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Pat O'Callaghan in 1932
Pat O'Callaghan in 1932
Image: EMPICS Sport

Poitín, Prohibition, Hitler and Gold – the story of Ireland’s first Olympic champion

As the clock ticks down to Tokyo, The42 revisits the extraordinary adventures of Cork’s double Olympic champion Dr Pat O’Callaghan.
Jan 12th 2020, 8:01 AM 31,663 10

Updated Jan 12th 2020, 9:42 AM

ADOLF HITLER SENT the order. A uniformed guard delivered it, tapping this GP from Cork on the shoulder, bluntly telling him he was wanted by the Führer. Given everything that was going on in Germany at the time, you can kind of see why Dr Pat O’Callaghan did what he was asked. 

So off he went, this rural doctor, through the crowds, down the steps, round the corner;  the noise inside Berlin’s Olympic Stadium drowning out whatever chance the pair had of striking up a conversation.

The Imperial Box was where they were heading to. Through the doorway, past the soldiers, off the concrete and onto a lurid carpet that was kinder on the feet. “Wait here,” O’Callaghan was told, placed in line behind a succession of athletes, one place ahead of Jesse Owens. At the 1936 summer Olympics, no one else could make that claim.

It was half-a-century later when this story gets told to Hugh Kennedy in his grandfather’s sitting room. By this stage, Pat O’Callaghan was greyer and slower yet a swagger still remained; his supreme self-confidence matching a story-teller’s charm. To be fair, his grandson possesses a narrator’s gift of timing, too, his retelling of a tale allowing all of us to be transported back in time.

Hitler, Goebbels and Goering – as evil a triumvirate as history has produced – were working the room, shaking hands and nodding heads, moving from athlete to athlete, their relaxed demeanour interrupted when Goebbels became aware of Owens’ presence.

With that, Hitler was guided away from both Owens and the photographers who were seeking the iconic image of the X1 Olympiad. “All this is what he told me,” O’Callaghan’s grandson says. “I’ve no reason to disbelieve him.”

berlin-olympics-1936-opening-ceremony Adolf Hitler leads a Nazi salute from the imperial box at the 1936 Olympics. Source: DPA

Over time he would hear a lot more, not just first-hand from his Olympic champion grandfather but also from O’Callaghan’s relations, friends and patients. There was Hitler and Owens in ’36; Grace Kelly, a few bottles of poitín and a break-in at a janitor’s hut in ’32; Amsterdam and the first ever sight of the Irish flag in ’28.

Where it begins is up to you. We could mention in passing that he remains Ireland’s youngest ever qualified doctor.  Or we could take you on his five-day trip to a 1930 meet in Gothenburg – a journey made in pain after he had accidentally stood on a rusty nail.

Knowing what was ahead of him, O’Callaghan packed his medical kit for this mad trek across northern Europe, the three trips by boat, nine journeys by train, hobbling the final leg of his journey along Gothenburg’s main boulevard before he reached his hotel.

With an abscess in his foot, he ran a hot bath, stuck the infected foot in there, and subsequently performed minor surgery on himself, finishing the job off by sticking a few stitches in. The next day O’Callaghan won five gold medals, in the hammer, discus, shot, javelin and high jump.

As he held these chunky prizes in his eight-year-old hands 50 years later – Hugh Kennedy couldn’t fail to form the impression that his grandfather was some kind of superhero, and not just because he managed to step onto the Olympic rostrum.

His hadn’t been a privileged upbringing, but his precocious talents had been spotted from an early age, both in the classroom and the sporting field. He was 16 when he began his medical studies, 20 when he graduated from the Royal College of Surgeons and 21 when he took up this new sport, converting the cannon ball from Macroom Castle into a makeshift hammer.

It wasn’t until six months later that he discovered this improvised tool was much heavier than regulatory requirements. If the lighter hammer made life easier then so did a competitive edge that saw him knock on the local ballet teacher’s door and ask for private tuition.

Suddenly, he was refining his technique. Until then, the custom was for hammer throwers to turn twice in the circle before release. O’Callaghan introduced a third – and then, towards the end of his career, fourth turn.  Now national champion, he was off to the Amsterdam Olympics, just 13 months after taking up the event. Better again, he was placed a respectable fourth entering the final round.

Yet he wasn’t happy. Contemporary newspaper reports noted his “concentrated, focused face” as he prepared to take his last throw; his grandson’s memory of the man offering further supportive evidence. “He wasn’t panicky in any way, just a remarkably competitive and extremely self-confident man,” Hugh says.

It’d show this day. Ordinarily, you rarely see positional shifts in the final round of the hammer. But this time you would, O’Callaghan finding his rhythm when it mattered most. Gold belonged to him and also, for the first time in the state’s young history, Ireland.

You can’t underestimate how big a deal this was then – and remains to O’Callaghan’s grandson now. Based in Tokyo, Kennedy is seeing the hype built to a crescendo ahead of next year’s Games, and is fully appreciative of the enormity of what was achieved back in 1928, just seven years after the Treaty was signed.

To me, this is an extraordinary thing; remarkable that it’s my grandfather who did this for Ireland. I’ll never tire talking about it.”

What isn’t often spoken about is that prior to O’Callaghan, five of the first six Olympic hammer winners were also Irish, yet weren’t allowed represent their country, the United States profiting from Paddy Ryan, Matt McGrath and John Flanagan’s talents, instead.

All three were Munster men and would visit O’Callaghan on their trips home. “As a teenager, the stories we heard most were about the prodigious amounts of food they ate,” Kennedy says. “Now I’m sure the details were embellished to some degree, but it isn’t hard to imagine these huge men demanding 10 eggs, a steak; a couple of chickens. Watching them eat must have seemed like a sport in itself.”

Over a somewhat lighter lunch in Ranelagh, Kennedy puts O’Callaghan’s achievements in both a personal and historic context.

“Considering we were a new state, the fact that generation of Irish athletes competed so strongly against advanced teams, the English, Japanese, Americans, Swedes, where money was no object, was remarkable really.”

By 1932, O’Callaghan was off another adventure, this time to Los Angeles, where he carried the Irish flag at the opening ceremony. Four years earlier, they spent eight hours scrambling around Amsterdam trying to find a tricolour to put on the flagpole. This time he had one packed in his suitcase, along with a few bottles of poitín.

Here’s Kennedy again:  “Heading through emigration, all that could be heard was this clink-clink-clink in his bags. A big burly, Irish American customs official was looking at him, listening to the hammers clinking against bottles of poitín. Remember this was right smack bang in the middle of Prohibition America.”

-        “What’s that?” the customs official asked.

-        “Medicine,” O’Callaghan said. “I’m the team doctor.”

-        “Safe travels, so.”

Philadelphia was where he stopped off next, hanging out with Jack Kelly, a famous Irish-American rower, although not quite as famous as his daughter Grace would become.

On and on they went, stopping off in the mid-West, fundraising along the way with Irish-American good ole boys, three weeks elapsing between the Ellis Island chat and the Olympic opening ceremony.

Then disaster struck. Accustomed to throwing off grass or clay, O’Callaghan found the concrete surface in the LA Colosseum totally unsuitable. Throwing well below his best, and not allowed change his footwear, he engaged Bob Tisdall, Ireland’s 400m hurdle champion at those Olympics, to go and find an appropriate tool.

athletics-los-angeles-olympic-games-mens-400m-hurdles-final Ireland's Bob Tisdall (r) knocks over the last hurdle on his way to winning the gold medal. Source: EMPICS Sport

Nice work if you can get it. Those familiar with Olympic stadiums may have noticed over the years that there aren’t too many hardware stores around the gaff. Still, Tisdall got the job done, breaking into a janitor’s hut, borrowing his toolbox, racing back into the stadium, telling O’Callaghan to stick his feet in the air.

Frantically filing millimetres off O’Callaghan’s spikes, Tisdall kept an eye on the competition. O’Callaghan was struggling, once again needing a big throw in the final round to win. And just like Amsterdam four years earlier, he smashed it.

If the trip out to LA was a party, the journey back with a gold medal to show off was even crazier. It’s estimated a quarter of a million people turned out on Dublin’s streets to welcome the team home, and in Kennedy’s estimation the rest of his grandfather’s life was “one long celebratory dinner”.

There should have been more to toast, though. Politics prevented him going for a third successive title in Berlin, when Ireland didn’t send a team, a legacy of partition and the stubbornness of the IAAF. The Germans invited him to Berlin nonetheless.

Had he left Berlin with a hat-trick of golds, he would have been a global icon. Still, becoming a national hero wasn’t the worst consolation prize.

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Garry Doyle

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