10 Aug 2022

Offaly sporting hero passes away in the United States

Colman Mooney in the USA in 1962.

Colman Mooney in the USA in 1962.

The death occurred in Florida recently of Colman Mooney, a noted athlete and native of Rahan parish who lived in the United States for more than six decades.

Born in Lynally on November 11, 1939, Colman was the eighth of Jeremiah and Brigid Mooney’s 12 children. A large family in Ireland in that era was never likely to be immune to emigration and, having initially been due to move to South Africa, Colman instead left for New York, aged 20, in 1960.

Although a keen hurler in his youth, it was in athletics where Colman’s sporting prowess shone brightest.

Colman grew up in Lynally, not far from Mucklagh where there was a powerful running climate in the 1950s and 1960s. The Neville's and Mooney's were neighbours of each other and members of both families had excellent runners. Mick Neville was one of Offaly's greatest athletes and Colman Mooney's running achievements were also attention grabbing.

A St Colman's Athletics Club was based in the Lynally/Mucklagh area in the 1950s/1960s while Tullamore Harriers was formed in 1953. The transfer of some St Colman's athletes into Tullamore Harriers in the late 1950s created friction at that time with Mick Neville among those who moved – Colman Mooney and Mick Neville were second cousins.

This led to a feud between the Harriers and the County Board and it all culminated with a famous row dubbed “the battle of Tallaght” at the Leinster Cross Country Championships in 1961. Tullamore Harriers were suspended for a year, later reduced to six months, as a result of this. Colman, before his 1960 emigration, and some of his brothers ran for Tullamore Harriers and were cherished members of the club at that time – Colman ran with Tullamore Harriers from the mid 1950s, when still a teenager, until 1960. Mick Neville transferred to Donore Harriers in the wake of that 1961 suspension as he chased qualification for the 1964 Olympics while a number of other great runners went abroad in that 1960-1962 period, breaking up a fantastic running team.

A skilled carpenter with a voracious appetite for work, Colman was a proud member of the carpenters’ unions in New York City and South Florida, where he moved to in 1971. He later returned to New York before finally settling in Florida in retirement.
When running in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx in the early 60s, he met with Pete McArdle, a native of Co Louth who emerged as one of the outstanding long-distance runners in the US, representing his adopted country at the 1963 Pan-American Games in Brazil, where he won the gold medal in the 10,000m, as well as the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, when he finished 23rd in the marathon.

McArdle effectively took Colman under his wing as they trained intensely together. In 1962 he was accepted into the prestigious New York Athletic Club as a representative on their national team and, that same year, he won the New York City Winter Series Four-Mile Run.

The following year he was runner-up in the National Championship One-Hour Run in Washington DC, where places were determined by the distance participants covered over 60 minutes, with Colman completing 11 and a quarter miles.
Also in 1963, he won the The National American Marathon at Macombs Dam Park in New York in a superb personal best time of two hours, 29 minutes. For context, that time would have comfortably secured a finish in the top half of the field in the Olympic Marathon in Tokyo the following year.

Colman was just 22 when setting that time and with marathon runners generally peaking between the age of 30 and 35, the Mexico Olympics in 1968 were a legitimate target. However, a power struggle between the athletics federations in the US at the time saw some athletes marginalised and Colman had the misfortune to be aligned with a less influential body.

With a young family to care for, competitive running became less of a priority, though he secured a very creditable fifth place finish at the US Cross Country Championships in Gainesville in 1975, when a top three placing would have secured a spot on the national cross country team.

Once his family was reared, Colman returned to competition, regularly winning age group events, and represented both the US and Ireland across a total of four appearances at the World Masters Games between 1995 and 2001, competing in New York, South Africa, England and Australia. In the 1995 games in Buffalo, he came in 10th in the marathon in two hours 56 minutes at the age of 55, though his time two years later was near seven minutes quicker, while he also posted impressive times in the 5,000m and 10,000m – he ran 2.49 when finishing fifth in the over 55s section of the marathon at the World Masters Games in Durban, South Africa in 1997 while he ran 16.10 in the track 5,000 metres. He proudly wore the Tullamore Harriers' vest in some of these World Masters Games.

One of his finest athletic feats, and a reflection of Colman’s iron-willed determination, was his performance at the formidable Comrades Marathon in Durban, South Africa in 2004. The world’s largest and oldest ultramarathon, run over some 55 miles across ‘The Big Five’ set of hills in the KwaZulu-Natal province, he completed the course in 10 hours and 10 minutes at the age of 64. 

His visits home to Ireland were frequent and highly anticipated and often with his children and grandchildren in tow. Colman had an innate ability to bring the many strands of the vast Mooney clan together, organising several family reunions over the years. 

Ultimately, his family was his pride and joy and his sporting aptitude has been inherited, particularly by his grandchildren, four of whom are on athletics scholarships, with others showing great promise in triathlon and swimming. In February, his first great-grandchild, Owen Romanello, was born.

Sadly, Colman suffered with the rare Lewy Body dementia over the past decade. The illness presents with symptoms similar to those of Parkinson’s disease and so it severely compromised his physical capabilities, a particularly cruel fate for one that was so active. 
However, early morning visits to the gym still formed part of his routine right up to four weeks before his passing and he was cared for with great compassion by his daughter Kate and her family.

He died on March 30, aged 81, and a memorial Mass was held on Friday last, April 9, at St Ignatius Catholic Church in Tarpon Springs, Florida, at which his son John and son-in-law Dan delivered moving eulogies, touching on the kindness, work ethic and deep religious faith that defined him.

His ashes will be returned to Ireland after the easing of Covid-19 restrictions.

Predeceased by his brother Lar and sister Margaret Bracken (Tullamore), Colman is survived by his daughter Kate Havican, sons Chris and John, son-in-law Dan, daughters-in-law Carrie and Kimberly, nine grandchildren, great-grandson, brothers Pat, Tommy Joe (both Lynally), Jer (Mucklagh), Mike (Killeigh), John (New York), sisters Liz Nolan, Mary Doody (both Tullamore), Breda Flaherty (Ferbane) and Tess Sheehy (Dublin) along with his many nieces and nephews.

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