Recognition where due for modest champion (2024)

Daire Whelan sketches the background to the neglect and rediscovery of a sporting hero.

Look up the annals of the Olympics, search under "F" for Fitzgerald and be greeted with a blank. Turn to our own Olympic Council of Ireland and no Fitzgerald receives a mention. But today, history is being rewritten as Eamonn Fitzgerald, All-Ireland winner and Irish Olympian, is being remembered in Deansgrange Cemetery, Dublin.

Some 45 years after his funeral, at which just seven mourners attended, 72 years after coming fourth in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics before 101,000 spectators and 74 years since winning an All-Ireland medal with the legendary four-in-a-row Kerry team in front of 70,000 spectators at Croke Park, Eamonn Fitzgerald is finally being recognised and remembered for his unique achievements in Irish sport in the 1930s.

In November 2003, after a three-year search, another Kerryman located the grave of Fitzgerald. Lying overgrown and barely visible in a corner of Deansgrange, the epitaph, nearly erased by neglect and time, simply stated that Eamonn Fitzgerald, born Castlecove, 1903, had died aged 55 in 1958.


But to Eugene O'Sullivan and Weeshie Fogarty, two men who had traced Fitzgerald's last resting place, this discovery was the final piece in the jigsaw of a remarkable Kerryman's life.

Winner of four All-Ireland medals, Irish hop, step and jump (triple jump) and high jump champion and fourth-place Olympian, Fitzgerald achieved success and glory whenever he took the field of play; his only fault was to have been competing when there were so many other brilliant sportsmen around, including the great John Joe Sheehy on the Kerry team and Ireland's gold medallists in the 1932 Olympics, Bob Tisdall (400 metres hurdles) and Dr Pat O'Callaghan (hammer).

Fitzgerald, it seems, was destined to live his sporting life in the shadow of other Irish greats. And for 45 years, it seemed as if in death he was fated to suffer a similar lack of recognition.

Then enter radio broadcaster Weeshie Fogarty, who describes how he first set out to rediscover Fitzgerald's legacy.

"I was taking part in a Ring of Kerry charity cycle in 2001," he says, "and we stopped off in a little village by the name of Castlecove. Now this is a village that has just a shop, a post office, a church, a pub and a few hundred people.

"But I took a walk into the church to have a look around and the sun was streaming in through the beautiful stained-glass windows and to the left of me one particular window caught my eye, for underneath it was written the words: 'Erected in memory of Eamonn Fitzgerald.'

"I had vaguely heard of Fitzgerald before but I didn't know anything about him. I knew the great Duncan Edwards of Manchester United had a stained-glass window dedicated to him but I had never before heard of one to an Irish sportsman. This Fitzgerald chap must have been good, I thought.

"I went outside to take a stroll and have a further look around when I saw a stone plaque outside the shop across the road and on it, written in Irish, 'Eamonn Mac Gearailt, Los Angeles, 1932.' These were the first two clues hinting at someone remarkable hailing from the village.

"Talking to the locals, Fitzgerald's achievements were the stuff of legend: brilliant Gaelic footballer, All-Ireland winner, national hop, step and jump champion, he was Castlecove's most famous son. But as to what happened to him when he went to Dublin to teach, none could say.

"That's when I enlisted the help of Eugene O'Sullivan, chairman of the Kerry Association in Dublin. Finally, we were able to track the gravestone to Deansgrange cemetery, where it was lying neglected, and Eugene had the unique privilege of being the first Kerryman since Fitzgerald's funeral in 1958 to lay eyes on the headstone."

For O'Sullivan, the most poignant moment wasn't the discovery of the grave but rather the fact that 20 years ago he was in Los Angeles and managed to sneak onto the Coliseum track where the 1932 Olympics had been held.

"Little did I know at the time that I was standing in the same place that Eamonn Fitzgerald had stood all those years ago. Finding his grave and having it rededicated means it has come full circle for me and for him as well."

Soon after travelling the 6,000 miles back from Los Angeles, Fitzgerald was back into the thick of the action as he was named as a sub on the 1932 Kerry All-Ireland final team, which clinched its first ever four-in-a-row, beating Mayo in the process.

From the LA Coliseum to Croke Park, all in the space of a month. But his sporting achievements weren't over and in 1933 and 1934 he won national titles in the hop, step and jump and high jump.

After that, Fitzgerald's competitive involvement appeared to diminish and little is known of the rest of his sporting life. Away from competition, we do know he was sent to Dublin to study by a benefactor, Lady Albinia Lucy Broderick, who arrived in Castlecove to set up a hospital at nearby Westcove and took an interest in nationalist activities, involving herself with the Gaelic League, and paying for talented Castlecove children, one of whom was Eamonn Fitzgerald, to be educated in Dublin.

It appears Fitzgerald's politics were similar to Lady Broderick's, and during the War of Independence he was imprisoned in Drogheda for his Republican activities. He then went on to teach at Pádraig Pearse's school, St Enda's, in Rathfarnham, where he also lived.

Pierce Ryan, a former student of Fitzgerald's at St Enda's, recalls that he was a well-educated man (fluent in French) as well as being a fine footballer. He also recalls that one day he came across a cupboard in Fitzgerald's room and there inside it was a collection of cups, trophies and medals - the fruits of Fitzgerald's sporting endeavours.

Fitzgerald kept those trophies of his past glories, but they were hidden away in a non-descript drawer as if part of a separate life that was gone and forgotten about.

Perhaps we would have learned more about this Irish Olympian if his intended marriage had gone ahead, but he cancelled his engagement when he contracted TB - of which he would die, age 55, in 1958, leaving no offspring to maintain his sporting legacy.

The nation did Eamonn Fitzgerald a disservice for the last 45 years, allowing his grave to grow unkempt and his epitaph nearly fade away, but today - thanks to Weeshie Fogarty and Eugene O'Sullivan - the villagers of Castlecove, the Olympic Council of Ireland and past Irish Olympians will get a chance to celebrate this remarkable man and ensure his life and achievements are proudly heralded.

Note: The rededication of Eamonn Fitzgerald's grave takes place today at 2.30 p.m. at Deansgrange Cemetery and all are welcome to attend.

1932 Olympics, Triple Jump

1 - Chuhei Nambu (Jpn), 51ft 7in (15.72m)

2 - Eric Svensson (Swe), 50ft 3¼in (15.32m)

3 - Kenkichi Oshima (Jpn), 49ft 7¼in (15.12m)

4 - Eamonn Fitzgerald (Irl), 49ft 3in (15.01m)

5 - Willem Peters (Hol), 48ft 11¾in (14.93m)

Nambubroke the world recordfor the triple jump at the LA Olympics.

Recognition where due for modest champion (2024)
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