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Michael "Sonnie" Murphy
Kilnaboy's Olympic Athlete

By James Neylon, P.R.O.Kilnaboy A.C.

Easter Sunday 2003 marks the 19th consecutive staging of what has turned out to be one of the premier 10 mile road races in this country. This is indeed a fitting and lasting tribute to a truly great athlete. Although always remembered by his native Parish, this race is a celebration of his life and achievements and will be a constant reminder to people throughout this country of Sonnie Murphy and what he achieved in such a short lifetime.

A native of Ballycashen, Kilnaboy, he always showed a great interest in sport, and athletics in particular. He was a regular competitor at sports meets and competed at the Kilnaboy Parish sports which were a regular feature of the late 1920's and early 1930's. In fact Sonnie was the secretary of the Kilnaboy sports which took place in September 1931. It is interesting to note that one of the scheleduled events that day was the Two miles Steeplechase. This would be the very event that Sonnie would take part in less than twelve months later at the Olympic games. In those days, Sonnie did most of his training in the fields and roads of his native Ballycashen and his daily schedule would have been a frequent sight of his neighbours. They surely could never have imagined that one day all his efforts would lead to his participation in one of the worlds greatest sporting events.

Cross country running at the time was a far cry from the athletics of today which is dominated by sponsorship, appearance money and bonus payments in the event of world records attained. The athletes of the 1930's did not have such privileges with Sonnie regularly cycling many miles to attend a race, often outside of the County. The fact that he was on the winners rostrum after making such an effort to attend certainly shows not just his dedication to his chosen sport, but also his undoubted talent as a top class athlete.

According to all who knew him, Sonnie was an outstanding young man with a great sense of humour. As an athlete he was well known as a dashing and unselfish runner whose talent and determination brought him many accolades. Were it not for his untimely death he would surely have gone on to become even more successful in the formidable world of competitive athletics.

The following is a brief account of some of the races which Sonnie took part in prior to and including the Olympic Games of 1932:
In the early 1930s Sonnie joined the famous O'Callaghans Mills club who at that stage were well established as one of the finest clubs in Ireland.
In June of 1930 Sonnie claimed 2nd place at the Clare Garda sports in the One mile event and he also finished in 2nd place the following month at the Kilfenora sports. In the Munster Inter-County athletic and cycling competition, which took place in September of 1930 at Ennis, Sonnie once more claimed the runner up position over the same distance with Tim Smythe finishing in third place. Tim would later go on to win the individual International Cross-Country title at Baldoyle in 1931 (known afterwards as the World Cross-Country championships). This feat was later achieved on two successive occasions by the great John Tracey of Waterford. Tracey won a silver medal at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games running in the marathon, the last part of which took place on the very same track on which our own Sonnie ran so bravely all those years ago.
On New Years day 1931 Sonnie finished 3rd in the Six Mile Cross Country Championship of Clare. By August of 1931 Sonnie had claimed the Half Mile trophy at the Killaloe Garda Sports. In May at the Clare Garda Sports which took place at the Showgrounds in Ennis, the following report was given by the Clare Champion : "A fine display was given by M. J. Murphy who took the One Mile flat by a comfortable margin". This turned out to be a great year for him as he was also to capture the Munster 1500 metres title and later on in that year at Croke Park he would claim the Irish Mile Championship with a time of 4 minutes 31 seconds. This was indeed a tremendous achievement when it is considered that he had run this distance twice previously that day, in his heat and in the semi-final.
January of 1932 saw Sonnie compete at an Eight mile race held at Kilkishen. On this occasion he finished 2nd to his team mate King with a time of 39 minutes 10 seconds, just 5 seconds behind the winner and 5 seconds ahead of Smythe.
Sonnie was without doubt a great competitor who gave his all whenever he took part in a race, and at the National Junior Championships held at Limerick in 1932, Sonnie was to show his usual spirited determination as the following story demonstrates; "Sonnie was having a great tussle with James Dundas, yet another great O'Callaghans Mills athlete, and after six miles the two were still shoulder to shoulder, however with just a lap to go Sonnie lost his footing and had the misfortune of falling into a trench".
When an athlete falls during a race it is almost impossible to get back into their stride, but somehow Sonnie managed to recover sufficiently and he went on to finish the race in second place, an incredible achievement indeed, but no great surprise to all who knew him.

The National Championship took place at Croke Park in 1932 and Sonnie entered the 3,000 metres steeplechase, a race which it is believed was introduced to the championships by Tim Smythe and which was subsequently won by Sonnie in a time of 9 minutes 51.8 seconds, a then Irish record. Considering that this was not his more favoured event it was an exceptionally good performance and on the strength of this Sonnie was selected to compete at the Los Angeles Olympic Games of that year. The Tenth Olympiad was to be the scene of many firsts including the introduction of the Olympic village, the winners triple podium, automatic timing for track events and for the first time boxing contests now had referees inside the ring!! Watched by over 100,000 people the Los Angeles games ran from July 30th to August 14th with only 37 countries able to take part. This was as a direct result of the economic depression of the time, however the lack of competitors did not effect the quality of the games.
The opportunity of representing his country was indeed a great honour for Sonnie, but it also put a serious financial strain on him. Athletes in those days received very little in the way of expenses. Therefore he had to borrow money from relatives to help him overcome the financial burden. The local people in a bid to help him with his Olympic adventure, held a collection, which came to the princely sum of £30, and this was presented to Sonnie before he left for America. This was quite an amount of money at that time and the fact that so much was collected for Sonnie goes to show the admiration that the people had for him. His achievements in the field of athletics and the fact that one of their own was to represent Ireland at the Olympic Games gave the local people a great sense of pride and they wanted to help in any way that they could. Before he departed from Cobh with the other athletes, Sonnie informed an official about the money he had received and this proved to be rather unfortunate as he was immediately informed that he would have to return the money or his amateur status would come into question. Sonnie and the other Irish track and field athletes who were aided by a £1,000 grant from the Government of the day comprised of Dr. Pat O'Callaghan, Bob Tisdall and Eamonn Fitzgerald who was a member of the Kerry county football team. These four along with four boxers left Cobh on July 3rd and arrived two weeks later at the Olympic village based at Baldwin Hills, which overlooks the city of Los Angeles. As they travelled by rail across the United States they made two brief stops at Chicago and Denver respectively for training workouts.
It can not have been easy for these athletes who had to deal with temperatures in excess of 100? fahrenheit which meant that they had difficulty maintaining their body weight. The humid conditions would also make a good nights sleep very difficult for them. Despite this, two of the Irish team managed to overcome the odds and bring home the ultimate sporting reward with Dr. O'Callaghan retaining his Olympic title in the hammer event with a throw of 176 feet, 11 inches and Bob Tisdall taking the Olympic title in the 400 metre hurdles. Tisdalls time of 51.7 seconds was a new world and Olympic record but he was denied this honour as the rules of the time stated that all the hurdles had to be left standing at the finish line. He had knocked the last hurdle on his way to the title so his incredible time was not officially recognised. Four days later Tisdell finished a highly creditable eighth in the Decathlon with a final score of 7,327.17 points. Eamonn Fitzgerald came within 1 inch of making it three Olympic medals for Ireland when he competed in the Triple Jump.

Sonnie ran in the second heat of the 3,000 metres steeplechase, with five from each heat to qualify for the final. In this particular heat, which was by far the fastest of the two, Sonnie faced the following athletes; Volmari Iso-Hollo of Finland, Joe McCluskey of the U.S.A., Glen Dawson of the U.S.A., George Bailey of Great Britain, Matti Matilainen of Finland, Guiseppi Lippi of Italy and Harold Gallup of Canada. Making things even harder for Sonnie was the fact that the heats of this race took place on one of the hottest days of the Games, temperatures that naturally would have been totally unfamiliar to him. For the first three laps everything seemed to be going well for Sonnie as he ran shoulder to shoulder with both Iso-Hollo and McCluskey and the possibility of running in an Olympic final was looming on the horizon. However just as the athletes approached the half way mark there were signs that Sonnie was in serious difficulty and he fell back somewhat in the race. Undoubtedly the intense heat was beginning to take its effect on him, as well as the fact that he only had just over two weeks to regain his fitness after the very long boat trip. Typically Sonnie refused to give up and after a short while began to give chase to the leaders. However it was this extra effort that was to be his undoing. At this stage of the race he began to sway on the track and as he approached the water jump, running in third place, he collapsed completely. Not alone had he to run in the full glare of the sun in a race he was only competing in offically for just the second time, but he was also given some very poor advice by an Irish official. He had told Sonnie that he had to clear the fourteen feet water jump. Unquestionably this inaccurate advice, along with the cruel heat, completely drained him. It did not help when he was left lying on the track for far too long in the full glare of the blazing sun before he was finally taken to the medical room for treatment. He spent a number of hours there during which time he was visited by fellow Irish athlete, Dr. Pat O'Callaghan who had watched the race. He determined that Sonnie was dangerously dehydrated.

After two days hospitalisation he was allowed to return to the Olympic village where he was looked after by Dr. O'Callaghan, who always maintained that the race had taken a serious effect on Sonnie. Regrettably this was the case. Sonnie had run in a climate that was obviously far different from that of the cool breeze he was used to at home. This particular race was won by Volmari Iso-Hollo of Finland in a time that established an Olympic record by an astonishing seven seconds. He subsequently went on to win the final in rather bizarre circumstances. After an error by a track official, apparently distracted by an exciting pole vault competition, the athletes ended up running a lap more than was intended. Four years later at the Berlin Games Iso-Hollo proved his undoubted class by successfully defending his title.

Sonnie did not return with the other athletes after the completion of the games. Instead he stayed with relatives as he recovered from his endeavour. He had returned home however by January of 1933 as he had entered the Six mile senior Cross Country Championships at Ruan. By July of that year he had recovered sufficiently to finish fourth in the mile All-Ireland Championships after having led the race for two laps. In August Sonnie was selected on the Clare team to compete in the 880 yards. He was also chosen as a reserve for the mile event in the Inter County Athletic and Cycling Championships held at Limerick. September of 1933 saw Sonnie back to top form winning both the 440 and 880 yard handicap events at the Ruan Sports and it looked as if he had made a full recovery from his exertions at Los Angeles.

Unfortunately for Sonnie this was not to be as the efforts at Los Angeles were to have more serious repercussions on the young Kilnaboy man. For the last few years of his life Sonnie lived in Dublin with his aunt. He was employed on a part time basis with Customs and Excise with the hope of possible full time work sometime in the future. Sadly, Sonnie would never be able to fulfill any ambitions of working full time in Dublin. On St. Patrick's Day, 1936, Sonnie lost the biggest race of all and he passed away peacefully, far from his home of Kilnaboy. His funeral took place from the City of Dublin hospital to Deans Grange cemetery, Blackrock, County Dublin. Those who sympathised with his family at the funeral included General Eoin O'Duffy, Captain Keenan, J.J. Tallon of Croke Park and of course his good friend Tim Smythe as well as many other dignitaries and friends. A few days after Sonnie had passed away a letter arrived at his home telling him that his position with Customs and Excise was to be made permanent.

Although Sonnie died over 65 years ago the people of Kilnaboy have never forgotten his great achievements. When the Olympic Games take place every four years, we will remember proudly the fact that one of our own gave his all in running for his country. It is with sadness that we remember that this great effort was to eventually cost him his life. One can only wonder what would have happened if Sonnie had been selected to compete in any of the shorter races which would undoubtedly have suited him far better than the Steeplechase event. One thing is certain however, regardless of the event or how he finished in the race, Sonnie would have been and still is to this day the pride of the Parish of Kilnaboy. The memorial road race is indeed an appropriate way to remember a great man and a great athlete.

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Michael Sonnie Murphy

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