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Most people know that the name of the G.A.A. grounds in Clane is Conneff Park, but how many know about the man from whom the name is derived? Tommy Conneff was born at the Forge in Kilmurray in 1866. The original house no longer stands, but on older maps it is shown between the present Conneff residence and the road. Little is known of him as a boy, except that he was small of stature - when fully grown he only equalled five feet five. He had shortly-cropped, sleek black hair, and was by reputation quiet, hardworking and diligent.
As a lad of eighteen, he watched his first sports meeting in Clane in June of 1884. Tradition has it that this was held in the field opposite the Dispensary House (now the John Sullivan Centre), sometimes referred to as the 'sports field'. This indeed must have been a great occasion, if we can compare it to the sports meeting of July 17th 1887, the published of the winners take up half a page in the Leinster Leader of the time. The organisers were Dr. O'Connor, M.D., Clane and James Kelly, who worked as a baker in Celbridge and lived on the side avenue into Clongowes. The last surviving contestant, that the writer knows of, was a very old man when he died about fifty years ago.
Tradition is a strange thing and a single event can have a significance which defies the wildest flights of imagination. Out of this sports meeting was to grow an athletics career which was to capture the imagination of millions and in which international records were set up, some of which were to stand until comparatively recent years. On the local level, it led directly to the establishment of the Gaelic Football Club. This was established in 1887 and O'Connor and Kelly were its first Chairman and Secretary.
In June 1886, Conneff made his debut upon the home track. He failed in the sprints - for which he never possessed the essentials of height and weight - but he won the 440 yards and the half mile from runners of provincial repute. Later in that season, he won the half mile and the mile at Carbury and the mile events at Kilcock and Celbridge. His best performance that year was his contest over half a mile with J.J. Manning, the Irish distance champion of his day, at Monasterevin. He had twenty yards start and was beaten by three yards in two minutes 0.25 seconds - not bad time any day under such conditions as then prevailed. Subsequently, he ran another great race against a noted Leinster runner at Kildare. That finished his first year's experience, and it was not an unworthy prelude to a great career.
Conneff made his initial appearance at a major Dublin meeting in June 1886, in his twentieth year, taking the half mile at the Caledonian games, Ballsbridge, off the short mark of eighteen yards in moderate time. Next month, in the colours of Haddington Harriers, he won the Irish Amateur Athletic Association Championships at 880 yards and mile flat, in two minutes 0.25 seconds and four minutes and 32.25 seconds respectively, on a rain-soaked track. In June 1887, he secured a 'hat-trick' at Limerick, taking the 880, one mile and two miles, now being attached to Inchicore Gaelic Club. Incidentally, 'Conneff's Corner' in the Inchicore district, is named after Tommy. He went off to win the I.A.A.A. four miles at Ballsbridge on the 23rd July in twenty minutes and 55.45 seconds, an Irish record. at the time, Conneff was employed in the commercial department of the 'Freeman's Journal'.
His first international was at the Exhibition Grounds in Manchester in August 1887. Here he took on the English Champion, F. Mills and the visiting Anglo-American wonder runner, E.C. Carter. Conneff trailed the leaders in the two mile race like a shadow. Mills raced away from Carter around the final bends and was hailed by the 40,000 crowd as easy winner. It was only then that Conneff made his effort. He passed Carter like a streak and swung after Mills. He narrowed the gap steadily until he established his supremacy over him too and swept through the tape with remarkable time of 9mins:45.8secs. Dublin and sporting Kildare were aflame. Carter asked for another match - over four miles this time - and Conneff was willing. So in August 1887, there were 20,000 people at Ballsbridge to see the greatest race of all time in this island - the momentous Carter / Conneff duel of over one hundred and ten years ago. Once more Conneff allowed Carter to make the pace and they ran the first mile in 4.52. Carter piled on the speed in the second mile but the 'little lad' hung on, trailing him at his dead ease. The third mile was rattled off in record time. Down the back stretch after the bell, Carter charged away in a well timed sprint, assured of his victory. One can only imagine the surprise of this seasoned world champion. When the little Irishman made his bid and ran the American out of the race with a new world record time of 19mins:14.8secs.
It is thought that it was Carter who persuaded Tommy Conneff to emigrate to America. On his departure, he was presented with an illuminated address and a wallet of sovereigns by the Clane Gaelic Athletic Club - known in those days as the 'William O'Briens'. Here he enrolled with the Manhattan Athletic Club, and returned in June to win the English Mile Championship at Crewe. In early July, he made an Irish mile record of 4mins: 26.4secs, days later, also at Ballsbridge, he beat his old opponent, Carter, over five miles, by 240 yards. The diminutive Tommy won the American five miles title in October 1888, by almost half a mile and the following year retained it, running the legs off the great Syd Thomas, the English four and ten mile holder. In September 1890, at Montreal, Conneff snatched the Canadian two miles in record time for the Dominion, and took the five and ten mile United States titles. 1891 found him winning the American titles for the mile and five miles at New Orleans, the former by 40 yards from A. B. George and the latter by 20 yards from Carter. He beat Carter by 75 yards for the Canadian two miles crown at Toronto. In September of that year he made the American record of 4mins: 21.25secs at Manhattan. At the Boston Games of August 1893, he broke the world record for the mile with 4mins: 18.4secs. At Bergen Point, in September, he made the American best for the quarter mile. For the next two years, he went out of training and disappeared from the public eye. In 1895, friends persuaded him to train for a match between New York and London. This led to him setting a new world record for the mile of 4mins:15.6secs., which stood for sixteen years. He is said to have clocked 4mins:10secs. in training. On August 21st,he registered 3mins:2.8secs for the 3/4 mile, a record up to 1931. He could have bettered this, but he was saving himself for the three miles, which he also won.
In 1896, he turned professional and ran a series of matches with F.E. Bacon at the Old Worchester Oval. In 1897 he met George Tincler over a mile, and although in poor condition and defeated, he forced Tincler 4mins:15.2secs. He was now thirty one and far past his best. That race settled Conneff who, however, was full of praise for his adversary, saying 'I never knew how to run a mile 'til today. Tincler is the greatest runner I have ever met and I think he is capable of running the mile in 4:10. I ran as well as I ever did and I am satisfied with the result'.
When the Spanish - American war broke out, he enlisted in the U. S. Army and saw service in Cuba, Puerto Rico and later in the Philippines. It was from there the report of his tragic death in Manila reached Ireland. The sporting world was in a state of shock. So it is fitting that the G. A. A. Grounds should be called after Conneff. Their fates have been intertwined since 1884. It is not difficult to imagine the inspiration which Conneff's career must have been to the Club in its early days.
Reproduced from "Le Chéile" by kind permission