Reunited with the past
LIFE during World War II - or ‘The Emergency’ as it was commonly known in Ireland - was tough. Petrol was rationed, along with every day products like flour, tea and biscuits. With money scarce, every penny was counted and luxuries had to be done without. Luxuries like athletics medals.
In 1944, Denis McGowan was 18 years old and had just won the Sligo Championship County 100 yards youth final in Curry. It was one of the best days of his life and one he will always remember. But after the race was won, the organisers of the race, the National Athletics and Cycling Association, told him they had no gold medal and they would be in touch with him when they got one.
A native of Tubbercurry, Denis had been working in Ballaghaderreen at the time. He thought nothing of it and went back to work. However, he still coveted the medal he had won and wrote asking if he should expect it in the future. After some delay he received the reply he was dreading.
“They had no gold and they had no funds in the kitty,” explained Denis. “I was expecting it and they said it would be sent on. I let it go for a few months and after a while I wrote to them and they said they had no funds. They let me know they had me in mind all the time but they were out of money. They went bust in the end so I was not the only one who did not get one. I don’t know how the others fared out.
“I was working in Ballaghderreen at the time, nearly 20 miles away so I was not in contact with them. I was still on to them for another 15-16 years but I eventually gave up. I was annoyed,” admitted Denis.
The years quickly passed for Denis and after moving to Achill to work, he married a local girl and settled on the island. He saw his family grow and along came grandchildren but even after 62 years he still had not forgotten about the race he won and the medal he was deprived of. It was after listening to the radio, he heard of a man who finally got a medal after fifty years. It was then he thought he might have a chance of getting his medal.
Denis celebrated his eightieth birthday party last August and his daughter Marie travelled home from America and she decided to follow up on the medal. She got in contact with local councillor, Micheál McNamara and he agreed to help in her quest.
“I was listening to the radio one day and a man came on and said he was after receiving his medal after 50 years and wondered if he should be in the Guinness Book of Records. I was listening to it and I thought after 62 years I should be. Marie, my daughter was home from the States and she said she would take it on. Herself and Micheál Mac got down to business and went through the cuttings of the papers.”
After finding the records of the race on file in Dublin, they asked if a medal could be presented to Denis. They got on to Athletics Ireland, the current athletics body in Ireland and they agreed to send out a medal. Finally after 62 years of waiting, Denis finally got his hands on the coveted medal. He explained he often thought of his mother, who when he used to visit, would ask if he had got the medal yet.
“I won it in 1944 when I was only 18 years old and 62 years later I only got it now. I didn’t expect anything at all, maybe an apology, but it is a nice medal they gave me. It is no good saying to people, I had won a medal without showing it. They would say it was bull,” he said.
When you look at Denis you can see why he was an accomplished athlete. His tall lean frame would easily carry him quickly over the yards. He said with little reservation that he ran like a hound and took his running and training very seriously. The lack of transport would not put him off going to races and he would often cycle over 20 miles to a race. He was not only a runner, but would take part in the long jump and the high jump.
“We took athletics very seriously. At that time Ballaghadereen had a great club, some fellows won Connacht championships. We used to cycle awful distances, the club could not afford any transport, but athletics was very popular. In Ballaghaderren, there was a Callaghan chap who used to win the 448 yards, the mile, and was Connacht champion every year. We used to train like hell though. There was a bridge, maybe four or five miles outside Ballaghdereen and we would run out to that bridge and back, maybe three nights a week. There might have been ten of us in it and there was great never a dull moment.
“We would go to Tuam, but we were up against the College boys from the likes of St Jarlaths. I could jump 18 feet in the long jump but I only came third anywhere I went because the college boys could jump 22 feet. They were trained in the College, they were doing nothing else only practising every day,” he said.
The lure of medals were not the only things on Denis’ mind when he would go to races. He would often go to flapper races around the West, where there were cash prizes. It was an opportunity to earn some extra cash for himself and no matter what the distance he would try to get to these meets when ever possible. These meeting were very popular and with very little money available, they were keenly contested.
“I went to a sports meet once and it was nearly 20 miles out of my way. I only had half a crown in my pocket and I said I will have to get money some how. It was a shilling to enter the 100 yards, a shilling for the 220 yards and I had six pence left. You could not get much for six pence so I paid six pence for a ticket where they were raffling a fiver. I won the fiver, and a pound for winning the 100 yards, another pound for winning the 220 and I was left with seven pounds for myself. I would hear people say, ‘It would be the likes of him who would win it’”, he remembered fondly.
Denis began his working live as a 15 year old with Gordons in Ballaghadereen where he served a three year apprentice working in the grocery and doing whatever job needed to be done. In 1946 he was asked to work in Achill by Joe Sweeney, of Sweeney’s Hardware and Grocery in Achill Sound. After some negotiation he decided to come to Achill for three months.
He was very fond of fishing and hunting and he could not have come to a better place. He had never been to Achill before and first went fishing on the bridge, and the fish were catching. Denis was not sure what he was catching and only found out that they were sea trout after thinking they were big herrings. In 1951 he got married to Achill girl, Imelda Brett and a three months stay in Achill turned into 60 years.
Denis settled quickly into Achill life eventhough it put paid to his athletes career as Achill did not have an athletics club. He often thought of setting one up in Achill as he said there was an abundance of fine athletes and footballers but it never got off the ground. After 15 years working in Sweeneys he moved across the village to Brett’s Stores where he remained until his retirement.
Fishing was one of life’s pleasures to Denis and whether it be going up to the lakes around Currane hills or out at sea, it was a place where he was always at ease. So much so, he along with three other men decided to invest in a yawl to fish around Clare Island.
“Myself, Edward Gallagher, Pat McLoughlin and Michael Goohan bought a yawl in Derreens. We bought it for £8 a man and we used to go out to Clare Island twice a week. We were making more money on that than we were behind the counter. We used to get 15 boxes of fish some days,” he smiled.
Despite having such an energetic and healthy youth, Denis now suffers from emphazema which restricts his movement every day.
“I got emphazema and that’s a curse altogether. I have to use oxygen every day. There was a fire in the convent and I heard the parish priest at the time say, ‘don’t let anyone in to that room,” but I was in it. The carpet was on fire and I was trying to save it. He turned the key on the door and locked me in. The smoke got so bad I could not find a door or a window to get out. I was there for about half an hour and I lay down flat on the floor like we were told to do,” he revealed.
Denis admits being frustrated about not being able to walk far given at one stage he was able to run like a hare. However, he now has the medal to remind him of better days and particularly of the day in 1944 when he became the 100 yard champion of Sligo.