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What links Olympic gold and the Cathedral spire?

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Eamonn Fitzgerald shares the tale of Johnny Hayes, the Irish-American Olympian who played his part in erecting the spire of Killarney’s iconic Cathedral.

Sport presents a microcosm of life itself. Both swing from highs to lows, or vice versa if one is fortunate.

For the Tokyo Games, Kellie Harrington presented Ireland with a real chance of Olympic gold. She won the gold medal in the lightweight division at the 2018 Women's World Boxing Championships. Skibbereen rowers Paul O’Donovan and Fintan McCarthy were also hotly tipped. They have delivered on the promise and hopefully Kellie is still in contention. This column was put to bed before her recent bouts.

She put sport in context with with philosophical clarity in a brilliant one-liner: “The Olympics is a journey, not a destination.”

We all experience the swings and lows of sport and of life. Kellie, the inner-city young lady, is well grounded in the realities of life for an area being in the news for all the wrong reasons. There, the drug barons dictate how the people live and in too many cases so many lives are lost in violent ways. She wasn’t born with a silver spoon, certainly not one of the elite class, but when it comes to boxing she is in the elite class. Now training with her club, St Mary’s BC in Tallaght, she will give it everything and hopefully win a medal, preferably gold. What an uplift that will give the Dublin community she cherishes.

I hope David Kenny from the Farranfore Maine Valley AC walks well in his event during the week. How proud we all were of Gillian O’Sullivan on her wonderful achievements on the world stage in the same sport. She was outstanding yet was denied Olympian glory because of the dreaded curse of all sports people: injuries. Sport is glamorous, but it is also cruel.

ALL WINNERS

The vast majority of the competitors in Tokyo have no chance of winning a medal, whatever the colour.

In my book all the competitors are heroes deserving of our support. Just to make it to Tokyo is fantastic achievement; that’s what it takes to be an Olympian. TV glamorises all the competitions, but rarely shows the huge sacrifices to make it to Tokyo. A rigorous fitness regime for the past four or five years, such as breaking the ice on the waters of Killarney’s lakes on bitterly cold January mornings before entering the water, shows the required discipline. Then there was the added fallout from COVID these past 18 months. Would the Games go ahead? Yes/no depending on the spread of the virus worldwide. How does one curtail a long-term training programme?

Last week I reported on Kerry’s 22-point trouncing of Cork in the Munster senior football final, but the Rebels did not have long to wait for the pendulum to swing in faraway Tokyo, where Skibbereen’s rowing duo Paul O’Donovan and Fintan O’Leary won Olympic gold. Emily Hegarty, another Skib rower, showed them the way earlier by winning a bronze medal, Ireland’s first at Toyko. The Rebels basked in reflected glory. We all did, just like the good old Charlton years. The timing is perfect as Ireland needs a boost after life-changing experiences this past 18 months or so coping with the challenges of COVID.

Three Olympic medals from one small town in West Cork. Is there something in the water of the local River Ilen that keeps providing world class rowers from the club that was only formed in 1970?

KIERAN MCCARTHY

Kieran McCarthy, sports editor of the Southern Star newspaper, is a native of Fossa and is well aware of the long and proud tradition of Fossa RC where Paul Griffin started before moving to Muckross. Paul was an Olympian rower at Athens (2004) and again in Beijing (2008).

When Kieran’s work took him to Skibbereen he witnessed rowing at the highest levels. In 2019 he published Something in the Water, capturing the essence of the local club’s ability. I would recommend that book to anyone.

MARATHON

Kerry and Killarney has produced many fine Olympians including Cathal Moynihan, Seán Casey, Paul Griffin and Gillian O’Sullivan, whom I have covered in previous editions.

Tomorrow one of my favourite events will grab our interest when the marathon, all 26 miles and 385 yards of it, invokes memories of the heroics of John Treacy and Gerry Kiernan. Treacy won silver, but for sheer grit I recall North Kerry’s Kiernan with flowing long black hair sticking with the leaders and finishing a very creditable ninth. God rest poor Gerry.

There is a Killarney connection to a gold medal winner in the 2008 marathon at the London Olympics. The story of Johnny Hayes in the 1908 London Olympics is worth telling.

His parents from Nenagh were Tipperary emigrated to the USA and their son Johnny joined the Irish American athletic club and progressed steadily in the longer races, which brought him to London for the 1908 Games.

Britain had decided again not to allow Ireland to field its own team, imperiously stating that, “Ireland is not a nation.” All Irish athletes would have to compete as members of the British team and Johnny was not allowed to run for Ireland, the land of his parents. Having to represent Britain infuriated the Irish athletes. This ban worked well for Britain in the 1896 Olympics in Athens, where Irish athletes won most of Britain’s medals in track and field. One of them, Peter O’Connor, rushed to the Olympic flagpole after winning the hop, step and jump, and pulled down the Union Jack, which had been raised in honour of his victory. In its place he flew a green flag for Ireland.

In steps Johnny Hayes, who is remembered for three things in particular. Firstly, he was the first man to win a marathon at the now official standard distance of 26 miles 385 yards, when Olympic officials lengthened the distance to put the finish line in front of the Royal Box. The previous Olympic marathons had been less than 25 miles long.

Secondly, he was not first over the line in London 1908, coming in behind Dorado Pietri of Italy. At the 24-mile mark, it was a three-man race. Charles Hefferon, an Irishman from South Africa, was in the lead, and Pietri was second. Hefferon cramped and was overcome by sickness, so now it was down to two.

As the Olympic stadium at Shepherd’s Bush came into view, 22-year-old Hayes, the youngest man in the race, closed the gap to 50 seconds behind Pietri. He could not shake off Hayes, the proverbial hare and the tortoise syndrome. Then the drama unfolded. As Pietri turned into the stadium with only 385 yards to go, he staggered and suddenly appeared delirious. He ‘hit the wall’ and anyone who ever ran a marathon will empathise with that moment. He wobbled off in the wrong direction but British officials turned him around. He took a few steps and collapsed. The officials then lifted him to his feet, and helped him on his way. Again he collapsed and again he was lifted to his feet. Just short of the finish, Pietri started to collapse for the fifth time. Jack Andrews, the chief British official, grabbed him and carried him across the line, 30 seconds ahead of Hayes.

The assistance the officials gave to Pietri was a clear violation of the rules. Nevertheless, the British immediately raised the Italian flag and announced Pietri the victor. Pietri didn’t know or care. He was carried away on a stretcher, delirious and out of it.

Meanwhile, Hayes finished strongly, the heat and humidity not seeming to affect him. “Heat never bothers me,” said Hayes later. “My grandfather and father were bakers, and I worked in the bakery as a boy. I was used to the heat.” Nor did the sight of the Italian flag disturb him. They had to disqualify Pietri but they tried not to. It took several hours and a formal protest from the United States before the British admitted that Pietri had been illegally aided and was, therefore, disqualified.

Johnny Hayes was declared the winner.

Thirdly, back in Killarney, some entrepreneurs got the bright idea to invite the gold medallist to come here on his way home from London and help raise funds for the Cathedral spire.

Bishop Egan and Lord Kenmare were the prime movers in building St Mary’s Cathedral in the early 1840s. The church had been designed by Pugin in the Gothic style we know it today. Fr Thomas Joseph O’Sullivan was put in charge of the building committee on the site known as Falvey’s Inch, and construction started in 1842. The building was stalled for the Famine years, especially the years 1847 to 1852, and in its unfinished state it was used as a mass centre during those awful years - not as an auxiliary workhouse for Famine victims, as many people think.

The cillín near the present main door was used to bury the Famine children. You can see the sign beside the massive tree that is used to hang the Christmas lights. Sadly, Pugin died in 1852 at the age of 40. Work on the cathedral recommenced in 1853 and was consecrated in 1855, but it lacked the spire so prominent in photographs.

In 1908 the building of the spire commenced, but where was the money to come from? Killarney is known worldwide to have people with vision and determination to progress. Why not invite Johnny Hayes, the Irish-American, to visit Killarney and have the sports star heading up a fundraiser for the emerging spire.

I still haven’t found out who these sports visionaries were, but they organised a monster athletic meeting and top of the bill was the new golden boy, Johnny Hayes.

HALF MOON

Spectators were delighted to pay in to see the wonder boy and Johnny delivered. He ran in a race in the Demesne, not a marathon but a long distance race nevertheless. That part of the Demesne was then and still known as the Half Moon, home for Killarney Athletic AFC. for many years before they moved to their splendid grounds in Woodlawn on the banks of the Flesk. The Cathedral was completed, spire and all, in 1912 and remained thus until the 1970s when Bishop Eamonn Casey spearheaded internal renovations to facilitate the new liturgies.

Move on to 1962, when Johnny Hayes and his daughter returned for a holiday, staying in the Great Southern Hotel. No fanfare, but some locals who were keen promoters of athletics in Killarney went to visit him and welcome him back. These included Dr Eamonn O’Sullivan, trainer of the Kerry teams for eight All-Irelands and a man who was equally passionate about athletics. His father was the legendary JP O’Sullivan. Also there was Tadhg Crowley (who owned a shop where Fairview Hotel now stands), Martin Cleary (father of Órna from the Killarney Musical Society and Fergal), Seán Russell (Headmaster of Killarney Technical School), and Maurice F O’Leary (Kerryman journalist, ‘Echoes from East Kerry’).

Tom Looney, then a young seminarian working on a summer job with Denis Moriarty Photography (New Street) realised the significance of the return of the gold medallist. He  photographed the special moment on the steps of the GSH.

I spoke to Canon Tom about that visit and of his memories. “I had the camera and it isn’t every day you see an Olympian gold medallist coming to Killarney. He was a very small man (5 foot 4 inches) and slim. (He was just 125 lbs when he won the marathon.) He was a very modest man even though he was a celebrity. His daughter was also very quiet. There was no fuss.”

Imagine Hayes standing beside Martin Cleary and Tadhg Crowley.

AFTER 1908

What ever happened to Hayes after 1908?

He trained the US 1912 Olympic team and he later taught physical education. Three years after he came to Killarney in 1962, he died in Englewood, New Jersey at the age of 79.

The Shore Athletic Club of New Jersey holds his 1908 Olympic gold medal for the marathon, the first Olympic gold medal to be won at the modern marathon distance of 26 miles, 385 yards.

The next time you are in Nenagh, take time to view the three three statues honouring Olympic champions with links to Nenagh: Matt McGrath, Johnny Hayes and Bob Tindall. They were unveiled in front of the Nenagh Courthouse in 2002.

Maybe it’s time to put up a little plaque in Killarney. Yes, a small one to honour the diminutive little man with the big heart, who helped raise money for the Cathedral spire. Or some enterprising Killarney person will think of inviting a big sports personality to publicise the town?

At 11pm tomorrow (Saturday), the runners will start out on the marathon odyssey. Look out for Kipchoge, Desisa, Kitata or Lemma. It will make for great live viewing going into Sunday morning.

AGUISÍN BREISE

Tokyo (meaning ‘capital city’) is a long ways from Olympia, Greece and 776 BC. The modern Olympics started in Athens in 1896 and the first Irishman to win an Olympic title (tennis) was John Pius Boland, a Dub. Mrs Crowley, Fianna Fáil TD for South Kerry, was related to him through marriage.

Olympics back then was celebrated amateur sport, alas a long way from the sham amateurism and professionalism of the modern Olympics, which still enthrals, entertains and inspires.

While every sane person is fast asleep, why would someone go down to a lake in the dark of an early January morning to break the overnight ice and push out into the water? Brrr… Olympic spirit. Ard –fhir is mná. Gaisce gan teorainn.

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Killarney Valley AC named Club of the Year at national awards ceremony

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Members of Killarney Valley Athletics Club had cause for celebration on Wednesday as they picked up the prestigious Development Club of the Year prize at the 123.ie National Athletics Awards.

The award is handed out annually to a club who have made a positive impact on behalf of the sport within their community.

Sprinter Sarah Leahy of Killarney Valley and UL was also honoured with the Female University Athlete of the Year award.

Speaking to the Killarney Advertiser, coach and committee member Tomás Griffin said he and his clubmates were “delighted” and “very proud” to accept the Club Development award on behalf of all their athletes, coaches and administrators. The opening of their new track alongside St Brendan’s College in 2020 has been crucial, Griffin explained.

“The facility a catalyst but the passion was always there and we had people doing their best and coaching long before there was a track. To see the momentum that came with the opening of the track being maintained is great. We now have a waiting list of people looking to join the club.

“Did we see ourselves winning an award like this, in an organisation of 53,000 members and 400 clubs? No. But was it always possible? Yes. Killarney as a town across all sports – Gaelic football, soccer, basketball, cycling, judo, rock climbing – it’s a place where people excel. The bar is already raised. But being able to reach this level and achieve what we have in just two years shows what other talent is out there.”

Killarney Valley now boast five Irish internationals, 320 registered members and 22 Athletics Ireland accredited coaches. The club won 107 provincial and national medals in 2022, and they had 155 graduates from their Couch to 5k programme. Many of these participants are now regulars in the local Park Run and are continuing their personal health and fitness journeys with the club.

Nine Killarney Valley representatives attended the awards ceremony on Wednesday: Tomás Griffin, Jerry Griffin (chairperson), Bríd Stack, Gene Courtney, Con Lynch, Karen Smith, Sarah Leahy, Jordan Lee, and Madie Wilson-Walker. Sarah’s parents Mike and Marie also made the journey.

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Jiu-jitsu champion Wilson da Silva sets sights on world title

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This week Adam Moynihan called to the Movement & Fitness Club on New Street to catch up with Killarney man Wilson da Silva. The 38-year-old Brazilian recently won gold at the European Championship for Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and now he’s gunning for a world title.

Wilson, congratulations on your latest success in Rome and Abu Dhabi.

Thank you, Adam.

Before we chat about that, let’s go back to the start. How did you end up living in Killarney?

I came here around 15 years ago because I met someone from Killorglin and we went out for five or six years. After we broke up, I came to Killarney. I’m pretty much half-local, half-Brazilian now.

What part of Brazil are you from?

The northeast. A place called Recife. If you look at the map, it’s the nearest point to Ireland.

Do you get to go home often?

I try to go once a year, you know? I was home earlier this year and then before Covid. But once a year I go home in the summertime.

It must be nice to get some sunshine.

It’s nice, man. Even recently the doctor told me I have Vitamin D deficiency. My skin colour needs the sun! So I go home once a year. I follow the doctor’s advice.

How did you get into jiu-jitsu?

I did it back home in Brazil but I continued here in Killarney. I trained with guys here, Pedro Bessa and Tom McGuire. Then there is another club in Killarney and I trained with them up until four years ago. Things weren’t working out so I started my own gym. I just wanted to do things my way which was to have a clean place, no ego, no drama, no stress, no jealousy. Just come, train jiu-jitsu and help each other. And it’s going well.

Was it hard to go out on your own?

In the beginning it was really difficult because I was opening a second club in the town, on my own. There was really only one guy who wanted to train with me, but then my fiancé (Ewelina) started training and one became two, two became three, and it started to grow. Now we have classes for babies from three years up, kids and teenagers. We’re doing jiu-jitsu and capoeira for all ages. I guess it’s something good for the community.

Can you tell me a bit about jiu-jitsu? Is it similar to other sports?

If you were to describe jiu-jitsu to someone who never saw it, it would be very similar to judo. You have people throwing each other and putting each other on the floor. The jiu-jitsu match is five minutes long and the goal is to checkmate the opponent, to make your opponent quit, or tap out. So there is a lot of ground work, grappling, and wrestling. It’s an excellent sport and great for self-defence. I can’t recommend jiu-jitsu enough.

So there’s no striking?

There is no striking but [in terms of self-defence] there is ducking from striking, turning a strike into a mobilisation. It’s about finding locks on the body – the joint moves this way for example (he turns his arm) – figuring out how the anatomy of the body works.

It seems quite technical and intellectual.

Yes, it’s a very intelligent sport. I trained in weightlifting for a long time, for many years. With time it simply comes down to reps, breaking muscle fibre, and you’re not learning anything. It’s boring. With jiu-jitsu you’re constantly thinking. You’re constantly working your brain.

I compare it to a game of chess. First you figure out how to move the pieces, and then you have to play strategy. Look ahead to the next move and what your opponent can do to you. The moves are complicated and you’re always learning new things. It requires a lot of focus and discipline to get good at it. You don’t get bored with jiu-jitsu.

Is the focus and discipline side of it good for the kids who come to your gym?

Yes, definitely. I find that it is so beneficial for the kids. The kids want to win but if they want to win, they need to learn the moves. In order to learn the moves, they have to pay attention. So straight away it develops focus and concentration and discipline. If they do not pay attention, if they run around the place, they’re going to lose when they spar. It fixes itself. The guys who come in, pay attention, and it makes the others not want to lose so they pay attention and worker hard to learn the moves.

You can see the difference in the kids when they come here. We try to make them comfortable in uncomfortable situations so that when you take the child out of the jiu-jitsu class and they have a to deal with a hard subject in school, or a bully, they are mentally stronger.

I have witnessed that myself. I worked in security for many years and before I dedicated myself to jiu-jitsu, I found it easy to lose the head. But the more hours I put into the gym and training in jiu-jitsu, the more comfortable I became with frustrating situations. You’re able to remain calm. That’s a benefit of jiu-jitsu.

How important is size in jiu-jitsu?

That’s a tricky one. People say that size doesn’t matter. It definitely does. There’s no doubt about that. But the beauty of jiu-jitsu is that once you have the technique, you’re able to apply it against bigger guys. You know, the bigger guys have big muscles and bigger egos, but if the small guy trains hard he will be able to move the big guy’s body in a way that works against him. The big guy who goes to the gym, he’s used to pushing the bar this way (straight out), whereas the guy who knows jiu-jitsu knows that if he moves the bigger guys arms here (upwards), he’s not strong anymore. Now the bench press is worth nothing.

Bigger guys think they are unbeatable. The small guys have to work for it. I always motivate the guys here in the gym to be humble. You always have to consider yourself the second best, the guy who wants to be first. The moment you think that you’re bigger and better than everyone else, you stop working.

Tell me about your recent victories in London, Rome and Abu Dhabi.

Yeah, so I went to the UK and managed to win four golds at the London Open in the ‘Gi’, ‘A’, ‘No-Gi’ and ‘Absolute’ categories. (The ‘Gi’ is a uniform sometimes worn in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. There are categories in which the Gi is worn – ‘Gi’ – and categories in which it is not – ‘No-Gi’. The ‘Absolute’ is an open weight division).

Then a couple of weeks ago I travelled to Rome to compete in the European Championship. The day before that event, the Rome Open was on and since I was already there, I signed up for that too. I won the first fight, submitted the guy, but then in the final I lost. It was a good lesson for me. Coming from so many wins, I thought I was going to smash this other guy. I got a bit cocky. Losing settled me down and humbled me a little bit. I went back to my accommodation and analysed my mistakes. I hoped that the next day I would be able to play a strategy to win.

In the end I managed to win four fights and win the biggest European tournament – the No-Gi European Championship. It was my dream. I have been there twice before and got knocked out in the quarter-final, and came third in the Gi division.

It was really emotional for me. It was a great achievement. Even now when I’m talking, I feel emotional. I don’t train that much with No-Gi so to come first in Europe, it’s hard to believe.

It’s really hard to run and promote a club and also train and win tournaments, a lot of people say it’s not possible, but I’m putting a lot of hours into this and proving that it is possible. When you work so hard, with the help of my training partners, the results have to come.

And you weren’t finished yet. Where did you go next?

Yeah, to finish the story, after winning the European tournament on the Saturday, I flew to Abu Dhabi on Monday for the World Championship. I managed to go there and win three fights before losing the semi-final after getting beat pretty hard. I got my ass kicked by the winner. Then I had to fight to win the third place [match]. So, even though it’s only third place, it’s third place on the biggest podium in the sport.

Is it normal to compete in this number of events in quick succession?

No. It’s crazy to do so many competitions in a short period of time. I usually take a month or two months off before the next competition. It’s expensive too and I must thank Kevin Leahy [from the neighbouring Black Sheep Hostel] for sponsoring me. But after London, I had a feeling that there was no stopping me. I’m healthy. I’m not injured. Now is my moment and I have to take the chance.

It was hard enough to believe that I won the European Championship but to go to Abu Dhabi and fight against the best guys in the world… It’s a dream. Well, it’s not a dream now because it happened. It’s a reality.

Is this it for you now? Have you achieved all you want to achieve?

No, there’s more. Much more. I want to win the World Championship in California next year. For sure I would like to win the European Championship next year too.

But my goal is more than just winning championships, it’s to build champions. I want to teach people and share techniques that are proven to work. As I try to grow the gym, I will continue competing for as long as God blesses me with this health. That’s it.

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