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Ireland's First Olympic Flag Bearer: The Limerick Weight Thrower

Ireland's First Olympic Flag Bearer: The Limerick Weight Thrower
By Jonathan Byrne Updated

As 2021 comes to a close, we are taking a look back at some of our favourite articles of the year on Balls.ie.

"Eighteen stone of bone and brawn" reads an article by the great Limerick sports writer, Séamus Ó'Ceallaigh.

John O'Grady, often referred to as Jack, has a bit of history behind him. In the summer of 1924, he became Ireland's first-ever flag bearer at the Summer Olympics.

Born and raised in Ballybricken, John was a national weight throwing champion. At first, sight, what stood out about him supposedly was his size and stature. At over six feet tall and eighteen stone, he was a sight to behold.

This monument was erected in memory of John O'Grady at the end of Mulgrave Street.

As recalled by Ó'Ceallaigh in a memoir of O'Grady's career, "it was only when he came into the company of men above the normal height that one could properly appreciate his inches."

A rather gentle and unassuming character, John was said to be "ever forgetful of his athletic prowess". He was a man who never let his athletic advantages get to his head as "a contest was no more occasion for fuss than any other natural and pleasant event."

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O'Grady would make a name for himself on the national scene through his decorated career as a weight thrower. He was an All-Ireland champion at the 16-pound shot, the 28 pounds shot, the 56-pound push and the 56-pound sling.

Through his performances at the likes of the Tailteann Games, the Irish Championships and other regional events, his competency started gaining worldwide attention.

A picture from the Tailteann Games in the 1920s.

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In 1915, O'Grady competed in the Dungarvan games, where he came close to achieving one of many world record throws. The late sports reporter Frank Dineen witnessed O'Grady at the event:

The outstanding feature at the Dungarvan meeting was the weight throwing of J. O'Grady. The weather, or, to be more particular, the ground as a consequence of the wet weather, was against records, but O'Grady went within inches of the world's records with the 28lbs and 56 off his shoulder.

It is a great pity that the weather is so wretched. A good hot summer and O'Grady would make world's records by the dozen.

Through national titles and world records, O'Grady's weight throwing career would go down in the books. What has become the pinnacle now for any athlete; is competing at the Olympics.

1924 was a symbolic year for Irish sport. Having become the Free State two years prior, it was Ireland's first time competing at an Olympic Games as an independent nation.

Despite holding world records and countless national titles, O'Grady didn't medal in Paris in 1924. He came seventeenth overall in the men's shot put, with fellow Irishman Paddy Bermingham representing the country in the discus.

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The Opening Ceremony of the 1924 Olympics in Paris.

Ireland did achieve two medals at that Olympics. Jack Butler Yeats won a silver medal for a painting entitled 'Swimming', now on view in the National Gallery of Ireland. Back in the day, there were Olympic categories for activities such as painting, poetry and literature.

O'Grady continued to compete in weight throwing after his Olympic journey, and later became Treasurer of Limerick Athletics Club. According to Ó'Ceallaigh, "there were few men in Ireland who could press O'Grady in pushing the two stone weight."

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John passed away at the early age of 43 in 1934 - less than a decade on from his appearance at the Olympics. Symbolically, he left us the day after Limerick won the All-Ireland Hurling Championship against Dublin at Croke Park.

A monument has been erected in his honour at the end of Mulgrave Street to commemorate his athletic achievements and having been Limerick's first-ever Olympian.

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