Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

 
Random Quote
Random Date

Interviews - SPORTING LEGENDS OF IRELAND

image title

SWIMMING

Irish National Records

Freestyle: 100m, 200m, 400m, 800m, 1500m.

Butterfly: 100m, 200m.

Individual Medley: 400m

POKER

World Series of Poker

Bracelet 1

Money finishes 23

Highest ITM Main Event finish 6th, 1983

AWARDS

European Poker Players Hall of Fame

DONNACHA O’DEA
OLYMPIC SWIMMER & POKER PLAYER

Shortly after the death of the actor Denis O’Dea in 1978, his fellow thespian Gabriel Fallon recalled an encounter with Seán Lemass. ‘Take my advice’, counselled the former Taoiseach. ‘Never play poker with Denis O’Dea. That chap plays from the cellar up!’

Mr. Lemass was a regular at the poker table in the O’Dea family home in Rathgar.[i] Denis had mastered the game in the Kenyan jungles while filming ‘Mugambo’ with Clark Gable and Grace Kelly.[ii] Before the eight players took their seat, he and his young son Donnacha would lay the baize upon the dining room table and prepare the chips. Donnacha was allowed to stay and watch for the first half an hour. Those half hour moments sewed the seeds of poker-lust in the boy, rather to the dismay of his mother, the actress Siobhán McKenna.

An exquisite pencil portrait of Siobhán McKenna adorns the wall of Donnacha’s Dalkey home. Born close to Belfast’s Falls Road in 1923, her father Eoghan McKenna had moved to the Ulster capital from Cork City a few years earlier to teach at Queen’s University.[iii] In 1928, Eoghan was appointed Professor of Maths and Physics at University College Galway and relocated to Shantalla, Co. Galway. Always different, young Siobhán was expelled from the Dominican convent in Galway City after an episode involving a nun and a bag of flour. She went on to become arguably the finest stage actress Ireland has yet produced.

In 1946, two years after she joined the Abbey, Siobhán married Denis O’Dea. Born in 1903, Denis was, like many actors of his generation, an ardent Republican from his teenage years, befriending Lady Gregory while working as a reporter in Sligo during the early part of the War of Independence. This prompted something of a fall out with his father Michael O’Dea, an officer in the Royal Irish Constabulary. During the Irish Civil War, Denis narrowly escaped arrest when the Free State soldier assigned to frisk him transpired to be an old school friend. Feeling the butt of Denis’s hidden gun, the soldier quietly said, ‘You had better go home now’. Denis joined the Abbey in the 1920s and went on to star in a number of Hollywood movies, most notably as the inspector in pursuit of James Mason in ‘Odd Man Out’.[iv]

Born in 1948, Donnacha was Denis and Siobhan’s only child and grew up on Richmond Street, where Denis’s elderly ‘Aunt Nealon’ once lived.[v] He went to school at Scoil Lorcáin, the Gaelscoil (or Gaelic school), then located in Blackrock Town Hall. On his return home, he would call in to Cyril Cusack’s house to play with the Cusack children. He later went to the Christian Brothers School on Synge Street where he developed into a swimmer of Olympic stature, becoming perhaps the greatest Irish swimmer of the 1960s.

‘My father was very into fishing and often took me out on boats on the Corrib, or for walks along the banks of Lord Harrington’s waters in Co. Kerry. He wanted to be able to relax knowing that I could swim so he took me to the Tara Street Baths in Dublin when I was four years old and taught me how to swim. He was always at me to swim! When we went down to the sea at Booterstown and I wanted to play, he’d say, “Swim from here to there first and then you can mess around”.’

In 1956, both Siobhán and Denis won roles in two separate plays on Broadway and the family relocated to New York for six months. Seven year old Donnacha took full advantage to swim in the local pool and was given some lessons in how to crawl properly. Three years later, he entered the school gala at Synge Street and won the race. He was invited to join the local Club Sná Colmcille and began to swim on a more regular basis.[vi]

The following year, while the family moved to Highfield Road, Rathgar, Donnacha began to challenge the very best of Irish swimmers. He won two Under 14s Leinster Championships, and then had his breakthrough win of the Irish 1500m Freestyle at the Blackrock Baths. In 1963, he won his first seniors title, winning the Men’s 400m Freestyle at the Grove Baths in Belfast. ‘I had never competed against guys from the north before’, he says. ‘They looked like giants’.

In 1965, the year his mother played Dr. Zhivago’s mother-in-law in David Lean’s epic, 16-year-old Donnacha O’Dea broke the barrier to become the first Irishman to swim 100m in less than a minute. ‘I didn’t even think about breaking it’, he says. ‘It was a big deal in Irish swimming but I was sort of oblivious to it until the night. I’ve still got the timekeeper’s card’.

Thereafter he dominated Irish swimming, at one time holding all five of Ireland’s senior freestyle titles – 100, 200, 400, 800 and 1500 – as well as the two butterfly titles and the individual medley. ‘I did a bit of a Michael Phelps on it all’, he laughs, referring to the American swimmer who holds fourteen Olympic Gold medals.

His zest was somewhat complicated by the lack of infrastructure. The biggest pool in the city was the 25m pool which Guinness had opened for its employees.[vii] The gate man was under strict instructions from the Union not to let any non-Guinness workers in. ‘So I asked my father to ask Sean Lemass to see if he could have a word with the MD of Guinness’s to let me train there! My father said ‘God, I’d prefer to save that favour for when you murder somebody … that’s a very big one’.

One way or another, the request went through and ultimately Donnacha was allowed to train at Guinness’s early in the morning while the pool was being cleaned. He also became affiliated with the Guinness Swimming Club which gave him some much needed competition.[viii]

In 1968, four weeks before he was due at the Olympic Games in Mexico City, Donnacha twisted his ankle on some steps.[ix] While he nonetheless won his race in the National Championships that followed, the altitude in Mexico got the better of him.[x] He continued to swim on his return from Mexico, representing Ireland at the European Championships in Utrecht and Barcelona and retired from swimming aged 24.[xi] However, while he won the two butterfly’s and the individual medley at the National Championships in 1972, his time was not sufficient for him to qualify for the Munich Olympics.

Meanwhile, a genetic habit had taken hold and it wasn’t acting. ‘My parents never wanted me to act. They had seen so many of their colleagues struggling to make a living and they thought it was a very tough profession. But I don’t think my mother exactly wanted to be a poker player either!’

Donnacha learned the game watching his father, Lemass and others playing in his family home.[xii] While his academic career began to peter out – he was at both University College and Trinity College Dublin – he had taken a deeper interest in the game.[xiii]

‘My father always said it’s not how much you win, its just that you win. He was a very disciplined player, except when backing horses. He always backed short-priced favourites which are the worst things to be backing! He told me he once had a losing streak when his game went off the boil for 18 months. It made a huge impression on me that such a steady eddie player could get unlucky for 18 months. I always kept that at the back of my mind’.

‘The Don’, as he became known, made his first appearance at the World Series of Poker tournament in Las Vegas in 1982. The following year, he nearly won a WSOP bracelet in the $1,000 Limit Hold'em event. He also finished 6th in that years’ Main Event. In 1998, he finally won his WSOP bracelet in Pot Limit Omaha, defeating two-time world champion, Johnny Chan in heads-up play.[xiv]

He finished 4th in the Grand Final of the 2001 Late Night Poker television programme and won the 2004 Poker Million tournament. In December 2008, Donnacha’s son Eoghan was very unlucky not to win the same tournament, coming second. However, there was some consolation as Eoghan won $300,000 online (no need for “win” here) that very week.[xv]

The poker world is changing rapidly. ‘It’s gone crazy’, says Donnacha. ‘There’s 8,000 players at the main event in Las Vegas now, but they’ve kept the entry fee at $10,000. To try and hope to win it is a total dream. The bookies bet 1000-1 the field.’

And most of the change is internet-related. ‘All the finals are dominated by young guys of 21 or 22 who you’ve never heard of. They’ve just played so many hands on the Internet! If I go into a casino, they deal me 30 hands an hour so if I stay ten hours, that’s 300 hands. But on the Internet, they’ll get about 75 hands an hour and these guys are playing six or seven games at the same time. They don’t even go to a casino but in one year, they can play as much poker as I did in twenty.’

‘The last poker event I went to was at a ski resort in Austria’, he says. ‘I love skiing so that was perfect. Ski all day, off the slopes, quick shower and into the cash game. Really nice! I’ll certainly do that one again’.

FOOTNOTES

[i] ‘They used to play in the Gresham or the Royal Marine and in latter years, the Shelbourne. Lemass was part of the group but when he became Taoiseach, he didn’t want to play in public. So that’s how they started to play in our house. If Lemass wanted to play, the game would be in our house in Rathgar.’ Another of their poker pals was Flash Kavanagh, PP. ‘They would play through the night on Saturday and up to midday on Sunday, then rush off in a body to High Street where Father Kavanagh said his first Mass’. Hence, his title, “Flash Kavanagh”.

[ii] Denis learned how to play while plying his trade. He once told Don that while filming ‘Mugambo’ in a Kenyan jungle with Gable and Kelly, in which film Denis plays the priest, he played poker at night surrounded by beautiful actresses. ‘Well, that’s what he told me anyway!’

[iii] Eoghan McKenna was one of 11 children from Cork City originally and was transferred to Queen’s University. Donnacha knew some of Eoghan’s siblings, his McKenna great-uncles and great-aunts, including a Monsignor McKenna who was out in Australia, a nun whose name was Bonaventure in Cork, and another brother called Peader who taught in Dublin and whose sons are friendly with them, including Dr Frankie McKenna (now in his 90s) and Pierse McKenna the church architect. There was also a Monaghan and Longford connection through the McKenna / O’Reilly families, as well as the Shorten family of Co. Cork.

The McKenna home at Fort Eyre, Co. Galway, was a large rambling house, full of pets. It was an Irish-speaking household and her father inspired her theatrical interest. She was hugely acclaimed for her role in ‘St. Joan’ (or ‘San Siobhan’ in Irish) by George Bernard Shaw. Amongst many plays Siobhan translated into Irish was JM Barrie’s “Mary Rose”. She also enjoyed some film success, including ‘Dr Zhivago’, Of Human Bondage’.

[iv] While Denis’s date of birth was April 26th 1903, there does not appear to be an 8-year-old ‘Denis O’Dea’ listed in the 1911 Census. His father was called Michael and his mother was Catherine. They lived for a time at 54 South Richmond Street. Donnacha believes the O’Dea’s hailed from Lisselton, Co. Kerry.
After Denis O'Dea’s death in November 1978, Cyril Cusack applauded Denis for ‘the spirit of brightness, youth and comradeship’ he brought to the Abbey, a spirit which doomed ‘the pantomimic spectres of pessimism, cynicism and disillusionment … to diminish and topple back into obscurity where they belong’. Cusack and O’Dea had once shared a flat on Vico Road, Dalkey, along with Harry Webster and Liam Redmond. Denis had been working as a reporter in Sligo during the 1920s where he became, to quote Candida from The Irish Times, ‘one of Lady Gregory’s pets and she regaled him on barm brack baked in Gort’. He enjoyed acting and in 1930 won a gold medal for his role in a play at the Dublin Drama Festival. He then joined the Abbey whereupon Ernest Blythe sent him off to Dunquin to master Irish. On An Abbey tour to America, he befriended Jimmy Cagney, an ideal guide to speakeasys’ during the Prohibition period. His starred alongside the likes of Grace Kelly, Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable, and was one of the leading members of the Abbey in the 1930s and 1940s. Denis’s other films include John Ford's The Plough and the Stars (1936), where he played Young Covey, and The Fallen Idol (1948), Alfred Hitchcock's Under Capricorn (1949), Disney's Treasure Island (1950), Mogambo (1953), Niagara, (1953), The Rising of the Moon (1957), Darby O'Gill and the Little People (1959), and Esther and the King (1960). He was President of the Actor’s Union for eight years. The Irish Times described him as ‘a great sportsman, fisherman, racegoer and card player’, well liked for his ‘wry and gentle humour and his capacity for self-effacement, an endearing and unusual quality in his profession … an outstanding Irishman who did much to raise the dignity of the actor’s calling and the reputation of the Abbey at home and abroad’.

[v] Denis and Siobhan lived on Harcourt Street before they moved to Richmond Street circa 1950. Donnacha’s second name is Nealon after ‘Aunt Nealon’. Although his father was known as Denis, he signed his checks ‘Donnacha O’Dea’. Hence Donnacha jr used the ‘Donnacha N O’Dea’ for his bank accounts, to distinguish from his father.

[vi] ‘The coach of the club used to teach women how to swim in Tara Street and he let me come in and , if they were kicking on the bar, I’d do lengths while they were doing it, and I swam while they were changing’.

[vii] In summers, between schools, he would train in Blackrock Baths (‘murderously cold’).

[viii] Although he did receive some advice from a retired Garda called John Conway, Donnacha basically trained himself. He sometimes wishes that he had accepted one of the scholarship offers he received from the American Universities as, while he may have been dominant in Ireland, ‘I’d have realised I’m nowhere near the best swimmer in the States’. If pressed, he would have focused his attention on the 100m and 200m butterfly which were his strongest events.

[ix] ‘Anne O’Connor, the breast stroke champ – ‘She was chasing me with some youghurt and I jumped down some steps and I twisted my ankle so I was actually not really right even going’.

[x] ‘I couldn’t believe the altitude. Even after swimming fifty metres, the oxygen debt when you got up to breathe was extraordinary. We had done no altitude training. We were there 3 weeks before so we benefited a little I suppose. An English swimmer called Martin Woodruff who I had beaten the year before got silver in the 200m butterfly. I felt quite gutted about that but he trained really hard and he was always the last out of the pool so he’d adapted and you have to hand it to him’

[xi] ‘I tried to qualify for the Munich Olympics but at that stage I’d lost a couple of my freestyle titles to Chalky White who was the next big power-house in Irish swimming. Butterfly was my main event now. But the qualifying times we so tough because Mark Spitz had set the bar. In the National Championships, I won the two butterfly’s and the individual medley aged 24 but I didn’t do the qualifying time. Nor did Chalky who won five gold medals! We hadn’t done the time so neither of us got picked by the Irish Amateur Swimming Association..’

‘When I got onto the Irish team at fourteen, I was the youngest member on it’, he says. ‘By the time I was 22, I was the oldest!. Now people are swimming on until they’re nearly 30, because it has gone professional and people are taking scholarship to the States. In my time, girls were all peaking at 17 or 18 and then suddenly they would stop.’

[xii] ‘I learned early on that just because someone isn’t brilliant at poker, that doesn’t mean they aren’t a brilliant person. Lemass was a pretty open, sporting player. He’d play on small pairs and stuff. You could see that he was going to lose but he was just letting off steam and enjoying himself.’

[xiii] I went to UCD to read honours maths but I was just completely lost studying maths at that level … I’d go in and put my name on the paper literally’. He went to Trinity to read Business Studies in 1967, and didn’t both seeking Archbishops permission (thereby risking excommunication). ‘But I didn’t finish that either’.

[xiv] He finished 9th in 1991 and also cashed in the Main Event four times between 1990 and 2007.

[xv] Eoghan is largely self-taught. ‘It’s such a tough game’, says Donnacha. ‘The success rate is minuscule so I didn’t really want him to go down that road. I felt I wasn’t the atypical example and he might think oh, this is easy. But he has got off to a good start.’

Donnacha and his wife Patrica have one son and one daughter. He now enjoys a more sedentary pace of life, while Patricia likes to swim all year around, often in the Irish Sea.

Donnacha ran betting offices for a while. He had planned to build a chain but English firms like Ladbrokes and William Hills came into Ireland and took over. ‘I've always bet on sport. I used to do a lot of tennis betting but its mainly golf these days. You meet a lot of clever people through poker and a lot of them do sports betting.’

 
 

Articles

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