A life’s cycle – Frank McNally on the death of Olympian Willie Dunne

The passing of Willie coincided with the passing of former Irish Times picture editor, Peter Thursfield

Four years ago last week, while walking along Dublin’s Parkgate Street, I noticed a familiar figure approaching slowly by bicycle.

Something persuaded me to film him as he passed, so I got out my iPhone and captured a 20-second video clip, subsequently posted on Twitter with the commentary: “People you see in Dublin. The man passing on bike here is Willie Dunne, who ran the 1960 Olympic Marathon in Rome. Multiple national champion, career best 2:14.35. Now 86 & proceeding at stately pace to Donore Harriers in Chapelizod, where he’ll probably run a few laps of the track.”

The clip went viral, enjoyed by people who knew Willie and by a far greater number who didn’t but were fascinated with the backstory of a diminutive stranger who many must have passed on this route over the years.

But there was also something elegiac about the spectacle even then. The light of a midwinter afternoon was fading. Night would soon fall on Phoenix Park, which loomed at the top of the incline Willie was wobbling up.


And he cut a heroic but also vulnerable figure as he rode into the sunset, his hi-viz jacket no guarantee of safety on the long straight of Conyngham Road, where drivers freed from the log-jam of the city quays tend to hit the accelerator.

I had seen Willie make that journey many times, from his lifelong home in the Iveagh flats to the running club, which was one part of a famous generation of distance runners, unbeatable in cross-country, especially.

But sad to say, I don’t think I ever saw him do it again. Unbeknown to either of us in December 2019, a Phoenix-Park-sized pandemic also loomed in the near distance, which would soon force even Willie indoors.

Two years later, along with a friend, I visited him in his flat. At 88, he was still staying fit, but now mainly on an exercise bike.

He retained the physique of the featherweight boxer he used to be, before and after discovering a running talent when invading the gentlemen’s preserve of college athletics to win an open race at Trinity Park in 1949.

He also retained a lifetime of colourful memories, including one from Rome in which he borrowed the gold medal of Cassius Clay (later Muhammad Ali) and issued a challenge to the man twice his size: “I’ll box you for it.”

I’m glad to say my short video clip was central to a tribute Donore paid to him when celebrating the 60th anniversary of his becoming an Olympian. But it was a poignant coincidence that last Friday, exactly four years after it was taken, the club announced Willie’s death the previous day, aged 90.

It’s not all glamour, journalism... There are 50 days like yesterday when there’s nothing more exciting in the diary than lunch with the Superbra model

I made only part of his funeral on Monday because, by bad luck, it coincided exactly with another I needed to attend.

So having caught the start of one at the church of St Nicholas of Myra in the Liberties, I jumped on a Dublin Bike and cycled out to Terenure College for the end of the other, thereby also saying goodbye to a much-loved former Irish Times picture editor, Peter Thursfield.

Long before I joined this paper, Peter had served it in troubled times. One of his more famous pictures adorns the cover of a fine recent book, The Kidnapping, by Ronan McGreevy and Tommy Conlan, capturing the dramatic moment Don Tidey was rescued from IRA captivity in 1983.

But Peter saw quieter times as well, sometimes too quiet. There’s a funny documentary clip in the RTÉ archive of him and interviewer Eamonn McCann, during a slow news day in 1984, staking out a magpie’s nest. The result was an avian Waiting for Godot. Nothing happened, at great length.

It must have been a similarly quiet day in 1998 that as a young(ish) colour reporter, I was dispatched to cover a story, the first paragraph of which later ran as follows: “It’s not all glamour, journalism. For every dramatic court case and cliffhanging election county, there are 50 days like yesterday when there’s nothing more exciting in the diary than lunch with the Superbra model.”

Of course, I was joking. My assignment to interview the lovely Brenda Schad, an American of Choctaw-Cherokee heritage whose face was rumoured to have inspired Disney’s Pocahontas, remains a career highlight.

It would have been even better if Peter, who arrived midway through lunch in a packed Elephant & Castle, had taken a picture of me with her, as happens celebrity journalists.

Instead, for some strange reason, he was focused exclusively on the Wonderbra model. And on his brief. As he put it to my guest, in a cheeky Geordie accent that survived the rest of him going native in Terenure: “Can we get a shot of the… product?”

He didn’t mean there in the middle of the cafe (I think). But it didn’t matter. As the model explained with great dignity, she had done the product photo shoot earlier. This was a fully clothed event. It was the magpie shoot all over again, although at least on this occasion, he ended up with what photographers call a “head-and-shoulders”.