O’Callaghan’s Olympian feats can inspire a new generation of throwers

New throwing cage at Templemore to nurture talent in Olympic champion’s county

One fine evening in the summer of 1926, Pat and Con O'Callaghan cycled home from an athletics meeting in Cork city to a family farm in Knockardsharrive, owned by their mother's relatives, close to where the O'Callaghan's brothers grew up in Derrygallon, a few miles outside of Kanturk, in the north of the county.

They were well known and popularly regarded at the time as among the most exciting of Cork’s sporting prospects, although later events transpired a little differently.

Pat O'Callaghan, tall and strong for his age, always fancied himself as a Gaelic footballer and rugby player first, then a sprint hurdler and high jumper second, winning a series of medals in those events wearing the red vest of Banteer Athletics Club.

Things changed later that summer when O’Callaghan, who was 16-years-old when he first entered the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin, first laid eyes on the hammer.

Two years later, and just 13 months after making his competitive debut, O’Callaghan was Olympic champion in the event. He defended the title in 1932, and would likely have won a third gold medal in 1936 had the politics of Irish athletes not stood in his way.

O'Callaghan's spectacular rise in the event comes to mind this weekend as a reminder of what might or should be: look at the World Indoor Athletics Championships in Belgrade, and just like the Tokyo Olympics last summer, there isn't a single Irish field representative, jumping or throwing for that matter, and there is no good reason why not. Ask any of the well paid people at Athletics Ireland and they must agree to agree.

O'Callaghan certainly wasn't part of any old gilded age either. Con Houlihan once said the danger with a myth is that it becomes stronger than a legend, although O'Callaghan can lay claim to both. It's said too he's still the youngest ever to graduate from the Royal College of Surgeons, gaining the highest mark ever awarded in the final year, and only by pure chance did he take to his field event speciality.

It was while attending an athletics meeting at the then UCD sports grounds in Terenure in 1926 that O'Callaghan first spied this throwing implement, and without further ado he set out to make it his own.

Back at Knockardsharrive later that summer, he set out his first throwing circle. According to myth and legend, he borrowed a number of cannon balls that were laid out at Macroom Castle, and with the help of a local blacksmith, O'Callaghan bore a hole and inserted some steel clothes line afforded to him by his mother.

By the following summer of 1927, O'Callaghan was Irish champion in the event, further inspired and indeed instructed in no small part by John Flanagan, the Limerick-born hammer thrower who won three successive Olympic gold medals representing the USA. Still behind every great athlete there is a great coach, and without a professional tailor named John Tallon, he might never had struck Olympic gold.

O'Callaghan met him by pure chance, approached on the streets of Dublin with the proposition that Tallon could help make him the champion thrower of the world. There was another critical input too from a Garda superintendant named Dinny Carey, and together they turned out a young athlete already in his prime by those 1928 Olympics, O'Callaghan paying his own fare to Amsterdam.

In his next to last throw, he improved his best by 20 inches, his mark of 168 feet and seven inches just four inches beyond silver medal winner Ossian Skjold from Sweden.

With that the Irish Free State had its first global sporting champion. The story of O'Callaghan defending his Olympic title in Los Angeles four years later has been told many times, assisted by Bob Tisdall, who moments earlier had won the gold medal in the 400 metres hurdles.

Made suddenly aware the throwing circle was harder than anticipated, O’Callaghan, aided by Tisdall, ground down the spikes on his throwing shoes, and with his final throw of the steel ball and chain, just an inch shy of 177 feet, landed his second gold medal.

Tragic accident

The story of what happened to O’Callaghan after his second Olympic triumph is less well told, in part because it involved some personal tragedy.

He missed out on the 1936 Olympics in Berlin because at that point the Irish athletics federation, the National Athletic and Cycling Association (NACA), was suspended by the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF), given their loyalty to a 32-county Ireland, and after voting against the ruling member associations be delimited by international political boundaries.

Still he continued to compete until the summer of 1938, before retiring suddenly after a tragic accident at a training ground in Mallow, where his hammer struck and killed a young boy.

With a compensation order of £5,000, O’Callaghan briefly left for the USA, embarking on a professional wrestling career, winning 52 consecutive bouts. When he was politely told he needed to “throw” his next bout, O’Callaghan packed his bags and returned home.

He established a general medical practice in Clonmel, later serving as club chairman, vice-chairman, president, doctor and trainer of the Clonmel Commercials GAA club that won three consecutive county football titles during that period. He remained active in hunting and fishing until his death in 1991.

There is some hope this week that maybe some of O'Callaghan's old throwing tradition can't be brought back alive again. At the Templemore Athletics Club in Tipperary, O'Callaghan's adopted county, a new throwing cage facility has been set up with the sole purpose of nurturing future throwing talents across all events from the hammer, shot put, discus and javelin.

Among those behind the project is 1972 Olympian Phil Conway, a sort of godfather of modern Irish throwing, who in his day won five Irish national titles in the discus, four in the shot put and one in the hammer.

It’s not too soon or too late to hope the new throwing cage in Templemore can inspire another potential Irish Olympian in time for Paris 2024, and with that keep the O’Callaghan spirit alive.

Conway incidentally was also a promising rugby player as a teenager, when attending Rockwell College in Tipperary, only to be inspired to take to the throwing events with increased vigour after first clearing 50 foot in the shot put, at an event judged by Pat O'Callaghan, who quietly told him to "keep at it".