Worth waiting for: definitive list of caps

It’s been 138 years to be exact but compiling an inventory of Irish athletes is complicated

Men’s Javelin competitor Terry McHugh in action at the Sydney Olympics. Photograph:  Billy Stickland/Inpho

Men’s Javelin competitor Terry McHugh in action at the Sydney Olympics. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

 

When it seemed another week of nothing but high praise for Brian O’Driscoll sounded a bit repetitive, along came some reminders of what it means to represent your country, in any sport and at any level. Suddenly no praise for O’Driscoll sounded high enough.

It started in Johnnie Fox’s pub on Thursday evening when the man carefully restoring the old gate lodge across the road began telling me about his son, Reuben Pepper-Hobbs. Two years ago, the young Pepper-Hobbs won his first Irish rugby cap, playing fullback for the Ireland Youths in the Under-18 international series. That, naturally, won him high praise not just from his family, but from his club, Westport, his school, Wilson’s Hospital, and from anyone with any interest in Connacht rugby.

That sort of praise is also a two-way street, the beauty being that it doesn’t actually matter if it’s one cap or a world record 140 caps. Because in representing Ireland, even if only once, the honour doesn’t just fall on the player himself. “And no one can take that cap away,” added his father, and that’s part of the beauty of it, too.

Then, yesterday, along came a sneak preview of the first definitive list of Irish athletics caps, after a very long wait: 138 years, to be exact. Compiling a list of every Irish athlete that ever represented the country is a little more complicated than listing the players who represented Ireland in Test match rugby, given the range of competition and events. Now, Athletics Ireland have finally risen to the challenge – establishing a five-man research committee headed up by Pierce O’Callaghan, who, suitably enough, makes the list himself, and in a very special category.

Daunting endeavour
It’s been a mammoth task, with historic beginnings too, given the first Irish athletics cap was won by Maurice Davin on June 5th, 1876, when he threw the hammer and shot – winning both – in the international dual-meet with England, staged at the old Irish Champion Athletic Club grounds at Lansdowne Road.

Davin went on to become the first president of the GAA, although he wasn’t the only famous man from that Association to also win a cap in Irish athletics: Larry Stanley, Kildare’s All-Ireland winning captain in 1919, also competed in the 1924 Olympics, and Pat and Bernie Hartigan, part of Limerick’s All-Ireland winning hurling team in 1973, also competed for Ireland at several European Cups.

Clearly, some ground rules were necessary: only senior competition applies, and to make the list, athletes must have competed in an international match recognised by Athletics Ireland, against one or more other athletes wearing their national vests. Both indoor and outdoor competitions count, plus international road races and mountain running championships – and that all makes for a very long list of names.

“By the end of the year, when the list has been thoroughly reviewed by as many people as possible, we intend to assign one unique number to every Irish international cap winner, which will stay with the athletes forever,” Pierce told me. Indeed with the names of some 7,200 athletes since 1876 already listed, amendments will be both necessary and welcomed.

For now, however, topping the list with a surely unassailable margin of 43 Irish athletics caps is Tipperary javelin thrower Terry McHugh, who also boasts the longest gap between the first and last cap: on June 20th, 1981, McHugh first represented Ireland at the European Cup, in Luxemburg and exactly 23 years later won his 43rd cap at the 2004 European Cup in Iceland. McHugh also competed in four Olympics in between (not forgetting two Winter Olympics) and that’s a record that might never be broken.

Momentous caps
Things are a lot closer after McHugh: currently lying second with 32 Irish caps is Derval O’Rourke, just one more than John Treacy, plus sprinter Gary Ryan and sprint hurdler TJ Kearns. Sonia O’Sullivan, surprisingly, is only joint sixth on the list, her 30 Irish caps the same as Anne Keenan-Buckley. O’Rourke may well win another Irish cap or two, but the only other contemporary Irish athlete close to the top is Fionnuala Britton, with 28 Irish caps, and she’s definitely got a few more years to run.

There are some wonderfully momentous caps on the list too. Pierce O’Callaghan himself forms part of only nine father-and-son Irish caps (his father Bernie also an international race walker), and it’s generally forgotten that Ronnie Delany’s brother Joe was also an international runner, those two among the 21 sets of brothers capped for Ireland.

It’s almost certainly forgotten that John Treacy’s twin sister Elizabeth also ran for Ireland.

Multitalented
Given the weekend that’s in it there are plenty of rugby connections too, with 15 former Irish rugby internationals also capped for Ireland on the track or field – including Victor Costello (shot put), Brendan Mullin (sprint hurdles) and Michael Kernan (in the sprint relay).

It could be a long time before we see those days again.

It could also be a long time before we see younger Irish athletes reaching the top of the list, given the rising international standards. Indeed many of those in the men’s top 20 are old-timers, including Gerry Deegan and Tom O’Riordan, whose 21 Irish caps are, surprisingly, one more than Eamonn Coghlan.

They’re all a long way off the 141 caps that O’Driscoll will win against France this evening, although no one can ever take any of them away, especially if it’s only the one.

n The first full draft of Irish athletics caps will be published today on

athleticsireland.ie

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