Kingdom crack-shot – Frank McNally on Dennis Fenton, a forgotten Irish Olympian

Feats of marksmanship

He was born in Kerry in the late 1880s, joined a certain army in April 1916, and went on to distinguish himself as a gunman in the summer of 1920.

But no, Dennis Fenton (1888-1954) was not a veteran of the Easter Rising or War of Independence. He had emigrated to Fitchburg, Massachusetts in 1906. It was an American soldier’s uniform he donned 10 years later, during the first World War.

And the scene of his greatest feats of marksmanship was in peacetime Belgium, at the Antwerp Olympics in 1920, where he won three gold medals and a bronze, all in shooting competitions.

He was back again in Paris, four years later, to add another Olympic bronze to his career total, this time in the interestingly named “team running deer” discipline.


No animals were harmed in that either: it was a competition that combined running and shooting at a deer-shaped target.

After that, the marksman returned to army life until retirement when he moved to California, where he died in 1954 and where his military gravestone declares him to be “Dennis Fenton [of] Ireland”.

But because his medals were won for the US, you’ve probably never heard of him until now. Nor, until recently, had his own grandnephew Brian McKenna, a 78-year-old Dublin-exiled son of Kerry parents, who has shared his new-found knowledge with me in an email.

The neglect of Fenton’s memory in the land of his birth will formally end on Wednesday afternoon, however, when Brian and other members of the extended family gather in the Olympian’s home village, Ventry, Co Kerry, for the unveiling of a memorial bench, inscribed with his achievements.

Fenton was not from Ventry, exactly. He was born in the nearby, and also interestingly-named, townland of Ballincota (“Town of the coat”).

Nobody seems to be sure how that derived, although it appears to be no relation to another Dingle peninsula celebrity, Seán a Chóta (Seán the Coat), a lexicographer of Kerry Irish, about whom I was writing here a while back (Diary, January 27th, 2022).

The placename database Logainm’s best guess about Ballincota is that “some say it once] belonged to a Mr Coates”.


The 1920 Olympics was a notably successful one for Irish athletes, albeit none of them could represent a team called Ireland. This was despite the establishment beforehand of an Irish Olympic Council, which sought formal recognition for competitors from this island.

In a grandiose statement, the IOC claimed ancient justification for a separate Irish team: “Our nation has a history of adeptness in, and devotion to, athletic pursuits coeval at least with that of Greece itself.”

In the event, Ireland’s case for athletic greatness once more had to be made mostly by members of the diaspora – usually, like Fenton, in American colours.

Thus the “Irish Whales”, a group of men so-named for their size and appetites, who represented the US in many of the early modern Olympics and added several more gold medals to their trove in 1920.

They included Limerick-born hammer thrower Paddy Ryan, who beat his nearest rival in Antwerp, a Swede, by a record margin. Pat “Babe” McDonald, originally from Doonbeg, Co Clare, also won gold, in the single-handed shot-put.


All of which must have given rise to optimism that, when a newly independent Ireland made its debut at the 1924 games in Paris, a large haul of medals would accrue.

But as a centenary exhibition at that city’s Centre Culturel Irlandais – “Paris 1924 – 2024″ – reminds us, it didn’t quite happen. There were to be no athletic medals for Ireland in 1924: that breakthrough would have to wait another four years, until Pat O’Callaghan’s hammer win in Amsterdam.

In the meantime, the Free State was forced to rely on artists waxing (or painting) lyrical about sport to bring medals home from Paris.

Jack B Yeats famously won a silver for his depiction of the previous year’s Liffey Swim. Meanwhile, advancing the Irish Olympic Council’s claims to this island’s sporting rivalry with ancient Greece, Oliver St John Gogarty earned a bronze for his marathon lyric poem, designed to be sung by a 500-member choir, about the Tailteann Games.

Those were about to be revived, after a seven-and-a-half-century hiatus, and they were revived on an epic scale.

The Paris Olympics were themselves much grander than before, up from 19 competing countries in 1920 to 44. But as the Cultural Centre’s show reminds us, the 1924 Olympics were not the world’s biggest sporting event of the year: “That distinction went to the Tailteann Games, or Aonach Tailteann, which were held in Dublin just a week after events in Paris concluded.”

A digital version of the exhibition is now online (at and the show can also be viewed in the CCI’s courtyard until September.