Madrid, SpainIreland celebrated perhaps the greatest day in its athletics history with a gold medal double at the 28th European Indoor Championships in Madrid, last night.
In the 27 previous editions of the event, the Republic had won just five titles, but David Gillick and Alistair Cragg made mining gold look easy when they won the 400 and 3000 metres respectively in the space of less than an hour.
The pair could hardly have emerged from more contrasting backgrounds.
Gillick – a fairytale
Gillick is steeped in the culture of his country, brought up in a family which cares passionately about the Gaelic Athletic Association. This has nothing to do with track and field, but traditional team sports. For him this meant playing Gaelic football, a robust handling, kicking, and tackling game akin to rugby and Australian rules. It's not for the faint-hearted, and it surely equipped him well for a bruisingly physical 400m final.
”I'm sure my dad would like to think it played a part in my victory here,” said the Dublin student after his 46.30-second run denied the overwhelming Spanish favourite, David Canal.
As appropriate in a land where some folk still admit to a belief in fairies (and a great many more would never dare deny the existence of "The Little People") there was magic in this day of days. Four Irish leprechauns were in the stand at the Palacio de Deportes: Gillick's mother, father, sister, and girl friend, all dressed in the costume of the fairy gnomes.
Just 21, and a Dublin student of management and logistics, he is the first Irish winner of a major title at this distance since Bob Tisdall won over the one lap hurdles at the first Los Angeles Olympics, in 1932.
Cragg – an athletics diamond
Cragg is Irish by way of the USA, where his athletics was nurtured at the University of Arkansas, South Africa, where he was born (living at 6000 feet in Johannesburg), and London, where he once wandered homeless for a while.
His great grand parents emigrated from Dublin and Killarney, to work the diamond fields. His grandmother, he says, was born underground when her mother worked as a miner in Kimberley almost 100 years ago.
He jokes that his ancestors could not have been very successful: "or I wouldn't be trying to make a living out of athletics."
Now he looks set to mine a rich seem of talent, judging by the commanding manner of a 3000m victory which unravelled the hopes of another Spanish favourite, multiple European champion Reyes Estevez. "I look forward to winning many more medals for Ireland," said Cragg, clutching the tricolour after winning in 7:46.32, with Estevez out-sprinted for silver by former champion John Mayock.
Yet being an Irishman was not always his ambition.
The first time the 24-year-old set foot on Irish soil was in 1999 - his international debut appearance at the World Cross Country Championships in Belfast, Northern Ireland. He was representing South Africa. His first visit to the Irish Republic was last year, when he went to collect his Olympic accreditation for Athens. There, he reached the 5000m final, and was
first finisher representing a European country.
He had always had an Irish passport, courtesy of the grandparents, as he explained to Irish journalist Ian O'Riordan during an amazing 24-hour visit to Dublin to collect his Irish credentials.
His family had left South Africa during apartheid, though his dad, Raymond had won a medal at 3000m in the South African championships, and three of his sons all ran.
However there was a tragic episode in which his 16-year-old younger brother Andrew died seven months after a suicide attempt, and the family returned to London.
Alistair Cragg had dropped out of Southern Methodist University in the USA, in 2001, and returned to England. He admits he was "badly lost". He went back to his parents for a while, but could not settle. "I ended up roaming around London," he said. "I'd spend one or two nights a week with my brother, and the rest of the time at friends' houses."
In desperation he turned to running for salvation, and went back to the USA. A chance meeting in Texas with John O'Donnell, a County Mayo exile who had coached legendary Irish runner Frank O'Mara, led to O'Donnell becoming his coach. He told him he had promise, and became a father figure, nurturing his protege to seven NCAA titles.
But there was little clue to Cragg's Irish background, for this courteous young man's accent is profoundly South African.
Now, he plans to run the short race at the World Cross Country Championships, and hopes to make his mark on the Africans. After all, he already has the scalp of Ethiopia's iconic young Olympic gold medallist and multiple World Cross champion, Kenenisa Bekele.
What seems certain is that we shall hear much more of Cragg and Gillick, if they continue to weave their Irish magic.
Doug Gillon for the IAAF