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‘Sonnie’ Murphy Of Kilnaboy

Michael ‘Sonnie’ Murphy came from Kilnaboy, a few miles from Ennis, Co. Clare. As a youth, he showed a great interest in athletics, and was a regular competitor at local athletics meetings in the county. Sonnie Murphy also took a hand at sports administration, and was the secretary of the Kilnaboy Sports Day in September 1931. One of the scheduled events that day was a Two Mile Steeplechase, the very event that Sonnie would take part in at the Olympic games in Los Angeles, the following year. In the early 1930s he joined the famous O’Callaghans Mills club, then one of the finest clubs in Ireland.

In June 1930 Sonnie claimed 2nd place at the Clare Garda Sports in the One mile event, and also finished in 2nd place the following month at the Kilfenora Sports. In the Munster Inter-County athletic and cycling competition in September 1930 at Ennis, Sonnie once more claimed the runner up position over the same distance with Tim Smythe finishing in third place.

Tim would later go on to win the individual International Cross- Country title at Baldoyle in 1931. On New Years Day, 1931, Sonnie finished 3rd in the Six Mile Cross Country Championship of Clare. By August 1931, Sonnie had claimed the Half Mile trophy at the Killaloe Garda Sports. Back then, Sonnie trained in the fields and roads of Kilnaboy.

As neighbours observed his daily schedule, how many ever thought that their local runner would soon be competing in the 1932 Olympics? According to all who knew him, Sonnie was an outstanding young man with a great sense of humour. As an athlete he was a dashing and unselfish runner whose talent and determination brought him many accolades.

Were it not for his untimely death he could have gone on to become even more successful in the formidable world of competitive athletics. Cross-country running at the time was a far cry from the athletics of today, dominated by sponsorship, appearance money and bonus payments. 1930s athletes did not have such privileges, with athletes like Sonnie cycling many miles to attend races.

In May 1931, the Clare Garda Sports took place at the Ennis Showgrounds and the following was reported in the Clare Champion: “A fine display was given by M. J. Murphy, who took the One Mile flat by a comfortable margin”. 1931 turned out to be a great year for him as he also won the  Munster 1500 metres title, and later in Croke Park, the Irish Mile Championship in a time of 4 minutes 31 seconds.

This was a tremendous achievement, considering he had run this distance twice that day, in both his heat and the semi-final. The following year, Sonnie competed at an eight mile race held at Kilkishen, Co. Clare. He finished 2nd to his team mate King in a time of 39 minutes 10 seconds, just 5 seconds behind the winner and 5 seconds ahead of Tim Smythe.

Sonnie Murphy was fine athlete, and in the National Junior Championships held at Limerick in 1932, he showed spirited determination as the following story amply illustrates; “Sonnie was having a great tussle with James Dundas,  another great O’Callaghans Mills athlete, and after six miles, they were still shoulder to shoulder. However, with just a lap to go, Sonnie lost his footing and fell into a trench”. Most athletes who fall during a race find it impossible to get back into their stride, but Sonnie managed to recover and finish the race in second place!”

In the National Championship at Croke Park in 1932, Sonnie entered the 3,000 metres steeplechase, in a time of 9 minutes 51.8 seconds, a then Irish record. Considering that this was not his more favoured event, it was an exceptional performance. On the strength of this, Sonnie was selected to compete in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics.

The Tenth Olympiad proved the scene of many firsts, including the introduction of the Olympic village, the winners triple podium, automatic timing for track events,and boxing referees inside the ring for the first time! Over 100,000 people watched the Los Angeles Games, which ran from July 30th to August 14th, with only 37 countries able to take

This was as a direct result of the 1930s depression, but a lack of competitors did not effect the quality of the games themselves. The opportunity of representing his country was a great honour for Sonnie, but as athletes in those days received little in expenses, Sonnie was forced to borrow money from relatives and friends.

In a bid to help his Olympic adventure, locals held a collection, raising over £30, which was presented to him before he left for America. His achievements on the athletics field, and the fact that he was a Clare man representing Ireland at the Olympics gave people a great sense of local pride, so they wanted to help in any way that they could. Before he left from Cobh with the other athletes, he informed an official about the money he had received, and this proved unfortunate. He was brusquely told that he would have to return the money, or his amateur status would come into question.

Sonnie, and the other Irish track and field athletes were aided by a £1,000 grant from the Irish Government. The others were Dr. Pat O’Callaghan, Bob Tisdall and Eamonn Fitzgerald, a member of the Kerry football team. These four, along with four boxers left Cobh on July 3rd, and arrived two weeks later at the Olympic village based at Baldwin Hills, overlooking Los Angeles. They travelled by rail across the United States, making two brief stops at Chicago and Denver for training workouts.

Sonnie ran in the second heat of the 3,000 metres steeplechase, five men from each heat would qualify for the final. His particular heat was by far the fastest. Sonnie faced Volmari Iso-Hollo and Matti Matilainen of Finland, Americans Joe McCluskey and Glen Dawson, George Bailey from Britain, Italian Guiseppi Lippi and Canadian Harold Gallup. These heats took place on one of the hottest days of the Games.

Sonnie ran well for the first three laps, but as the athletes approached the half way mark there were signs that Sonnie was in difficulties as he began to fall back in the race. The intense heat was now taking its toll, but Sonnie refused to give in and after a short while he began to chase to the leaders. Unfortunately this extra effort was his undoing.

He began to sway on the track and as he approached the water jump, he collapsed completely. The intense heat left him exhausted. Initially, it was unclear what had happened and Sonnie was left lying on the track in the full glare of the sun before being taken away for treatment. In the treatment room, Dr. Pat O’Callaghan determined that Sonnie was dangerously dehydrated.

After two days he returned to the Olympic village, where Dr. O’Callaghan continued to look after him. He was adamant that the race had a serious effect on Sonnie. Sonnie had run in a climate far different to what he was used to. Finnish runner Volmari Iso-Hollo won this particular heat in Olympic record time. He went on to win the final in rather bizarre circumstances.

A track official, distracted by a pole vault competition, allowed the athletes to run a lap more than was intended. Four years later at the Berlin Games Iso-Hollo proved his class again, successfully defending his title. Sonnie did not return with the other athletes after the games ended, staying instead with relatives as he recuperated.

He returned home in January 1933, and entered a number of athletics meetings in Co Clare that year. By September of 1933 he appeared to be back to top form, winning both the 440 and 880 yard handicap events at the Ruan Sports, and it seemed he had made a full recovery from the Los Angeles Games. Unfortunately for Sonnie, this was not to be. Running in the blazing sun in Los Angeles had taken its toll on his health. On St. Patrick’s Day, 1936, Sonnie then living with an aunt in Dublin, died peacefully. His funeral took place from the City of Dublin hospital to Deans Grange cemetery. Those who sympathised with his family at the funeral included General Eoin O’Duffy, Captain Keenan, J.J. Tallon of Croke Park and his good friend Tim Smythe.

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