Don’t forget your shovel: a monument to Irish-American affection for the Old Sod

Several Irish-Americans conspired to fly a shovel across the Atlantic in 1957

Before long they were sitting down with the man behind the stadium plan, Billy Morton, a former marathon runner then on the way to becoming Ireland’s first (and to date last) great athletics impresario.

Before long they were sitting down with the man behind the stadium plan, Billy Morton, a former marathon runner then on the way to becoming Ireland’s first (and to date last) great athletics impresario.

 

Irish Americans have always taken a keen interest in the Old Sod, as we know. But this has rarely been so true as in June 1957, when several of them conspired to fly a shovel across the Atlantic to help dig up a small piece of North Dublin.

It was no ordinary shovel. It was a special chromium-plated edition from the Ames Company, then the world’s biggest shovel-maker and one of the oldest firms in the US. It was no ordinary sod, either, marking as it did the start of work on what became Morton Stadium, Ireland’s first world-class athletics track.

The story had its origins seven months earlier, when Ronnie Delany won the Olympic 1500 metres in Melbourne and returned to Ireland a hero. Here to cover the homecoming was Gerald Holland, a reporter with Sports Illustrated (SI), and the son of a Clare emigrant.

Holland’s report attracted the attention of Bernard McDonough, another American, with roots in Galway, reputed to be the richest man in West Virginia. McDonough had begun his working life on the floor of a shovel factory for 15 cents an hour. Now he owned the factory, and much else besides.

But he knew all about the struggles of the old country, and thought he could help, perhaps by opening a shovel factory here. So he first sought the advice of Holland, with recent experience of conditions on the ground.

The “Great American Novel” is well-known in world literature. Less storied is its near namesake, the “Great American Shovel”. But that was a sub-theme of an epic feature Holland subsequently wrote for SI – “Mr McDonough’s Magic Shovel” – about the two men’s joint adventures in Irish philanthropy.

Gold Rush

Through Ames, as Holland romanticised it, McDonough was inheritor of a company that had probably supplied tools to the “California Gold Rush”, the first “skyscrapers of New York”, and maybe even to a boyhood Abraham Lincoln who, lacking pens and paper, is said to have practised maths equations using charcoal on the back of a wooden shovel.

Now perhaps, Ames could do something great for Ireland too. But charitably minded as McDonough was, he also had the sharp edge of his products. Before committing himself to opening an Irish factory, he first travelled here with Holland to find out if Irish people would work as hard at home as they did abroad.

While they investigated, the sports reporter broached the subject of another enterprise McDonough might like to help: plans by a Dublin running club called Clonliffe Harriers to construct Ireland’s first cinder athletic track.

Stadium plan

The factory owner was initially unenthused. Lack of a running track was the least of Ireland’s problems, he thought. But evoking the vast numbers of potential Ronnie Delanys such a track might encourage, Holland talked him round.

Before long they were sitting down with the man behind the stadium plan, Billy Morton, a former marathon runner then on the way to becoming Ireland’s first (and to date last) great athletics impresario. The charismatic Morton so impressed that McDonough made him a $1,000 donation.

Meanwhile, Holland activated a plot he had hatched with TWA airlines. The chrome shovel flew into Dublin soon afterwards to consummate the relationship. After turning the sod, to the flashing of press cameras, it was presented to Clonliffe, which planned to use it as an unconventional trophy in future competitions (sadly, its location today is unknown).

McDonough never did open a factory here. Instead, he redeveloped Dromoland Castle in Clare as a luxury hotel and built three other hotels too. At his death in 1985, The Irish Times reported he had “never taken any money out of Ireland”, putting all profits back into the business.

Among his possessions in later years was a miniature silver replica of the shovel, presented by Morton, a man whose own genius for public relations included naming his track the “Kennedy Stadium” in time for the presidential visit of 1963, whose cavalcade would pass en route Dublin.

Today, of course, the venue commemorates Morton himself who, a bit like Kennedy, was to have a tragically premature end. In light of the foregoing, there’s a bitter irony in how it happened. He was walking home one night, aged 59, when according to press reports, he fell into a hole that had been dug by workmen from the Department of Posts and Telegraphs and suffered a fatal heart attack. It was December 14th, 1969, 50 years ago today.

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