Tommie Ryan - The Runner 1900


One of the sprightliest walkers up and down the streets of Cashel these days is Tommie Ryan, He looks so lively, so fresh in the face and his hair is still very much there, that it is difficult to believe his age. . Tommie Ryan was eighty years of age on January 18th last:
‘People have remarked on the fact,’ says Tommie. ‘It’s not that my life was easy. But I have the health and I’m glad of it.’

Tommie was born in Doorish, Rossmore and the family name was ‘Dalton’, to distinguish them from all the other Ryans. He was one of six children. His mother was a dressmaker and his father a handyman. Tommie’s memories of his early days include family involvement in the National Movement and their house was a refuge for men on the run.

He remembers walking the eight miles to Cashel to get his shoes made: ‘Ah, there were great tradesmen out in those days. A trade was a great thing – much better than it is today.’

Cutting turf in the bog is an abiding memory. ‘The neighbours collected to give you a hand and the work was tough. The bog was a great place for the feet. It hardened them. I never had trouble with my feet when I was running and I put it down to working in the bog in the bare feet.’

Sometime around sixteen years, Tommie met the great runner, Tim Crowe. ‘He was a very competitive man. He cycled to Cork and he cycled to Dublin and of you walked to a match with him he was always a yard in front of you.’ Tim Crowe took him on his first race from Templemore to Milestone and Tommie performed reasonable well. Following that he took up running in a big way, running five mile and ten mile races, as well as marathons. At that time there were just two kind of races, unxder-16 and over-16.

Tommie’s first job was cheese-making in the co-operative creamery in Rossmore. Later he worked in a bar in Dungarvan and eventually he got a job in a bar in Dublin in 1923, where he was to spend seven years..

One of his great memories from that period is running and particularly one marathon race from Navan to the Phoenix Park. An ambulance man accompanied each runner on a bicycle to ensure he obeyed the rules. ‘After about eighteen miles I was ahead of my man and I came to this house, very hot and thirsty. It was a bar. I put my head in over the door and asked for a drink. ‘Do you want some brandy?. ‘No! A tumbler of water.’

As I drank it the smell of bacon and cabbage came to my nose. I looked at my man and the place the smell came from. ‘Would you like a bit?’ he asked. ‘I would’. So, he made me a huge bacon and cabbage sandwich.

In the meantime my watcher was catching up. ‘What have you got there?’ he shouted. ‘Nothing!’ I said. ‘I took off running and by the time he caught up with me I had it eaten’.

Soon after this the sole came off my shoe and I  had to run the remaining miles in my bare feet. I never got a blister!. I think I came in third.

Dr. John Ryan, a Tipperary man in charge of  some of the runners, head about the sandwich. ‘It could have killed you,’ he said. ‘I’m the man who ate it,’ I replied.

Tommie never drank and instead of getting the usual bottle from the bar owner at Christmas, he used to get a five-pound note. He played hurling with Young Irelands and won a Dublin county intermediate title with them in 1927. He got the name, the Electric Hare, from his speed on the hurling field. Of small build, Tommie made up for his lack of physique by the speed of his feet.

Everybody has heard of the famous race between Tommie and the Irish marathon champion, David McKeon from Gouldscross to Cashel in 1929. A cup was put up by the New Ireland Assurance for the winner. The man who immortalised it in song was Willie Quinlan from Donohill, who worked in the Irish Press. It is not commonly known that Quinlan didn’t see the race at all: he was somewhere else that day.  The poem was first published in the Cork Weekly Examiner. One verse of it went like this:

Then comes the final struggle
‘Tis the grandest sight of all
As mid the cheering thousands
Raced the wee man and the tall.
With scarce a yard between them
Hats in the air were thrown
When gallant little Tommie
Beat the champion, D. McKeon.

‘A very funny incident happened in that famous race. I was coming up the Kiln Road and there was an enormous crowd. I was leading and McKeon was at my heels. There was a man in the crowd who wasn’t too aware of what was going on and when I passed and the cheers went up, he kept looking to see when Tommie ‘Dalton’ was coming: he had come to cheer HIM.’

That race saw the end of Tommie as a runner: his legs were never the same again.

By now Tommie had returned from Dublin to live in Cashel, where he helped his sister set up a dressmaking business in Canopy Street. He got a job in the local cinema and started to organise the N.A.C.A. in Tipperary. ‘There were great men everywhere; all that was necessary was to contact them. He started a club called the Galteemore, which became outstanding in a few years. Other Tipperary clubs developed as a result. Tommie was elected secretary of the Tipperary N.A.C.A. and was responsible for getting the organisation to stage the National Championships outside of Dublin. ‘They were held in Clonmel. There was such a crowd that the gates were broken down. We took in £500 whereas not more than £100 was ever taken in Dublin..

Later Tommie started a cycle shop in Canopy Street but, with the outbreak of the war, there was a shortage of spare parts and Tommie, now married with two daughters, went to England. He went first to Birmingham and later to London, where he worked in the railways until he retired in 1965.

He was one of those responsible for forming the Tipperarymen’s Association. His wife had a dancing school and his children danced at the London Palladium and the Royal Albert Hall. He liked the English and has many happy memories of his residence there. He supported all things Irish. He played hurling until he was 49 years of age. He was secretary of the Provincial Council of the G.A.A. in Britain. When he retired he got another job and didn’t return to Ireland until 1975.

Tommie has been a ramblin’ man since he was 18 years old. He has travelled widely in Ireland and England and met many people, made many friends. He has returned to live in Boherclough Street, Cashel, quite close to where he set out on his first journey. He likes Cashel and continues to make friends because he is still a very much involved in society.


The Post, 5th June, 1980.