100 years of the Games

The Embassy of Ireland and the CCI mark the centenary of Ireland’s entry onto the sporting stage as an independent nation at the 1924 Paris Olympics.

100 Years of the Games:
Ireland’s Journey

100 ans de Jeux :
L'épopée irlandaise

Ambassade d'Irlande
Centre Culturel Irlandais
Bob Tisdall (centre) from Co. Tipperary occupies first place on the podium after winning a gold medal in the 400m hurdles at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympic Games
Bob Tisdall (centre) from Co. Tipperary occupies first place on the podium after winning a gold medal in the 400m hurdles at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympic Games

© 1932 - Comité International Olympique (CIO)

Paris 1924-2024 – An Irish Olympic Journey

In 2024, Paris becomes only the second city (after London) to host the Olympic Games on three occasions. It did so previously in 1900 and 1924, the latter a landmark date in Irish sporting history as it marked the first time that Ireland was permitted to compete as a separate country, its independence having been won with the creation of an Irish Free State in 1922.

This exhibition was commissioned, in part, to mark the centenary of that milestone, but it aims also to tell a larger story of an Olympic and Paralympic journey that is at once particular to Ireland and relevant to the international experience.

This is a story of prejudice and progress, failure and triumph. It is a story, too, that develops against a backdrop of significant societal change that witnessed, amongst other things, a push towards sporting equality where the rights of women and those with physical disabilities were both hard-fought and won.

But as much as the Olympic Games have served as a prism through which complex and controversial issues of politics, commerce, race and identity have played out in the full glare of global audiences, it continues, alongside the Paralympics, to offer, above all else, an extraordinary showcase for the best of sporting endeavours and the human spirit.

Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the French founder of the modern Olympic Games
Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the French founder of the modern Olympic Games

© 1895 - Comité International Olympique (CIO)

Founding the Modern Olympics – The French Connection

Nothing in ancient history had given me more food for thought than Olympia. This dream city, consecrated through a task strictly human and material in form, but purified and elevated by colonnades and porticos unceasingly before my adolescent mind... Germany had brought to light what remained of Olympia; why should not France succeed in rebuilding its splendors?

Pierre de Coubertin. Quoted in S. Loland, Coubertin’s Ideology of Olympism from the Perspective of the History of Ideas

It was a Greek revival that began in France.

On 25 November 1892, addressing a lecture theatre in the Sorbonne, a 29-year-old French aristocrat, Baron Pierre de Coubertin proposed a modern revival of the ancient Greek athletic festival, the Olympic Games. Every four years, starting officially in 776 BC and continuing for more than a millennium, a series of athletic contests – running, jumping, boxing, chariot racing, disc and javelin throwing – had been held in honour of the god Zeus at the sacred site of Olympia in the western Peloponnese.

Although ended for religious reasons in 393 AD, the events at Olympia, which came to be accompanied by cessations in any hostilities, survived in the collective consciousness through the mythical accounts of Greek poets and writers, with interest stoked further by excavation works at the festival site in the 18th and 19th centuries, most notably by a team led by the German archaeologist, Ernst Curtius, between 1875 and 1881. A classically educated Baron de Coubertin would later remark: ‘Germany had brought to light what remained of Olympia; why should not France succeed in rebuilding its splendours?’

The great French architect, Victor Laloux, would do just that when he exhibited a reconstruction of Olympia for a Universal Exhibition at Palais des Beaux Arts in 1889, but what de Coubertin proposed was something else altogether. A writer and campaigner on education who was heavily influenced by the English education system and its sports ideology, de Coubertin believed in the character-building virtues of sport and urged for the introduction of athletics and competitive games into French secondary schools. He also became one of the founding members in 1890 of Union des sociétés françaises de sports athlétiques – the USFSA – which drew together a large range of different French amateur sporting societies and which later encompassed sporting associations established in lycées and colleges.

Having proposed the Olympic revival in 1892, it was through USFSA that de Courbetin set about organising an International Congress for ‘the study and Propagation of Amateur Exercises’ which was held at the Sorbonne University in June 1894. Seventy-nine delegates and sports associations from thirteen countries, including two representatives of the Irish Amateur Athletic Association (IAAA), attended, voting to re-establish the Olympic Games and to create an International Olympic Committee (IOC) to lead its organisation.

IOC members attending its second meeting in Athens, 1896
IOC members attending its second meeting in Athens, 1896

From left to right, sitting: Pierre de Coubertin, Demetrius Vikelas, and Aleksey Dimitrievic Boutowski; standing: Karl August Willibald Gebhardt, Jiri Guth-Jarkovsky, Ferenc Kemeny and Viktor Gustav Black

© 1896 - Comité International Olympique (CIO) - MEYER, Albert

Crucially, a revived Olympics would be less about honouring an ancient world than re-shaping a modern one. The idea of a transnational organisation (already evident in organisations such as the International Red Cross and in the staging of International Exhibitions and Fairs) had been made possible by advances in industry, travel and communications which, in the late 19th century, helped transform global commerce and foster greater international connectivity. For de Coubertin, the mission of the Olympics would, in part, be to represent the ‘best of internationalism’. In this context, he enunciated a philosophy of Olympism that might act as an agent of peace and international harmony by bringing peoples together in ‘friendly rivalry’.

Billy Sherring, Canada, en route to winning the marathon at the 1906 Athens Games
Billy Sherring, Canada, en route to winning the marathon at the 1906 Athens Games

Prince George of Greece (right) ran the last 50 metres alongside him. Sherring was a son of Irish parents and a member of the St. Patrick’s Athletic Club in Hamilton, Ontario, whose singlet emblem was a large shamrock.

© 1906 - Comité International Olympique (CIO)

A medal-adorned Peter O’Connor, who mounted a famous political protest at the 1906 Games in Athens at which he won gold in the hop, skip and jump (now the triple jump) and silver in the long jump
A medal-adorned Peter O’Connor, who mounted a famous political protest at the 1906 Games in Athens at which he won gold in the hop, skip and jump (now the triple jump) and silver in the long jump

Osman Collection/Alamy

‘Ireland forever’ – The Quest for Olympic Recognition

Expansive as it undoubtedly was, there were limits to Baron Pierre de Coubertin vision for a revived Olympics. The French founder of the modern Olympics, who also served as president of the IOC for almost 30 years, espoused many of the conservative attitudes and political prejudices that were typical to men of his time and privileged class, not least when it came to the potential involvement of women in competitive sport – de Coubertin was vehemently opposed.

Olympic representation was limited to recognised States. While the struggle for Irish independence continued, Irish athletes had to participate under another banner – most frequently, the British banner. At the Intercalated Games in Athens in 1906, for instance, Co. Waterford native Peter O’Connor, incensed at the ceremonial hoisting of a Union Jack to honour his silver medal for the long jump, scaled the Olympic flagpole to wave a green flag bearing the message ‘Erin go Bragh’ (‘Ireland Forever’) as fellow Irish athlete, Con Leahy, and others stood guard below him.

Not long after this remarkable, if rare act, of Irish athlete protest, Roger Casement – a diplomat in the British colonial service turned anti-Imperialist Irish nationalist – drafted a proposal for Ireland to establish its own Olympic Committee with the aim of ensuring separate Irish representation at the 1908 Olympic Games in London. ‘No one can deny to Ireland the status of a “country”’, he wrote. ‘A state or a kingdom she may not be, but a country she surely is…’

As events transpired, the establishment of an Irish Olympic Council would not occur until April 1920. It was established at a meeting in Dublin’s Gresham Hotel where J.J. Keane was appointed chairman and Andy Harty secretary – both were leading lights in the Gaelic Athletic Association’s (GAA) Athletic Council, a committee created by Ireland’s largest sporting organisation to manage its athletic affairs, its principal preoccupation being the promotion of the national pastimes of Gaelic football and hurling.

Context and timing were critical to the creation of the Irish Olympic Council, whose original members mostly aligned to a tradition of Irish separatist politics. Indeed, in its make-up and mission, it was a natural overlap with wider political developments which had seen the establishment of a separate Irish parliament (Dáil Éireann) and the declaration of an Irish independence for which international recognition was then being sought. The Council was therefore seeking to achieve in the sporting sphere what Irish nationalists were already attempting in the political realm: international recognition for Ireland’s right to stand as an independent state.

The Irish Olympic Council committed to taking the necessary steps to secure ‘formal recognition for Irish civilian amateur competitors under the Regulations of the International Committee of the Olympic Games’. It had been hoped to achieve this in time to participate at the Antwerp Games in August 1920, but Irish entry was blocked, the British representative on the IOC succeeding in having a decision deferred until such time ‘when the Irish question would be solved politically’.

Photo: Roger Casement, who ‘laid down his life for Ireland’ when he was hanged at Pentonville Prison in London on 3 August 1916. ‘No one can deny to Ireland the status of a “country”’, Casement had written in 1907, when urging the establishment of an Olympic Committee to secure separate Irish representation at the Olympic Games

Joseph McGarrity Collection. Digital Library @ Villanova University

Martin Sheridan from Mayo prepares his discuss throw at the 1908 Olympics Games in London. Sheridan, winner of five gold, three silver and one bronze medals across three Olympic Games, was widely hailed as the greatest all-round athlete of his era.

© 1908 - Comité International Olympique (CIO)

Athletic "patron saints" – Ireland’s First Olympians

Roger Casement letter’s proposing the establishment of an Irish Olympic Committee, written in 1907, underscored the complex interactions of sport and politics. Its ultimate aspiration was nevertheless a simple one: to secure the right of ‘the Irishman’ to enter himself in the Olympic Games ‘in the name of and for the fame of Ireland’.

Before this right was finally conceded, Irish athletes were not precluded from Olympic participation. They competed from the start - and with remarkable success. Across the six Olympiads held during Ireland’s pre-independence era, Irish athletes would claim 25 gold medals and many more silver and bronze, but their accomplishments were accredited variously to Great Britain, the United States and even South Africa.

The first Irish champion was not an obvious Olympian. He had travelled to Athens in 1896 with no intention of competing, only to observe. He was a trained barrister and an Irish Parliamentary Party MP at Westminster for 18 years, but before that, Dublin-born John Pius Boland (from the well-known family which owned the Boland Mills in Dublin) was an Oxford student prevailed upon to enter the Olympics lawn tennis tournament by a Greek friend, who was a member of the organising IOC. He won two gold medals, one in the singles and one in the double’s tournament. When he returned to his student life and found his victory attributed to England in an Oxford university magazine, Boland, an Irish nationalist, committed to his journal. ‘I refuse to foreswear my ‘Hibernian origin’ and the green flag in the field of sport.’

For Irish medallists who competed and won in the singlets of the United States, there was no such unease. The absence of an Irish political quarrel with America was an obvious reason for this, as was the inclination to imagine their successes as reflecting almost as gloriously upon Ireland as the country they were representing. Eamon (‘Ned’) Broy, who would serve almost twenty years as President of the Irish Olympic Council, later recalled how cuttings from American newspapers highlighting the world-beating performances of these Irish-born athletes would be sent home to Ireland from relatives’ resident in the U.S. According to Broy, their achievements ‘kept Irish prestige high before the nations of the world. Whilst Ireland, unfree, could not participate in world competition, her athletic "patron saints" in America did the next best thing by putting up the Stars and Stripes at the Olympic Games and leaving nobody in doubt as to the land of their birth.’

Among these “patron saints” were the remarkable figures of Tom Kiely, James Mitchell, Matt McGrath, Patrick Ryan, John Flanagan and Martin Sheridan, the latter trumpeted as the greatest all-round athlete of his era as the winner of 5 gold, 3 silver and 1 bronze medals across three Olympic Games. The high-point, however, of Irish-American Olympic achievement came at the Antwerp Games in 1920 when Irish competitors representing the USA returned with a medal haul extending to seven gold, two silver and one bronze. Among the gold medallists was the Limerick-born World record holder for the hammer throw, Paddy Ryan, a construction labourer in New York who had spent last year of the Great War in France as part of the American expeditionary force.

In 1924, fourteen years after he had emigrated from Ireland, Ryan returned to his native Pallasgreen to live out the remainder of a long life on his family farm. This same year, a newly independent, if partitioned, Ireland made its Olympic Games debut – in Paris.

Paris – Les Années folles 

In the decade following the First World War, France’s capital could lay legitimate claim to have been the epicentre of the cultural intellectual and political world. It was here the leaders of most of the world’s major powers had come in their efforts to forge a more stable world order in the aftermath of the destruction of the Great War and where, in 1919, Ireland’s hopes of having its self-proclaimed independence recognised on the international stage had been dashed. 

Paris was then a city of 2.9 million people and, across the ensuing decade, it teemed with creativity: dancers, musicians, painters, sculptors and writers from France and much further afield, including Irish novelist James Joyce and a young Samuel Beckett (whose uncle competed for Ireland at the Games in Paris 1924 as captain of the waterpolo team), took up residence in a city that vibrated with artistic and intellectual activity. Pleasure-seekers came too, drawn by the city’s extravagances and a personal and social permissiveness that other societies denied. It was against this backdrop, of what became known as les Années folles, that the 1924 Olympics were staged. 

The decision to award the Olympics to Paris had been taken by the International Olympic Committee in 1921 in deference to the wishes of a soon to be departing Pierre de Coubertin. However, it was not to the city itself but to the industrial suburbs that the Games were ultimately brought. A costly plan to construct a grand stade, capable of catering to 100,000 spectators, was rejected by the Paris municipal council, with the effect that the main Olympic activity was moved to a specially enlarged Stade de Colombes, home to the multi-sport Racing Club de France. 

That stadium still stands and is now sandwiched between a motorway and high-rise buildings. Having fallen into disrepair, it has once again been renovated for the Paris 2024 Olympics and will play host to the men and women’s field hockey tournaments.

James Joyce with Sylvia Beach, Cyprian Beach and John Rodker at Shakespeare and Company in Paris, 1921
James Joyce with Sylvia Beach, Cyprian Beach and John Rodker at Shakespeare and Company in Paris, 1921

Joyce was one of the many artists drawn to Paris during this period and it was here that his masterpiece, Ulysses, was published in February 1922.

Image courtesy of the Poetry Collection of the University Libraries, University at Buffalo, The State University of New York.

Jack B. Yeats, 1871-1957, The Liffey Swim, 1923, Oil on canvas, 61 x 91 cm.

© Reserved, National Gallery of Ireland, NGI.941, Image, National Gallery of Ireland

IOC members pictured attending the 25th session of the IOC, held in Lisbon, 1926
IOC members pictured attending the 25th session of the IOC, held in Lisbon, 1926

Second row and on the centre left (with a moustache) is Ireland’s representative, J.J. Keane, founder and first President of the Irish Olympic Council. As a young man, Keane had been a top Irish athlete and a two-time All-Ireland championship winning Gaelic footballer.

© 1926 - Comité International Olympique (CIO)

Paris 1924: ‘Ireland’ steps onto the Olympic stage

In April 1922, a delighted J.J. Keane, first President of the Irish Olympic Council, wrote to Pierre de Coubertin, IOC President, to declare that, following the achievement of Irish independence, any barriers to Ireland’s Olympic entry had been cleared: ‘I have great pleasure in telling you that my country is now a ‘Free State’, and that it holds, on a common footing, the same rights as an autonomous state in the British Empire as Canada, Australia, South Africa etc. The conditions laid down by your committee as essential for acceptance of Ireland’s application is thus complied with.’

The independence hailed by J.J. Keane did not extend to whole island of Ireland. The new constitutional arrangements involved a partition settlement with the Irish Free State covering only 26 of the island’s 32 counties. Yet, in advance of travelling to Paris for an Olympics that would be immortalised in the Oscar-winning film, Chariots of Fire, one Irish newspaper declared that there was ‘no border on the field of sport…We shall not inquire the political allegiance of the men who bring home the laurels of victory. That they are Irishmen, chosen to represent Ireland, will be enough to merit for them the congratulations of all.’

The team that travelled to Paris was mostly men, though not exclusively so. Among the group were two women – Phoebe Blair White and Hilda Wallis – who competed as a double’s partnership in tennis, the last time the sport would be included in an Olympic programme until 1988. Joining this sporting pair were sixteen footballers; eight boxers, most of them members of the Irish army; a squad of ten water polo players; and eleven athletes, among them high-jumper and All-Ireland championship winning gaelic footballer, Larry Stanley, and John O’Grady, a shot-putter from Co. Limerick, who became the first person to carry an Irish flag into an Olympic athletics arena. On 5 July 1924, approximately 1,000, athletes from 44 countries entered the Stade de Colombes for the opening ceremony of the Paris 1924 Olympics, their flag-bearers, O’Grady among them, all dipping their colours as they passed the recently elected President of the French Republic, Gaston Doumergue, and other dignitaries.

The Irish team was poorly represented among the opening day throng in the Olympic Stadium. Only the track and field athletes participated, as the boxing and water polo teams had yet to arrive in Paris. The footballers, in contrast, had already returned home from the twenty-two team soccer tournament that had run from late May to early June. This team, who a century later would be formally recognised as Ireland’s first full internationals by the Football Association of Ireland (FAI), took to the Olympic field attired in blue jerseys, with a display of green shamrock embroidered on a white badge over the heart, their exit from the competition coming at the quarter-final stage when losing 2-1 after extra-time to a Netherlands side that would itself be defeated by the eventual champions, Uruguay.

Significantly, Ireland’s sole medal winners were not athletes, but artists: Jack B. Yeats - whose brother, William Butler Yeats, had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature the year before - won a silver medal for his painting, The Liffey Swim, now part of the collection of the National Gallery of Ireland. This was one better than Oliver St. John Gogarty, a surgeon, writer and Senator in the new Free State, who had attended the founding meeting of the Irish Olympic Council four years earlier. Gogarty’s bronze medal was awarded in the literary competition for his Ode to the Tailteann Games, commissioned by the Irish Government and soon after to be sung by a massed, 500-member choir at the opening ceremony of the Tailteann Games in Dublin.

Men with Irish wolfhounds march as part of the opening ceremony of the Tailteann Games staged at Croke Park stadium, Dublin, in August 1924
Men with Irish wolfhounds march as part of the opening ceremony of the Tailteann Games staged at Croke Park stadium, Dublin, in August 1924

The Tailteann Games were repeated in 1928 and 1932, again to coincide with the staging of the Olympic Games.

National Library of Ireland

An Irish Olympiad – The Tailteann Games

Although grander in scale than any of the previous Olympiads – the number of participating countries had jumped from 19 to 44 in just four years – the Paris Games were not the biggest sporting event in the world in 1924. That distinction went to the Tailteann Games, or Aonach Tailteann, which were held in Dublin just a week after events in Paris concluded. The Tailteann Games were modelled on the Olympics and the similarities and linkages between the two were striking. Both offered programmes combining athletic events and cultural competitions; both involved grand opening and closing ceremonies; and both featured at least some of the same competitors. Among the 5,000 Tailteann Games competitors were 6 gold medallists from Paris, including the brilliant American swimmer Johnny Weissmuller, later famous for playing the title role in the Tarzan movies.

The majority of competing athletes, however, were Irish-born or from Irish diaspora backgrounds in Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and the USA. This was, in part, the point of it. The Tailteann Games involved the revival of an ancient athletic festival and its reimagining for a modern age: Irish nationalist legend told that the games could be traced to 632 B.C. when they were held in Teltown, Co. Meath, as funeral games – with cultural contests held alongside athletic and equestrian events –organised by Lughaidh Lamhfáda to honour his mother/stepmother, Queen Tailte. Significantly and symbolically, it was claimed that the last Aonach Tailteann had been held in 1169 AD, on the eve of Norman Invasion of Ireland.

The idea of a Tailteann revival had been floated in the 1880s but was only seriously taken up with the establishment of an Irish Free State government. Originally planned for the summer of 1922, the turmoil associated with the civil war caused by the Anglo-Irish settlement of the previous December, forced a deferral of the Tailteann until August 1924. For the new Irish government, the decision to invest in the games was as much political as sporting: not only would they help advertise the new State; they would equally foster relations with Irish emigrant populations across the globe.

The Tailteann Games were not a once-off: they were repeated in 1928 and 1932, again to coincide with the staging of the Olympic Games.

Pictured here in 1920, Alice Milliat has been described by historians as the ‘most dynamic and respected leader of the women’s sports movement’ of the 1920s and 1930s
Pictured here in 1920, Alice Milliat has been described by historians as the ‘most dynamic and respected leader of the women’s sports movement’ of the 1920s and 1930s

Bibliothèque nationale de France (see the picture in Gallica)

I personally do not approve of feminine participation in public competitions, which does not mean that women should not go in for a large number of sports, but I mean to say merely that they should not seek the limelight! In the Olympic Games, their particular role should be that of crowning the champions, as in the tournaments of olden times.

Pierre de Coubertin, 1935: lines 242-258

The Power of Protest: Alice Milliat and the Changing profile of Olympic Sport

Of the more than 3,000 athletes that competed at the Paris Olympics of 1924, only 135 were women, a far cry from the gender equal 50/50 representation at this year’s Olympic Games. Paltry as their numbers were, the participation of women at the Paris 1924 Games still represented progress of a sort, as the Olympics envisaged by Pierre de Coubertin were to be for male athletes only, a preserve of gentlemen amateurs. For this reason, no women participated in the first modern Olympic Games when held in Athens in 1896.

Where women did initially become eligible to compete, it was notable that it was in such events as tennis, golf, archery, swimming, and gymnastics that were considered suitably genteel and therefore more socially acceptable – in many of the competing countries, these sports were already patronised by women from privileged backgrounds.

But with track and field athletics – centrepieces of the Olympic programme – still closed to women, on 20 August 1922, Paris hosted a Women’s World Games at Stade Pershing. Inspired by Nantes-born feminist and sports organiser Alice Milliat, herself an accomplished rower, this first ‘Women’s Olympics’ – more would follow – attracted a field of 77 female athletes from five countries to compete across 11 track and field events.

A founder of the Fédération sportive féminine internationale (FSFI) in October 1921, Milliat’s initiative drew a large crowd but it didn’t move mindsets fast enough to ensure access to the Paris Games. The momentum built was nevertheless unstoppable. Consequently, and notwithstanding enduring societal prejudice and continued misgivings on its part, the IOC decided in 1926 to allow the limited entry women into track and field athletics – it was the year after the retirement of Pierre de Coubertin.

…many girls are devoting themselves to public sports which demand violent exertion and sometimes, it would seem, a notable scantiness of clothing… These performances are done before crowds of male spectators. His Holiness surely is right when he says that they are “irreconcilable with woman’s reserve”. Furthermore, the extreme exertion that is required by such sports as track-racing, weight-throwing and competitive rowing must be bad for even the most robust women; already, no doubt, it has shortened many lives.

Irish Times, editorial, ‘Women athletes’, 4 May 1928

Crowds turn out to greet the return of Olympic champion, Bob Tisdall, winner of the 400m hurdles at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics.
National Library of Ireland

Green Gold – ‘Ireland’s’ first Olympic Champions

I am glad of my victory, not for the victory itself, but for the fact that the world has been shown that Ireland has a flag, that Ireland has a National Anthem and, in fact, that we have a nationality.

Dr Patrick O’Callaghan, 1928

When Ireland competed at the first Olympic Games in Paris in 1924 it did so without any financial support from the fledgling Irish Free State. For the Amsterdam Olympics in 1928, however, the Irish government committed £1,000 to support Irish participation. It did so for political rather than sporting reasons. As the team would represent ‘not merely’ the Irish Free State, but Ireland ‘as a whole’, an Irish government memorandum noted that the Olympics represented an opportunity to emphasise ‘amongst the nations the essential unity of Ireland.’

The standout performer on the Irish team of 1928 was Dr Pat O’Callaghan, a brilliant all-round sportsman from Kanturk in Co. Cork, whose gold medal in the hammer throw event made him the first representative of an independent Ireland to become Olympic champion. O’Callaghan repeated the feat four years later in Los Angeles, securing his second gold medal within an hour of Co. Tipperary’s Bob Tisdall also claiming gold in the 400m hurdles.

Reaction to these achievements underscored the capacity of the Olympics to capture the public imagination: the two athletes would subsequently return to a rapturous homecoming involving a procession through the streets of Dublin witnessed by a quarter of a million people.

I will now present to the victors these silver wreaths – magnificently fashioned by Irish artists – to keep as souvenirs of their victory, to hand down to their families, as some mark of the appreciation in which that victory was held by their countrymen, a gift from the Irish nation to their heroes.

Eamon de Valera, speaking at a banquet to welcome home the Olympic champions, Bob Tisdall and Dr Pat O’Callaghan, Cork Examiner, 29 Aug. 1832.

First representative of an independant Ireland to be crowned Olympic champion in 1928 in Amsterdam, Dr Pat O’Callaghan was Ireland’s flag-bearer at the opening ceremony of the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, where he would win another gold medal.
© 1932 - Comité International Olympique (CIO)

Politics, Propaganda & War

Dr Pat O’Callaghan, winner of Olympic gold medals at the 1928 and 1932, was widely expected to complete a hat-trick of victories four years later. O’Callaghan attended the 1936 Olympics in Berlin but only as a spectator. No Irish team was entered in those Olympics owing to a refusal by Ireland’s National Athletic and Cycling Association (NACA) to accept a decision of the International Amateur Athletic Association (IAAF) to restrict its jurisdiction only to the 26-counties of the Irish Free State, thereby upending established practice.

From the mid-1930s to the mid-1940s, however, politics and war overshadowed the entire Olympics enterprise. The Berlin Games, for instance, had been used by the Nazi regime of Adolf Hitler to propagandize its fascist ideology of Aryan superiority in a manner that jarred harshly with rhetoric about the unifying power of sport. In this case, however, fascist ideology was effectively undercut by the standout performances of Jesse Owens, the African-American sprinter who became the first track and field athlete to win four gold medals at a single Olympics.

Nevertheless, three years later, this same Nazi creed would lead Hitler’s regime to invade its neighbouring territories, igniting what became the Second World War.

One consequence, immaterial against the backdrop of the unfolding cataclysm, was the abandonment of the Olympic Games of 1940 and 1944.

The Irish Paralympic team pose with their medals on the lawn outside Dáil Éireann in July 1972
The Irish Paralympic team pose with their medals on the lawn outside Dáil Éireann in July 1972

©RTE Archives/Thomas Holton

Sport is where we started, sport is where we grew’ – The Beginnings of the Paralympics

The first summer Olympic Games to be held after the Second World – and after a gap of 12 years – was in London in 1948. On the same say as the opening ceremony was being staged at Wembley Stadium, an archery tournament involving sixteen wheelchair-bound patients – 14 men and 2 women – was held further north at Stoke Mandeville Hospital, home to a specialist unit for treating spinal injuries led by neurologist, Dr Ludwig Guttman, whose Jewish family had fled Nazi Germany just before the war’s outbreak.

Although not the first to identify the value of exercise, recreational and sports therapy in treating disabilities, Guttman considered it crucial to the maintenance of morale and to a rehabilitative process, the principal aim of which was to enable men and women to live full, meaningful lives, ‘as useful and respected citizens in the community’. In time, Guttman would be hailed as a ‘Coubertin for the paraplegics’ as his 1948 archery tournament became an annual, international multi-sport event that evolved, ultimately, into what is recognised as the first-ever Paralympics.

Staged in Rome in September 1960 a week after the ending of the Olympics in the same city, up to 400 athletes from 23 nations participated in eight disciplines in what was still known officially as the ‘Stoke Mandeville Games’. Among them was a five-person Irish team, including Joan Horan, Ireland’s first female Paralympian who secured two gold medals, one each for archery and swimming.

All members of the Irish team were former patients at Stoke Mandeville and their first Paralympic experience would end up transforming the disability landscape in Ireland and, with it, the lives of generations of Irish wheelchair users. For while the accommodation encountered in Rome was largely inaccessible, Oliver Murphy from Drogheda, one of the team members, recalled that the games ‘opened our eyes to how people in wheelchairs were treated in other countries, they had a better life, they were living independently.’

Within months of returning from Rome, the Paralympians were at the fore in establishing the Irish Wheelchair Association (IWA) to champion the rights of, and improve services for, citizens with physical disabilities. Interviewed decades later about the IWA’s foundation, Oliver Murphy remarked: ‘Sport is where we started, sport is where we grew. It’s still so fundamental to who we are today as an organisation.’

‘The first thing I remember thinking is I just can’t believe it’ – Competing in a Post-War World

The Irish Olympic team that travelled to the first post-Second World War Olympic Games, held in London in 1948, was larger and more disciplinary-diverse than anything previously entered. Aside from the staple sports of boxing and track and field, athletes were also sent to represent Ireland in basketball, cycling, equestrianism, fencing, rowing, swimming, football and yachting. The boxing team won a silver medal – a first in the sport – with Belfast bantamweight John McNally, leading the way as a pioneer in what would become Ireland’s most decorated Olympic sport.

Eight years later, Ireland returned from the 1956 Melbourne Games with four more boxing medal – three bronzes for Tony Byrne, John Caldwell and Freddie Gilroy and a silver for Fred Tiedt. But it was Ronnie Delany’s gold medal in the 1,500m that ensured that the games survived long in the popular national memory. It also thrust the young Wicklow-man into the realms of Irish sporting immortality. A 21-year-old scholarship student at Villanova University in the U.S.A, Delany was required to beat the strongest – and fastest – field ever assembled for his event, the first eight to cross the line in the final all managing to break the established Olympic record.

But it was Delany who crossed the line in front, his sprint finish described by one athletics historian as the ‘best in history’. Reflecting on that moment a half a century later, Delany remarked: ‘As I crossed the line I threw my arms up in joy and the first thing I remember thinking is I just can’t believe it. My second instinct was to kneel down and give a prayer of thanksgiving.’

Photo: Ronnie Delany, Ireland’s 1,500m gold medallist at the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games. The crazy final saw eight competitors break the established Olympic record as they crossed the line.

© INPHO\Allsport

An Irish trailblazer: Maeve Kyle competed in three successive Olympics, becoming the first Irish female track and field athlete at the Melbourne Games in 1956. She is photographed here, in fifth position with a shamrock on her shirt, contesting the 800m heats at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
© 1964 - Kishimoto- IOC

The Drive for Participatory Equality

Ronnie Delany was not the only Irish history-maker at the 1956 Melbourne Games.

It was here, too, that Maeve Kyle became the first Irish female track and field athlete to compete at Olympic level.

By then, the Co. Kilkenny born and Co. Antrim based Kyle had already been capped 29 times for her country in hockey and was the mother of a young daughter. Her selection aroused the ire of conservative elements quick to point to critical Catholic teaching relating to women’s involvement in athletic competition. ‘Women then didn't even work after they got married and here I was abandoning my husband and child to travel halfway round the world, Kyle later recalled. ‘I got a few fairly nasty letters.’

Where Maeve Kyle went – and she would go on to compete in two further Olympics and act as coach at another – other Irish women would inevitably follow, most notably Sonia O’Sullivan, who competed at four Olympics, winning a silver medal in the 5,000m at the Sydney Games in 2000.

And yet, notwithstanding the obvious advances made by women in sport, full participatory equality was slow in coming. It was not until the early 1980s that the first two women were co-opted onto the IOC and not until the early 1990s that ‘non-discrimination on the basis of sex’ was added to an Olympic charter first introduced in 1908.

By the time the last Olympic Games of the 20th century was staged – in Atlanta 1996 – only 34% of competitors were women. And it was not until 2012 when women were permitted to compete in all the sports on the Olympic programme, including, finally, boxing. This was less a generous concession to women than a necessary response to dogged demands for respect, which were built, in boxing’s case, primarily on the world-beating brilliance of the Bray-based Irish fighter, Katie Taylor.

For the first time ever, Paris 2024 will see parity of female and male representation among competitors, making the Olympic Games arguably the strongest global platform for the promotion and visibility of female participation in sport.

There were tears and cheers, questions and some answers, but their pleasure at just seeing, touching and talking to people from home, in Melbourne and representing their country, was truly inspiring for the whole team.

Maeve Kyle, History Ireland, July/August 2012, p. 43

It's been a huge struggle getting female boxing accepted as an Olympic sport. Every single female boxer in the world has been fighting hard over the last few years to get our sport accepted, and when the final decision was made it was a huge relief. The Olympics is the biggest competition in the world, and for every amateur boxer it's a dream to go to the Olympics. That is no different for female [boxers].

Katie Taylor, The Guardian, 30 Oct. 2011

All of us in the Olympic Movement share one mission: to make the world a better place through sport. In today’s world, no organisation or country can afford to leave the skills of 50 percent of the population behind – either in sport or in society at large. That is why the IOC is committed to closing the gender gap on and off the field.

IOC President Thomas Bach

Ireland’s Katie Taylor raises her arms aloft as she is declared Olympic lightweight champion at the 2012 London Games. Nobody did more to secure the entry of women’s boxing into the Olympics than Taylor. Although already a full-time athlete in London, she would later turn to professional prize fighting and win multiple world championships.
© 2012 - Comité International Olympique (CIO) - EVANS, Jason

Olympic glory is for amateurs’? – The Olympic Games Enters the Professional Era

Increased female participation across the last century has been only one feature of a much broader Olympic transformation.

The aristocratic era of the early Olympiads was replaced by a movement that, as new countries joined, steadily became more socially, ethnically, racially, and geographically diverse. One consequence of an expanding Olympics was the pressure it placed on the established Olympic principle of amateurism: the traditional Anglo-Saxon, muscular Christian image of the ‘gentleman amateur’ was alien to the sporting cultures of new Olympic nations where attitudes to ‘broken-time payments’ – a form of monetary compensation to allow athletes absent themselves from work to compete – were less rigid. Divisions ran deep on the issue, yet in 1930 the IOC endorsed a definition of amateurism that ensured it applied only to those who had ‘never received re-imbursement or compensation for loss of salary’.

This position held for decades and athletes suspected of breaching the amateur code were banned. As late as 1972, IOC President Avery Brundage was declaring that ‘Olympic glory is for amateurs’. Yet for reasons that were at once political and commercial, the reality, increasingly, was otherwise. The entry of the Soviet Union into the Olympics in 1952 and the onset of the ‘Cold War’ saw the Olympics cast as a sporting test of the superiority of rival political and economic systems, with eastern bloc states employing their top athletes in the civil service or armed services to enable them to prepare as de facto professionals.

We can only rely on the support of those who believe in the principles of fair play and sportsmanship embodied in the amateur code in our efforts to prevent the Games from being used by individuals, organizations or nations for ulterior motives.

Avery Brundage, IOC President, 1955

Coupled with this increasing politicalisation was a growing commercialisation, fuelled by the coming of television and the slew of global brand sponsorships that followed. The result was a remoulding of the Olympics into both a lucrative business and mass media spectacle that was impossible to reconcile with an amateur ethos already strained by the demands of rising competition standards, by individual commercial inducements and growing evidence of performance-enhancing drug taking.

Incrementally, from the early 1970s onwards, the IOC relaxed its amateur ethic repeatedly until, in 1988, athletes were allowed to compete without restriction for the first time. What followed was an opening of the Olympics to fully professionalised sports such as basketball and golf and the onset of a new era that also placed a fresh responsibility on States to finance proper programmes of support for Olympic athletes. In Ireland, a new Irish Sports Council (now Sport Ireland) was established in 1999 and two years later it published its first high performance strategy. Today’s Irish Olympic and Paralympic athletes benefit from financial supports based on an international carding system and access to world-class facilities at Sport Ireland Campus in Dublin.

A view of the Sport Ireland National Aquatic Centre in the Sport Ireland Campus, Dublin. Sport Ireland Campus provides Irish athletes with world-class training facilities.
Image courtesy of Sport Ireland

From Participants to Elite Performers – The Evolution of the Paralympics

The dramatic changes that swept across Olympic sport were mirrored, surpassed even, by those experienced by the Paralympics. A new direction for the latter was set with the establishment of an International Paralympic Committee (IPC) in 1989, which assumed responsibilities theretofore exercised by the International Coordinating Committee of World Organizations for the Disabled.

Bonn-based, the IPC developed the practice – re-established after a gap of 20 years for the 1988 Seoul Games – of hosting the Paralympics alongside the Olympic Games, setting them in the same city and utilising the same state of the art facilities. The Paralympics had already extended beyond their initial concentration on wheelchair-based events, but the establishment of the IPC brought a focus on the normalisation of Paralympic sport and the expansion of its media profile. In Ireland, too, there was organisational change with the establishment of a Paralympic Council of Ireland in 1987 (rebranded Paralympics Ireland in 2005) to assume management of Paralympic preparations from a trio of disability-based organisations: the Irish Wheelchair Association Sport, Irish Blindsport and Celebral Palsy Sport Ireland.

You know the Paralympics have crossed over into the mainstream when the crowds are shouting at the referees.

Philip Craven, IPC President

While the proportion of female participants was slow to increase and media attitudes slow to shift, Paralympic sport did significantly expand from the 1990s onwards, transitioning as it did away from a focus on participation towards an elite, high performance culture. For many observers, however, the 2012 London Games were a watershed moment. No sooner had a hugely successful Olympics ended than billboards sprung up across the city declaring, “Thanks for the warm-up”. In terms of access, participation, media profile and attendance, the 2012 Paralympics marked a significant advance on anything previously experienced.

For Irish Paralympians, those London Games helped catapult gold medal winners like Jason Smyth, Michael McKillop and Mark Rohan into the mainstream of public consciousness, establishing a trend where the top Paralympians who came after, such as Ellen Keane, attained national profiles that transcended the typical audiences for their sport.

Mark Rohan on his way to winning a gold medal in the road cycling event at the 2012 Paralympic Games at Brands Hatch, London. He had already secured gold for the time trial event at the London Games two days prior.
©INPHO/Greg Smith

‘It was something that brought people together’ – Ireland’s Paralympic and Olympic Champions

The modern-day professional approach to Olympic and Paralympic sport has raised the bar for athletes across all sports and from all countries. Scientifically informed, specialised coaching regimes and rigorous qualifying criteria ensure that, however they perform at the quadrennial games, the participating athletes can all be adjudged to be truly world class. And while it remains only one measure of performance, medals remain a principal currency through which individuals and nations and their sport development programmes are often evaluated.

Since 1960, Irish Paralympians have returned with hundreds of medals of different colours, won across a range of sports and by athletes, some of whom have been further honoured with induction into a Paralympics Hall of Fame. This small cohort of Paralympians includes men like Oliver Murphy, participant in the first Irish Paralympic team in Rome. It also includes women such as Bridie Lynch, a four-time Paralympian who secured a discus gold at the Atlanta games in 1996, as well as a bronze in the shot put. She had already won, in 1992 in Barcelona, a discus silver. Catherine Walsh is another multi-sport athlete who won a Pentathlon bronze medal in 1992, a full two decades before adding silver and bronze cycling medals at London in 2012.

In the Olympics, as with the Paralympics, increased State investment in high performance athletes has both facilitated a broader sporting representation and delivered a wider range of Irish medallists. Most notable, perhaps, has been medal-winning achievements of Ireland’s boxers, which has included golds for Michael Carruth in 1992, Katie Taylor in 2012 and Kellie Harrington in 2020. Medals have also been won in equestrian and sailing events, as well as in rowing where, at the Tokyo 2020 Games – deferred to 2021 – Paul O’Donovan and Fintan McCarthy secured a gold in the lightweight double sculls.

Each of these achievements is of course particular to the individual and a measure of the sacrifices and commitments they have made to reach the summit of their sports. But when they occur at Paralympic or Olympic Games they reach far beyond the athlete or the specific Olympic setting. Twenty years on from her 5,000m Olympic silver medal run in Sydney in 2000, athlete Sonia O’Sullivan, also a European and World Championship gold medallist and a World Recorder holder, acknowledged how her own Olympic experience had been shared ‘in villages and towns all around Ireland. It was something that brought people together, something to get excited about, the build-up and the talk and some of the cheering as loud as in any stadium.’

The Olympics has long been that stage where athletes can experience the highest of highs and lowest of lows. And now more than ever it’s all played out bare across the world’s media.

Sonia O’Sullivan, 12 Aug. 2021

Catherine Walsh (left), an inductee into the Paralympics Ireland Hall of Fame in 2022, competed in three different events – athletics, cycling and triathlon – across a 24-year Paralympics career
Catherine Walsh (left), an inductee into the Paralympics Ireland Hall of Fame in 2022, competed in three different events – athletics, cycling and triathlon – across a 24-year Paralympics career

A winner of three medals, she is pictured here with her pilot, Francine Meehan, after winning a bronze medal for the time trial event at the 2012 Paralympic Games in London (©INPHO/Greg Smith)

When I won, it wasn’t relief but more like, I’m so at peace with myself. I always knew I could do it and then I’d done it. It made sense. I was so convinced I could do it, it wasn’t a shock. In my head I’d gone over that day so many times, it felt so normal and I was so relaxed. Then, it finally happened.

Ellen Keane, Irish Independent, 2 Jan. 2022

Fintan McCarthy and Paul O’Donovan, gold medallists in the Lightweight Men’s Double Sculls at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, deferred due to Covid-19 until July 2021
Fintan McCarthy and Paul O’Donovan, gold medallists in the Lightweight Men’s Double Sculls at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, deferred due to Covid-19 until July 2021

©INPHO/Morgan Treacy

Olympic gold-medal winning boxer, Kellie Harrington, is welcomed home to her native Dublin in August 2021 following the Tokyo Olympics
Olympic gold-medal winning boxer, Kellie Harrington, is welcomed home to her native Dublin in August 2021 following the Tokyo Olympics

©INPHO/Laszlo Geczo

Two time European & World Champion gymnast, Rhys McClenaghan, will be part of Team Ireland for the Paris 2024 Olympic Games
Two time European & World Champion gymnast, Rhys McClenaghan, will be part of Team Ireland for the Paris 2024 Olympic Games

©INPHO/Bryan Keane

Ireland's Ellen Keane shows off her gold medal after winning the Women’s 100m Breastroke SB8 Final at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games
Ireland's Ellen Keane shows off her gold medal after winning the Women’s 100m Breastroke SB8 Final at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games

©INPHO/Tommy Dickson

A small section of the large crowd that gathered on the seafront of the Co. Wicklow town of Bray to welcome home local hero and Olympic champion, boxer Katie Taylor, from the 2012 London Games
A small section of the large crowd that gathered on the seafront of the Co. Wicklow town of Bray to welcome home local hero and Olympic champion, boxer Katie Taylor, from the 2012 London Games

©INPHO/Donall Farmer

29 March 2023: Paralympic legend Jason Smyth poses for a portrait at the Sport Ireland Institute in Dublin after announcing his retirement as a six-time Paralympic gold medallist and world-record holder in the T13 classification
29 March 2023: Paralympic legend Jason Smyth poses for a portrait at the Sport Ireland Institute in Dublin after announcing his retirement as a six-time Paralympic gold medallist and world-record holder in the T13 classification

Harry Murphy/Sportsfile

1924-2024 – The Return to Paris

In the 21st century, the Olympics Games and Paralympics belong within a select category considered mega-sporting events. They are colossal in every sense. Super-sized and spectacular, they take-over host cities and command global television and social media audiences for a spread of sports that, for a short number of weeks ever four years, seizes the public imagination and carries the potential to transform the individual lives of thousands of athletes from over 200 countries.

The transformations experienced by both Olympic and Paralympic Games have been driven by activist campaigns for better and more equal representation, by improvements in sports science and specialised programmes for athlete development, and by the globalising forces of commerce, media and technology. Their combined effect means that, in terms of organisation, participation, competition levels and global reach, Paris 2024 will serve up a sporting showpiece that would have been beyond the wildest imaginations of those who, one hundred years ago, gathered in the same city for their own Olympic experience.

The cultural competitions that delivered Ireland its only two medals at Paris 1924 are long gone as a feature of the Olympic experience, but the Irish Olympic and Paralympic teams that competes at Paris 2024 will be far bigger and much better supported by the State than the pioneering selection of a century before. Furthermore, these teams, in both their athlete composition and the breadth of sports they cover, are representative of a more diverse Irish society and its rich and varied sporting culture.

After a passage of one hundred years, therefore, it is not only a very different Olympic experience that returns to Paris, but a radically transformed Ireland that will be represented.

Co. Antrim’s Michael McKillop celebrating at the London Games in 2012
Co. Antrim’s Michael McKillop celebrating at the London Games in 2012

Recognised as one of Ireland’s greatest Paralympians, he won four gold medals across three different Paralympics: Beijing 2008, London 2012 and Rio de Janeiro 2016.

©INPHO/Action Images/Matthew Childs

Exhibition curator: Mark Duncan

Ambassade d'Irlande
Centre Culturel Irlandais
Team Ireland
Paralympics Ireland
Olympiade culturelle