Who is Ireland’s greatest sportsperson?
With Dublin being as stacked as it is, a split was called for. After much debate, a northside contingent merged with its southside neighbours to form an official Mount Rushmore.
The depth of talent is ridiculous. John Giles, Liam Brady, Stephen Cluxton, Jim Gavin, Padraig Harrington, Michael Carruth, Paul McGrath, Brian O’Driscoll and Robbie Keane. To name just 10 of 100 other options.
One name flew under the radar, however. A name worthy of mention simply because he transcended Irish sport both on and off the field.
His name was Dr Kevin O’Flanagan, Ireland’s greatest ever sportsperson.
Born in Dublin in 1919, Dr O’Flanagan lived a colourful sporting life from the late 1930s until his death in 2006.
While most dream of having one successful sporting career, he had three.
He was capped for Ireland in football and rugby union. Alongside his younger brother, Mick, they hold the unique distinction of being the only siblings to represent their country in both codes.
Kevin O’Flangan joined Bohemians in 1936 at just 16. Four years later, a 17-year-old Mick joined him at the club. Within that short space of time, the elder O’Flanagan was already had already captained the side. He’d also won seven Irish caps and scored on his first appearance against Norway, the same night the great Johnny Carey made his debut.
Like many other notable talents of the time, he also represented Northern Ireland.
The outbreak of World War II saw international football shutdown until 1946. O’Flanagan began studying medicine at University College Dublin. Despite not having played rugby in his youth he soon joined UCD. Before long, he was fast-tracked into an Ireland XV but the appearances were never recognised as official caps.
He graduated in 1945 and moved to London where he worked as junior GP. He joined London Irish where he continued to play rugby and was again selected to represent Ireland in an unofficial capacity against France.
Around the same time, O’Flanagan began playing football with Arsenal. He achieved cult status at the club because of his refusal to take a paycheque. His talents warranted warrant a professional contract but he chose to remain an amateur.
While O’Flanagan’s decision was, in part, due to his rugby career. It rubberstamped a principled belief that he had long held.
“O’Flanagan believed in the concept of amateur sports, he was a true blue amateur,” historian, Dr Tom Hunt tells Pundit Arena.
“He refused to take any travel expenses from Arsenal. And refused to take any meal vouchers from Arsenal on the basis that he’d have to eat anyway. All he would accept from them was the minimum train fare to get him to training.”
O’Flanagan juggled two sporting careers for large spells of the 1940s. He was part of the first FAI football side, alongside Mick, to face England in 1946. A year later he won his first official rugby cap when Australia defeated Ireland 16-3 at Lansdowne Road.
In 1948, he briefly returned to boyhood club Bohemians to play one of their most historic matches.
Manchester United were the visitors, captained by fellow Ireland debutant, Johnny Carey. However, that FA Cup-winning side fell to a 2-1 at Dalymount Park.
For Mick, it would prove to be an iconic year in Irish sporting history. Not only did he score the winning goal against Man United, but he was also part of Ireland’s first-ever Grand Slam-winning rugby team.
A national long jump and sprint champion, it is said he missed out on representing Ireland at the Olympic Games because of the war. That’s not entirely the case.
“That’s an interesting one because that would not be correct,” Hunt says.
“The reason why is because the titles he won were actually won under the NACA, the National Athletic and Cycling Association of Ireland jurisdiction.
“There was two controlling body’s in athletics at the time. One was recognised by the IAAF (International Amateur Athletics Federation) and one wasn’t, which was the NACA.
“So, to say that he would have gone to the Olympics, for that reason, isn’t entirely correct. Now, maybe he might have changed over and joined the AAUE (Amateur Athletic Union of Eire).
“But it’s interesting that he was winning Irish titles with the NACA. He won soccer caps with Northern Ireland as well as the Irish Free State and he represented the IRFU so he had all the bases covered.”
He didn’t compete at an Olympic Games but he still left his mark.
In later life, Dr O’Flanagan worked in various administrative roles such as Chief Medical Officer for the Irish Olympic team. He was also a member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for nearly three decades until 1994.
As a member of the Olympic Council of Ireland, he regularly hosted meetings at his home and in the 1990s played a key role in securing a sponsorship deal that changed the game for Irish Olympians.
“One of the really great deals that the Olympic Council of Ireland had in the 1990s, he was a key figure in negotiating it. It was with Delta Airlines which gave free flights to and from America to Olympic calibre athletes.
“That was in operation from the last year of the Barcelona cycle and for the four years prior to the Atlanta games in 1996. It was worth about 100 flights a year and he was the man who pushed open that door and negotiated a deal.”
In conclusion, Dr Kevin O’Flanagan, alongside brother Mick, should have their faces carved into Ireland’s Mount Rushmore.