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Jim Stynes: Possibly the greatest Irish emigrant of them all

In losing Jim Stynes, we have not only lost a sporting hero, but one of the greatest and most successful Irish emigrants ever to leave our shores, writes Philip O’Connor.

Wed, Mar 21, 2012, 01:00


In losing Jim Stynes, we have not only lost a sporting hero, but one of the greatest and most successful Irish emigrants ever to leave our shores, writes Philip O’Connor.

Jim Stynes

I saw Jim Stynes play just once for the Dublin minor gaelic football team – even then, he was a man among boys – but when he took the hard road to Australia and life as a professional athlete, the wizened voices on the Hill thought it might prove a step too far.

Jim didn’t agree, and we shouldn’t have doubted him; shortly afterwards he was literally taking on – and beating – the Australians at their own game.

He is spoken of as one of the best ever to play the game of Australian Rules football, and remains the only non-Australian to have won the Brownlow medal for his fearless, skillful displays. His unbroken streak of 244 games for the Melbourne Demons may never be bettered.

In the toughest of all ball sports, Jim Stynes was the toughest of them all, and it’s no reflection on his brother Brian that, during the barren years, Dubs fans longed for the day when Jim might return to grace Croke Park, just for a summer.

His sporting heroics belong for the most part to the pre-Youtube, pre-saturation coverage era, with the result that we probably find it hard to fully appreciate what he did.

But whatever he did on the field, it was his work off it that really won him the hearts and minds of the Australian community that he adopted – and in return, it adopted him.

His outstanding and tireless work for the youth of the city, and his ferocious battle to rid Australian sport of its inherent racism won him plaudits from all corners of society.

As if that wasn’t enough, he cemented his place in the city’s history by helping to turn around the club he loved, ridding it of its debt burden and building a bright new future.

And even when cancer took hold, he did not bow down before it. Sensing the clock running down in the game of life, he kept going, hard at it, to the end. He never looked to the bench for a break, despite the toll his illness took on him.

Recently here in Stockholm, I had been feeling that I might want to cut back a little on the community activities, especially now that St Patricks’ Day is over. I was tired – it seems that every night lately there’s been a meeting or a fundraiser, or a slew of e-mails to be answered, sponsorship to be secured, calls to be made.

Then came the sad news of Jim’s death and all notions of cutting back are now gone.

Because the best way to honour the memory of Jim Stynes is not to mourn him, but to be inspired by his remarkable courage, his dignity, his intelligence and his bravery. If any of us can achieve even a fraction of what he did, we will have done an immense service for our communities, at home and abroad.

It’s not going to be easy – everyone has days when they don’t feel up to it, or that it’s too much trouble. But Jim Stynes had his share of aches and pains during those 244 games; never once did he let his team down.

And for those of us trying to rebuild the reputation of Ireland abroad in the wake of the crisis, there is no better role model than Jim – possibly the greatest Irish emigrant of them all.

Philip O’Connor is author of A Parish Far From Home. He is a freelance writer/journalist/producer, and MD of Eblana Communications. He blogs as ourmaninstockholm and tweets @philipoconnor.