Schools make for grounds of a great celebration

Irish Schools Athletics Championships an inspiration for many in all walks of life

So less than a year now before that big 1916 anniversary special, and we still don’t know exactly how to celebrate it. How does one begin to recognise the significance of an event which impacted on so many of that generation, and so many of those that followed?

What is certain is that the lives of countless young Irish people were forever changed after that brilliant meeting of minds upstairs in Wynne’s Hotel, Dublin, on the night of Monday, April 3rd, 1916. Because there, and through the foresight of great men like HM Finlay, it was agreed to stage the first Irish Schools Athletics Championships.

Almost 100 years later and there’s still so much to be thankful about. Finlay was then honorary secretary of the old Irish Amateur Athletic Association (IAAA), and recognised the need to inspire a new generation of athletes, in part because of the fall off in affiliated clubs after so many young Irish men went off to fight in the first World War. His motion was passed, unanimously, and the inaugural Schools Championships were set for Saturday, May 20th, at Lansdowne Road.

Then that other big 1916 event happened, so the Schools Championships were postponed, “due to the rebellion”, until September 23rd (with the allowance that schoolboys from the previous term could still compete).

There were just 13 events, spilt between senior and junior Boys, and students from Belvedere College won five, including the first Irish schools sprint champion, Patrick J Cunningham. The McOstrich brothers (remember them?), Alexander and Frederick, also won five titles for Cork Grammar School, while the first Irish schools mile champion was JG Moore from Mountjoy School, who clocked a worthy 5:49.0.

Immediate success

Lansdowne Road was a renowned athletics facility back then, although the immediate success of the Schools Championships meant they were moved to Croke Park, in 1922, with more events added, plus the minor boys category. In 1928 they also added the intermediate boys and, despite the six-year cancellation during the second World War, the Schools Championships expanded in every sense and brought to various venues around country.

Indeed it wasn't long until one of those Schools Champions went on to win the Olympics: not Joe Delany, who won the senior boys 400m in 1950, but his younger brother Ronnie, who won the senior boys 800m in 1952 and again in 1953 – then three years later won the Olympic 1,500m gold medal in Melbourne.

By then, just qualifying for the championships was an achievement in itself, as there were also provincial championships, where only the top three in each event progressed to the national stage – with no exceptions (the Ulster Schools Championships didn’t fully assimilate until 1966). In 1956, a farmer’s son from Ardfert, Thomas O’Riordan, won the Munster schoolboy mile, then, against all odds, won the Irish schoolboy title too, in a new record of 4:35.1. He also went on to run in the Olympics, and still traces it all back to winning that Irish schoolboy Mile.

Bigger things

He wasn’t the only one to go on to bigger things, and not just in track and field. In 1962, a sprightly young

Ruairi Quinn

from Blackrock College won the intermediate boys 800m, in 2:04.9, and later served as Government Minister for Finance, and for Enterprise and Employment. Others went on to find fame in different sports: like

Pat Hartigan

, who won the senior boys shot put for Limerick CBS in 1968, then in 1973 won an All-Ireland hurling title with Limerick.

There's also an all star list of Irish rugby internationals that started out by winning Irish Schools Athletics titles – including Victor Costello (his senior boys shot put record of 17.93m, from 1990, still stands), Cian Healy (twice senior boys shot put champion, 2005-'06), Brendan Mullin (twice senior boys 110m hurdles champion, 1980-'81), and Denis Hickie (intermediate boys 100m champion in 1992).

It may or may not come as a surprise that it wasn't until 1970 before any girls events were added, although it didn't take them long to make their mark. That year, the speedy Vera Sherry from Monaghan Vocational School won the senior girls 400m, and also won the first senior girls cross country title, which also started in 1970. Later, Sonia O'Sullivan, Catherina McKiernan and Derval O'Rourke all broke through with Irish schools titles.

Without exception

Needless to say – and almost without exception – every one of Ireland’s World, European or Olympic medal winners also won an Irish schools title. And some of their records still stand, such as the 14:17.0 which

John Treacy

ran to win the senior boys 5,000m in 1974.

Mark English

first announced his arrival by winning the senior boys 800m in 2010.

Although it's not just the champions who are inspired. Anyone who gets even one foot on the medal podium, or falls one foot short, comes away from the experience a better athlete and I know that because I was one of them. And the next generation keep coming, John Coghlan (son of Eamonn), Timmy Crowe (son of Tim), and Marcus Lawler (son of Patricia Amond), are among the recent schools champions inspired by the titles won by their own father or mother.

Now, with the 2015 Irish Schools Athletics Championships already underway in the four provinces, climaxing in Tullamore on the last Saturday in May, comes the thought of a 1916 anniversary special. Because this is one centenary event that definitely deserves to be celebrated. Just ask any of those inspired by it all in the 100 years since.

(For the full record of Irish Schools Athletics Champions, 1916-2014, see www.athleticsireland.ie)

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