War and romance behind 147 unbroken years of the Nationals
This could be the year to make a bold move and stage the championships in different provinces
Patsy McGonagle: “There is a ready-made plan B for Athletics Ireland to latch onto, if the will is there. The athletes need the opportunity to compete after a completely disastrous year.” Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
The plan was to sit back early on and then make one bold move. There have been lots of important dates in the 147 unbroken years of the Irish Track and Field Championships, and sometimes that includes the date you tried to score at the after party.
For much of the 1990s, when the championships better known as the Nationals settled at the Morton Stadium in Santry, events invariably spilled over into the city, and after that a party somewhere in the suburbs, preferably where someone rented a house, rather than owned a home.
While the likes of Sonia O’Sullivan might jet straight off to the Olympics or World Championships, it was here some of the true romance of the Nationals could be found. As long as you didn’t move too early, or make it too bold, (especially being the skinnier one), this was where you could tell your fellow combatants what you honestly thought of them, not just their times or heights.
All while being careful to avoid the combatants you had gone to war against a few hours previously. Especially if they had moved in first, which is what happened that one time, before Noel Berkeley pulled me safely out of there.
Part training partner, part minder, and always up to something, Berkeley was also my sort of tour guide and messenger through the Nationals around that time, and no one understands more about the war and romance of it all.
Affectionately known as the King of the Roads, he was at times equally dominant on the track, winning the 10,000 metres at the Nationals for three years in row, 1993-1995, in the silvery and blue colours of our club Dundrum South-Dublin,
Berkeley would often arrive at the Morton Stadium on his racing motorcycle, outpsyching many of his opposing combatants by that process alone, and we trained together a bit in the summer of 1996 as he attempted to make his second Olympics, having already run the 10,000 metres in Barcelona in 1992.
As it turned out, that 10,000m ticket to Atlanta would be decided at the Nationals, as Berkeley and Sean Dollman had both run the B-standard, meaning only one of them could go. It made for a winner-takes-all showdown at Santry and, although Berkeley set the pace for most of the 25 laps, it was Dollman, the American-based runner, who darted past when it mattered, winning the title and his second Olympic ticket.
“I feel like I’ve been shot in the back,” Berkeley said afterwards, still the first man to the after-party, losing that battle but not the war; he came back to win three more 10,000m titles in a row, from 1997-1999, equalling the record six won by Cork running warrior Donie Walsh in the 1960s and 1970s.
God knows where they end up afterwards these days, but that sort of war and romance is still very much behind the Nationals, which stretch back 147 unbroken years to their first staging on Monday, July 7th 1873, ironically postponed by two days because of bad weather, at College Park in Trinity.
They’re now the longest running national track and field championships anywhere in the world.
Last month, the US Track and Field Championships were cancelled due to coronavirus, having been held in some form every year since 1876, when Ulysses S Grant, commander of the Union Army on the American Civil War, was president of the United States.
The Irish championships have already been outrunning them by three years, the first recorded athletics meeting in Ireland going back even earlier, taking place at Trinity College on February 28th, 1857, and for the next decade or so the College Races, as they were known, attracted increasing numbers of competitors and spectators.
By 1872, the College Races had far outgrown the Trinity facilities, and with that in mind, Henry Wallace Doveton Dunlop and some colleagues founded the Irish Champion Athletic Club (ICAC) – effectively the first athletics association of Ireland. Their object was to achieve “a satisfactory settlement . . . of all questions of superiority in standard athletics performances” – in other words, to stage an annual championship meeting, and after Trinity in 1873, Dunlop moved them to his new venue at the Royal Irish Parks Stadium, transformed these days into the Aviva.
In the 147 years since they’ve survived Civil War, two World Wars, the war-like factions of the early politics of Irish athletics, before this latest threat of Covid-19.
The Government knew there would be many implications in deciding against the move to Phase 4 in the lifting Covid-19 restrictions on Tuesday, and somewhere in the background are those 147 unbroken years: other sports may have been hopeful for it, Athletics Ireland were depending on it.
The 2020 Nationals, originally set for the last weekend in June, were refixed for the weekend of August 22nd/23rd, entirely subject to that moving to Phase 4. Even with an increase to 500, they intended to stage them without any spectators, over four separate sessions, two on the Saturday and two on the Sunday, clearing the stadium entirely between each session.
The extension of this 200 limit has both forced and allowed Athletics Ireland to think again, and they’ve brought forward the closing date for entries to midnight this Sunday (August 9th), to better gauge the exact numbers. The hope is that an additional session on the Friday evening, August 21st, can still facilitate the Nationals that weekend. Hardly ideal, only better than no Nationals at all: the juvenile championships, it appears, aren’t getting further consideration.
In the meantime there was a suggestion on Tuesday evening courtesy of Pierce O’Callaghan, the Irish athletics historian and consultant with World Athletics, who believes the ready-made solution is to break up the Nationals into different provinces of the country, which would each stage a selection of events, sprints and jumps, distances and throws, etc, adapting the old war tactic of dividing and conquering.
Former Irish Olympic team manager Patsy McGonagle gave that suggestion his complete backing, telling Donegal journalist Chris McNulty: “We have a track and a facility here at Finn Valley capable of hosting championship athletics. The athletes want a championships to compete in – that’s the beginning and end of the conversation for me. There is a ready-made plan B for Athletics Ireland to latch onto, if the will is there. The athletes need the opportunity to compete after a completely disastrous year.”
Still it seems O’Callaghan’s proposition may be a little too romantic for some, which is a pity: the Nationals have travelled to places like Cork and Kilkenny, Limerick and Tullamore, since 1873, and this could still be the year to make even one bold move.