No-vault compensation – Frank McNally on the many talents of Ulick O’Connor
Ulick O’Connor: a top-class pole vaulter. Photograph: David Sleator
Not the least impressive of the late Ulick O’Connor’s many talents, although barely mentioned in obituaries, is that he was for many years a top-class pole vaulter. He was also a boxer, cricketer, and rugby player, of course, and was handy enough at soccer that he once marked half of Stanley Matthews (it was a two-man job) in a friendly at Dalymount Park.
But the pole-vaulting must have been a unique distinction for a writer. Even among sports, it’s one of the more eccentric disciplines. And yet it arguably suits a personality that, as O’Connor’s did, combines athleticism and intellect in about equal proportions. The great Ukrainian vaulter Sergei Bubka called it a “professor’s sport”, because “one must not just run and jump, but one must think”.
Whatever about the running and jumping part, O’Connor wasn’t the only Irish writer to think about vaulting. The poet Patrick Kavanagh did too, in his part-time capacity as a sports journalist. Indeed, it was he who recorded in passing – literally – the moment when O’Connor, by his own account, became an ex-vaulter.
They crossed paths on Dublin’s Grafton Street one day in the late 1950s, by which time O’Connor had survived the sport’s evolution from bamboo poles to steel. Now there was a whole new challenge on the horizon, as gleefully related by Kavanagh.
“You’re finished,” O’Connor quoted him saying. “I have just come from the White City [an athletics stadium in London] and they have a new fibre-glass pole. It bends in half and fires you over the bar. It’s not a vault any longer. It’s a bloody catapult. They’re in orbit.”
Kavanagh may have been exaggerating about the altitude, but he was right about O’Connor. An athlete could reinvent himself only so often. For him, fibre-glass was a pole too far.
One consolation of retirement was that he no longer had to lug his equipment around from meeting to meeting. At over five metres long, vaulting poles must be the most challenging pieces of tackle to transport, never mind compete with. This may not have been part of the thinking Bubka referred to – the old Soviet Union’s athletes were well looked after. But an Irish vaulter carried his pole like a cross. Even getting it on and off trains required ingenuity. Taxis were something else.
O’Connor claimed to have developed a technique at London’s Euston Station of hiding it behind a pillar while hailing cabs. Once safely in the vehicle, he would then reach out for the pole and hold it to the side of the car for the duration of the journey, hoping the driver’s objections were nothing worse than expletives.
I don’t know if O’Connor had anything to do with the fact that one of Japan’s leading racehorses of recent times, despite being bred and born in Hokkaido, is called Deirdre. But it’s a plausible theory, at least. Among his literary output were Three Noh Plays, inspired by that ancient Japanese form of drama, in which actors wear masks and emotion is conveyed mostly by stylised movement. One of those plays was Deirdre, based on the tragic heroine of Irish legend, aka Deirdre of the Sorrows. In WB Yeats’s version of the same story, Deirdre was a princess. In JM Synge’s, she was a country girl. O’Connor’s version was somewhere between the two, I think. One reviewer of a 1986 performance declared it “beautiful and moving”.
As for the four-legged Deirdre, there has been nothing tragic about her career so far, although she is also considered beautiful and moving, in her own way. After a string of successes in Japan, she made history this summer by winning a big race at England’s “Glorious Goodwood” meeting, when her jockey was a young man with another name from Irish legend, Oisin (Murphy).
Speaking of whom, however, I am reminded that in Hamamatsu, where many Irish rugby fans stayed for the Japan game last month, there is a pub called Tir na n-Óg. Despite which, the proprietors – and the beer – were 100 per cent Japanese. They just liked the name and guessed correctly it wouldn’t do business any harm.
Wherever it derived, presumably Japanese people have no pronunciation problems with “Deirdre”, unlike other names from these parts.
I speak as somehow who also threatened to be big in Japan recently, if only for a day. A video I posted on Twitter of Irish fans paying tribute to the Japanese victory attracted 850,000 views. And that and my report were picked up by a local news website, the reflected glory from which was diminished somewhat by the reference, as translated, to “Irish Times journalist, Frank McNary”.