When the Olympic Games approach again, I have wild recollections I am at last willing to share.
South Boston is traditionally as Irish as Paddy Murphy's pig, and while that should deter my participation for numerous reasons, I nonetheless have warm associations with Southie beginning with the modern Olympic games. Consider:
In 1924 I was a high school youngster from down Maine, and an uncle took me to Boston to see the sights. We went into the catacombs of the Boston Post on Newspaper Row to see them print the colored funnies for next Sunday. On that occasion I shook hands with Jim Connolly, who was a writer on the Sunday Post. In the next decade I would see him now and then, and we got acquainted.
Some months later, the summer Olympics in Paris approached. I read about Jim Connolly in a Post story and found out who he was.
In 1896, the ancient Olympic games were revived in Athens. Connolly was a second-year law student at Harvard and rather good at an athletic competition called the hop-skip-and-jump. So he quit college and headed for Athens. This event is now called the triple jump, but was then a school playground exercise. The former name lives on in our lingo as a short, undefined distance. ("When you get to the schoolhouse, our place is just a hop, skip, and a jump down the street.")
Jim got to Greece by freighter, then got on the wrong train and almost missed the competition in Athens, arriving just as they were calling his name. He hopped, skipped, and jumped, and won the event. It made an inspiring story that the Boston newspapers liked to reprint every four years. Jim was accordingly the first athlete to win an event in the modern, revived, games. He also competed in the high jump, taking second, and the broad jump, taking third.
In 1896, the champion got a silver medal and a laurel wreath, second place got a bronze medal with a wreath, and third got nothing. Champ Jim came home and took to writing, which is how he came to be at the Post some 25 years later when he shook my hand. Besides Sunday articles, he did novels and nonfiction, all of it sea-related, and he did a book about Gloucester fishermen. His Olympic medal is with his books and papers in the special collections at Colby College library in Waterville, Maine.
Next comes Ed Gilligan. Ed showed up as a Post Sunday writer. He came home from Navy duty in 1918, and his father knew Sen. David I. Walsh of Irish persuasion. Somehow, the senator got Ed into Harvard.
I never knew how this was done but I surmise it had something to do with South Boston.
Things went well for Ed until he started French and found that the professor was named Gilligan. In the first class, Professor Gilligan called the roll, and when he came to Edmund Gilligan he shuddered and said, "Perhaps Mr. Gilligan will remain for a moment arfter clarss?" Ed told me he stayed after class and went forward to the desk and said, "You wished to see me, sir?"
"Ah, yes; I believe you and I share the same name."
"And what is that, sir?"
"I wonder if percharnse we're related?"
"I think not even remotely. sir!"
"Our brarnch of the family is the Wessex brarnch of the family."
"No, our branch is the Galway branch."
"Our brarnch is the High Church brarnch."
Student Gilligan said, "I think, sir, that our branch of the family would consider your branch of the family very low church indeed." Then student Gilligan bowed adieu and went across Harvard Yard to Administrations and went inside. He found all his Harvard Legacy classmates, with their little green felt book bags had preceded him and were waiting. To a man they rose, bowed, and gestured for him to go ahead. "Arfter you." they said. Ed Gilligan told me he went in to see the correct official, and said, "Two Gilligans in one room are one too much, I want to change professors."
This interested me, as Professor Gilligan taught just one year at Harvard and then went to teach at Bowdoin, where I studied French with him and found him a good teacher. He cried when he read Verlaine to us, and you can't fault that!
Ed Gilligan became a Post Sunday writer. He also wrote some sea novels: "I Name Thee Mara," (1946) and "White Sails Crowding" (1939) are two of his titles, both good reads with an Irish flavor as full of the blarney as South Boston.
Then came the star-crossing and Jim Connolly accused Ed Gilligan of stealing his salt water, haddock, and Gloucester stuff, and who threw the overalls in Mrs. Murphy's chowder? I had taken enough corned beef and cabbage with Ed Gilligan, so I was obliged to say I wouldn't wonder, but the matter was unresolved and Ed never confessed or denied. I know he did have his own talent and didn't need to purloin.
His valedictory novel was "My Earth, My Sea" (1959), a poignant tale about the wild horses on Sable Island. It's as good as anything Jim Connolly ever wrote.