Running into trouble – Michael Cullen on the rift in Irish athletics in the 1930s

An Irishman’s Diary

Now that the nation's euphoria and spontaneous outpouring of pride and joy surrounding boxer Kellie Harrington's spectacular gold medal win in Tokyo have naturally waned a little, it is worth recalling a time when Irish athletes were denied their moment in the sun and glory on the podium through no fault of their own. It was long before southpaw Michael Carruth boxed clever to win the gold welterweight at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.

The drama even preceded Ronnie Delany's unforgettable feat in out-running Germany's Klaus Richzenhaim and local hero John Landy to be the first to burst the tape and take Olympic gold in the 1,500 metres in Melbourne in 1956.

The rift that emerged in Irish athletics, which shattered the hopes and dreams of some of the nation’s most promising runners, surrounded a series of political events that occurred in the 1930s.

The National Athletics & Cycling Association (NACA), which co-ordinated athletics meetings throughout the country, was formed in 1922, the year of the Civil War, after the merger between the Irish Amateur Athletics Association, the Irish Cycling Association and the GAA Athletics Council.

Amid heightened tensions, the GAA withdrew from athletics to focus on football, hurling, camogie and handball. The NACA became affiliated to the International Amateur Athletics Association (IAAF) in 1924 and sent teams to the Olympic Games that year, and also in 1928 and 1932.

It also sent five athletes to the British Empire Games in Canada in 1930.

As and from the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, the athletes would represent Ireland, or Éire, and not the Irish Free State which had been established in 1922 under the Anglo-Irish Treaty signed in London in December 1921. However, Britain was adamant that the North's 10 athletics clubs must operate as part of its Amateur Athletics Association (AAA), along with the home countries of England, Scotland and Wales.

Britain refused to accept a decision which had been adopted at the World Congress in Los Angeles and ignored a motion, jointly proposed by Italy and Poland, that no further discussion on the issue should take place. The vote had been carried by two to one.

In 1933, Britain decided to set up a board legitimising the AAA, and the IAAF international body ratified its affiliation. The NACA vehemently protested but was warned by IAAF president Sigrid Edstrom that unless it accepted the new arrangement, they risked suspension.

At the international congress in Stockholm in 1934, the British move was passed by just nine votes, after 10 countries abstained.

Only Ireland voted against, but without there being a majority of delegates present.

Before the Stockholm vote was cast, British Olympian Harold Abrahams approached an Irish delegate and said that if an alternative to flying the Tricolour could be found at international competitions, Britain would not oppose such a proposal.

Those in charge of the NACA were incensed.

As a consequence, the Ireland team was withdrawn from the International Cross Country Championships in Wales, after the AAA entered a team from the North of Ireland.

The hopes and dreams of young Irish athletes competing at the inaugural European Championships at the Stadio Benito Mussolini in Turin in 1934 were quashed. It resulted after the delegates attending the NACA annual congress voted against the IAAF ruling by a slim majority.

In 1935, the IAAF suspended the NACA from all international competitions.

A year later, the great Billy Morton, after whom the athletics stadium in sentry was named, became the Irish marathon champion in a record time of two hours, 47 minutes, and 28 seconds. Just three years earlier, Ireland had bathed in the glory of Olympic success, with gold medals awarded on the same day to hammer thrower Dr Pat O'Callaghan and Bob Tisdall in the 400m hurdles in a record time of 51.7 seconds.

Accompanying the Irish athletes to the summer games in Los Angeles that year was the irrepressible Eoin O'Duffy, who as well as being the NACA president, found the energy to launch the Army Comrades Association (ACA), better known as the Blueshirts, with 30,000 recruits in 1932.

It is hard to determine the extent to which Irish athletics was hampered by the discord in the 1930s, but undoubtedly some athletes lost out on the chance to compete at international level.

In a new memoir, A Leaf in the Wind, the late Matt Cullen alludes to his chagrin at missing out on competing in the half mile at the first European Championships in Turin in 1934. Not for him, or any other Irish runners, was there any prospect of standing on the winners' podium that year.

Nonetheless, Matt was chuffed to earn three international caps – or "appearances" as they called them in those days – in competitions held at Croke Park. In 1934, he won the one-mile race at the Dorset Police Sports event in England in a time of four minutes 11 seconds. The Turin singlet given to him by the NACA as a memento remained close to his heart.


A Leaf in the Wind, adapted and edited by

Michael Cullen

, is published by Gregmar Books,