Breathing new life into old Ireland in glorious colour

Arts Week with Judy Murphy

The first ever gold medallist at the Modern Olympic Games was a man with impeccable Galway roots – and he also features, for the first time in glorious colour, in the latest instalment of the publishing phenomenon co-authored by University of Galway colleagues.

The story of Irish/American athlete James Brendan Connolly is as fabled as the Olympics themselves, because – after being denied leave of absence to participate in the first Modern Games in Athens in 1896 – he travelled anyway and went on to win the opening event, then known as the hop, skip and jump (now the triple jump) in track and field.

His colourised photo is one of the many gems in the third edition of John Breslin and Sarah-Anne Buckley’s record-breaking Old Ireland in Colour series, as the authors have uncovered yet more photographic treasures and breathed new life into them in glorious colour.

Connolly, whose parents – fisherman John Connolly and his wife Ann O’Donnell – were originally from Inis Mor and living in Boston, went on to win a silver medal in the high jump and bronze in the long jump.

After leaving school, Connolly moved to Savannah, where he worked in the engineering corps of the Marines, before returning to Boston and enrolling at Harvard where he focused his attention on athletics.

After the Olympics, he volunteered to fight in the American–Spanish Civil War and he would go on to become a famous writer.

In 1912, Connolly was the Progressive nominee for Congress from South Boston and Dorchester.

He was defeated by incumbent Congressman James Michael Curley, another man with rock-solid Galway roots – because his father Michael immigrated from Oughterard, and settled in Roxbury, where he met Curley’s mother, Sarah (nee Clancy) also from County Galway.

His life is the subject of a documentary, An Cheìad Laoch, narrated by Seosamh Oì Cuaig. In the TV miniseries First Olympics, he was portrayed by David Caruso.

Pictured: First Olympic gold medallist…James Brendan Connolly, whose parents were both from the Aran Islands. Photographer: Unknown; Source: Wikimedia Commons, Library of Congress.

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune:

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