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Updated: Jan 15, 2021


Earlier this week I was searching for interesting facts for my daily #OnThisDay tweet. Whilst looking for an entry for 5th August, I came across the story of Peter O’Connor. Peter O’Connor? I hear you ask, my words exactly. What I discovered was a complete revelation and surely one of the most incredible acts of defiance in support of your nation and proud Irish heritage, Erin go bragh.

Peter O’Connor was one of Ireland’s greatest athletes of the early twentieth century holding the record for the Long Jump and winning Olympic medals. Unfortunately, as Ireland was under British rule, he was forced to compete under the British flag, but his actions during the medal ceremony in 1906 in Athens show in no uncertain terms how he resented this situation.

1655/56: Liberties of the city of Cork

Figure 1: Peter O'Connor, 1906 Intercalated Olympic Games, Athens.


Family origins

Peter O’Connor was born in Cumberland, England in 1872 to Irish parents Edward and Mary O’Connor. Edward O’Connor was a shipwright and came to England with Mary and his two children, Arthur and Mary. The O’Connor family settled in Millom, Cumberland, where William Thomas and Company had built a new shipyard. The first vessel to be built there was a two-masted schooner called the Nellie Bywater. The vessel took ten months to build and was launched in 1873. Soon after its launch, the O’Connor family returned to Ireland, settling back in Wicklow. Over the next number of years, eight more children were born, all girls. Edward and Mary O’Connor’s marriage was not typical for the times, Edward being Protestant and Mary Catholic. In addition, six of the O’Connor girls became nuns.[1]

Byzantine mosaic at the Chora Church, Constantinople


Early Promise

After finishing his schooling, Peter O’Connor, became a solicitor’s clerk, moving to Clifden for his first post. His initial foray into athletics happened by chance during the annual fleadh in Cleggan in 1894, where jumping in his stockings (against opponents wearing spiked shoes) he won all three jumping events.[3] Over the next number of years O’Connor competed in both track and field events, mainly in the West of Ireland. Eventually O’Connor moved to Waterford, and can be found on the 1901 census living as a boarder in Baileys New Street. Year by year, O’Connor improved his technique and as a results his jumps and reputation became bigger. 1901 was to become a watershed in O’Connor’s athletic career.

Thomas Colby

Figure 3: 1901 Irish Census


World Records and Athens

In May 1901 Peter O’Connor broke the Long Jump world record but it had not been officially recognised. However, the fifth day of August 1901, justice was finally to prevail. On this day, the last major athletics event in Ireland took place in Ballsbridge. The Royal Irish Constabulary Sports was an important meet on the calendar, and offered generous prize money so attracted all the top athletes. The weather was glorious, as was Peter O’Connor’s jumping.[4] On his fourth attempt, he jumped 24 feet 11 ¾ inches betting Newburn’s record.

World Record, Ballsbridge, 1901

Figure 4: Evening Herald Headline [5]

The next remarkable story in Peter O’Connor’s life was during the 1906 Intercalated Olympic Games in Athens 1906. O’Connor left Waterford on the 12 April 1906, his destination, Athens.[6] The other Irish athletes who travelled were Con Leahy from Cork and John Daly from Galway. All three were kitted out in green blazers and caps. However, to their dismay, when they registered and were presented with a souvenir programme, they discovered that they were listed as competing for Britain.[7] An article in the Connaught Telegraph echoed the three athlete’s feelings, ‘they are described as among the British competitors, as England has to turn to Ireland for her champions as well as for her fighting men.’[8] On the 27 April 1906, Peter O’Connor competed in the final of the Long Jump, coming second. He lodged a formal protest about the result but it was not allowed.[9] However, O’Connor was not finished yet, during the medal ceremony, he climbed the flagpole and ‘at a height of about twenty feet I unfurled my big green flag… Con Leahy assisted in the demonstration by keeping guard at the foot of the flag pole’.[10]

Fintan Walsh holding the flag unfurled by Peter O'Connor in 1906

Figure 5: Fintan Walsh holding the flag unfurled by Peter O'Connor in 1906 [11]


Retirement and Legacy

Three days after winning a silver medal, Peter O’Connor climbed one step on the medal podium, with his countryman and fellow flag protester, Con Leahy coming second in the Triple Jump. Peter O’Connor retired shortly after returning from Athens. He remained in Waterford with his wife and family until his death on the 9 November 1957. He is buried in St. Mary’s, Ballygunner, Waterford.

Peter O'Connor's Grave, Waterford

Figure 6: Peter O'Connor's headstone, St. Mary's, Ballygunner, Waterford [12]

On the centenary of his world record jump in 1901, the Peter O’Connor Century Games were held at Waterford Regional Sports Centre on the 5 August 2001. A commemorative plaque was unveiled which serves as a reminder of the enormity of his legacy, holding a world record for twenty years and an Irish record for eighty-nine years. Peter O’Connor was an Irishman proud of his roots, and this is demonstrated on the 1911 census, where he remarks that although he was born in Cumberland, England, during a temporary visit of mother, parents Irish, honouring his achievement of holding a world record.

1911 Irish Census


[1] Mark Quinn, The King of spring: the life and times of Peter O’Connor (Dublin 2004), p. 17

[3] Quinn, The King of spring, 22 - 3

[4] Irish Daily Independent, 16 August 1901

[5] Evening Herald, 5 August 1901

[6] Waterford News and Star, 13 April 1906

[7] Quinn, The King of spring, 172

[8] Connaught Telegraph, 21 April 1906

[10] Limerick Leader, 25 August 1956

[11] Waterford News and Star, 3 August 2001


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