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:

Thomas Conneff Thomas Conneff (American runner, c.1866–1912) set the world record for the one-mile run in 1888 and again in 1891.

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

Half-mile Open Handicap – T Coneff [sic], 30 yds, 1; D Cummins, 50 yds, 2; R J G Kelly, 55 yds, 0; E Conor, 50 yds, 0; M Flanagan, 45 yds, 0.

Coneff assumed the lead half way, and won as he liked by 39 yds. Time 2min 15sec.

Conneff’s listing there means that he had an advantage in the handicap of 30 yards, and finished first.

One Mile Open Handicap – T Coneff, 55 yds, 1; J Lawrence, Geashill, 80 yds, 2; R Burke, Carbury A C, 65 yds, 0.

Coneff ran into first place before a quarter of a mile and won very easily by 50 yds. Time, 5min 10 sec.

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

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:

Half-Mile Flat Handicap – T. Conneff, Staplestown, 18 yds, 1; Oscar May, [Dublin] Metropolitan Harriers, scratch, 2; E P Rowland, County Dublin Harriers, 6 yds, 3; [etc.] […]

Turning into the straight it looked a certainty almost for Oscar May, but Conneff coming in good form took a decided lead half way up the straight, and won easily by 15 yards.

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.

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:

Every eye was fixed on the "little 'un" as he emerged from the dressing room […] [The American champion] Carter appeared trained to the hour, and very naturally the race was voted a gift for the visiting American.4

Sport (1888) 7 January, p. 6

Tommy Conneff (third from left in second row), above the lounging Hugh Hart,

apparently in Dublin at an inter-club athletics meet in the mid 1880s.

Photograph: courtesy of the Hart family papers (Alison Sulentic)

Conneff won the race a very popular champion, and a rematch with Carter was scheduled for three weeks’ later in Dublin:

On To-morrow (Saturday), Conneff, the Irish Champion, Will Compete against Carter, the English and American Champion, In a Four-Mile Match, For a Twenty Guinea Gold Medal, Presented by ‘Sport’, and the Championship of the World. Ballsbridge Grounds. The Race of the Age […] May the best man win is the common wish, and of course the vast majority wish very naturally that he will be found in the athletic marvel, Thomas Conneff by name.5

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

“The Pageant of America Collection”, NYPL

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

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:

News from Tommy Conneff. At Present a Soldier. United States of America. Company B, 12th Infantry, Jefferson Barracks, Mo., December 15, 1898.

The celebrated runner wrote to his old city with news of himself:

I will never run again, must not attempt it; but I have a good position in Worcester [Massachusetts], cashier of the ‘Sherwood House’ […] I retired from the track an honest Irishman. About 1901, please God, or perhaps sooner, I’ll visit Ireland again […] I am at present a soldier clerk, being book-keeper in the Commissary Department of this Garrison […]

T. P. Conneff.9

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:

T. P. Conneff, the greatest athletic runner of his time, has been found drowned in the Pasiq River, near Manila. He was there stationed with his regiment, the 7th United States Cavalry, in which he ranked as sergeant.10

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:

Three-quarters of a mile: 3 minutes 2 and four-fifths seconds

One and a quarter miles: 5 minules 38 and four-fifths seconds

One and a half miles: six minutes 46 and two-fifths seconds.11

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):

Take running, for instance. Who has not heard of the wondrous little Thomas Conneff from the short-grass county of Kildare? Who does not know of his brilliant performances on the track? We in Ireland, who had seen him defeat Carter, the great Canadian, over the four-mile course at Ballsbridge one summer’s eve now nearly twenty golden years ago, knew his worth before he crossed the broad Atlantic to show to thousands of admiring spectators in America that Ireland was the breeder of fleet-footed sons, who lacked neither the courage, nor the thews and sinews, nor the staying power, to carry them at high speed over any distance of grounds. May the earth lie light on Conneff, for in a small body he had a great heart!

John Simpson


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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