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John Daly: The First Noted Irish Distance Man of the 20th Century

Looking forward to a “spanking set-to” and the occasional “bumpy match.” The first noted Irish distance man of the 20th Century.  

The opening few years of the International Cross Country Championships, starting in 1903, were very largely a demonstration of the superiority of the English representatives. England won all 14 team titles through to 1921, and would have had more but for the tragic intervention of World War I, before France broke the monopoly, and it was also a Frenchman, Jean Bouin, later to be killed in military action, who was the first non-English individual winner, doing so for three successive years, 1911-12-13. The earliest challenge, though, had come from the Irish. John Daly was 3rd in 1903 and 4th in 1904 and 1906. Tom Hynes was 2nd in 1905. Both were born in the same county in Ireland and were members of Galway City Harriers.

Daly had the chance to play a part on a broader stage – or rather he created the chance for himself. He enterprisingly made the long journey to the 1904 Olympics in St Louis and returned to the USA by 1907, eventually to settle there like so many Irish people of his generation. He continued competing, taking US and Canadian national titles to add to the championship wins he had already obtained at home under the auspices of both the Irish AAA and the Gaelic AA. Attention has been re-focused on this unappreciated runner as his life was recalled in fine detail in a paper composed in 2012 on behalf of a local history society in County Galway. By way of introduction, the author, Padraig Stevens, wrote, “Tom Hynes – who had succeeded another great Galway cross-country runner, John F. Joyce – was at the zenith of his powers but soon found more than a match in Daly. The two, though club-mates, were keen rivals and a spanking set-to was always to be looked forward to between them”. 

John James Daly had been born at Dowras House, Ballyglumin, on 22 February 1880 as one of the five children of a farmer, Patrick Daly, and his wife, Sabina. The family owned 100 acres of fertile land, and John Daly’s grandfather was still head of the household at the age of 91. In later years, as his grandson’s athletic ability became apparent, he was to be dubbed in the manner of the comic-strip affectations of sports writing of that time as “The Deerfoot of Dowras”, which must have been meaningless to all but those with an intimate knowledge of the rural geography of that part of the West of Ireland. John Daly had started with the high jump and long jump in 1900 and was adept at both but soon switched his attention to distance-running and the next year won the Irish cross-country title and was 2nd in the Irish AAA four miles to Joe Deakin, the English AAA mile champion-to-be, who was then serving with the Army in Ireland. In 1902 Daly won both the one mile and four miles at the IAAA Championships in June and the three miles at the GAA Championships in September.

The first International Cross Country Championships involving England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales (France joined in 1907) took place at Hamilton Park Racecourse, in Scotland, on 28 March 1903, and the race was won easily – and entirely predictably – by the pre-eminent Alfred Shrubb. England also provided 2nd, 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th places for a near perfect winning score of 25 points, interrupted only by Daly, who led Ireland to a very distant 2nd in the team standings (78 points), which also included Tom Hynes in 8th place. Daly had won the Irish cross-country title three weeks before from Hynes. Despite the English dominance of this inaugural International, “the race was so successful, the friendships formed so attractive, that it was at once realised the race had come to stay” – or at least that was the cheery view expressed by Lawrie Richardson, the long-serving secretary of the organising body, the International Cross Country Union, in his history of the series to be written 50 years later.

In 1904 one of the main County Galway regional newspapers, the “Tuam Herald”, published comprehensive details of Daly’s running career and a photograph of him posing with an impressive collection of his trophies, and Padraig Stevens perceptively observes, “The article from April 1904 was quite unusual. At the beginning of the 20th Century the ‘Herald’ did not feature illustrations, except as part of an occasional advertisement, while sports reports were usually a couple of paragraphs long. Without any evidence to back it up, I suspect that it was the man himself who instigated this long and comprehensive list of John J. Daly’s achievements, perhaps with an eye on his forthcoming adventures in the United States, a calling-card of sorts, or a c.v.”.

Before leaving for the USA Daly competed in the two miles steeplechase at the AAA Championships held in Rochdale, in Lancashire, on 2 July that year, and finished 2nd only six yards behind a future Olympic champion, Arthur Russell. Mr Stevens points out that whether he was invited to the Games by the Greater New York Irish Athletic Association, and by implication had his expenses paid, as was later to be claimed, or whether he went on his own initiative, has not been established. Whatever the case, Mr Stevens aptly adds, “Arriving in St Louis as an established and experienced international athlete, Daly must have noticed the farcical nature of the proceedings. He was in cowboy country, and the cowboys were in charge. It was chaotic. The Games of the Third Olympiad of the modern era were reduced to a side-show of the World’s Fair”.


Daly was well beaten in the steeplechase by one of the best American runners of that era,  James Lightbody, who also won the 800 and 1500 metres at those Games and would be 2nd at 800 and winner again at 1500 at the 1906 10thAnniversary Games in Athens. There was no official report of the St Louis Games, but one of the subsequent two authoritative accounts noted summarily of Daly that “a man hailing from the other side of the water where steeplechases are daily occurrences was expected to give Lightbody a race”. Padraig Stevens rightly comments that Daly was by no means as well acquainted with steeplechasing as his American critic liked to think.


Stevens’s paper also contains a colourful description of one of Daly’s seemingly highly risky training methods: “He developed his long stride by running between a pair of galloping horses, holding on to the bridle of each horse and keeping pace with the running animals”. More credible, perhaps, is that he ran a course of just under nine miles each day with his brother, Harry, on roads around the family farm, and if this is so then the pair of them were probably training harder than any other distance-runner of those years except Alf Shrubb.


Strongly built at 6ft 1½in (1.87m) tall, Daly was clearly not averse to using his elbows in races to curb his opposition. A few days after the Olympic steeplechase he won a one mile handicap event in St Louis from David Munson, of the USA, who had placed 4th in the Olympic 1500 metres, and the local newspaper, the “Star”, reported that “this race was characterised by rough work by both Daly and Munson; these two indulged in a bumpy match at every opportunity”. Daly had also apparently acted aggressively during the Irish cross-country championships the previous March, but as he had won as he liked by almost three-quarters of a minute, with his brother, Harry, sharing the early lead before dropping back to 12th place, there surely couldn’t have been much opportunity for skullduggery.     


On the eve of John Daly’s return to Ireland from the USA for Christmas 1904, the Galwaymen’s Association in New York held a celebratory evening for him and a local poet with obvious Irish heritage, Stephen M. Flaherty, penned some suitably patriotic lines of verse which concluded thus:


O’er many a Galway mountain height

Shall wave old Ireland’s green.

On many a hill will bonfires burn

Nigh Tuam’s cathedral town

When Erin’s champion will return

Bearing home the victor’s crown.


Of course, such a paean of praise was somewhat over-indulgent considering that it was in large part earned by a contentious win in an event which does not even figure in any of the numerous histories of the Olympics since published, but at least it’s an indication of the high esteem in which Daly was held. Someone at that New York send-off had a keen eye for instant publicity – could it have been Daly himself? – because the verse appeared in print 3000 miles away in the very same day’s edition of the “Tuam Herald”.


Daly’s US title wins were in the steeplechase in 1904 and then in 1907 in the five miles (which John Joyce, his Galway predecessor who had since emigrated, had won in 1904) and 10 miles, and he was Canadian champion at one miles, three miles and five miles. Paying his own way to the 1906 Athens Olympics after being denied local funding, his indiscipline cost him a medal as he was disqualified for several offences of obstruction after finishing 3rd in the five miles. 


Daly later wrote a long and detailed account of his Athens experiences for the “Tuam Herald”, though mentioning only in passing his track debacle. He and the two leading Irish field-events specialists, Con Leahy and Peter O’Connor, had joined the party of English athletes, totaling some 40 in all, to travel to Athens, and Daly reported, “We suffered severely in our journey by rail through France for want of sleep, food and water. After 48 hours we reached Turin, and we were often 12 or 14 hours without food or drink” They then went on by train through Italy to the southern ferry port of Brindisi and eventually reached Athens via Corfu, where, Day wrote, the athletes “received a very enthusiastic welcome as a crowd of citizens met us with a band, and after parading us through the principal streets we were hospitably entertained at the leading hotel”. Daly added, “Our reception in Athens was even greater”. 


Undeterred by being deprived of a medal in the five miles, Daly entered the Marathon a week later, for which, he says, he “had come specially prepared”. This event started from the village of that name, as had the race at the first Modern Olympics of 10 years before, but the organisation had evidently not improved in the meantime. “There was no provision for our reception at Marathon”, Daly told his readers. “We wandered around the village, helpless and bereft of hope. Luckily, we ran across an old Greek who, by many and varied signs and distortion of hands and features, divined our quest. He led us to his abode and we partook of a good supper and shortly afterwards spread our blankets”.  


Having had a such a rough-and-ready preparation and understandably not in the best of health, Daly then describes the race eloquently, in which he audaciously took a prominent early role together with William Frank, of the USA, and George Blake, of Australia: “The first 400 yards through the village was over rough stones. Two little fellows shot to the front. I cannot recall their names. One was the Greek who was expected by his countrymen to win. They led for about five miles, which was fairly good going. Then Frank went out and made the running. Blake and I were near him. In fact, 50 yards was the furthest we were apart up to 15 miles. We never spoke. It was a race with issues at stake that an athlete rarely gets the chance to run for”. 


Unfortunately for Daly, his race was over very soon afterwards, though he had a close-up view of the eventual winner, Billy Sherring, of Canada. Daly recounted: “After 15 miles my feet began to blister, and the ankle which was injured last year gave way going downhill. I walked a quarter-of-a-mile, when Sherring overtook me. To describe the rest of the race is impossible. I believe the best man won, and I cannot detract from the manner of Sherring’s victory”. Maybe it was some compensation for Daly’s misfortune that though Sherring was running for his native Canada he wore on his vest in honour of his Irish parents what Daly described as “a great green shamrock that easily covered his little chest and big heart”. Frank was 3rd, Blake 6th and Daly inevitably failed to finish, but much other detail was in all probability never recorded by the officials and certainly never published, and of the 51 starters the names and placings of only 14 who completed the course are known for sure. 


Daly’s best three miles time of 14:45.0 was set in 1907, by which time Alf Shrubb had held the World record at 14:17.6 for four years. Daly also ventured again over the marathon distance and achieved a commendable 2:55:44 4/5 for 2ndplace in the Yonkers event in New York in 1909. Three months later his club-mate and chief rival in Ireland, Tom Hynes, won the first professional marathon contested in that country in a time of 2:51:51, covering more than 60 laps of a cinder track laid out at Jones’s Road Sportsground in Dublin.


Returning to Ireland on frequent occasions, John Daly was 11th in the International Cross Country Championships of 1911, and his team was again a distant 2nd to England, 108pts to 32. By then he was concentrating his energies on building up his business interests in New York and he eventually owned five taverns. He served as president of several associations of restaurant owners and liquor dealers, married a Miss Molly Hogan, from County Clare, who he had met in Dublin, and the couple had three children, though Mrs Daly sadly died in 1920 a fortnight after giving birth. John Daly lived to the age of 89; dying in New York in March 1969.  


Note: the full text of Padraig Stevens’s biography of John Daly can be accessed at “The Olympic Marathon” was published by Human Kinetics in the year 2000.



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