Monday, 20 April, 2020
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The modern-day Olympic Games have been taking place every four years since 1896. However in 2020, with the world taking a break from large public gatherings, the games were been postponed. This is not the first time that the games have had to be postponed, though it is extremely rare. The modern Summer Olympic Games have only been cancelled 3 times in their 124-year history. Let’s take a look at the history of Irish athletes at the Olympics. 

Chronicles Insight -  Irish Olympians

Pictured: Peter O'Connor and his family pictured in Tramore, 1927.  Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland

Peter O’Connor

Peter O’Connor was one of Ireland’s earliest competitors at the Olympics. In 1906 he competed in the long jump and hop, skip, and jump events at the Intercalated Games. He won gold in the hop, skip, and jumps, and silver in the long jump. Already a world record holder, O’Connor brought Irish athletes to the attention of the world. However, since Ireland did not have its own Olympic committee at the time, and was still under British rule, it was decided that O’Connor, along with his fellow Irish competitors, would be entering the games under the British flag. When he won his silver medal for the long jump, O’Connor refused to sit quietly while the Union Jack was raised at the podium. In an act of nationalist protest, he climbed a flagpole in the middle of the field and waved a green flag, emblazoned with a golden harp, and lettering which read, ‘Erin Go Bragh’, Ireland Forever. O’Connor may have been officially competing for Britain, but he wanted to make it known that he was an Irishman through and through and represented the standard of athletes which could be found all over the island. 

Dr Pat O’Callaghan

In 1928, the Irish Republic experienced its first ever Olympic win, and with gold no less. When County Cork native Dr Pat O’Callaghan won the hammer throw event at the games in Amsterdam, he became the first athlete to win a medal for Ireland under the tricolour flag. This is because in previous years, Irish athletes were competing under the British flag. As Dr O’Callaghan took to the podium to be presented with his gold medal, for the first time in history, the Irish national anthem rang out across an Olympic stadium as the tricolour flag was raised. This was not the only time that Dr O’Callaghan experienced Olympic glory. He retained his gold medal status at the 1932 games in Los Angeles, though the victory was hard won. The playing surface was not the usual grass that Dr O’Callaghan had trained on, but instead it was made of cinder. This not only rendered his spiked shoes useless, but actually meant that they were a hindrance to his performance. When a delay in the hurdles event meant that he had some spare time, Dr O’Callaghan used a hacksaw to remove the spikes from his shoes. His ingenuity paid off and he once again brought home the gold for Ireland. 

Bob Tisdall

That same year, Ireland saw another success when Bob Tisdall secured a gold medal in the 400 metre hurdle event. Bob was born in Sri Lanka to Irish parents and raised in his mother’s homeplace of Nenagh, County Tipperary. A promising athlete from a young age, Bob won a number of titles whilst studying at Cambridge University. In 1930 and 1932, he won big at the Irish Athletics Championships as a hurdler. This was how he came to find himself crossing the Atlantic to represent his country at the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. Bob’s winning time of 51.8 was not just worthy of Olympic gold, but was also a new world record. Although unfortunately the rules at the time stated that since he had knocked a hurdle, his record would not count. Luckily this did not keep him from taking to the podium to receive his gold medal. This was less than an hour before his fellow countryman Dr O’Callaghan made his title-retaining win in the hammer throw. All in all a great day for Irish sport. Bob also competed in the decathlon event that year, placing 8th out of 15 entrants. 

Other Irish Winners*

The Irish went on to have a number of Olympic wins over the years. Twenty years after Tisdall and O’Callaghan’s wins in Los Angeles, John McNally competed at the 1952 games in Helsinki where he won a silver medal in boxing in the bantamweight class. Indeed boxing features strongly in the line up of Irish Olympic wins. A further four boxing medals were won at the 1956 games in Melbourne. That same year saw Ireland take home its first gold medal since 1932, when Ronnie Delaney ran to victory in the men’s 1500 metre race. Current CEO of Sport Ireland, John Tracey is a four time Olympian and won a silver medal in the marathon event at the 1984 in Los Angeles. In more recent times the O’Donovan brothers from Skibbereen took home a silver medal in rowing at the 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro. Not only did they win the medal, but they also won the hearts of the nation and the world when their interview videos went viral, showing the world the true, fun-loving nature of the Irish. 

Not forgetting the female competitors, Cork native Sonia O’Sullivan won silver in the women’s 5,000 metre race at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. For many years she was also a world record holder, having broken the record for 2,000 metres in 1994 which was not broken until 2017. Katie Taylor, another one of our more recent winners, brought home the gold medal in women’s lightweight boxing at the 2012 games in London. This win was Ireland’s only gold medal at the 2012 games and cemented Wicklow born Katie’s place as one of Ireland’s top athletes and one of the world’s top female fighters. 

Although we are undoubtedly a small country, our sporting background has meant that we have tasted Olympic glory on a number of occasions, and we will always be ready to proudly cheer on Team Ireland.

*In the interests of privacy, only people with a date of birth more than 100 years ago can be added to the XO Chronicles.

Click on the images to learn more about the entries that inspired this Chronicles Insight.

Peter O'Connor 1872

Peter O'Connor

Pat Callaghan 1906

Pat O'Callaghan 1906

Bob Tisdall 1907

Bob Tisdall

Ronnie Delaniey Wins Olympic Gold 1956

Ronnie Delaney Wins gold

Was your Irish ancestor a sportsperson? Add them to the XO Chronicles and share their story with people descended from the same place living in Ireland and all around the world today.