Athletics - Sports in Mayo
Interest in athletics in Mayo has grown significantly in recent decades. Many athletic clubs have sprung up and older clubs have been regenerated. The Claremorris Athletic Club was founded in the 1960s, with success coming quickly for many club members on the national scene. In the early 1990s, the club achieved major successes in track and field events. Ballina Athletic Club, which had been dormant for some years, was revived in the 1960s with Fr. Michael Flynn as chairperson. Ballina athletes have had many notable achievements over the years. For example, Deirdre Gallagher competed in the Olympic Games in Atlanta in 1996 and Padraig Howard participated in the Special Olympics in North Carolina in 1999. where he won a gold medal in the shot putt. The Castlebar Athletic Club was founded in 1972 and has also enjoyed recent successes.
The Mayo Athletic Club, catering for junior and senior athletes within the county, was re-formed in the late 1980s. Brenda Murphy was the first female athlete to join the club and she had wonderful success in the Belfast Marathon. Other successes by athletes such as Anne Lennon, Josephine Macken and Frances Lally soon followed. Paddy Murray dominated the road race scene and Paddy Kearney brought great honour to the club for his numerous sprint titles. Eugene McTigue had hugh success at national level in both the 56 lb (25.4kg) and shot events.
The Special Olympics World Summer Games are held every four years with the aim of providing athletic competition in a variety of Olympic sports for intellectually challenged participants. In June 1999, 7,000 athletes from 150 countries participated in the Special Olympics, hosted in North Carolina, USA. Six athletes from Mayo brought back two gold medals, one silver and four bronzes, as well as ribbons for two fourths, one first and two sixths, in equestrian, bowling, basketball swimming and athletic events. It was a success-story made possible by the hard work of the athletes and their coaches at home in Mayo. Fiona Hughes (Hollymount) received fourth place in both her equestrian events (the trail ride and equitation). Agnes McGee (Westport) participated with her unified partner, Colette McTigue, in the bowling event and achieved third place in the World Doubles and third place in a team event, receiving two Bronze medals.
Agnes Melvin (Ballina) achieved the highest individual score on her team in the basketball event, winning an Olympic Gold medal. Caitriona Ryan (Easkey), participating in the 25 metre freestyle and 25 metre backstroke events, won both an Olympic Gold and a Silver medal. Padraig Howard (Ballina) won the first Gold medal for Ireland in the shot putt and also received a fifth place in the athletics events of the 100 metre and 200 metre races.
However, there have been two athletes in particular who have achieved great success both nationally and internationally. Born in Kiltimagh, Sean ‘Baller’ Lavan (1898-1973) was a superb athlete with tremendous natural ability in many different sports. Among his achievements was the initiation of the ‘hand to toe’ technique or ‘solo run’, which is today such an integral part of Gaelic football. Between 1918 and 1924, Lavan played Gaelic football for Kiltimagh and for Mayo. He won every athletic competition in Ireland in the 220 and 440 yard races (200m and 400m), played rugby on occasion and boxed when at college. In 1924, Lavan represented Ireland in the Paris Olympics on the first Irish national team since independence. He competed in the 400 yards (365m) event, reaching the semi-finals. Four years later, he captained the Irish team in the Amsterdam Olympics and later acted as the Irish team’s medical officer in the Helsinki Olympics.
Besides his sporting pursuits, Lavan had first trained as a national school teacher and later studied medicine in University College Dublin. He subsequently lectured there in anatomy and also worked for a while as a police surgeon. During his sporting career, Lavan earned over 120 medals, which were exhibited in his native Kiltimagh in 1997.
Bohola-born Olympic champion, Martin Joseph Sheridan (1881-1918) was one of the most outstanding athletes of his time, winning more Olympic medals than any other Irish athlete. He retired from athletics in 1911, having established 16 new world records and winning nine Olympic medals – five gold, three silver and one bronze – at St. Louis (1904), Athens (1906) and London (1908). Having emigrated to New York at the age of 19, Sheridan set his first world record in athletics when he was 29 with a discus throw of 120 feet 7 and a quarter inches. He subsequently won the American All Round Athletic Championships three times between 1905 and 1909. Although an all-round athlete, his main expertise was in pole vaulting, discus throwing, the long jump and the high jump.
On a visit to Bohola in August 1908, Sheridan visited his family home where his brother Joe and his wife, Kitty, lived. She was an assistant teacher in Carragowan school, which Martin himself had attended, and was a sister of the renowned Republican and statesman Michael Collins (1890-1922). It was during this visit that Sheridan created yet another world record, this time by throwing a 7 lb weight a distance of 99 feet 10 inches, which was 2 feet 7 inches more than the previous world record. A memorial to Martin Sheridan was unveiled at Bohola in July 1966 by Gene Tunney, Junior, son of the Irish-American World Heavyweight Boxing champion, and Bohola-born Paul O’Dwyer, then Mayor of New York.