James Connolly – The Athlete
by Mike McCormack, National Historian
When the name of James Connolly is mentioned, most immediately think of Ireland’s great patriot and labor leader who was brutally murdered by the Brits in 1916 after the Easter Rising. He was born in poverty to Irish parents in Edinburgh, Scotland on June 5, 1868; but there was another James Connolly, also born in poverty to Irish parents in 1868. This was James Brendan Connolly, born in south Boston, MA. Curiously, the month of April was most significant for both. For our Irish patriot, it was the month he led his followers in the great uprising that was to become the watershed in Irish history that led to partial independence for Ireland. For the other, the month of April was the month that he became the first Gold Medal winner in modern Olympic history. Every true Irishman knows and reveres the story of James Connolly the patriot. This is the story of James Connolly – the athlete.
He was one of twelve children of fisherman John Connolly and Ann O’Donnell. An active youngster, he was educated at Notre Dame Academy and then at the Mather and Lawrence grammar school, but never went to high school. Instead, he worked as a clerk with an insurance company in Boston and later with the United States Army Corps of Engineers in Savannah, GA. His love of sports became apparent when working with the Catholic Library Association (CLA) of Savannah in 1891, he helped form a football team and was later elected captain of their Cycling Club. Connolly regained his lost high school learning through self education and in Oct, 1895, took an entrance exam to the Lawrence Scientific School and was unconditionally accepted to study at Harvard University.
One year earlier, an International Olympic Committee was founded to resurrect the ancient Olympic Games which hadn’t been held since 393 AD. It was agreed to hold the first modern Olympics in Athens, Greece from April 6 to 15, 1896. Connolly decided to participate, and requested a leave of absence from Harvard as a student, which was granted on March 19, 1896. Representing the Suffolk Athletic Club, he left for Greece with most of America’s first Olympic team. After arriving in Naples, Italy he was robbed and almost lost his ticket to Athens. He pursued the thief and retrieved it, taking a later train and arriving just in time for the Games.
The first final on opening day was the triple jump. The triple jump, involving three jumps one after the other, was one of the competitions in the Ancient Greek Olympics. In Ireland, the geal-ruith (triple jump), was also an ancient event contested in Irish games as early as 1800 BC. According to the Book of Leinster, written in the 12th century AD, the Tailteann Games which were held in Co. Meath from 1829 BC until at least 554 BC included the geal-ruith. Connolly finished more than a meter ahead of his nearest opponent by jumping 44 ft 11 3/4 in. earning him the first Gold medal (it was actually silver since gold medals did not yet exist) in modern Olympic history and the first Olympic champion since 385 AD. He went on to take second place in the high jump (5 ft 5 in, tied with team-mate Robert Garrett) and third place in the long jump (19 ft 2 in). A total of 14 competitors from the US competed at the 1896 Olympics and were the most successful nation with 11 First Place medals. Overall, the American team had 27 entries in 16 events, with 20 of the 27 resulting in top-three finishes. Back home in Boston, Connolly was welcomed enthusiastically, and was presented a gold watch by the citizens of South Boston.
In 1898, Connolly joined the Massachusetts Irish 9th Infantry and served in the Spanish American War. He wrote accounts of the war which were published in the Boston Globe as Letters from the Front. In 1900, he competed in the second modern Olympics in Paris in 1900, but failed to retain his title in the triple jump. He also attended the 1904 Summer Olympics, but this time as a journalist, not an athlete.
In 1920, Connolly became a crew member of the victorious schooner Esperanto during the first International Fishing Schooner Championship Races in Halifax, Nova Scotia and wrote of this in Collier’s Weekly in 1920 and in The Book of the Gloucester Fishermen which was published in 1927. He became an authority on maritime writing, after spending years on many different vessels, fishing boats and military ships all over the world. In all, he published more than 200 short stories, and 25 novels. He even ran for the US Congress on the Progressive Party ticket, but was never elected. He never returned to Harvard, but received an honorary athletic sweater in 1948. A year later, he was offered an honorary doctorate by Harvard, but turned it down.
James Connolly the athlete died in New York on Jan 20, 1957 at the age of 88. A collection of his memorabilia, including his triple jump First Place medal, is housed in the library of Colby College in Maine.