’Dwyer or Niall O’Toole, or following in footsteps like Alan Lewis or Michael Carruth. It is also notable that the son and daughter of triple Olympian hockey player Stephen Martin both play hockey for Ulster at their respective age levels.

[vi] There are many if’s and but’s in sport. It is arguable that Jack Kyle would never have become a rugby sensation if another player called David Monteith had not broken his leg, meaning Jack was called on to play instead. It is arguable that Conor O’Dwyer would have faded into the archives if he had decided to move to Kim Bailey’s yard instead of Arthur Moore’s.

[vii] If you want to be good at golf, you might want to make your way to one of those pockets of excellence such as the Drogheda area around Bettystown and Baltray, or perhaps to the area around Sutton, Portmarnock and Royal Dublin, or around Strand Hill and Co. Sligo.
[viii] On the Iveragh Peninsula alone there are nine Gaelic football clubs,

[ix] Its closest competitor is Dublin who, with its population in excess of a million, has won 22 times.

[x] The 1932 Olympics brought home golds for Ireland from Bob Tisdall (400m hurdles) and Pat O’Callaghan (hammer), since when runner Ronnie Delany in 1965 and boxer Michael Carruth in 1992 are the only Irish athletes to have won an, ahem, pure Olympic gold.

‘We are such a small country’, says Mary Sinnott. ‘To get the people we have in sport, no matter where they come from, who compete overseas, in all sports – and in music, writing, acting. For the number of people here, it is just incredible. And no matter what country you go to, you will always meet somebody from Ireland. They are all over the world.’

[xi] In 561 AD, Prince Cunan, son of the King of Connaught, killed another man on the hurling field and sought sanctuary in Saint Columba’s abbey at Kells. The prince was dragged from the church and killed, prompting a violent battle at Cooldrevny in Co. Sligo.

[xii] Inevitably, many sports have a military origin. The archery contests that took place in fairs across the country in the 16th century are an example of this, while boxing and wrestling have also been around since earliest times.

[xiii] There is also a notable geographic correlation between Ireland’s racecourses and golf courses and the military garrisons.

[xiv] The first reported match took place at Slane in 1712 between Meath and Louth.

[xv] Not everything about the professionalization of sport is appealing. ‘You used to be able to have a good night the night before a race but you can’t do that anymore’, says Charlie Swan Its not clear whether this is safety or whether its an unfair advantage having fortifying liquor on board. ‘You’re definitely a bit more relaxed’, says Charlie.

[xvi] When golfer Des Smyth met his hero Eddie Keher, he was greatly surprised when the Kilkenny hurler expressed his envy. ‘I was finished at 32’, explained Eddie. ‘You golfers go on forever’. Certainly golf is one of the few sports that people can continue to play in their latter years. You don’t have to tackle anyone. You don’t have to run or jump. You don’t have to catch a ball. That is probably why so many retired sporting legends play golf. Keher himself is a fine golfer, despite the reversal of the grip.

[xvii] Pole vaulting champion Denny Hyland played football for Carlow. Triple Crown winning rugby legend Jack Kyle is a handy cricket player. Snooker champion Ken Doherty is a quick-witted poker player.Some argue that poker and snooker are mind-games rather than sports. Perhaps, but every sport is to an extent a mind-game. Ask anyone who’s stepped into a boxing ring with Steve Collins.

[xviii] Every sport like hurling and rugby has become so much more physical. With 43 caps, Jackie Kyle was once the most prolific player in the world. Now a player can rack up 43 caps in a few years. Everybody plays so often nowadays! It is to be noted that you get paid more if you are on the pitch than if you are on the bench, which may explain why so many players are brought on with 3 minutes to go.

[xix] ‘Nowadays its very expensive if you want to compete. It can be very hard to just go and play something. You have to actually find the time – and the money - to have fun. Schools don’t let you play sport just for fun anymore. It’s all about producing the winning team. So if you are not potentially a winner, then you have less chance of participation at a decent level. I think that’s wrong.’ Maeve Kyle.

[xx] Eamonn Coghaln says the difference between modern shoes and those of the late 1960s is ‘incredible’. There is much more protection, particularly in flats, although the spikes themselves are little different. He is wary of Nike air shoes, reasoning that the impact is continually jerking on one’s knee and slowly grinding one’s knee fibres down. On the other hand, a hard shoe absorbs the shock better because it is the foot itself which takes the impact. He values a shoe with a solid heel, and plenty of stability in the heel to stop one from over-rotating. He maintains that kangaroo skin shoes are the best there is and as close to the running in bare feet as possible. Peadar McGee says the shoes have got cushier, the courts are smaller, the length of the game is shorter, the stoppages more frequent.

[xxi] For instance, if Wexford were to get into the 2011 Leinster Final, you can safely assume that 60,000 people will take to their cars and drive north to Dublin to watch the match.

One of Co. Kilkenny’s most promising junior hurlers is a Bangladeshi; not surprisingly his hand-eye coordination means he also plays for the county cricket team. Indeed, cricket is a classic example of a sport in which the entire concept of who can play for Ireland has been opened wide. Many team players were born outside of Ireland but have lived here for long enough to play for the country.

[xxii] Records are there to be broken. Fifty-six years ago, nobody believed the four-minute mile was possible. Now it is achieved on a weekly basis. In 1994, Eamonn Coghlan became the first man over 40 to make it. In a similar vein, there was a psychological barrier for Irish swimmers seeking to swim 100m in less than a minute until Donnacha O’Dea broke through in 1965.

To succeed, you need to have the dedication and commitment. That is the Achilles heel of many otherwise excellent sportsmen. The world is full of people who nearly made it big. John Treacy reasons that if you put in the practice, the self-belief will follow. And that goes for DJ Carey hitting sliothars, Conor O’Dwyer riding out, Ken Doherty potting snooker balls or Dame Mary Peters with the shot putt. If at first you don’t succeed, you must simply try again. And keep at it until you’ve got it right and stay at it because your form will unavoidably waver and you will need to refocus. Competitive folk like Cora Staunton and Ducksy Walsh almost ignore their successes, instead lingering on times they were beaten and outfoxed.


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