Wondrous little Thomas Conneff from the short-grass county of Kildare
U 12.173-82: From his girdle hung a row of seastones which dangled at every movement of his portentous frame and on these were graven with rude yet striking art the tribal images of many Irish heroes and heroines of antiquity, Cuchulin, Conn of hundred battles, Niall of nine hostages, [ …] Horace Wheatley, Thomas Conneff, Peg Woffington, the Village Blacksmith, [etc.].
Don Gifford (Ulysses Annotated) notes that Thomas Conneff is “Unknown”. Sam Slote is correct in saying that in his day he was a celebrated athlete:
But it would be surprising if Joyce included an “American runner” in his list of “Irish heroes”.
Thomas Conneff is well known to historians of Irish athletics. He was born at Kilmurray, just north-west of Clane, County Kildare (twenty miles south-west of Dublin), on 10 December 1867, the son of James and Marcella Conneff née Rourke. Later, the Joyce family and Tommy Conneff shared several mutual acquaintances. It may also be relevant that Clongowes Wood College, which Joyce attended (1888-92), is on the Kilnock-Naas road one mile north of Clane and Tommy Conneff was doubtless the talk of the town amongst the athletes during Joyce’s time there.
Running in Kildare
As a young man Tommy Conneff discovered a gift for running. His introduction to the world of athletics was quiet. At the Clane Pony Races and Athletic Sports held in June 1885 the seventeen and a half-year-old beat off the challenge of six other runners to win the 440 yards race (“confined to residents within 3 miles of Clane”), and at the same meet took the Half-mile Open Handicap (“a very good race […] The winner held the lead after the second lap”).1 Two months later he won the Half-mile Open Handicap and the One Mile Open Handicap at the Carbury (County Kildare) Amateur Athletic Club Sports:2
listing there means that he had an advantage in the handicap of 30 yards, and
Many of the athletes from the big Dublin clubs (such as “Honest” John Purcell, the Bulgers, and the May brothers) ran at the local Kildare meets, and they would have spotted the talented little Clane runner.Sport (1888) 7 January, p. 6
Racing in Dublin
In the following year
(1886) Conneff burst on to the national athletics scene at the “Caledonian
Games and Sports” in Ballsbridge, Dublin. As before, the half mile and the mile
were his chosen distances, and he won both comfortably:
By now Conneff was running for Staplestown, next-door to his home village of Kilmurray. In the one-mile handicap he beat a large field of good amateur runners by fifteen yards. “Honest” John Purcell won many of the other events (both track and field), as was his custom. In coming from nowhere to achieve local celebrity, Tommy Conneff was emulating another local man, George Stonebridge, who won many of the same races as Conneff in the early 1880s, before emigrating to America and enjoying a successful athletic career there with the West Side Athletic Club.
The Dublin athletic world was one which was familiar to Joyce and his father, especially through the activities of Dublin’s Sport newspaper, one of the Freeman titles. The Caledonian Games were observed at first-hand by Sport: the Games’s “referee” was Fred Gallaher, editor of Sport (and a model for Joyce’s Ignatius Gallaher); one of the “foot race” adjudicators was Hugh S. Hart, the brother of Mick Hart (a model for Joyce’s Lenehan) – both worked for Sport at some stage in their careers. Hugh Hart also became Conneff’s greatest advocate and trainer: see Gallant Mick Hart on this site for a brief account of both Mick and Hugh Hart’s careers). In the Caledonian Half-Mile Flat (see above) Tommy Conneff outdistanced Oscar May, one of the group of brother athletes and musicians who constituted “May’s band” in Ulysses.
Tommy Conneff (third
from left in second row), above the lounging Hugh Hart,
Photograph: courtesy of the Hart family papers (Alison Sulentic)
In mid July 1886 Conneff won the mile and half mile in the Irish Championships. In the mile he again outdistanced Oscar May along the back stretch to claim victory.3 He continued to dominate in Ireland at other distances, too, including two and four miles. At his victory in the Two Mile North of England Championship in Manchester on 1 August 1887:
Conneff won the race
a very popular champion, and a rematch with Carter was scheduled for three
weeks’ later in Dublin:
Victory again went to the gallant Irishman, and he became more and more of a marketable commodity.
World records in America
In early 1888 he followed the trail on many other Irish athletes and took the boat for America. Fred Gallaher of Sport chaired a farewell supper for Conneff, attended by many of his friends and colleagues, including Mick and Hugh Hart.6
Conneff ran at first for the Manhattan Athletic Club in New York. Later that year Hugh Hart also emigrated to New York and took up residence as Conneff’s trainer. Conneff’s success continued, both in championship races and in exhibitions. In 1891 the New York Sun printed a summary of his achievements, including:7
Conneff’s crowning glories in America came after this. On 26 August 1893, at
Holmes Field, Cambridge, Massachusetts, he broke the world amateur record for
the one mile (running four minutes 17 and four-fifths seconds – with which we
should compare Roger Bannister’s first sub-four minute mile in 1954).
In 1895 he achieved greater glory, breaking the world all-comers’ record for the one mile, held
previously for only a month by the English runner F. E. Bacon. Conneff’s new
time was four minutes fifteen and three-fifths seconds, and to help him make
this he was paced by his old sparring partner E. C. Carter and by the Canadian
phenomenon George W. Orton.8
Conneff’s mile record stood for sixteen years, until 1911, still the longest
time over which the one-mile record has remained unbroken.
“The Pageant of America Collection”, NYPL
Life after athletics
As the century neared its end, Tommy Conneff moved away from athletics and took up a military career in America. Dublin’s Sport newspaper reported this news of Tommy in early 1899 under the heading:
The celebrated runner wrote to his old city with news of himself:
Tommy’s career in the
American forces lasted over a dozen years. He enlisted during the
Spanish-American war, and he served in Cuba, Porto Rico, and in the
Philippines. It was from Manila that the sad news of his premature death
reached Ireland in October 1912:
At the time of his
death his mile record had recently been broken but he was still listed in the
record books with the following world records:
Conneff was a potent
force in Irish athletics in Joyce’s younger days, though his star was later
eclipsed. Perhaps the closing words on Tommy Conneff should go to one of Fred
Gallaher’s successors as Editor of Sport,
Thomas E. Healy, writing in Joseph Dunn’s and Patrick Lennox’s Glories of Ireland (1914: p. 107):
Observer (1885) 6
June, p. 6.
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