Noel Coogan recounts the day when the Irish cycling team was arrested
While the sixtieth anniversary of the Melbourne Olympics was remembered earlier in the year, the first Games to be staged down under was actually held in December, 1956. It was a very successful event for Ireland with Ronnie Delany’s 1,500 triumph the highlight and four medals gained in boxing also giving cause for celebration.
However, there was frustration for a small group of Irish cyclists who were hoping to represent their country in the Olympic road race. The trio were members of the National Cycling Association which was not recognised internationally and were taken away by police shortly before the start.
The Irish team comprised of Paudi Fitzgerald from Kerry, Tommy Flanagan from Meath and another Meath man, Tom Gerrard, a former Navan Road Club rider who had emigrated to Australia a few months earlier and was living in Melbourne.
Con Carr from Kildare was also selected but sufficient money was not raised to send him.
Paudi Fitzgerald was selected on the Irish team because of his overall triumph in the 1956 Rás Tailteann. That was the fourth edition of the famous race and the third over eight days. Fitzgerald won two stages to become the second Kerry rider to take overall honours, Gene Mangan having been the winner the previous year.
Tommy Flanagan was honoured with the trip to Australia after winning the National League, a series of long distance races with points awarded to the cyclists with highest placings. The Navan Road Club pedaller also rode consistently to take fifth place overall in the ’56 Ras.
Tom Gerrard was born in Navan town before living in the Gaelic football stronghold of Skryne for a number of years. Coning from a sporting family, his brother Jackie gained senior championship honours with Skryne and Tom was a strong cyclist who took second place in a stage of the Rás.
Each of the three counties was responsible for raising funds to send their man to Melbourne. Meath’s target of £600 was comfortably attained through church gate collections, dances and subscriptions from clubs, other organisations, businesses and individuals.
Flanagan recalled being presented with his Ireland jersey, a predominantly white garment with a tricolour band around the waist. There was a strong support for ‘Send Flanagan to Melbourne’ posters around Meath and the Royal County cyclist departed from Shannon Airport in the early hours of November 27th for the race on December 7th.
The Meath rider travelled alone as shortage of funds delayed Fitzgerald’s departure for another two days. Unlike the present times, no officials went with the cyclists.
Before flying out, Tommy Flanagan sent the following letter to the Meath Chronicle newspaper: “Dear sir, In an hour’s time I depart on a TWA plane to New York en route to Melbourne where I hope to represent my country in the Olympic Games road cycle race on December 7th. That I will soon be starting my journey is due to the wonderful support given to the NCA Olympic Games support fund by the people of Meath for which I want to thank them. I would be pleased if you would publish this short note to show my appreciation of my fellow countymen. Yours in sport, Tommy Flanagan.”
Paudi Fitzgerald linked up with Flanagan in New York and then it was on to San Francisco and Sydney before arriving in Melbourne on December 1st. The two riders were fixed up with accommodation in a suburb of the city.
The whereabouts of the Irish cyclists had newspaper reporters baffled and prompted the following headline, ‘Cyclists cannot be traced.’ Australian Cycling Association secretary Bill Jones said no entries on behalf of Irish cyclists had been received and they would not be allowed to start.
“Nobody will gate-crash on Friday. They can bring their shillelaghs with them if they like but they won’t be any use,” said Jones.
At the time, Cumann Rothaiochta na hEireann (CRE), 26-county body, was accepted internationally to represent Ireland.
The three cyclists hoping to represent their country in the 1956 Olympics were given instructions by NCA officials to highlight the association’s plight.
Apart from the aim of getting away with the rest of the racers, they were instructed to remove every Union Jack they could find and, bizarrely, to extinguish the Olympic flame in protest at their exclusion. However, the latter proved beyond them!
Leaflets, printed in a few different languages, highlighting the NCA’s situation, were distributed among the spectators by Irish emigrants.
Looking back, Tommy Flanagan said they nearly got away with the rest of the riders. “We kept our tracksuits on as long as possible and the starter was down to six in the countdown when we were noticed. We were told we weren’t entered, the police were called in and we left peacefully. The police had sympathy for us,” he said.
Although not allowed to compete, Flanagan described the trip down under as a memorable experience. “Altogether we were away for three months and were treated well everywhere we went,” he recalled.
Strangely, Ronnie Delany’s gold medal triumph in the 1,500 metres did not impress some Irish people. NCA president and NACA vice-president Jim Killean expressed the odd opinion that “nobody won a gold medal for Ireland this time!”
At the subsequent NACA congress Killean was critical of Nenagh Olympic AC members for taking part in the town’s welcome for Delany.
After being selected to represent Ireland in the 1956 Olympic Games, the three cyclists did not do much racing. But Tommy Flanagan still goes out for regular spins. At the time of writing, all three men are alive and well and can look back on a dramatic chapter in Irish sport which occurred 60 years ago this month.