Ian O’Riordan: Discovering the running genes on my mother’s side

Dad’s genes get the credit but my mother’s family produced champion runners

One of the problems with being born the son of a famous running father is that people occasionally forget you have a mother too. Over the years she’s often been left to do some humble reminding, for perfectly good reason as it again appears.

It’s always been generally agreed that I inherited my aeronautic cheekbones and thoroughbred legs from my father, the O’Riordan side, and my sweet tooth and thick mop of hair from my mother, the Charleton side. Among many other things, naturally. Either way anyone with a fancy degree in these matters will tell you the single most important factor in becoming half-way decent in whatever chosen pursuit in life is to choose your parents wisely.

Any fleeting success which came my way as a runner is partly explained by the fact my father was physically within the act itself, running the Waterhouse Byrne Baird Shield cross-country in the Phoenix Park, while I was being born on St Stephen’s Day, 1971, shortly after he’d dropped off my mother and the soon-to-be-me at Mount Carmel Hospital.

The good news is my mother insisted Stephen was too horrible a name for anyone born on St Stephen’s Day, so he suggested naming me after one of his favourite Scottish runners, Ian Stewart, which they did. In later years when anyone would christen me the Son of The Runner you’d want to see the hushed look they got from my mother.


There’s also a running joke in the family where my mother reminds my father that he may have run in the Olympics, run 13 Irish records, run against Ron Clarke and Abebe Bikila and Billy Mills, but he never ran in Lansdowne Road now, did he? Which is true, and to prove it there’s photograph at home of a young Barbara Charleton, seven or maybe eight years-old, around 1950, sprinting towards the front with a remarkably familiar stride.

Last week she uncovered another old photograph of her father Joe Charleton, my grandfather, standing proudly among the medal winners of the Open Mile at one of the many summer meetings staged by Civil Service Harriers Athletic Club. This is from around 1936, at the Polo Grounds in the Phoenix Park, when he was 22 or 23, and to his far left is his younger brother John Charleton, wearing the same club vest, all of which was new evidence to me.

Founded in 1867, the oldest athletics club in Ireland, membership was originally confined to civil servants, and among their early champions was Bram Stoker, and later Noel Carroll. Turns out Joe won several medals with Civil Service, which sadly weren’t passed down to anyone. Some years later he moved his wife and first few of nine children into a rented bungalow on Whitehall Road in Churchtown on Dublin’s southside, and one day my mother and her older sister Yvonne, home from school with chickenpox, decided to bury the medals down the garden, planning to later retrieve them as if some hidden treasure. Not long after, without much warning, they moved around the corner to Landscape Road, and the medals remain buried where they are.

Joe first moved from his home in Belfast to Dublin aged eight, when his even larger Catholic family were running in an entirely different sense. His father Daniel Charleton, my great-grandfather, owned a pub and whisky parlour just off the Falls Road which like many of that era doubled as the corner shop. In the early months of 1922, Civil War beckoning, B Specials attacked and burnt out the house next door, killing all inside except for one, who managed to hide under a bed before escaping.

Daniel wasn’t taking any further chances and immediately packed up his wife and 10 children and moved them to Dublin, leasing a pub on the southside of the city. He would continue to commute home to run Charleton’s, until later that year, travelling on the Dublin-Belfast train, he was either pushed or fell out the carriage door and killed instantly. One witness from the carriage behind pulled the emergency cord, freshly installed at the time, allowing the train to stop in time to find the body. A priest on the train also attended to the last rites, without which he mightn’t have been buried on consecrated ground. He was 47.

Events of that day have been rarely spoken about in the 100 years since. After his death, his widow Catherine Charleton, my great-grandmother then aged 39, had little choice only to return the whole lot to Belfast and keep the business going while raising 10 young children, which she did, before her death in 1977 aged 94.

Aged 18, Joe moved from Belfast to Dublin for the second time and promptly joined the civil service, where he first laid eyes on his wife Úna Ó Dálaigh, my grandmother, as they locked their bicycles outside the city offices. By then his athletic prowess was apparently evident given he walked and cycled everywhere, as she did too, only his increasing shift into the accountancy and tax practice – and rapidly growing family – meant his running career quickly wound down.

He remained utterly modest about it: at my parents’ wedding in 1966 Úna’s brother Cearbhall, then chief justice and later fifth president of Ireland, was reportedly delighted to hear his niece was marrying an Olympic runner, perhaps himself unaware of the athletic credentials already within the Charleton clan.

Joe and Úna kept remarkably fit throughout their lives, making weekly excursions into the Dublin and Wicklow mountains where I live now and they later built a house on the Aran Islands where we spent our summers running free.

He was always keen that his nine children take to some athletic pursuit too, and most did. His eldest son and my uncle Manus was on the De La Salle Churchtown team that lost the 1968 Leinster Schools Cup final to Blackrock, helping pave the way for the historic successes in the years to come.

When my father Tom first visited Landscape Road to be introduced to Joe he was warmly and politely welcomed into the house as the successful runner, to which he replied: “Ah, I do a bit.” If he’d wanted to, Joe could have said it back to him, for perfectly good reason as it again appears.