INTERVIEW:As London prepares to host the Olympic Games – for the first time since 1948 – MALACHY CLERKINspeaks to four of the 11 surviving members of that year’s Irish Olympic team
THE WORLD TURNS and words get rack-stretched with the ages. Since the 1948 Olympics in London are known today as the Austerity Games, it’s worth pointing out that the final budget for those games came to £732,268. In fact, so careful were the organisers with their money back then that they actually made a profit of almost £30,000.
And the current budget for the 2012 games? Ahem, £12 billon and rising by the minute, five times what was anticipated when London won the bid in 2005. Truly, austerity ain’t what it used to be.
Ireland sent 73 Olympians (68 men and five women) to London in 1948 – a number than has only been bettered in the years since by the 78 we sent to Atlanta in 1996. They competed in sailing and rowing and diving, basketball and boxing, athletics and fencing, show jumping and football.
It was also the last time the Olympics included an art competition, which turned out to be the source of the only Irish medal at the games. Letitia Hamilton from Dunboyne, Co Meath won a bronze for her painting Meath Hunt Point-To-Point Races.
Next Friday, the 11 surviving members of the 1948 Olympic team will be honoured with a lunch at Farmleigh House in the Phoenix Park, where eight will attend in person and the rest will be represented by family members. Theirs are lives from another age, lived in arcs far wider than most of us can fathom. We talked to four of them.
Most of the Irish team went to the London Olympics just for the hell of it. The war was over, the world was changing and here they were, being handed a chance to go and see London on someone else’s shilling. Cummin Clancy was a little different. The 26-year-old discus thrower from Oughterard, Co Galway was already well-established and his Irish record in the event would stand for 19 years. He had won the British AAA Championships in 1948, just a fortnight before the Games. The Olympics were more than just a jolly to him.
“I would have been the best in the British Isles,” he says. “I would have been around fourth or fifth in the world in the discus at one point. But I didn’t really come close to a medal in London.”
In Wembley Stadium, with 85,000 people in the stands, he walked out and took his place as the first person from Co Galway ever to represent Ireland at the Olympics. And then it all went wrong. Clancy’s best throw only came to 40.73 metres, almost a full 4 metres short of the distance needed to make it to the final. His one shot at the Olympics fizzled out almost as soon as it had begun.
And yet Cummin Clancy’s life changed forever on that trip to London. More than that, Irish athletics changed forever. While there, he and 400-metre runner Jimmy Reardon were approached by an American coach who asked if they’d like to come and compete for his university on an athletics scholarship. The coach was Jumbo Elliott, the university was Villanova, and Clancy and
Reardon became the first Irish athletes to join up, beating a path that was followed down the decades by waves of recruits from Ronnie Delaney to Eamon Coghlan to Sonia O’Sullivan.
Villanova was located right next door to Rosemont College, then a women-only university, where young Maureen O’Grady, the daughter of Irish immigrants, was studying. This summer, they’ll be married 58 years. “He told me that he was going back to Ireland,” she says, “but as time went on, things changed. He got a good job with GM. We came up to New York and Cummin set up his own insurance agency, which was very successful.
“We were married eight years and had five children before my first visit to Ireland. We took the three older children, who were six, five and three at the time. We didn’t go the next year ,but we’ve been back every year since, until this past year when it was a bit much for Cummin.”
The Clancys live in Garden City, New York, but built a house in Glann, Oughterard in 1967.
Although Clancy, who turns 90 in November, never went to another Olympics, the sporting gene was passed along. His eldest son, Seán, played a couple of seasons in the NFL for the Miami Dolphins and his great-nephew Matthew won an All Ireland football title with Galway in 2001.
Much like the basketball team, the soccer squad that Ireland sent to London was a real make-do-and-mend affair. Thrown together just a week before the games, they didn’t even travel over together, but were left to make their own way and told to meet up in Portsmouth for their game against Holland. Brendan O’Kelly was 18, the youngest of the team, and for him it was all an adventure.
“Holland were a good side,” he says. “The rules on amateurism weren’t as strictly adhered to in that country as they were in Britain and Ireland, so two of the Dutch players were members of their international first team, which probably shouldn’t have been allowed. They beat us 3-1. We held them out for a long time and could have made it a 2-2 draw with a bit of luck. But they were too good for us.”
Just like that, they were gone. Their Olympics over before they had begun. Almost literally so, in that the opening ceremony hadn’t even taken place by then. Ireland lost to Holland on July 26th in Portsmouth and King George IV officially opened the games on July 29th in Wembley Stadium.
O’Kelly wasn’t put out at all – it meant a three-week holiday in London with a free pass into every event and free travel on all London transport. He moved up to Willesden to join the other Irish Olympians and had the time of his life. They got in some scrapes, mind. “At the time, there was rationing in England and you had to bring your own food along to where you were billeted. Each country had to bring their own . There was a communal cafe and at mealtimes you went up and declared your nationality and you would be served from your country’s stock of supplies.
“Ourselves and the Australians had very similar blazers – both bottle green with the only difference being the logo. The Irish one had a flag and they had a kangaroo. Both countries were amply-supplied with goods because we came from agricultural backgrounds, but they had one thing that we hadn’t seen for years: oranges. They had vats of orange juice.
“We used approach the counter trembling, asking for orange juice with our hands over our breast pockets. And it worked for a while. But then the Australians started wondering where all their orange juice was disappearing to. They worked it out eventually and it ended in a punch-up one day out on Willesden Green between our boxers and their wrestlers.”
O’Kelly played for Bohemians when he came home and went on to study at Harvard. He was chairman of Bord Iascaigh Mhara in the 1960s and 1970s. He lives in Foxrock with his wife and daughter.
“When I talk to people now and they ask when I played, I tell them it was back as far as 1948. And when they ask what it was like then, I say we played with a square ball – you couldn’t head it very well but it was good for taking corners.”
How do you make it on to the Olympic basketball squad? Simple, says Harry Boland. You go to the trial game, you play well early on and then you make sure not to do anything silly for the rest of the game.
“We were playing with mostly Army men,” he laughs now. “They didn’t know us. I got a couple of early baskets and then, as if I was a smart guy, I didn’t shoot anymore. And I was picked.”
Army men or not, they were a ramshackle bunch, the Irish Olympic basketball team of 1948. Boland played because a UCD hurling cohort of his, Fr Joe Horan, had introduced him to the game. From a staunch GAA background – his uncle was the Harry Boland, and to this day, he maintains that his grandfather Jim Boland convinced Michael Cusack to set up the GAA – he was also attracted by basketball because it was one of the few sports that remained unaffected by The Ban.
“There was no training,” he says. “We never played together as a team before we went. That trial match was the only time we met each other before we lined out at the Olympics. And we had no outfits. The Army gave us trunks to wear and we got a singlet. And when the games were over, the Army took the trunks back.”
“I was studying to be a chartered accountant – at that time they were called article clerks. I was articled into my brother’s firm, as was Charles Haughey, and we went on to set up business together afterwards. I had to take my three weeks’ holidays to go to the Olympics. It was the first time I was ever out of Ireland. Of course, we were completely outclassed in all our games.” They were lambs to the slaughter. In six matches, the closest they got to anyone was a 46-21 defeat to Great Britain. Mexico beat them 71-9, France – who went on to win the silver medal – took them for 73-14. But what could Ireland expect?
They were so badly prepared that they didn’t know until they got there that they’d been practising with the wrong sort of ball – a laced-up leather thing that was far heavier than the regulation ball they were presented with in London. Still, the experience was everything.
“Our games were played in Haringey,” Boland remembers, “which was a marvellous place. A special double-decker bus would come around to collect us and bring us to our event, stopping along the way to pick up competitors from this country or that country. Every language was being spoken on the bus and a lot of the lads would be going to me, ‘Harry, in the name of God would you say something in Irish.’ So I’d start saying ‘Sé do bheatha, a Mhuire . . .’”
After the Olympics, Boland went on to become president of the Irish Basketball Association, as well as chairman of the National Concert Hall.
Still hale and hearty and living in Sutton, north Dublin, he is the only surviving member of that 1948 basketball team.
“They used to say that if you ended up rowing in Belvedere College,” laughs Morgan McElligott, “it was because you weren’t good enough at cricket.” They had no such qualms about it at UCD though, and when McElligott and the rest of the UCD eight won the All-Ireland title in 1948, it meant that the majority of them would be going to London for the Olympics.
“With the addition of Robin Tamplin from Trinity, Paddy Harrold from Neptune, and Dan Taylor from Queens to strengthen the crew, we were together for 17 days in total. American crews were a year together in preparation. I suppose really we couldn’t expect to do well. We performed badly when we got there.” That they did, although they were very nearly in the midst of an international incident before even making it to the water.
“As we stood in the tunnel in Wembley preparing to come out for the opening parade, a chap arrived with this sign that said Éire. Commandant Chisholm, who was our Chef de Mission, intervened and said, ‘Well, this is all wrong. We want Ireland. Ireland is our name, that’s what we will walk out behind.’
“The chap who was organising the parade came over to see what all the fuss was about. ‘What’s wrong with Éire?’ he said. ‘My brother-in-law lives over there and he gets all the letters I send him and they’re addressed to Éire.’ The row continued and it took the intervention of the rowing team manager Donal O’Leary to sort it out. He went to Cmdt Chisholm and said, ‘Look, there are thousands of Irish people in the stands there and they are expecting us. We must take our place.’ ”
They took it dutifully and a week later McElligott and the rest of the crew were in Henley competing. But they didn’t do themselves justice at all, finished last by 20 seconds in their three-team heat and coming up against eventual bronze medallists Norway in the repecharge.
“My basic thing was that if I’m in the crew for the Olympics, fair enough. And if I’m not in it, I couldn’t really care because we’re not going to win, not with the short preparation time. But it was very enjoyable when I was there.
“One funny afterthought to it all came when the team officials were invited to Buckingham Palace to the tea party, by King George VI. One by one, the nations were presented to the king and when it came to the turn of the Irish, the courtier introduced them by saying, ‘And now Your Majesty . . . Ireland.’ There was no talk of Éire at all!”
When he came home, McElligott dedicated his life to medicine, working for 33 years in cardiology in Ballinasloe. He went on to work in Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Cyprus.
Now 87, he still swims a kilometre every morning, despite the havoc that the chlorine in his local swimming pool wreaks on his hay fever.