Every four years the Olympic Games showcase the best athletes in the world. They represent hope, endurance, strength and pride, and allow small nations to compete side by side with the world’s most powerful.
Laochra Thar Lear (Heroes Abroad) celebrates Ireland’s significant Olympic achievements in the first sixty years of the modern games, from almost accidental wins in tennis in 1896 to an Olympic record-breaking run in 1956. But Ireland’s Olympic story is about more than just sport. It is a story of politics, colonialism and partition. It is also a story of lifelong friendships, national pride and victory against all the odds.
Laochra Thar Lear highlights Ireland’s successes both before and after the foundation of the state. While many Irish-born athletes won gold for other countries such as Britain and the USA in the years before the Free State was established in 1922, just a handful of individuals would be able to claim that they won gold for Ireland before independence. The programme tells of the obstacles they faced because the Olympic movement would only recognise countries which had their own governments. Laochra Thar Lear goes on to tell the stories of Ireland’s Olympic heroes following independence, right through to Ireland’s iconic victory at Melbourne in 1956 when Ronnie Delany set a new Olympic record for the 1500 metres.
Inspired by the ancient Greek games the modern Olympic Games were founded by French man Pierre de Coubertin. The first modern games took place in Athens in 1896 and a 26-year-old Dubliner was the first Irishman to take part - but he went to Athens as a spectator! John Pious Boland went to Greece to see the games as a tourist but was talked into entering the tennis competitions and came home a double Olympic champion in the Men’s Singles and Doubles!
One of the stars of Ireland’s Olympic story is Wicklow man Peter O’Connor, who won acclaim not only for being the best long jumper of his age, but for making the first ever political protest at an Olympic Games. O’Connor climbed the flagpole at his Athens award ceremony in 1906, removed the British flag and unfurled the Irish flag, to the amazement of spectators and dignitaries.
After the foundation of the state the first medal actually awarded to Ireland was not for sport. It was won by Jack B. Yeats in the Paris Games of 1924. Not known for his athletic ability, Jack B. was in fact awarded the silver medal for his painting ‘Swimming,’ better known as ‘The Liffey Swim,’ which now hangs in the National Gallery.
Four years after Yeats’ success one of Ireland’s finest sportsmen came to the fore. Dr Pat O’Callaghan from Kanturk in Co. Cork was the first to carry the tricolour officially and have ‘Amhrán na bhFiann’ played in an Olympic stadium. O’Callaghan was an unknown hammer-thrower when he burst onto the world stage to claim gold in Amsterdam in 1928 and he went on to do it again in Los Angeles in 1932.
In Los Angeles, O’Callaghan and fellow Irishman Bob Tisdall won gold medals within sixty minutes of each other. It was Ireland’s finest Olympic hour and has never since been surpassed. Following his victory O’Callaghan was invited to Hollywood and was offered the lead role in a new concept movie called Tarzan! Dr. O’Callaghan declined, preferring to return to his general practice in Cork and to prepare for the 1936 Olympics. O’Callaghan was expected to win his third consecutive gold medal in Berlin in 1936, but partition, politics, post-colonialism and his own principles meant that he would not be able to attend.
The next Irish person to win an Olympic medal was boxer John McNally from Belfast who won silver in the Helsinki Olympics in 1952. He was the first of Ireland’s many boxers to medal in the Olympic Games. The programme tells of the split decision from the judges of the final fight which earned McNally the silver medal and gave the gold to a local fighter.
The last Olympics visited in the programme are the games in Melbourne in 1956. One of the participants, Antrim woman Maeve Kyle, caused a stir in Ireland and felt the wrath of Archbishop John Charles McQuaid. Her crime was having the audacity to leave her daughter at home and bare her legs on a racetrack on the other side of the world! While she didn’t win, Maeve Kyle was a pioneer and a champion for women in sport who led the way for the many female Irish athletes who followed.
Laochra thar Lear finishes with the inspirational story of one of Ireland’s most recognisable and enduring Olympians, Ronnie Delany. In a deeply personal interview, Ronnie tells of his path to the Olympics, of his gratitude for the gift he was given and describes the feeling of standing on an Olympic podium with a gold medal on his chest while the Irish flag is raised and Amhrán na bhFiann plays to a watching world.
Director Antaine Ó Donnaile says “It was a privilege to make this documentary Laochra Thar Lear, to meet some of Ireland’s Olympic heroes and their families and to combine their memories with amazing archive footage of their achievements. The programme will give a fresh and positive perspective of Ireland’s place in the sporting world, through the eyes of our Laochra Thar Lear.”
Laochra Thar Lear will be broadcast on TG4 on Wednesday 23rd December at 9.30 pm.
Laochra Thar Lear is a Macha Media production for TG4 made with support from Northern Ireland Screen’s Irish Language Broadcast Fund.
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