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.].
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
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.
Racing in Dublin
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.
Sport (1888) 7 January, p. 6
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
But 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.
Life after athletics
1 Kildare Observer (1885) 6 June, p. 6.
2 Freeman’s Journal (1885) 5 August.
3 Belfast Newsletter (1886) 19 July.
4 Freeman’s Journal (1887) 2 August.
5 Freeman’s Journal (1887) 22 August.
6 Freeman’s Journal (1888) 14 January, p. 6.
7 Sun (New York) (1891) 13 December, p. 5.
8 New York Daily Tribune (1985) 29 August, p. 3.
9 Sport (1899) 21 January, p. 7.
10 Irish Independent (1912) 24 October, p. 7.
11 Reading Eagle (Pennsylvania) (1915) 28 March, p. 10.
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