'Lion for a Day': The unbelievable lost tale of Derry's Greatest Olympian

Anton Hegarty. The name probably doesn’t mean much to you. It didn’t to me . . . But it should have.

Monday, 26th April 2021, 1:00 pm
Updated Monday, 26th April 2021, 3:08 pm
Anton Hegarty, who competed at the 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp.

Despite my eternal (and accepted) status as a ‘blow in’, covering sport for the Derry Journal for close to 20 years had me thinking I was more than a little familiar with most of the sporting exploits of a city and a people who punch far beyond their collective weight.

Names like Liam Ball, Jobby Crossan, Ken Goodall, Billy ‘Spider’ Kelly, Neil McLaughlin, Felix Healy, Jim McLaughlin, Jason Smyth, Liam Coyle, Henry Downey, James McClean.... the list could continue longer than this modest word count allows. And then there’s Hegarty.

If there’s been even a semblance of a silver lining over the past 12 months, it’s that a decimated local sporting calendar has allowed for a bit of time to catch up on some reading. I don’t claim to be that expansive in my choices but amidst the stereotypical mix of sporting history and autobiographies from which I tend to select material, I stumbled across a barely believable tale of an Olympic dream born among the poverty of Nailor’s Row in Derry’s Bogside.

'Lion for a Day' tells the remarkable tale of Derry Olympian Anton Hegarty.

Uplifting, heroic, cautionary and tragic; Malcom McCausland’s ‘Lion for a Day’ is all this and more wrapped in very distinct ‘Derry’ packaging. And at it’s centre is a sportsman, a solider, a husband, father, friend and Olympian whose story deserves to be heard.

Hegarty’s life plays out like a Hollywood script, and a far fetched one at that, but it’s his ‘every man’ perspective as he finds himself embroiled in some of the century’s defining conflicts that really takes the reader inside his remarkable journey toward the Antwerp Games of 1920.

For that the author is due immense credit and in McCausland, Hegarty himself could scarcely have hand picked a better vessel through which to tell his tale. Having been involved in athletics his entire life as an athlete, coach, official and media correspondent, the author treats his subject as a labour of love and his admiration for Hegarty is evident from the first page.

Born into abject poverty in 1892, the 10th of 12 children, Anton Hegarty’s life was a battle for survival from almost his first breath in a city simmering with sectarian tensions that surface as his sporting dream unfolds around it.

However, that’s not until Derry’s economic outlook for Catholics forces Anton to take the decision - like lots of his fellow Irish men at the time - to enlist in the British Army.

The author’s attention to context provides the perfect mix of background to the tumultuous times from which Hegarty emerges as the scale of the tale moves from local to national and then international. McCausland’s vividly painted picture of life in the city around the turn of the 20th century is an added bonus for anyone with a sense of feeling toward the ‘town we love so well’.

Having already shown sporting promise, Anton’s decision to enlist would change the young Derry man’s life in ways he could never have imagined and we follow him through India and into the horrors of the First World War, eventually landing at the ill fated attack on Gallipoli where Anton’s athletic prowess is tested under the most extreme of conditions.

There’s also a chance meeting with a young Australian journalist by the name of Keith Murdoch, father of a certain Rupert.

Again, life in the trenches is set in sobering contrast to the sporting hopes and dreams of Hegarty and the cast of characters he meets across his travels before his war is ended in France by a wound which had his family and fiancée believing him dead.

Of course he wasn’t, but if he thought the escaping World War I entitled him to a little peace, Anton is forced to think again after leaving the love of his life in England to return to a different Ireland and a vastly different Derry in the immediate aftermath of the Easter Rising.

As a returning soldier and a Catholic, Anton has to run the gauntlet of both warring communities and finds himself training republicans and caught amid a gun battle in what is now Lumen Christi College.

The powder keg tensions will strike a cord with the current unrest in the north, as does Hegarty’s refusal to allow himself to become caught up in the trouble and it is his remarkable athletic ability that offers him his escape route and passage toward an Olympic dream.

It was at the Antwerp Games that the raising of the Olympic flag was first introduced, as was the taking of the Olympic oath by athletes and it’s a fitting finale where Hegarty comes up against the greatest of all the legendary ‘Flying Finns’, Paavo Nurmi, in a thrilling cross country contest.

Anton’s tragic death in 1944 remains a matter of some mystery and McCausland offers insight but whatever the manner of his sad passing, this is a man who deserves to be remembered for how he lived.

‘Lion for a Day’ is a story well told and Anton’s life one that deserves to be celebrated, especially in his native city.

'Lion for a Day' is available to order from Amazon or you can email [email protected] to order your copy.