Mid-Life Cycling

Mid-Life Cycling

02 May 2016

From An Olympic Race To A Run For Freedom: Michael Walker

To my knowledge, I do not have any Irish heritage.  So, perhaps, those of you who have any could forgive me for not writing about one of the definitive events in the history of Eireann and the role a cyclist played in it.

Last week marked 100 years since the Easter Rising, which took place from 24 to 30 April 1916.  It is seen as the first of a series of events that led to the declaration of the Irish Republic and the Irish War for Independence.

Four years before the Easter Rising, the fifth modern Olympics--and the last before World War I--were held in Stockholm, Sweden.  Despite objections from other countries, the British Olympic Association entered three teams in the cycling events:  one each from the separate English, Irish and Scottish governing bodies of the sport.

Michael Walker

Dublin native Michael Walker, who had begun racing only a year earlier, was chosen for the team. So was his brother John, three years younger. 

They, and the other riders, lined up for an individual time trial on the 7th of July.  Incredibly, that race--which would count toward individual and team medals-- was 315 kilometers (196 miles) long.  South African Rudolph Lewis won it with a time of 10 hours and 42 minutes. 

The Irish cycling team on their way to the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm

The Irish team finished 11th of the 15 teams that competed, and Michael and John finished 67th and 81st, respectively, in the individual competitions. 

The following year, Michael won the Irish 50-mile championship and set national records for 12 and 24 hours. 

Later in that same year, he attended the inaugural meeting of the Irish Volunteers, whose chief objective was to "secure and maintain the rights and liberties common to the whole people of Ireland."  Within two years, in Dublin, an armed insurrection erupted.  That rebellion would become the Easter Rising.

The insurgents occupied six strategic positions in the city of Dublin.  The Walker brothers were posted to one of them, the Jacob's Biscuit Factory, along with 150 men, under the command of Thomas MacDonagh, with Major John MacBride second in command.  As the fighting raged on, the Walkers would spend much of their time in a role that befit their cycling skills:  as couriers whisking messages across the city.

One of the Rising's most famous leaders, Eamon De Valera, held fort at Boland's Mill, which was under siege.  He sent an urgent request to Jacob's for help.  "Members of this garrison with bicycles were selected for this sortie including my brother John and myself and we left the buildings some time in the afternoon," Michael related in a witness statement. "We proceeded... as far as Holles Street where we dismounted and fired several volleys up toward Mount Street Bridge."

On their return, however, they "came under machine gun fire from the top of Grafton Street."   The brothers escaped unhurt, and their battalion would surrender on the 30th of April.  MacDonagh and MacBride, among others, were executed.  The Walkers would be arrested and sent to Stafford Jail.

Five years later, Michael would go on to fight in the War of Independence.  He would receive medals for that, as well as his involvement in the Easter Rising. He would live another half-century, dying at the age of 85 on 15 March 1971, less than a year before the Bloody Sunday massacre in Londonderry.

In an interesting twist of fate, Rudolph Lewis, who won that 1912 Olympic time trial, would--while the Walker brothers were doing their part for Irish independence--serve in the German Army during World War I, for which he was awarded the Iron Cross.

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