Track Stats - Percy Kirwan

Always in tip-top trim – Percy Kirwan, a fine Irish long jumper of 100 years ago

Published in “Track Stats” December 2011.

Percy Kirwan was one of the outstanding long jumpers during the years immediately before World War I, but in era in which Irishmen dominated the event, as they did other technical disciplines, he tends to be overlooked in deference to his fellow-countryman, Peter O’Connor, whose stupendous leap of 24ft 11¾in (7.61m) in Dublin in 1901 remained a World record for 20 years and was not surpassed by another Briton until Lynn Davies did so at last in 1962.

Intriguingly, a mystery surrounds Kirwan concerning the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm. There is little doubt that he was selected for Great Britain as he had just won the AAA title for the third successive year, but he certainly did not compete, even though it seems that he was present in the Swedish capital at the time. The eminent Irish athletics historian, Colm Murphy, says of Kirwan in his latest book – reviewed elsewhere in this issue of “Track Stats” – that “speculation abounds that he declined the offer of competing due to his nationalistic leanings; yet he appears to have been in Stockholm and there remains a question over whether he was injured or not”. Among a collection of newspaper cuttings referring to Kirwan’s career and kept by his son is one from “The Athletic News” for 1 July 1912 which consists of photographs of seven athletes headlined as being “at the Olympic Games”. The pictures themselves are obviously from library files and not taken in Stockholm, but would Kirwan have made a point of keeping a copy if he had not been at the Games?

Three other Irishmen were members of the Great Britain team in Stockholm – Tim Carroll, high jump and triple jump; Pat Quinn, shot; and Denis Carey, hammer – but a fourth, Denis Horgan, turned down the invitation. Horgan had that year at the age of 41 won his 13th AAA shot-put title since 1893 and had been Olympic silver-medallist in 1908, and it is not known whether he missed the Games for reasons of political conscience or because he felt his form was insufficient to win another medal. All of these athletes have become footnotes in the history of British athletics because of Ireland’s subsequent independence, and that is a pity. It may be that some of them competed reluctantly under the British flag, but they were British nonetheless, and from the first AAA Championships in 1880 through to 1914 Irishmen won 13 titles in the high jump, 22 in the long jump, 22 in the shot and 17 in the hammer ! All but one of the 13 Britons over 23ft (7.01m) in the first decade of the 20th Century were Irish.

Kirwan’s best official long-jump performances was 7.21 in winning at the Vatican Games in Rome in September 1908 and that would have comfortably earned him the silver medal in the Olympic final two months before, but it was not until 1910 that he made his first AAA Championships appearance. His winning distance in 1912 was 23-2½ (7.07) and that would not have remotely threatened the outstanding American winner in Stockholm, Albert Gutterson, who cleared 7.60, but would still have been good enough for 4th place. On numerous occasions in local sports meetings in Ireland Kirwan jumped 23ft or better and one of the newspaper reports says of him in one particular competition that “in his second last jump he did a wonderful performance. He failed to catch the board and stood on the grass behind. Yet he landed near the end of the pit, and considering his grass take-off it was a beautiful spring – fully 24ft”.

Kirwan was also a fine triple jumper in an era when the Irish were the most proficient experts in the World at this exercise, whether it was a hop, step and jump, or variations upon it such as two hops and a jump. At a meeting at the village of Cappoquin, in County Waterford, on 8 September 1910 he cleared 49ft 9in (15.16m) with what was described in the local newspaper as “a hop, step and jump”, though the authoritative statistician, Tony O’Donoghue, listed this effort as two hops and a jump when he compiled Irish all-time rankings in 1959. In his volume concerned with the triple jump for the NUTS historical series, Ian Tempest makes the point that all such events in Ireland from 1880 through to the First World War were probably contested as two hops and a jump. Whatever the permutation, Kirwan ranked 2nd only to another Irishman, John J. Bresnihan, during the decade 1901-to-1910.

Like so many of his Irish contemporaries, Kirwan came from a family of athletes and was a fine all-rounder. Born in 1881, he was the fourth of five sporting brothers and was also a very proficient hurdler, high jumper and Gaelic footballer. His family were farmers at Clonea, near the harbour town of Dungarvan – where a 10-mile road race is run every year in tribute to another exceptional Waterford athlete, the Olympic marathon silver-medallist and World cross-country champion, John Treacy. Kirwan’s home village was Kilmacthomas, in County Waterford, which had a population of only 700, and when he won the long jump at the Waterford Gaelic Carnival on 20 May 1910 with a clearance of 23-5 (7.13) – as the peerless Peter O’Connor, who advised Kirwan, interestedly looked on as one of the judges – a local newspaper reporter enthused, “It is doubtful if there is a better all-round athlete in the country today … with his athletic ability he combines a genial and unassuming character which has won for him the esteem of all followers of sport”.

Equally complimentary in later years was an Irish newspaper columnist named Carbery, who wrote of Kirwan: “He was one of the leading hurdle runners in Ireland in his time, and as a high jumper was ‘good’ for anything up to five feet eight or nine. But it was as a long jumper and hop, step and jumper that Kirwan was best known. For several years he held the Irish Championships in these events. He also won the English Championships and had the post of honour in all the flat jumps for many seasons on Irish sports programmes. Being a teetotaller and non-smoker, he always appeared in tip-top trim and was a most consistent performer. On level ground, granted a moderately smooth run-in, he was capable of beating twenty-three feet any day; on more than one occasion he covered the fine distance of 24 feet in one spring”.

Kirwan won 11 national titles at 100 yards and 120 yards hurdles and in the long jump and triple jump – eight at the Gaelic AA meeting and three at the Irish AAA meeting. At the 1909 GAA event he took the long jump at 23-4 (7.11) and the 100 yards in 10.0 seconds, but he then told the judges of the latter event that he was incapable of such a time and it was duly amended on whatever available evidence to 10 2/5 ! Another remarkable performance of Kirwan’s was reported in an undated cutting from “The Strand Magazine”, to the effect that he had beaten the legendary weights-aided long jump of 29ft 7in (9.01m) in 1854 by John Howard: “A legitimate leap with weights is ascribed to Mr P. Kirwan, the ever famous Irish amateur athlete. He is said to have exceeded Howard’s leap at some sports held in the vicinity of Kilmacthomas”. Percy Kirwan retired from competition in 1912 but founded local clubs for boxing, soccer and tennis and continued to take a close interest in athletics. He attended every Olympic Games from 1924 to 1960 and was a field-events judge in Los Angeles in 1932. He died at the age of 88 in 1969, and when a new byepass was completed round the village of Kilmacthomas in 2001 a 75-metre three-span bridge over the River Mahon was named in his memory.

To hop or not two hops? An analysis of 18 World triple-jump records from Nick Winter, of Australia, in 1924 to Jonathan Edwards, of Great Britain, in 1995, for which the breakdown of each of the hop, step and jump phases is known, shows that the “steps” averaged just under 87 centimetres less than the “hops”. The longest hop (6.50) and the shortest step (3.52) were both achieved by the same man, Mikio Oda, of Japan, in 1931, and though Winter still has the 3rd longest step at 5.09 (Edwards leads with 5.19 and 5.22) this phase has improved appreciably, averaging 5.12 over the last 50 years compared with 4.65 before then. The major gain has been in the closing jump in which Edwards again has the best two performances, 6.85 and 7.02. Even allowing for a second hop being shorter than the first, there is still also, in theory, some advantage to be gained from hopping into the jump rather than stepping. The Irish “two hops and a jump” of the early 20th Century would therefore seem to be equivalent to some two feet (say, 70 centimetres) less as hop, step and jumps.

Thanks to Colm Murphy for providing newspaper cuttings and to Dave Terry for technical input. Dave was a very capable triple jumper himself and on one occasion competed against the 1956 Olympic silver-medallist, Vilhjalmur Einarsson, of Iceland.