Two weeks before the IAAF celebrates its 100th birthday, the 140th consecutive annual Woodies DIY Irish Athletics Championships takes place in the Morton Stadium in Dublin marking yet another milestone in the long and rich love affair between Ireland and Athletics.
Little could those early pioneers have imagined when they organised the first event in 1873 that the championships would ultimately grow to be the longest running National Athletics Championships in the world today not even being disrupted by two World Wars.
To put it into context the Irish Athletics Championships predate the GAA, the International Rugby Championship and the Ashes Cricket!
Although originally scheduled to take place on Saturday, July 5th 1873 bad weather forced a postponement to the following Monday July 7th, ironically the same date 139 years later that this year’s event will take place.
There was what was described in the media at the time of “a good attendance of about 8,000 spectators” which apparently was less than the crowds who used to flock to the traditional races in College Park prior to this.
The track was “probably rather more than a quarter-mile and according to Irish Sportsman newspaper at that time, “the rise at the Medical School corner coming into the finish was rather hard on the competitors…and we are not quite sure that reversing the course was a good move”, indicating that races were run in a counter-clockwise direction, rather than clockwise as was the tradition at Trinity College.
Perpetual trophies, based on classical themes, had been designed by two prize students at the art academy, William Gibson and R.Catterton-Smith, and cast in London. Such trophies were presented for the majority of the events, along with the silver and bronze crosses (medals) awarded to winners and runners-up.
The undoubted highlight of these first championships was, of course, Tom Davin’s “world record” high jump of 1.78m.
The event was organised by the Irish Champion Athletic Club which drew up the attached regulations of the meeting, which although most bear some familiar resemblance to today’s rules, they are slightly less than the 250 page IAAF rule book of modern times!
Interestingly, one of the judges for the race walking events in 1873 was non-other than Abraham Stroker who is best known today for his 1897 Gothic novel Dracula.
Since then all the stars of Irish athletics have won their fair share of Irish titles including double Olympic Hammer Champion Pat O’Callaghan (15 titles), Olympic 400m Hurdles Champion Bob Tisdall, Olympic 1500m Champion Ronnie Delany, Multiple World Champion Sonia O’Sullivan (13 titles) Olympic Marathon silver medallist John Treacy (13 titles), World 5000m Champion Eamonn Coghlan (11 titles) and World 20km race walk silver medallists Gillian O’Sullivan and Olive Loughnane who have won 11 titles each.
Throughout an unsettled political situation in Ireland, in some years two National Championships took place and these have now all been recorded by Athletics Ireland and will be published online for the first time this weekend.
This weekend the Woodies DIY Championships will be shown by the national TV broadcaster RTE and as a worthy celebration of the 140th successive Championships will be graced by over 20 athletes who will represent Ireland at the forthcoming London Olympics.
In a lovely twist to the history of the championships, the wife of Ciaran O’Cathain, the new President of Athletics Ireland, was named Morton before she got married and is a cousin of the legendary Billy Morton after whom the stadium is named!
Here’s to the next 140 Irish Championships!