Clancy's passing brings to mind stories of old


Athletics:‘Are you John Joe Barry?” he was asked, after answering the phone, at some God early hour, at his small apartment in suburban Philadelphia.

“I am,” he replied, half wondering what trouble he was in this time.

“And were you ever known as The Ballincurry Hare?”

“Now look here, Buster,” he said, “I’m already late for work and I’m half-way out the door and if this is some kind of joke your timing is away off.”

Just before slamming down the phone, he was somehow convinced the man at the other end of the line was from RTÉ, in Dublin, and that someone had told him he was dead.

“Look, call me in my office in 20 minutes, and I’ll do my level best to prove to you that I’m alive . . .”

This little tale from Irish athletics history – one of those you couldn’t make up – features late on in John Joe Barry’s self-penned autobiography The Ballincurry Hare, a gem of a sporting book now sadly out of print.

It was sometime in early 1976, and Barry, once the most exciting middle-distance runner in Ireland, was working in an auto dealership, in east Philadelphia.

By then Barry’s life ambition, no less than his athletic one, had fallen desperately short, an alcohol addiction at least partly to blame.

As it turned out the man at the other end of the phone line was Fred Cogley, one of RTÉ’s main sports presenters. He’d tracked Barry down, four days after every newspaper in Ireland had written up glowing obituaries.

What happened was that previous Sunday, at noon mass in his old parish of The Commons, Tipperary, a prayer was read for the recently deceased JJ Barry.

Got confused

Someone got confused somewhere along the line, and on the Monday, one Dublin evening newspaper declared Barry – who had lost virtually all contact with Ireland – as dead.

On the Tuesday, all the dailies followed suit, with a particularly poignant tribute written up in the Irish Independent by Tom O’Riordan, who to this day insists he got confirmation of Barry’s death from a “good source”.

“It was now the Friday,” Barry wrote of Cogley’s phone call, “and I eventually convinced him that I was who he thought I was and that I was actually talking on the telephone and that I could not be possibly dead.”

Cogley was so taken by the tale that he arranged to fly out to America, the next day, to interview Barry for RTÉ. On arrival, he presented Barry with a “roll of newspapers that would choke an elephant, all of which had given me one hell of a send-off”.

Indeed Barry lived on for many years, eventually returning to Dublin, where he died on December 9th, 1994, the tributes on the second attempt not so glowing.

I was reminded of this tale on Monday, on hearing the news that fellow Irish Olympian and discus record holder Cummin Clancy had died, and told by the sports editor to “check that it’s true” – perhaps an inadvertent advisory against history repeating itself.

Clancy lived to the ripe old age of 90, at his adopted home in Garden City, New York, originally from the village of Glann, near Oughterard in Galway. His connection with Barry, and also former Olympic 400-metre runner Jimmy Reardon, is unique, in that together this trio began the long and now famous American scholarship trial, becoming the first Irish athletes to attend Villanova University.

Sealed the deal

Barry recalls the details of this in his book, how the three of them were in London for the 1948 Olympics, and while himself and Reardon may have sparked the idea, it was Clancy who perhaps sealed the deal: “George Guida, a member of the USA 440 squad and a student at Villanova, Reardon and myself were talking one evening after a snack in the dining-hall, and the conversation led into the meaning of an athletic scholarship in American universities.

“It was Reardon who put the question to him: ‘George, you’re telling me if you could run or jump well enough, you’d get a scholarship to an American university, which would include full tuition, full board, books, etc?’

“‘In my opinion’,” George continued, ‘both of you would easily qualify, from what I know, and from what you told me about yourselves. The very fact that you are both here representing your country, you must be the best Ireland has to offer at this moment. Villanova is very short of middle-distance runners at the moment, and nothing would go down better than to have a few Irish boys on the squad.’

“Just then Cummin Clancy, the discus-thrower, came over. Cummin was a magnificent specimen, 6ft 2ins in height, 46-inch chest, 32-inch waist and as good looking as Jack Doyle.

“Jimmy asked George, ‘How about Cummin here?’ “George took one look at Cummin (he already knew a little about him) and said, ‘Why, Jumbo Elliott would make him into a world-beater’”.

Unfortunately, Jumbo didn’t quite succeed: Barry admitted as much: “Cummin lacked co-ordination, and never perfected his spin in the throwing circle, although he did win the American Collegiate Championship with a throw of 172 feet – no mean feat.”

Now, Clancy’s passing leaves Reardon as the only surviving member of this historic trio – and wait until you hear his story.

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