Tim Crowe (1881-1962) – A Tipperary Hero
Tim Crowe trained the Tipperary team on their tour of America in 1926. Forty-five years of age in that year, he carried 44 gold medals won on the track in a green leather belt and wore it on important occasions during the tour. He always slept with the belt under his pillow.
There are numerous pictures of him from the tour, which lasted twelve weeks. In most of them he is wearing the belt of medals and he was a figure of curiosity to most people he met.
This famous belt, which can be seen in Lár na Páirce, Thurles, contains the record of Crowe's athletic achievements throughout Ireland over a period of more than twenty years. The belt, which has suffered the ravages of time and movement, is somewhat depleted today with 33 medals and gaps where at least 9 more once rested. The belt and the attached medals are the work of Tim Crowe himself and an indication of the fine workmanship he was capable of.
Crowe may have been influenced by the Lonsdale Belt, which was introduced by the National Sporting Club, the body that controlled boxing in Britain, in 1909 as a new trophy for the British champion at each weight division. In contrast to Crowe's leather belt the Lonsdale belt was made out of porcelain and gold. Championship belts were also a feature of professional running and walking (known as pedestrianism). The earliest account that mentions a championship belt dates back to a race in London in 1851.
This practice of wearing a belt of medals in public might appear strange today but it wasn't out of place during Crowe's years. Many of us remember our fathers and grandfathers wearing a medal or two on the watch chain. Of course military men always festooned their chests with medals on formal occasions, and still do. So, what Crowe did wasn't extraordinary but perhaps more pronounced than what most people did.
The medals represent Tim Crowe's athletic achievements and leads one to the record of the national championships he won. There is a major difficulty here because there is no accurate record of what he won. For example in the report of his death the Tipperary Star said: 'For 15 years he held the senior individual cross-country championship of Ireland.' Terry O'Sullivan in his On the Road column in the Irish Press, sometime in 1951, stated: 'He was never beaten in a cross-country race between 1907 and 1920, won hundreds of prizes for these and uncountable other races, and preserves still a collection of forty-five medals.'
It's very difficulty to establish the authenticity of some of these claims. Two dates are given as the start of Crowe's athletic career, 1903 and 1906. According to the information in the Register of Births in the Parish of Knockavilla and Donaskeigh, Crowe was born in September 1881. He was a half-twin to John and both were the last children to be born to their parents William Crough and Bridget Davern. He had five other siblings, James (1868), Mary (1870), Bridget (1872), William (1874) and Anne (1877). This would have made Crowe either 22 or 25 years old at the beginning of his athletic career. (As a matter of interest the censuses of 1901 and 1911 give Crowe's age as 16 and 26 respectively, which puts his year of birth six years later in 1885!). According to the report on the latter year he won the County Tipperary one-mile championship at Clonoulty in 1906. This victory so impressed members of the Galteemore Athletic Club that he was invited to join. He competed under its colours until 1919, winning many titles from a mile up to marathon distance. He severed his relationship with Galteemore in 1919 and joined Clonliffe Harriers in 1920.
Crowe represented Galteemore in the 5-miles junior championship in the National Cross-Country Championships, held in Clonskeagh on March 2, 1907. As well as winning the team event Galteemore had the first, Crowe, and the second, J. J. Howard (also from Dundrum) in the invividual event. This would be Crowe's first national championship.
In 1908 Crowe represented Tipperary at senior level. The team championship fell through and in the senior individual championship only three started. According to T. F. O'Sullivan's History of the G.A..A., it was won by 'T. Crough, Tipperary,' a form of Tim's name that was occasionally used during his earlier athletic career.
According to the accepted wisdom Crowe won every senior cross-country championship up to 1919, when he had a falling out with the G.A.A.. According to Huckleberry Finn, who wrote contemporary newspaper articles on 'Famous Irish Athletes at Home and Abroad', the reason for the falling out was over a little matter. Apparently Crowe was after running a ten mile marathon and, having started from scratch and doing well as usual, he was let hang around for a few hours waiting for his clothes to be brought up to him from the starting point, which could, and should, have been easily done by a cyclist. Instead he had to run back the ten miles to obtain his clothing!
As a result of this falling out Crowe threw in his lot with the Cross-Country Association of Ireland (CCAI) which was affiliated to the I.A.A.A. hoping to win the cross-country championship of this body and hold an unbeaten record in the two associations. He joined the Clonliffe Harriers and won the junior cross-country championship of Ireland, run at McGowan Park, Belfast. Having won this championship he now decided to go for the senior cross-country championship. Against a top class field of the best CCAI men in Ireland and the best Irishmen in England, Scotland and Wales, Crowe ran an outstanding race and beat them all by 300 yards.
These victories would bring to 15 the number of cross-country championships won by Crowe between 1907 and 1920, if we are to accept the claim that he was unbeaten in the period 1908-1919. But the records don't support the claim and the only definite record we have of senior individual cross-country titles is for the years 1908, 1911, 1912, 1914 and 1915. No race was held in 1909 or 1016. He didn't run in 1910 or 1913 and I can find no record of 1917, 1918 and 1919.
Crowe also won silver team medals in international cross-country championships in 1920, at Belvoir Park, Belfast on April 3, and 1921, Caerleon Racecourse, Newport, Wales on March 19. The break with the G.A.A. facilitated competing at an international level. There was no international competition under G.A.A. rules.
Other national titles won by Crowe under G.A.A. rules include the following track and field: 2 miles 1908, 4 miles 1910, 2 & 3 miles 1917, 4 miles 1919. He also won some road titles, 5, 10, 15 and 20 miles 1919.
Probably the race that got Tim Crowe the greatest publicity in Ireland was the Polytechnic Marathon from Windsor to Stamford Bridge, organised annually by the London Polytechnic Harriers Club for the 'Sporting Life' trophy worth £500. Crowe was one of 46 entries, that included one Swede and one Frenchman in the 1921 race and was 38 years of age at the time. He arrived the day before for the race and hadn't the time or the means to prepare for the race that his fellow competitors had.
'No hotels and no masseurs for me,' he used say when telling the story. 'I was my own trainer and I paid my own expenses. On the day before the race I crossed the boat to England and when I arrived in London I hadn't much time to look at the course because I had to go looking for lodgings.'
London was sweltering in a heatwave, which caused a number of the competitors to drop out, but Crowe kept motoring on and was in touch with the leaders for a long time. After 5 miles he was a little over a minute behind the leader, two and a half mins after 10 miles, five after 15 miles and approximately twenty after 20 miles. Then an unfortunate thing happened and he went off course for a while but eventually completed the race in 3-24-35 and seventh place, almost thirty-three minutes behind the winner. (He didn't actually finish the race, running 253/4 miles instead of the 26 miles 385 yards, because he was too far back and the track was crowded when he arrived at the Stadium.)
(The Polytechnic Marathon was one of the most prestigious marathons in the world until the late 1960s. It was won by Denis 'Sonny' O'Gorman, Thurles, in 1959 in a time of 2.25.11. He was honoured with the 2008 Knocknagow Award at the Annerville Awards in Clonmel.)
The picture that emerges of Crowe in accounts written of this event is of a hero, who took on the might of Europe in a foreign city and but for the hand of misfortune on his shoulder, which sent him in the wrong direction towards the end, he might well have come home with the spoils of victory. It is a marvellous picture of a great athlete, overcoming immense obstacles, one of the few to complete the race and disdaining all medical assistance at the end in spite of the sweltering heat.
As one newspaper account put it: 'Whilst the rest of the competitors fell down on the spot and were being fanned, refreshed with water and massaged – or else being carried off on stretchers – Tim trotted away, donned his clothes and straighway set off for a short holiday in France.' This was a lion-hearted hero, to cherish and be proud of and he was placed in the pantheon of the greats of Tipperary, with the likes of Matt the Thresher.
It appears that Crowe stopped competing after 1924. In that year he ran the Templemore to Milestone race for the second time and won it for the second time. Tommy Ryan, who started the Memorial Race in 1986, was fifth. (Crowe's winning time over the 1919 course, which was 3/4 of a mile short, converted to the full 20 miles distance run in 1986 would have still been good enough to place him 9th in that latter race.) There is a reference somewhere of him doing a run-out with Galteemore Athletic Club in 1931 at Thurles Sportsfield. There was also an episode with Arthur Newton, the English ultra distance runner, who was open to challenges from athletes to run him in 50 and 100 mile races during the twenties. The account is vague, the time was the spring of 1928 and it suggests that Crowe travelled to London to meet Newton. It came from the Tipperary Star's Cappawhite correspondent.
Crowe and the Olympics
Tim Crowe never took part in the Olympics and there is no easy answer why he didn't. The first Olympics in which he might have competed was in London in 1908. The Olympics at this stage of their development weren't as highly rated as they were to become. In fact the better athletes regarded the AAA championships more highly. Maybe Crowe was influenced by this attitude. There was also the fact that Crowe ran under G.A.A. rules and he and his fellow athletes did not look beyond the bounds of G.A.A. competition. Another factor was that Irishmen who did compete in the Olympics did so under the IAAA, and Crowe didn't come under this umbrella until he joined Clonliffe Harriers in 1919. He would have missed the 1912 games at Stockholm and, as there were no games in 1916 because of the war, had to wait until Antwerp in 1920 for the next games. By this stage he was over the top as an athlete though he could have been a competitor in the marathon. Yet, as his time in the Polytechnic Marathon in 1921 reveals he was way off the pace and would not have been a serious contender for a medal.
Sometimes a Difficult Man
Some people found Tim Crowe a difficult man to approach. At first acquaintance he appeared shy and diffident and it was difficult to get him to talk about his athletic past. Writing about him in the Tipperary Star in the seventies, 'Glen Rover' stated that Crowe told him before he died that he didn't care much for newspapermen and less still for some of the newspapers., and the reason was that they hadn't been fair to him in the past. He told 'Glen Rover' that in the old days he had a reputation for being crusty and quick-tempered and impossible to get on with, but he showed that he had good reason for his actions and his attitude. He met a good deal of jealousy and downright unfairness and underhanded treatment and there were times when he felt that he could trust no one. He admitted that he was quick-tempered and likely to be very cross and stubborn and that this turned people against him in the G.A.A. and, at one stage, left him on his own.
There was another reason for Tim Crowe's public attitude. In the days of his prime the G.A.A. and its teams and athletes didn't get much of a show in the newspapers. Admittedly, in time, Crowe did make the headlines but for a long time his phenomenal ability was underestimated. This caused him to resent the newspapers' casual attitude to him and their refusal to pay him the attention he deserved.
Ideas about Training
Crowe had fixed ideas on training.. He was convinced that there should be no such thing as an 'off' period for any athlete, hurler or footballer, or anyone whose success depended on top physical fitness. To get the best out of his efforts a man should get to the peak of fitness and stay there all the year round. This may explain why Crowe regularly issued challenges to all and sundry. For instance a picture of him appeared in one of the New York papers soon after his arrival with the Tipperary team in 1926. His belt of medals is emblazoned across his belly and in the caption he issues a challenge to meet any runner his age in a two or three-mile race. Any runner who would like to take him on could reach him at the Whitcomb Hotel.
Another theory he had was that an athlete should accustom himself to running at the same time of the day as the time on which a particular race was to take place.. For instance if a man was entered for a race at 3 pm on a Sunday afternoon he should get into the habit of running the same distance at that time in the days leading up to the race. Crowe held that it wasn't necessary to go the full distance in training and that his speed should be varied, with short fast bursts and slow jog-trots alternating.
At a cross-country meet at Harold's Cross, Dublin in 1915 Crowe expressed another of his running theories in a conversation with J. J. Ryan, Bansha, the man who was to succeed him as the leading cross-country runner in the country.. According to the newspaper report, Crowe said to Ryan: 'Start your race at a hundred yards' pace and keep going until you get out, and when you get your lead you have your race won.'
With the crack of the pistol Mr. J. J. Keane sent off the men in good order. Ryan sprinted gamely until he headed the field of 42 runners and at the half-mile was leading by 50 yards. At this stage Ryan was met again by the old veteran, who said: 'Let up, Jack, you have your race won already.'
He also had particular notions on diet. He claimed that what suited him best was porridge, brown bread, milk and eggs. He ate eight eggs a day and of these two were swallowed raw. He ate little meat. He wasn't a teetotaller but drank little, just a bottle of stout or beer from time to time. He disallowed smoking entirely, holding that cigarettes were deadly to an athlete.
Tim Crowe was also an accomplished musician. He studied music under Frank Roche, Kilmallock, a well-known authority on Irish music and a member of a family prominent in nationalist and Gaelic cultural activities. Crowe was also a noted step dancer. He was taught by the well-known Mr. Hourigan of Bansha and he won a number of step-dancing competitions.
He made his own violin, played it and composed his own tunes. He had a book of these airs, written in his own artistic manuscript, and this he prized almost as much as his athletic trophies. It is claimed he won medals for violin playing and for step-dancing at the Thomond Feis in 1922
While he was in the U.S. he contributed to a program of Irish ballads and music on the Municipal Broadcasting Station of the City of New York,WNYC. One of the Tipperary players, James O'Meara, sang a selection of Irish folk songs in his rich baritone voice and Tim Crowe 'wrested with talented fingers from his fiddle a number of Irish reels, jigs and hornpipes.' The two men repeated the program on Station WOR, Newark the night after.
He tried his hand at writing ballads, at least three of which have come my way. Success to Gallant Tipperary, sung to the air of Success to Dear Old Ireland has the following verse:
Some sing of those of lyric fame
While others praise the glorious name,
And other sing of wild demesne,
But let me sing of Tipperary.
I'll sing of Tipperary's athletic men
Kiely, Davin and Tipperary Tim,
Till echo sound from hill to hill
Success to Gallant Tipperary.
Another ballad is entitled The Final of Munster – Tipperary and Limerick and appears to refer to the 1922 final, played at Thurles on July 1, 1923, which ended in a draw. This was to be sung to the air of Kelly the Boy from Killane. A third ballad he wrote was called The Dear Irish Colleen Waiting for Me.
A Distinctive Figure
Tim Crowe was a distinctive looking figure. It wasn't that he was a big man, in fact people who remember him recall him as being about 5 feet six inches in height with an exceptionally strong pair of thighs. In the pictures that appeared of him in newspapers he cut a dapper figure with his hair parted in the middle and a moustache, wearing a waistcoat. ( Incidentally, it has been pointed out to me that two great, contemporary English runners Walter George (1858- 1943) and Alfred Shrubb (1879- 1964) both parted their hair in the middle and sported moustaches?) The belt of medals girded his belly and his often found with the hands in the trousers pockets, holding back the front of his coat better to expose the medals.
When he was in his cycling gear he wore knee-length knickerbockers with stockings coming up to just under his knees. The chain wheel on his bicycle was bigger that usual which allowed him to travel at a faster speed on the flat but which made climbing hills more difficult. He cut a curious figure on the roads and sometimes a group of cyclists he came across on his journeys would try to pace him but inevitably he overtook them and left them behind. According to a neighbour he had the habit of walking the bicycle out the lane from where he lived to the road and, if he were heading in Ballagh direction, he would continue walking up the hill halfways before mounting.
Tim Crowe had the distinction of having a horse called after him, Tipperary Tim. Bred by John Ryan of Racecourse and rugby fame, the horse was sold to H. S. Kenyon in England and ridden to victory by Billy Dutton in the 1928 Grand National. The race was run during misty weather conditions with the going very heavy. As the field of 43 horses approached the Canal Turn on the first circuit, Easter Hero fell, causing a pile-up from which only seven horses emerged with seated jockeys. By the penultimate fence this number had reduced to three, with Great Span looking most likely to win ahead of Billy Barton and Tipperary Tim. Great Span's saddle then slipped, leaving Billy Barton in the lead. until he too fell. Although Billy Barton's jockey Tommy Cullinan managed to remount and complete the race, it was Tipperary Tim who came in first at outside odds of 100/1. With only two riders completing the course, this remains a record for the fewest number of finishers. At the time of the race John Ryan was travelling to the U.S. on the Cedric liner of the White Star Line. He found himself the centre of attention.
'I was sitting in the smoking room,' he said, 'when a man pokes his head in the door and says: 'Does anybody want to know who won the National?' and I said: 'I do', and he says, 'It's Tipperary Tim, and who are you?' 'I'm his breeder', says I, and then we had a bit of a celebration all around.'
In other activities, farming, stone masonry, boot making and repairing, he showed outstanding ability. Tim Crowe was brought up on a small farm at Bishopswood, Dundrum. He was an only child and went to the local primary school. Having left at 14 years of age he learned the skills of stone masonry and carpentry and was regarded as a very handy man with a great pair of hands. He worked as a stone mason locally but also further afield. He made his own violin and worked at jobs in the locality since the farm wasn't sufficient to provide a living.
Probably because of his interest in cycling he set up a bicycle shop at the Village Cross, Dundrum in the forties in a small house which had been previously a forge, run by Jim Crimmins. Here he sold and repaired bicycles at a time when the bicycle was a major means of transport for many people. His shop was choc a bloc with bicycle parts from floor to ceiling.
An incident from that time throws some light on Tim Crowe the man, illustrating the simple side of his character. He hung a bicycle up a tree and called it the 'flying bicycle'. He had the picture taken and it appeared in the newspapers. If it were today one could accept it as an advertising gimmick to draw attention to his business. But, it wasn't that. He expected people to believe it was a flying bicycle!
Tim Crowe the Trainer
Tim Crowe travelled to the U.S. In 1926 with the official title of trainer of the Tipperary team. In a report in a San Francisco newspaper the day after the arrival of the party in the city, the following appeared: 'The veteran Crowe, trainer of many a champion hurling team and one of Ireland's foremost exponents of the ancient pastime said he didn't see how his team could lose in such a glorious place as San Francisco. 'Of course,' he continued, 'at home we read a lot about California and our friends here send us your newspapers, which are always interesting, so it isn't like being in a strange place when we come to California.'
There's as good a chance of Crowe having said that as his dog at home in Bishopswood! The reporter obviously had a fertile imagination and never met the man. The only thing correct is that Crowe was the trainer. Why he was chosen as trainer is intriguing, since he does not appear to have had any experience as the trainer of hurling teams, and definitely not of Tipperary teams. It is suggested that he was regarded as an expert on physical fitness and preparation for athletic pursuits and what better man to have in charge of your team on an extended tour!
His choice may also have reflected the long standing connection between athletics and the G.A.A., which was broken with the setting up of the N.A.C.A. in 1922. The year 1926 wan't far removed from the days when athletics and hurling and football shared a common stage at G.A.A. events. There was still a hankering after these halcyon days. As well Crowe and his achievements were well-respected in G.A.A. circles. He was regarded as the outstanding athlete in the county
(As far as is known Crowe didn't train teams. He supported Tipperary and his ballad called Gallant Tipperary testifies to this support and admiration for the county. He also travelled great distances to support Tipperary. These journeys by bicycle were major achievements involving distances as long as 110 miles each way. And, these journeys were done in one day, there and back, no cycling to Dublin on Saturday and returning on Monday! He cycled to the finals of the 3-in-1-row All-Irelands , 1949-51. But he had no involvement with his native Kickhams or any other club teams. In fact he referred to these teams disparagingly as 'pig's head' teams!)
There was another possible reason for his appointment: Tim Crowe could play the fiddle, dance and sing a song. On a long trip like the Tour of America a bit of entertainment was vital and it's significant that Crowe was one of two of the travelling party who was invited to take part on the radio program in New York. There is a story, probably apocryphal, of Tim giving a rendition of When it's Springtime in the Rockies as the train traversed that mountain range on its way to San Francisco!
Tim Crowe is mentioned a number of times in the account of the tour by Thomas J. Kenny. On page 69 we are told: 'We have just passed Laguna Station. Tim Crowe is in humour and treats us to a few tunes on the violin'. Later, on page 71 we read: '7 pm and Tim Crowe is at the violin. His rendering of 'The Blackbird', 'Father O'Flynn' and a few reels has certainly been very fine.'
Crowe's musical talent was put to good use on the SS Cedric of the White Star Line as the party travelled back to Liverpool. There was a 'Grand Concert' in the Third Class Lounge on July 24, 1926. In Part One Tim Crowe gave some 'Violin Selections' and in Part Two he performed a dance. James O'Meara, mentioned above, gave a 'Song Selection' and Rody Nealon sang a song.
Tim Crowe was predeceased by his wife, who was a Mary Ryan from Bishopswood. The couple had one daughter, Bridget/Biddy, who married Martin Heffernan and lived at Boherlahan. Biddy was also a musician and used to play in Gleeson's pub in Ballagh on Sunday nights.
Tim appears to have been a lonely man with no friends to call on or to visit him. About the only place he used visit was the home of local school principal, Micheal MacCathraigh. He went there about once a month and played the violin on these visits. Occasionally he did a bit of step-dancing. This was an important outlet for Crowe. In this house his talents were greatly appreciated. Micheal regarded him as a great fiddle player and a very good step-dancer and showed his appreciation. This appreciation of his talents and the adulation was helpful and beneficial to Crowe.
Otherwise it was a lonely existence. At some stage Crowe build two huts across the road from where he lived, described by Terry O'Sullivan in his 1951 article as painted 'vermillion and navy blue', and used to spend much of his later years playing the violin alone in it. He used the second for his bicycle workshop after moving from Dundrum. The huts were a tribute to his carpentry skills and caught the attention of people who passed on the road. When he became incapable of looking after himself, his daughter had him removed to St. Patrick's Hospital, Cashel but he wasn't content there and arrived home almost as soon as the people who brought him there.
Tim Crowe passed away in his home on November 11, 1962 at the age of 81 years. Following Requiem Mass at Knockavilla Church two days later he was buried at Clonoulty. The Tipperary Star reported an 'immense attendance of the general public from all stations of life present to pay the last tribute to a departed prince of the athletic world' and it would be right and fitting had this been the case. But the reality was very different. I have spoken to two men who attended the funeral and for one it was a 'small crowd' and the second described it as 'very few' in attendance. It appears that many people had already forgotten the athletic and cycling greatness of a man whose feats had captured the imagination of so many over many decades and who continued to impinge on people's consciousness through his well-publicised bicycle trips following Tipperary to distant places when his competitive days were over.
Tim Crowe remains mostly a forgotten figure. A recent search of Clonoulty Cemetery, where he was buried in 1962, failed to turn up a gravestone to his memory. On September 21, 1986 the Tim Crowe Memorial Race was run over 20 miles from Templemore to Milestone in memory of the 'Twenty Mile Road Championship of Ireland', which was run on the same course on September 21, 1919 and won by Crowe. The race was started by the late Tommy Ryan of Cashel, who had taken part in the original race. In his welcome to all involved, the chairman of the organising committee, Jacksie Ryan of Upperchurch, stated that: 'We intend that his [Crowe's] name and the names of many like him be kept in respectful memory.' Whether it was intended to make the race an annual event I don't know, but it wasn't run again.
However, he is not completely forgotten. Recently  the organisers of the annual 10k Road Race in Dundrum, Crowe's native parish, were presented with the Tim Crowe memorial trophy by Dominic Moore of Upperchurch (who came third in the first running of the race in 1986) to be presented to the first Tipperary athlete to finish the 10k. Perhaps now, rather belatedly, it is time that some memorial, or at least some marker, be placed on the grave of Tim Crowe in Clonoulty Cemetery.
Clonoulty-Rossmore Vintage Club booklet for 11th Vintage Rally at Clonoulty, August 28, 2011, pp. 37-47