Saturday, 2nd May 1981, the day the May Games began
Tom McCormack, official starter, pointed his gun skywards.
“On yer marks … get set …”. Bang!
Even the sun took its hat off for the Saturday afternoon athletics at the brand new track at the Billy Morton Stadium in Santry, Dublin. It had rained most of the morning for the earlier part of those first historic Games.
My first stop was at Dublin’s Irish Life Centre for the Irish Swimming Gala for blind and vision impaired people. Combined with its sister Irish Athletics Championships, this was our first Games. The National League of the Blind of Ireland (NLBI) provided the funding while its Sports and Social Club provided the organisation.
As I entered the swimming pool area, I was greeted with a crescendo of screaming teenage schoolgirls. They were excited by the outstanding performances of their friends who were breaking records to beat the band. Among the top swimmers on the day were Geraldine Quinn, Imelda Egan, Mary Fahy and Elaine O’Neill. The boys were making a bit of a splash too including Jimmy Grant.
With a pounding head from the shrieks and whoopees, I joined my colleagues on our hired bus. Destination: Santry.
We arrived a little behind time to find every top athletics official in Ireland, led by Brendan Foreman. Brendan’s Who’s Who included Al Guy, Eddie Hogan, Eddie Spillane, Dermot Nagle, and many more. Brendan and the two Eddies have passed on to athletics heaven. The then Irish athletics governing body, BLE, had rolled out the red carpet for their contribution to the 1981 International Year Disabled People.
The echo of the starter’s gun for the Men’s B2/B3 800M race had a massive impact on Lancaster’s Norman Theobald. Norman must have thought he got a bullet in the backside as he went off like the clappers. The rest of us chatted our way over the first few hundred metres. Among the chatterers were Tony Scanlon, Martin and Pat Kelly, Barney Flannery, Christy Geraghty, Philip Dunne and several more including myself. As we ran out of chat Norman Theobald ran out of oxygen, and I strode away for an Irish Record and the first gold of the first May Games (now called MayFest). I did alright that day as I also won the 1,500m.
I recall Des Kenny, cigarette in one hand, microphone in the other, picking me off the line for an interview. Des, who subsequently served as NCBI CEO from 1987 to 2014, was freelancing for RTE Radio’s Listen & See.
Our first May Games athletics was remarkable for some absolutely amazing big finds. A 16-year-old Cabinteely girl, Carol Carr impressed everyone with incredibly fast wins at 100M, 200M and 400M. Another teenager, Liz Harold from Bray, astounded many with her tremendous shot putts. One time Vision Sports Ireland Chairperson Fintan O’Donnell, also then a teenager, was the jumps champion that day. Vet Michael Meaney and friend John St George medalled in the B1 Shot put and javelin. Alan Whetherly from London, with partial sight, and Willie McLeod from Edinburgh, totally blind, dominated the sprint events.
The real champions that day were the volunteers from the Sports and Social Club (NLBI) led by Rita Rodgers with her team including Anne Claffey, Barney Brown, Gerry Campbell, Pat Kelly and many more.
Minister for Sport Jim Tunney TD called in. Larry Carroll from the National League led introductions We soon squeezed two handsome grants out of the Minister. One grant was for May Games / MayFest, and one grant was for the Irish team who would later be victorious at the European Games in Germany three months later.
The First Citizen of Dublin, Fergus O’Brien, spoke at the post Games meal at the old Hollybank Hotel on Dublin’s Howth Road. The rest of us took to the disco floor thinking we were Shakin’ Stevens.
It was a day, a night, to be forever treasured. And yet it feels like only yesterday.
– JOE GERAGHTY