An Irishman's Diary

IAN O’RIORDAN (Irish Times, March 3rd, 2012) has written of the devastating spilt in Irish athletics which resulted in a depleted…

IAN O’RIORDAN (Irish Times, March 3rd, 2012) has written of the devastating spilt in Irish athletics which resulted in a depleted and bitterly divided team competing in the 1948 London Olympics. He rightly opined that the great pity is that certain Irish athletes remain wiped from Olympic history.

This was nothing new. In a glorious era of international show-jumping, the Army equestrian team of the 1930s were almost invincible, sweeping the boards all over Europe. In 1937, they won the Aga Khan Cup outright after winning three in a row at the Dublin Horse Show. Two of their stars were Bruff born Comdt Jed O’Dwyer, and his wonder horse, Limerick Lace, one of the most feared jumping combinations of that era. The team were in their prime coming up to the 1936 Berlin Olympics, and following on the great exploits of hammer thrower Pat O’Callaghan in Amsterdam (1928) and O’Callaghan again, with hurdler Bob Tisdall in Los Angeles (1932), the nation’s hopes were high of another gold bonanza.

6/4 was the price quoted in European equestrian circles for Ireland to win the team event in Berlin and O’Dwyer and team-mate Fred Ahern were expected to dominate the individual event.

Then politics intervened. At the time, the NACAI (National Athletics and Cycling Association of Ireland) legislated for athletes both north and south, with outstanding success it must be said, O’Callaghan’s and Tisdall’s achievements being the highlights.


Following these great successes, the ugly head of partition was unfortunately raised, and the NACAI arrangement was contested by the British. The International Federation found in their favour.

Negotiations between the Federation and the NACAI broke down, which led to the Irish association being debarred from competing abroad. The Irish team in its entirety was withdrawn.

Even though it is not officially recorded, taoiseach Éamon de Valera, with his inflexible stance on partition, was said to have given his imprimatur to the blanket withdrawal. Disbelief was the lot of O’Dwyer and his team-mates. All the work and struggle leading up the great dream of Olympic glory lay shattered.

To rub salt into the wounds, O’Dwyer was now informed that he was to travel to the Berlin Olympics as a non-participating emissary. This decision was made to appease the Germans and to remove any illusion that the Irish team was withdrawn for idealistic reasons such as abhorrence of fascism.

O’Dwyer, a former O/C 3rd East Limerick battalion of the IRA, attended the Olympic events in the full uniform of an Irish officer. Walking the course, he reckoned that, at worst, the Irish would have incurred 16, maybe 20, faults. In the event, Germany won the gold with 44 faults. Holland was placed second with 51 and Portugal picked up the bronze medals with a total of 56 faults.

For O’Dwyer, this was heartbreak as the Germans won the gold without even jumping well, and the Dutch, who had never finished ahead of the Irish in any Nations Cup in the previous four years, picked up the silver medals. In the individual contest, any of the Irish team was well capable of lifting the gold, and O’Dwyer and team-mate Ahern particularly would have been extremely fancied.

The vexed issue of the withdrawal was to continue to haunt the team members ever afterwards. According to historian Tom Toomey in his fine book, Forgotten Dreams, O’Dwyer thought strongly of tendering his resignation but was persuaded by Colonel O’Carroll to stay on. The hurt remained for many years and O’Dwyer eventually resigned from the Army.

O’Dwyer stated that as a group, or even individually, they never discussed the matter. The hurt feelings and bitter disappointment were too great. No word of apology or explanation was ever received and there is no record of any kind in army equestrian records of the team being withdrawn.

Another to lose out on what in all probability would have been another gold medal, was hammer thrower Pat O’Callaghan, who remained loyal to the NACAI. The year after the Berlin Olympics (he attended as a spectator) he broke the world record at Fermoy by seven feet. Politics again, it was not ratified on the world stage.

There was indeed a jinx on these Berlin Olympics regarding Irish-born participants. The legendary Casey brothers from Sneem, more famous for their wrestling prowess, were first-class oarsmen as well, their skills honed on the waters that surrounded their home in Co Kerry. In 1936, rowing with the English club, Ace RC, Paddy, Tom, Mick and Steve swept all before them, winning that country’s all-England fours championship. This entitled them to represent England in Berlin, and they were also entered in several other events, in which they were expected to win.

Sadly, they never got going. The previous year, two of the crew, Steve and Paddy, had wrestled professionally (a decision they bitterly regretted) and this debarred them from participation in the Olympics.

Paddy, in later years, said they would have reached the heights of Olympic fame if they had been allowed to compete. “We would have won every single race,” he maintained.