OVER one billion people worldwide watched the mind-blowing extravaganza of the Olympic Games opening ceremony.
Northsider Harry Boland, one of 11 surviving Irish participants of the 1948 London Olympics, was among them.
For the second time in his 86 years, Harry had to watch the ceremony as a spectator. The sprightly Sutton local recalled how in 1948 the Irish basketball team wasn’t able to participate in the ceremony, as they didn’t have any uniform to wear.
Travelling to the games in 1948 in a London devastated by World War II offered Harry his first journey out of Ireland at the age of 22.
At the time he was the only ‘civilian’ on the Irish Olympic basketball team, which had been hastily assembled prior to the games.
“The rest of the team was compiled of army members and I hadn’t even played with them before the Olympics,” he told Northside People.
“Nowadays you’d probably have to qualify to compete in the games but that wasn’t the case back then.
“Basketball had only really become known in the civilian world which is why the team was mainly made up of army members.
“I was selected for the team because I went to the trial match and managed to score a few baskets and I guess I was considered tall at a little over six foot.
“We’d have our training and trials in Portobello Barracks. We’d often arrive to find out it was locked and we didn’t have a key so we’d have to turn on our heels and head back home.”
At the time, Harry had been studying to become a chartered accountant. He gained work experience with his friend Charlie Haughey at his brother’s accountancy office where he took three weeks’ holidays to compete in the Olympics.
Harry and Mr Haughey branched out on their own in 1950 to set up Haughey Boland & Company, which is now Deloitte and Touche.
Far from the hype of the Olympics nowadays, participating in the games in 1948 was a much more understated affair.
“No one really knew an Irish basketball team was competing, although it might have been just as well because we were completely outclassed,” Harry explained.
“I’ve always said the point is competing and giving things your best shot, not winning.
“It was so different back then. We weren’t even able to go to the opening ceremony because we didn’t have any uniforms.
“The army gave us shorts to wear for our matches and promptly took them back off us after each game.
“So we just had to look on from the crowds during the opening ceremony. I always watch the opening ceremony even though it seems to me to be a bit over the top.”
One of Harry’s vivid memories is how his teammates worried about how they would be perceived.
“The army guys didn’t want to be considered English because they spoke English so they’d turn to me and say: ‘For God’s sake Harry would you ever speak some Irish even if it’s a prayer or something so that they’ll know we’re Irish,’”
Harry lives with his 87-year-old wife Noirin in Sutton, and they have three children, 10 grandchildren and two great grandchildren.
He was one of 11 people presented with a special Medal of Honour, given to the surviving members of the Irish 1948 Olympic team at a State function in Farmleigh recently.
“I’m getting more notoriety now for my participation in the Olympics than I ever did before,” he added. “It’s only taken 64 years for that to happen.”
Harry was also a guest of honour at the recent launch of an exhibition on Irish competitors at the 1912 Olympics.
The exhibition, organised by Fingal County Council, will be on display for the duration of the Olympic Games at the Fingal Local Studies and Archives, Clonmel House, Swords. It is open from 10am to 1pm and 2pm to 5pm.