Ireland's First Olympic Medallists Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Ireland's First Olympic Medallists

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Artists impression of Ireland and the Olympic Rings.

Paris, Summer Olympics, 1924. The Irish Free State, now in existence for a year and a half, has claimed its first two Olympic medals – one silver, one bronze. And while it's still twelve years before the first appearance of television cameras at the Games, you can view these medal-winning performances just like the spectators did in Paris in 1924. The reason? Ireland's representatives at the games practised two disciplines that, while no longer included in the modern Olympics, have a little more permanence than athletics performances usually do. Jack Butler Yeats took the silver medal for Painting with his oil painting The Liffey Swim, and Oliver St John Gogarty earned a bronze for Literature with his Ode to the Tailteann Games.

Art in the Modern Olympics

When Pierre de Coubertin founded the International Olympic Committee in 1890, he was a man with a mission. Driven by an idealised vision of the ancient Greek gymnasia, he was a crusader for the cause of sport and games as part of a complete education. His idea was that the unity of physical and mental education would lead to the formation of well-rounded, healthy individuals1, forever immortalised in the well known saying: mens sana in corpore sano. It might seem odd to hear about winning Olympic gold for Architecture, Music or Sculpture. To de Coubertin, art competitions weren't any add-on novelty round; they went right to the heart of what the Olympian philosophy was all about2. The project was beset by financial and organisational obstacles, so the first Olympic art competitions didn't take place until the Stockholm Games in 1912 and continued until 1948. At this point, it was finally concluded that all the participants were in fact professionals: they were even permitted to sell their works after the event and profit from them. This went completely against the amateur ethos of the games3, so the art competitions were discontinued.

At the 1924 Paris Games, participants could enter works for five categories: Painting, Literature, Music, Sculpture and Architecture4, and all artworks were to be inspired by the theme of sport.

Ode to the Tailteann Games

Perhaps 'chutzpah' is too strong a word for it. But there's definitely a whiff of cheek about entering a poem for the Olympics when the poem is all about bigging up a rival competition! But Oliver St John Gogarty, known to all good Joyce scholars as the inspiration for 'Stately, plump Buck Mulligan', was quite a character, and it's unlikely that he worried too much about having a brass neck.

Historical records of the original Tailteann Games are very vague indeed. Mythology has it that they were instituted in ancient Ireland by the god Lugh, in honour of his mother Táilte, who had just died. It's said that they took place until 1169, after the Norman Invasion. Whatever the truth about that, what we do know is that the modern Tailteann Games began in 1924, and were held to celebrate the new-found independence of Saorstát Éireann, the Irish Free State. It was for this event, held the same year as the Paris Olympics, that Gogarty originally wrote the Ode.

Controversy is common enough at the Olympics, particularly in events where the winner is decided by jury, as all the Art Competitions were. But it's probably fair to say that Gogarty didn't feel too unfairly treated when he didn't take a gold with the poem. He later gave his own opinion of the piece: 'tripe'!

The Liffey Swim

While Oliver St John Gogarty was an out-and-out renaissance man – surgeon, poet, footballer, cricketer, politician, and more – Jack B Yeats (brother of William) was more of a specialist. He is still considered, perhaps, the country's leading painter. So it might not be surprising he did a little better than Oliver, and bagged himself a silver for his portrayal of an event that started in Dublin in 1920 and continues to the present: The Liffey Swim.

The Liffey Swim takes place every summer, along the River Liffey which flows through Dublin city. While it now numbers contestants in the hundreds from as far away as Australia and Canada, it started off with just 27 entrants - all male, and all, presumably, from Dublin and surrounding areas. For all that, though, right throughout the 20th Century it was still a major spectacle for onlookers. Yeats' painting captures something of that spectacle: men and women along the bank lean over the river, to see the swimmers race past on the approach to O'Connell Bridge. To the left, spectators on the top floor of a tram are as engrossed as the crowd below them. If the Olympic organisers' wish was to express the excitement and drama of sport, this painting met the brief admirably.

The painting is available to view in the National Gallery of Ireland, in Dublin.

So there it is. Ireland's first Olympic medal haul, at the 1924 Summer Olympics. Naturally, the Free State didn't just send poets and artists. There were sportsmen5, too – but none of them reached the podium. Nor did the 1924 Olympics just feature Ireland. It was also the Games featuring Harold Abrahams, and Eric Liddell6  – oh, and Johnny Weissmuller. Perhaps time adds a certain romance to these early modern Games, but none of the recent ones can boast of poets, artists and Tarzan, too!

1In this, he was heavily influenced by Matthew Arnold, the poet and headmaster of Rugby school in England.2As it happens, the Ancient Olympic Games also featured music, in the form of trumpeting, as it was an essential skill on the battlefield.3Nowadays, of course, it would not cause a problem. Professional athletes now take part in the Games perfectly openly, as a matter of course.4These categories were to change at subsequent Olympics. Among the changes, Literature took on sub-sections of the Dramatic, Epic, and Lyric, and 1928 featured a Town Planning event in addition to Architecture.5Among them 'The Boxing Parson', Robert Hilliard. Hilliard was a Church of Ireland minister, atheist and communist, who went on to fight in the International Brigades against Franco.6Their story was to be dramatised much later, and with much license, in the film Chariots of Fire.

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