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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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Popularity of Ladies Gaelic Football on the rise

According to official TAM Ireland figures, 491,000 tuned into TG4’s coverage of the TG4 Ladies Football finals on Sunday with an average audience of 204,900 people watching the live broadcast […]

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According to official TAM Ireland figures, 491,000 tuned into TG4’s coverage of the TG4 Ladies Football finals on Sunday with an average audience of 204,900 people watching the live broadcast of the Senior Final between Meath and Kerry.

The match had a 30.6% share of viewing among individuals. Viewing peaked at 5.10pm with 279,800 viewers as Meath closed in on the two in a row to retain the Brendan Martin Cup.

A total 46,400 attended the match in person in Croke Park on Sunday, the first TG4 Ladies Football Final to have full capacity allowance since 2019.

Viewers from over 50 countries tuned into the finals on the TG4 Player with 14,000 streams of the game from international viewers. Over 20,000 streams were also registered from Irish viewers.

TG4 Director General Alan Esslemont said: “My deepest gratitude to all the counties especially Wexford and Kerry who battled to the end through this season’s Championship, hearty congratulations to both Laois and Meath and I am really looking forward to the re-match of Antrim and Fermanagh which will be carried live on TG4. A special word of thanks goes to the huge crowd which travelled to the Finals from all the corners of Ireland. County Meath especially have become a role model for other counties in how to build huge attending support for LGFA in both genders and at all ages. Sunday’s massive expression of Meath ‘fandom’ in Croke Park brought their county the greatest credit.

Sunday’s broadcast was the 22nd edition of the TG4 Ladies Gaelic Football Championship, a unique history of a sport minoritized by society being championed by a language media minoritized by the state. By consciously standing together we have grown together. As we approach the 50th anniversary of the LGFA in 2024 let us all hope by that time that we are even further along the road towards true equality of opportunity for both Ladies Gaelic Football and Irish language media.”

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Following her World Championships debut, Leahy is hungry for more

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Adam Moynihan met Killarney sprinter Sarah Leahy at the Killarney Valley AC Arena to chat about her recent appearance at the World Championships, her goals for the rest of the year, and a very special pair of socks

Hi Sarah. Thanks for showing me around Killarney Valley’s facilities. It’s an impressive set-up.

The track facilities here are perfect. We have everything we need and Killarney Valley are always looking to improve the facilities and the club itself. All the people behind the scenes at are the MVPs, people like Jerry and Tomás Griffin, Jean Courtney, and Bríd Stack to mention just a few.

You recently competed in the World Championships in Oregon as part of the Irish 4 x 100m relay team, finishing eighth in your heat. How did you feel the event went for you?

We’re very proud of each other, and we did well, but we definitely could have run better. We had more. We were aiming for and felt we were capable of running a national record. But on the day, it just didn’t happen.

Personally, it was a great experience. I loved every second of it. But I will admit that the actual running part is a bit of a blur. I came onto the track and there’s this huge stadium, but I was more looking around at the people I was running against. Ewa Swoboda – I thought she’d win the World Indoor – she was four people away from me and I was looking at her… She was probably like, ‘Why is this woman staring at me?’ I was very nervous. But it was still amazing and I hope I can do it again.

The fact that I was running against international athletes that have been to the Olympics and been finalists, I was kind of star struck. My trainers are like, okay Sarah, calm down. You’re meant to be here. Don’t act like you shouldn’t.

Can you describe your mindset before a race? Do you often get nervous?

On the line it’s all about how you’re feeling, what you can do. You just have to get mentally prepared for a good start. Especially for me. Get out, and run as fast as you can. Just getting in the zone, I guess. I’ll know if I’m not in the zone, because I’m thinking of other things. If I’m on the blocks my head shouldn’t be wandering. It should be blank and all I should be waiting for is that gun.

Would you say that you’re an ultra competitive person?

I’m a competitive person, obviously. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be competing at this level. But I also come from a team background, and I’m friends with a lot of these girls, so I want them to do well as well. And if they happen to beat me, fair play. You put in the training, you did very well. I’m very happy for you.

We all kind of get prepared differently. A lot of people for the warm-up, which is an hour or half an hour before the race, have the earphones on, gameface on, not talking to anyone, not smiling at anyone. I’m completely different. The more nervous I am, the more I’m going to talk.

There was a situation in Greece where everyone had their earphones on and I was mad to talk to everyone. That could change but as of right now I do tend to talk a lot. And then, going on to the track, obviously there’s no more talking. You’re getting ready for the race and mentally preparing.

Tell me about the socks you wore in Oregon.

[laughs] My socks were a Valentine’s Day gift from my boyfriend, Daniel. They had his face all over them and they say ‘I love you’. So yeah, I just ran the Worlds with my boyfriend’s face on my feet. He was delighted!

Daniel was the person who pushed for me to go back to running. He knew I was no longer enjoying the football and he heard the way I spoke about athletics. He helped me make the decision to go back. It was the best decision so it was only right I wore the socks and he was there in some way. I probably wouldn’t have been there without him.

Did you have some of your own supporters over there?

Yes, my mom and dad (Marie and Mike) actually travelled over. They spent the week and it was unreal to have them there. And then my cousins from Vancouver in Canada drove down which was I think over 10 hours. I was actually warming up before the relay and then I saw and heard my family with all their Kerry jerseys, Irish jerseys, Irish flags, roaring my name. That was really nice.

What’s the plan for the rest of 2022?

I was hopeful that we were going to send a 4 x 100 relay team to the Europeans but I just got an email saying that we wouldn’t, which is disappointing. I know some of top 2022 female sprinters aren’t available but some are and with any of them we would do well over there. We would be competitive. We held our qualification of being in the top 16 teams all summer so it’s a pity that, at the last second, we aren’t going.

In saying that, the women’s Irish relay will continue to work hard and we have a lot more to give. We will prove that next year.

You’re moving to Dublin for work later this year. How will this affect your training?

I might have to change coaches again, which I’m a bit sad about because I really liked the Limerick training group (Leahy was in UL where she trained with the Hayley and Drew Harrison). I think I performed well and I loved the training. I was surrounded by the right people who were really lovely. I hope to find a group like that in Dublin and keep running well and performing better.

And what about next season?

I’d like another good indoor season. I was talking to Lauren Roy in Stockholm and she told me that I have the European standard in the 60m from last year. Which I didn’t know! So that’s kind of in my head now to try and get there, to improve my time. I think I could actually run faster. I ran 7.39 and I’d like to run at least 7.30, hopefully get another European standard, and actually go to the Europeans. I think it’s in Germany. That’d be my target.

And then next summer, there’s the Worlds again. So it’d be nice to continue making the Irish relays and definitely improve my time, because there’s more. I can definitely run faster over 100.

What is your current PB in the 100m? Are you close to bettering it?

I ran 11.67, which I was delighted with. But it was my first run of the season. It’s quite rare that you run a PB in the season opener. But I ran it, and I haven’t ran it since. The closest was 11.70 in Switzerland. So I definitely think there’s more in there. And I think I have a lot to learn as well. I’m still new to the sport and I’m a powerful kind of runner. I was doing a lot of gym work at the beginning of the year, before I ran my PB, and then afterwards usually people taper it off. So I did what other people do. I think that affected my running a little bit. I’m slightly weaker. So I’ve learned that maybe next year I shouldn’t do that. Then hopefully I’ll be running PB after PB, instead of just a one-off.

Onwards and upwards. Chat to you again soon.

Thanks Adam!

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