Turtle Bunbury

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Interviews - SPORTING LEGENDS OF IRELAND

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All-Ireland Pole Vaulting
Championships: 10
Record Height: 12’ 5” (1957).

Gaelic Football
Clubs: O’Hanrahans, Eire Og, Shamrocks.
County: Carlow.

DINNY HYLAND (1929-2015)
POLE VAULTER & GAELIC FOOTBALLER

‘I started out with a curtain pole when I was nine years of age. I was friendly with James Dempsey whose family had a hardware shop in Carlow. They had the poles. And I got fond of the vaulting.’

Dinny’s octogenarian eyes remain steady as those gathered in the room whoosh at the thought of a nine-year-old whizzing through the skies at one end of a curtain pole. But such are the diminutive beginnings of mighty champions.

Fast forward twenty years and the same small boy was midway through an epic reign which saw him winning the annual All-Ireland Pole Vaulting Championships ten times, including nine in succession from 1952-1960.

Sport is in the blood. The Hylands were originally tenant farmers of the Earls of Portarlington and lived north-east of Portlaoise at Morette, in a landscape called The Heath. Dinny’s grandfather and father, both called Michael, were born on the farm in 1852 and 1886 respectively.[i] Michael junior was all set to inherit the farm and had developed a passion for the active life. ‘He played Gaelic football and cricket’, says Dinny. ‘Lord Portarlington would bring teams to play at Emo Court and all the tenant farmers would make an opposing team.’

However, shortly before the First World War, the Hylands ran into a crisis when their two main corn cutting machines broke down. Michael Senior was obliged to sell the farm and relocated to Emo. His seven sons moved to Carlow Towen where Michael Junior and another brother ran a pub on Tullow Street. Like many a publican before and since, they found their generosity got the better of them and they made no money. ‘They just weren’t able to run it’, says Dinny with a sympathetic shake of the head. And so they sold the pub and Michael Junior became a fitter, working first at Richard’s Foundry in Carlow, and later as a lorry driver and labourer at The Shamrock. Dinny would similarly spend most of his working life with Thompson Engineering at Carlow’s Hanover Works, and later at the town’s Hydro-Hoist factory.[ii]

Michael Junior continued to play sport when he moved to Carlow, playing cricket at the club in Palatine and, in the absence of a senior team, playing County Football for the Carlow juniors. In 1913, he played for the juniors who went on to win the Leinster Championship.

Dinny’s mother Molly was born in Dublin but came of Carlow stock. Her father Mathew Whelan hailed from a farm at Tomard near Milford and ran a pub in Leighlinbridge. ‘Aye, there was a lot of pubs in the family at one point’, says Dinny. ‘Farms and pubs’.

Michael and Molly married in 1923 and had four boys and three girls. ‘I was third from the bottom or fourth from the top’, offers Dinny, who arrived in May 1929. He was brought up on Tullow Street, just opposite the Presentation Convent, and educated by the Christian Brothers.[iii]

Not surprisingly, the Hyland children all inherited an instinctive zeal for sport. Dinny’s three sisters were feisty table-tennis players. His eldest brother Michael was frequently to be seen swimming in Carlow’s rivers and, adds Dinny’s wife Delma, he was ‘fairly handy with a hula hoop too’.[iv] His late brother Paddy played both rugby and Gaelic Football; he was on the team with Dinny when O’Hanrahans won the Carlow county final in 1945. As for the younger brother Brendan, ‘I’m not sure if you’d call it sport, but he was good at playing cards’.

Sporting options were something of a rarity in Dinny’s childhood. ‘It was during the war years and they hadn’t the price of a football’, he explains. ‘There were some league matches but there were no matches between schools in my time.’ On Wednesday afternoons the kids would make their way to run around a sports field on Carlow’s Green Road, where the regiments of the British Empire had drilled half a century earlier.[v]

Dinny was the sportiest of the Hyland siblings. From O’Hanrahans, he became one of the star players with the Shamrocks (Carlow’s town team), winning the 1949 Carlow Junior Football Club final.[vi] He also donned the red, green and yellow jersey of his county to play half-back for their National Football League campaigns throughout the early 1950s. He won the Dr Humphrey’s Cup at the Carlow Championships for the best All Round Athlete in 1952, 1953 and 1954.[vii]

But it was as a pole-vaulter that he became a household name across Ireland. It seems likely people have been using sticks and poles to shoot into the skies since the invention of hands, particularly in marshy areas. The first definitive pole vault competitions appear to be those held in Ireland during the Tailteann Games, which took place in the 2nd millennium BC. It had remerged as a competitive sport in Cumbria by the 1840s and was one of the most popular events at the inaugural modern Olympics in 1896.

At school, Dinny was often to be seen vaulting walls and hedges with a rough-cut pole.[viii] ‘We were doing six foot and thought we were great’, he laughs. At the age of 18, he became more serious about it, using a 10-foot bamboo pole to clear a timber lath, taking exact measurements every time he landed.[ix] ‘Timing is everything’ he counsels. ‘And relaxation.’ Sometimes he landed hard. ‘I never jumped on a mattress in my life’, he says. And yet he never gave himself an injury.

In 1948, the 19-year-old competed for the first time at the All Ireland Youth Championships, and won Bronze with a jump of 9 foot 5. In 1950, he won the contest and broke the Irish record for the first time with a vault of 11-5 in Enniscorthy. Just minutes later his friend and rival Val McGann of Ballinasloe, Co. Galway, cleared 11-7 in the same contest.[x] But in July 1951, Dinny set a new record at the annual Guinness Sports at Iveagh Grounds, Crumlin, with 11-8 ¾ and this time it held. [xi]

Throughout the 1950s, Dinny dominated at the three main annual contests – the Ireland Championship, the Leinster Championship and the Cork City Sports Championships.[xii] Every year the good-looking 5’ 9” vaulter from Carlow vaulted a little higher - and the crowds who came to watch got a little bigger.[xiii] The Irish Times declared that he had ‘stolen the limelight’ at the 1955 NACA (National Athletic Cycling Association) All-Ireland Championships when he soared over the lath to become the first Irishman to vault 12 foot, reaching 12-2.[xiv] He ultimately jumped 12-5, which was over a foot higher than the record when he started.[xv]

The Sunday Press were always publishing his picture’, recalls Delma proudly. Delma Fenelon was a fun-loving bootmaker’s daughter who lived around the corner from Dinny on Barrack Street.[xvi] ‘‘We were neighbours and he was friends of my brother’, she says. ‘He used to go with other girls in between. A lot of girls. But as someone says to me, “you got him in the end, Delma!”’ And did she have any vaulting ambitions herself? ‘I did not!’

They were married on St. Valentine’s weekend of February 1960; five children followed. Their son Michael, trained by Dinny, later won the Irish championships with a jump of 14-6. Sport remains in the blood, with a granddaughter who hurdles and a grandson who is a promising tennis player.[xvii]

***

Denis (Dinny) Hyland of Quinnagh, Carlow, passed away on May 1, 2015, at St. Luke’s Hospital, Kilkenny. He was survived by his beloved wife Delma and their children Mike, Liza, Jim, Sinead and Donncha.

***

FOOTNOTES

[i] By his wife Mary, Michael Hyland Snr fathered seven sons and daughter. By 1911, Michael, the eldest born 1886 and father of Denny, was a fitter, Martin was a labouer, John was a fitters apprentice, William was a clerk at the coach factory and the younger sons – Joseph, Patrick and Denis – were at school.

[ii] Peter Thomas (grandfather of Kathryn Thomas) owned Thompsons and died in January 2010. During the 1950s, Thompson’s specialized in aluminium tipping trucks.

[iii] ‘All those houses have gone from Tullow Street now’, says Delma. ‘You’d get lost even if you were born and reared there’. The Christian Brothers were based near the railway station.

[iv] Michael joined the Irish aircorps at the age of 17 and, in 1948, went to work as a mechanic with the Israelites in Tel Aviv for four years. He had a month’s holiday every year. ‘He had a great time’, says Denny. He came back and worked for an American firm in Shannon but was then transferred to London where he is now. As of April 2010, he is 85 years old, living in Slough, London and as fit as ever.

[v] This was in the ‘old Barrack Field behind the Union.’

[vi] The Shamrocks smashed St Andrew's 0-16 to 1-6 victory; the game was played in Dr. Cullen Park in the Spring of 1950. Denny also played variously at played half-back with O’Hanrahans and Eire Og. He has a Carlow MSC medal with O’Hanrahans in 1945, and two county medals playing for Carlow in the 1951 National Football League campaign. He played with Carlow again in 1952 Leinster Champs and was on and off the team t/o 1950s. But he returned to pole vaulting when Carlow got beaten.

[vii] In 1955, he won the pole vault and was second in 100 yards, long jump and high jump. (‘I wasn’t that good at the high jump’, he says. ‘I could do maybe five foot seven’).

[viii] ‘Years went by and I got away from that. But then I was 18 years of age and I took it up again. We’d pole-vault over a timber lath. He was using a 10 foot bamboo pole by the which was a little more flexible than the curtain pole. They’d land directly into a hole in the ground full of sand. ‘There was no mattresses then’.

[ix] He used to practice on Stanley’s land outside Carlow, with a makeshift pair of posts and an old lath. He always jumped with bamboo and resisted the springier thrust of the steel poles favoured by his rivals. Nor did he try the fibre glass poles which arrived in the 1950s.

[x] Denny has also competed against Dr. Pat O’Callaghan’s sons. Ulick O’Connor was also a pole vaulter. Val McGann is now a successful artist in Maine. http://www.valmcganngallery.com/

[xi] ‘I was beaten in 1951. It was a tie but I lost on faults. You got three goes and if you miss, you get a fault and if you miss three times, you were out’.

[xii] His Olympic aspirations were kyboshed by a complicated division between the two main Irish athletics bodies in Ireland which meant he was not allowed participate. ‘Ireland couldn’t use anyone from the north in athletics. It was fine if you were a boxer or a swimmer. You could have two brothers from Fermanagh. One could box for Ireland but if his brother ran, he’d be representing England. It didn’t make sense’.

[xiii] At the time of his pole-vaulting successes, the 10-time national champion was also a Private in An Fórsa Cosanta Áitiúil (the reserve force of the Irish Army).

[xiv] 1955 was County Carlow’s Year of Champions 1955 – Denny Hyland set new Irish pole vault record, Ernie Jones won the Irish PGA Championship and Tess Delaney captured the Leinster Senior Girls Singles.

[xv] Denny repeatedly broke his own record, peaking with a 12 foot 5 vault at the Cork City Sports in 1957.

[xvi] Delma was the elder daughter of Jimmy Fenelon of 12 Barrack St (http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~irlcar2/Little_Barrack_st.htm) who worked in the Boot Factory, married to Lil Walsh and had two daughters, Delma and Margaret. Delma's Fenelon grandfather hailed from Myshall. Delma married Denny Hyland, and her sister Margaret married Joe Nolan (Tullow) of Mix 'n' Match.

[xvii] In the mid-1970s, the family relocated to Quinnagh, just outside Carlow town.

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Click here to see a full list of persons interviewed for the Vanishing Ireland project.