1948 Olympics And The Thin Green Line, Part 1

The 1948 All-Ireland rowing crew, coaches and officials.

Rowing historian and fellow HTBS member Greg Denieffe writes about Ireland’s 1948 Olympic struggle:

The Olympic Creed:

The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.

This Olympic creed developed from a sermon given to the athletes at the 1908 London Games by Ethelbert Talbot, Bishop of Central Pennsylvania. At a service held in St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Bishop actually said: “The important thing in these Olympics is not so much winning as taking part”, but Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympic Games, chose to extend the Bishop’s words from just sport into everyday life.


This story is about one such struggle to take part.

In a few days, the Olympics will begin in London, being held there for the third time, and over what promises to be a very dramatic week, around 250,000 spectators will watch the competitors vie for the rowing medals in the fourteen Olympic boat classes. Men, women and lightweights will battle it out in Eton Dorney, for the right to be called Olympic champion. Things were very different sixty-four years ago; seven events, all for men, were contested over three lanes in Henley from 5 to 9 August. The weather will probably be a talking point this year, as it was in 1948, when spectators sheltered from heavy rain under their deckchairs on the third day of the regatta.

With the 1948 Olympics being held right on their doorstep, the Irish Amateur Rowing Union (IARU) supported the Irish Olympic Council’s wishes to have Ireland represented at the Games. The IARU was founded in 1899 as the national body for rowing in all of Ireland. That August, R. C. Lehmann, Honorary Secretary, on behalf of the Amateur Rowing Association (ARA), sent a hand written letter of congratulations to H. G. Cook, Hon. Sec. IARU, and offered any help that may be required by the new body. According to Michael Johnson in The Big Pot (M. Johnson), “the possibility of Olympic participation had first been raised in a special general meeting of the IARU in 1928, but nothing came of it. It was raised again at the 1936 annual general meeting by Trinity and UCD with a view to rowing in the Berlin Olympics.” 1948 would be different, but getting a crew there would prove difficult owing to the ongoing dispute between the Irish Olympic Council and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) over the ‘Political Boundary’ rule.

The 1934 International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF) ruling on borders restricted the jurisdiction of the Irish Olympic Council to what was then the Irish Free State (26 counties). This had been created in 1922 when Ireland was split: the 6 north-eastern counties being renamed Northern Ireland and opting back into the United Kingdom on 7 December, 1922, the day after the creation of the new Irish Free State. The Irish Olympic Council, which was affiliated to the IOC on 3 June 1922, was adamant that they were the representative body for all of Ireland (32 counties), and as a result, the 1936 Games were boycotted.

To compound the matter, the Irish Olympic Council was in dispute with the British Olympic Council regarding how their team should be designated. The Irish Olympic Council had been informed by the IOC in 1939 that in light of the wording of the Irish Constitution, the official designation at future Olympics would be ‘Éire’ (despite the fact that the English form of the name ‘Ireland’ is also used in the same document). The Chairman of the British Olympic Council, Lord Burghley, was elected Chairman of the Organising Committee and he was determined that only athletes born in the Irish Free State would be allowed to represent the country and that the team would be called ‘Éire’.

“The IARU held a special general meeting on the 11 June 1948, and strongly endorsed an executive proposal that an all-Ireland entry for the Games should be made, and that affiliation to the International Rowing Federation, FISA, should be applied for on that basis.” (M. Johnson)

The 1948 Senior Eights Championship of Ireland which was held in Belfast (Northern Ireland) on 9 and 10 July was also used as the Olympic trial event. University College Dublin Boat Club retained the trophy and five of the winning crew would be selected in the crew put forward to represent Ireland. A squad of ten oarsmen and two coxswains was selected and went into training.

The crew was picked after five days of trials from 12 to 15 July and the men selected to fill the seats were: T. G. Dowdall (Bow), UCD; E. M. A. McElligott (2), UCD; J. Hanly (3), UCD; D. D. B. Taylor (4), Queen’s; B. McDonnell (5), UCD; P. D. R. Harold (6), Neptune; R. W. R. Tamplin (7), Trinity; P. O. Dooley (Stroke), UCD; and D. L. Surge (Cox), UCD.

There were two coaches, R. G. Hickey, UCD; and M. Horan, Trinity; two substitutes, H. R. Chantler, Trinity, and W. Stevens, Neptune; all managed by D. S. F. O’Leary, UCD.

They would have three weeks together before their first race, providing their entry was accepted. The USA, eventual winners of the gold medal, crewed together for two years.

Across all sports, Ireland selected seventy-two competitors and forty-four officials for the Games. The team arrived in London five days before the opening ceremony and immediately a row broke out when British officials noticed that some of the Irish entries had been born in Northern Ireland. J. F. Chisholm, the Irish manager pointed out that under Irish law, any citizen of Northern Ireland was entitled to citizenship of the Irish Free State, if they wanted.

This would prove to be a major sticking point for the rowing team as Danny Taylor from Queen’s University, Belfast, was in the crew, but even before that came to a head, the Opening Ceremony on Thursday 29 July would highlight the further problem of the name of the team. Only the Irish boxers, fencers and rowers were due to take part in the Ceremony. Chisholm insisted that the team was called ‘Ireland’, not ‘Éire’ and that they would march between Iraq and Italy. The Chief Marshall, Colonel Johnstone, said that the people of England knew the country as Éire and the Staff Officer stated that if Chisholm persisted, the team would not be allowed in the parade. Chisholm eventually backed down, but later wrote to the organizing committee: “I strongly protest. The name of the state is ÉIRE in Gaelic, or in the English language, IRELAND. Under the IOC rules, Spain is not called España.”

The Irish Olympic team marches into the Empire Stadium in London at the opening ceremony of the 1948 Games.

He did have a point as French and English are the official languages of the Olympic Movement. The only other language used at each Olympic Games is the language of the host country.

Janie Hampton, in her wonderful book, The Austerity Games (2008; paper back 2012), has this to say about the North/South issue:

“The tensions that had festered since the Irish team arrived now came to a head in the swimming events: the Irish were once again embroiled in a row over eligibility. Both Ernest McCartney and William Fitzell Jones had been refused permission to swim for Ireland, because they had been born in the North. They felt this to be grossly unfair because the Irish Olympic Council had not objected to the eight men born in the South who were competing for Britain”.

Both men held Irish passports but when challenged by Chisholm the reason for disallowing them changed from their place of birth to their voting eligibility. Chisholm was incensed and wrote a strongly worded letter pointing out that this was an entirely new rule, which if applied, would bar everyone under twenty-one years old from taking part in the Olympics. In the end, the IOC stepped in to resolve the matter, and found in favour of the British: breaking their own rules in the process.

Greg’s article The 1948 Olympics And The Thin Green Line continues tomorrow!

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