The man who said ‘Good day’ to Harvard
First Olympic champion for 1,500 years: James Brendan Connolly with the American flag in Athens 1896.
The south Bostonian, James Brendan Connolly, was once described by Joseph Conrad as the ‘best sea-story writer in America’. He wrote 19 novels and short stories about ships and sailors at sea, the US navy, submarine patrols in World War I, and the heroic struggles of the Gloucester fishermen on the treacherous Grand Bank and Nova Scotia regions hunting for cod and halibut.
Connolly was born on October 28 1868 to John and Ann (O’Donnell), both emigrants from Inis Mór, the Aran Islands off the Galway coast. He was the sixth of 10 boys. His father brought his fishing skills with him to Boston, and sailed with the local fishing fleet. He earned a good livelihood ensuring his children had a good education. James Brendan spent his young years fishing part-time with the fleet, attending a number of schools and colleges but he was an indifferent student. His great passion was sport, particularly the triple jump, known as the hop, skip and jump.
He was a student at Harvard when he read about baron Pierre de Coubertin, and his belief in the civilising influence of sport. The French educationalist and historian had romanticised ancient Greece; and after an absence of 1,500 years he campaigned to revive the Olympian tradition. In the summer of 1896 the first modern Olympic Games would be held in Athens, and Connolly decided he would participate. He had little or no money, and in the absence of an official American team, he would have to pay for his passage to Greece and home again. Furthermore when he requested leave of absence from Harvard, he was refused. He was haughtily told to resign from the college and reapply when he returned. Angry, and with all the confidence of youth, Connolly told the college authorities; “ I am not resigning and I’m not making an application to re-enter. I am through with Harvard right now. Good day!”
He hitched a ride to Naples (the nearest he could get to Greece), on board a German freighter, The Barbarossa. On his way to the train he was robbed, but after a chase, he got his money back, and arrived in Athens on the morning of the triple jump, which was also the first event of the games. Apparently his style, taking two hops with his right foot is no longer acceptable today, but in 1896 it was allowed. In this awkward fashion Connolly launched himself into the air, easily outjumping the field, finishing more than one metre ahead of his nearest opponent by jumping 13.71 m (44ft 113/4 ins). He won the first silver medal of the games (gold medals did not exist at that time). Not only was he world champion of the triple jump, but the first Olympian champion since 385 AD.
Connolly came home to south Boston a hero. But now he had a taste for travel. He joined the Ninth Massachusetts Infantry and headed off to fight the Spanish in Cuba. After that war, and weakened by fever, he began earning money writing articles about his adventures for newspapers. He still had a passion for sport. The second Olympic Games was held in Paris in 1900 and our hero was determined to be there. Once again he took a steamer to London, and crossed the channel practically broke but just in time to sign on for the games. “I lived on 20 cents a day for my first week in Paris, training for the Games by walking countless of miles around the city. On the day of my competition I had a breakfast of one egg, one roll, one cup of cafe au lait. That morning I walked the seven miles to the athletic park, lunched on the good air of the Bois de Boulougne, and got second place in the event.”
Writing was now to become his only income and profession. His newspaper articles caught the eye of Theodore ‘Teddy’ Roosevelt, a man who enjoyed adventure as an explorer, soldier, and hunter, before becoming America’s youngest president. He liked the ‘jib’ of this young Irish American, and stated that if he had to choose a role model for his son he would choose‘ Connolly from south Boston’. Roosevelt encouraged Connolly to enter politics, but he was not successful there. Instead, the president requested that the navy accommodated him where ever he wanted to go. Connolly took full advantage of this amazing opportunity, sharing navy life ‘from ward rooms and admiral’s cabins as a quest; to the fo’c’s’le end as an enlisted man’. During the war his copy was in demand by leading newspapers and magazines.
In 1921, at the height of the Irish War of Independence, Britain criticised American aid for Ireland, which it said, was only going straight into the pockets of the IRA to buy weapons. Connolly was made a commissioner for the American Committee for the Relief of Ireland, and asked to check out whether the accusation was true.
With those credentials in his pocket, all doors were open to him. He met the leaders on both sides, from the British Commander-in-Chief, General Sir Neville McReady, to de Valera. When he returned to the States he castigated British policy in Ireland in a series of scathing articles for the Hearst Press.
Connolly was invited back to Harvard, not as a student, but to lecture on writing to aspiring young writers.
James Brendan Connolly died in 1957, and I often wondered why he is not better known. In 2003 Bob Quinn made an excellent documentary of his life for Cinegael : An Chead Laoch: James Brendan Connolly, narrated by Seosamh Ó Cuaig. Surely it is the perfect time to show it again.