Tuesday 23 February 2010

Tuesday's throwback to old times

This week is my recovery week and as I am busy in work, I intend to use it. Yesterday I experimented with a much wider grip in the Snatch and it felt really comfortable. The only problem was that I found it even more difficult to keep my back locked. If I can sort this out, the wider grip would be ideal. I also Front squatted up to an easy single with 150 just to keep the legs active.

I got an email from the legend that is Jimmy Jennings and this is what he said:

Hi Barry,

I don't know if you have seen this piece. About 1984 or 1985 a group of old members of the Hercs had a get-together at a bar/club in Capel Street.
Myself, Patsy and Liam Stewart and a couple of other committee members were there. The ex-members who numbered about 10 or 12 were all in their late 60's and older. They most likely have all pased on now. I asked them to write up something about the old club. Some time later I received this piece from Eddie O'Regan. It was typed out on old type-script on flimsy paper. When I recently re-typed it I realized how well it was written. It's very funny and gives a flavour of the old club and the times. If you have not seen it I'm sure you'll enjoy it. Your piece on what it is like being a weightlifter reminded me.


Well, here is that article and I hope you will agree that it is both fascinating and very well written:


It was in the “Mail” one night, about 1937, that I came across a short letter that was to have a very important influence on my life. It was from the secretary of the Hercules Wrestling and Weightlifting Club, and advised that there were vacancies for new members. The address was at the rear of Ormond Quay, and I rambled along one night with a companion, to investigate. I had never heard of weightlifting up to this and hadn’t an idea what it was all about. But I was always interested in wrestling and was curious to see trained wrestlers in action.

With a friend I wandered down an ill-lit lane and came to a large shed built into the rear of a decrepit building facing the River Liffey. A wicket door was opened to our knock and I stepped into the club. I stopped dead at the first sight that held my eyes. A young man was standing on a low wooden platform, about five inches high, and was heaving overhead a great pile of iron. But what arrested my attention was, to my neophyte eyes, his superb physique. He wore only bathing trunks, his body was tanned and glistening with sweat, and muscles that I had never seen before, except in pictures of Greek athletes, were rippling and bulging under the taut skin. He let the heavy bar down to his shoulders, and in a quick motion dropped it to the floor with a great clanging of metal. It was probably meant to impress us. It certainly impressed me. I was an immediate and enthusiastic convert.

I joined the club that week and came three nights a week to work out, concentrating on weight training for the first few months. The premises were primitive. A wrestling ring took up half the floor area. The equipment consisted of Roman rings, a heavy punch bag, an abdominal board, and a small supply of weights and bars. There were no adjustable dumbbells, and only two or three impressive looking bells of about 50 or 60 lbs each. A few skipping ropes and a large fly-blown mirror practically completed the meagre fittings. A rough-looking cold shower had been fitted in a tiny compartment off the dressing room. That was the Hercules Club when I joined it but what it lacked in fittings it made up in enthusiasm, particularly among the few devoted founder-members who had built the whole thing themselves, from nothing. They had scraped and scrounged the few bits and pieces together practically out of thin air. Considering most of them were unemployed and there were no such thing as grants or loans for this sort of effort, it was a remarkable achievement. They had even constructed a collapsible stand that was generally stowed on the steel girders of the roof. It could be assembled for a “show” and could hold about fifty or sixty people on five or six tiers.

The members were a mixed lot, from various walks of life and every age. At this time, and for some years, this club was the only wrestling and weightlifting club in the twenty-six counties, as these sports had a minute following. The club, when I joined it, had one young doctor, a seaman, a plumber, a couple of fitters, a sprinkling of clerks, civil servants, a dustman, a few factory workers, electricians, musicians and one or two with their own business. The wrestling trainer, George Dale, was an Englishman who had been bantam-weight champion of England, a first-class wrestler. There was no instructor for weights. You pottered away by yourself, depending on whether you could get a bar or enough discs, and followed one of the Bob Hoffman courses pinned to the wall. After about six months of a strenuous routine on the bars I noticed a definite improvement in my physique and a remarkable feeling of well-being and glowing health.
It was a great delight to cycle to the club after tea, spend about two or three hours training, finishing with a short wrestling session to work up a sweat and ending with a cold shower that would send blood tingling through every vein in your body. Lively and varied discussions were held in the dressing room. Diet, exercise and tales of prowess in various sports were common, especially arguments about the relative merits of old-time boxers, wrestlers and strong men. The highlights of the careers of Tunney, Dempsey, Johnson, Fitzsimons, Max Baer, in boxing; Frank Gotch, Hackenschmidt, The Terrible Turk, The Gorgeous Greek, in wrestling; Louis Cyr, Sandow, Apollon,Charles Rigoulet, Arthur Saxon, in the iron game, and many others whose names I have forgotten. The American weightlifting magazine “Strength and Health” was in great demand, and copies were forever being swapped around among the weight enthusiasts.

There was always the danger of narcissism in the bodybuilding game, and particular care was taken to discourage and ridicule anyone who showed signs of the disease – spending long sessions in front of the mirror, preening and pirouetting and posing, along with exaggerated muscle fluttering. The emphasis was more on strength and ruggedness than the wasp waist and bat-latissimus types. They were vigorously discouraged. Another related passion of physical culture generally was the craze for sun tan. Once the warm weather came a number of young men chucked their job, if they had one, and spent their days basking on the rocks of Dollymount or Sandycove.

Instead of the rather aimless, though pleasant, rambling and cycling and picture-going I now gave three nights, and sometimes four,to weight-training and wrestling. I followed the bodybuilding courses assiduously and gradually worked my way into weightlifting proper. Every Saturday night myself and two other enthusiasts worked on the Olympic lifts, the press, the snatch and the clean and jerk. Although the two others were a stone or so heavier than I was, I managed to keep abreast of them and sometimes surpass their lifts. It was tremendously exhilarating to be working to ones limits, and every odd Saturday or so to put another 5lb or 10lb extra on the lift. Soon enough I was heaving overhead that magic 155lb that I had seen Al Seddon struggling with on the first night I had entered the club. I was about 136lbs bodyweight.

I kept a diary for those early years and entered the dates and poundages of all the different lifts as I pushed the limits slowly upwards, for we often varied the Saturday night programme by trying out lesser known lifts, the one- hand clean and jerk, one-hand snatch, the bent press and the two-hands anyhow. My weight increased slowly but my strength and stamina fairly rapidly. There was this incredible sense of well-being and superabundant vitality.
We put on a few outdoor shows. One, in Tolka Park, was a curtain-raiser to a wrestling match between Jack Doyle, the Gorgeous Gael, and some other behemoth whose name I have forgotten. So tyro though I was, I found myself demonstrating the Olympic lifts to a crowd of several hundreds. However, as nobody had a clue about weightlifting anyway, the sheer novelty of the thing went down well. The wrestling match between the pair mentioned was a shambles of the first order, as neither of the contestants had the faintest idea of the game and Doyle would have shoved his arse through a hoop for money at this stage of his career.

Another exhibition we did was on the invitation of some enterprising gent who was running a “fancy fair” in Rush in North County Dublin. He thought it a good advertisement to bill us around the town as “The Famous Weightlifting Team from the Hercules Club”. He offered a prize of 10 shillings to any local yokel who could lift the heaviest weight overhead. This, of course, was a great draw, for there was no surer way of attracting the young males of the rural scene than by a test of strength, as every circus manager knows well.

Well, it was quite a surprise to the few of us who travelled down by train to Rush (all fares paid, of course) to find, when we arrived, that a girl’s pipe-band had been hired to parade us in to town. And there we were, a bunch of excited young fellows marching up the main street of Rush to the tune of “all the priests of the parish won’t make me a nun”, while the juvenile population of Rush, and the canine one too, trotted along beside us, staring in wonder at the “rasslers” and strong men from far-away Dublin.

Arriving in the fair-ground we had to strip and dress in our gear under the make-shift platform. A few of us demonstrated the Olympic lifts. McSorely and another put on a rib-tickling “all-in” wrestling bout, where the yells and curses could be heard around the ground. And then, the big show, “The Strong Man Event” arrived. Unfortunately, the chap we had chosen as judge was hardly “sans peur et sans raproch”. He was an ex-army sergeant, a good fellow, but as rigid and unbending and adamant as an Ogham pillar. Tommy’s idea of the Olympic lifts would have excluded 90% of the World Champions, for if a little finger or a hair on the trapezius was out of line - - pouf! Disqualified. We had enough rows over his judging in the club, but here he was, standing with his tough, pugilistic eyes riveted on nervous locals who assayed the barbell, and dismissing them contemptuously one by one.

Frantic knocks were heard from underneath the platform as some of us tried to warn him, for imprecations and threats were being bandied around by the young bulls of Rush. But Tommy never deviated an iota from his Roman code. Finally, the strongest of the contestants had hoisted about 130lbs overhead, though of course, his arms were not locked and his body bent like a bow, his eyes popping out of his bucolic head and creases up his neck like the skin of a melodeon. Tommy said “NO”, it wasn’t a proper lift. When he put the weight down I thought that he was going to assault the judge. McSorely saw the way things were going and walked over to the sweating “strong man”. “THE WINNER” he cried, raising the chap’s hand high and a great round of applause broke out around the platform. Tempers subsided slowly as the “strong man” was handed his ten-shilling note, and a few of us led Tommy away who was still protesting, “it wasn’t a proper lift”.

“the Mail”. The Dublin Evening Mail was a popular newspaper up until the fifties.
Jack Doyle. The Gorgeous Gael was a professional heavyweight boxer of the forties and fifties. He married the film-star beauty Movita who later married Marlon Brando. He said that he could fight like Jack Dempsey and sing like John Mc Cormack. Dempsey himself said the reverse was true.
Tolka Park is the famous ground for soccer and other events.
The Tommy in question is, I believe, Tommy Dillon who in his final days was brought back to the club on a zimmerframe and with a leg amputated to do some exercises.
The George Dale cited was the founder of the Hercules Club in 1935. He probably returned to England some years later. He remains something of a man of mystery but the club he founded endured.


bigphathar said...

Great piece. And I'm sure I'm not the only one who thanks like that old Tommy sounds like our old Tommy. Perhaps there's something to the name?

75 years young this year; we've a lot to live up to.

Laura Nolan said...

PMSL, Harry I was just about to post the exact same comment.

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