‘Irishman wins Boston, trains on beer’: Remembering the Irish success in the world’s oldest annual marathon

Three Irishmen have triumphed in the race. The last winner, Neil Cusack, has been invited back to mark the 50th anniversary of his 1974 victory

Just like any pivotal moment in Irish athletics history I can remember exactly where I was and what I was doing. Standing among the crowds on the footpath outside Boston College, most of us students and some half-drunk already, waiting for John Treacy to try his winning move.

It was 1991, Patriots’ Day – always the third Monday of April – and we’d come up on the train from Providence that morning, reliably informed by Treacy himself this was the best spot to watch the Boston Marathon unfold. Right around the 21-mile mark and coming off Boston’s notorious Heartbreak Hill, a series of four rolling hills coming out of Newton.

Treacy was in his running prime, and except for his Olympic marathon silver medal from Los Angeles in 1984, this was the race dearest to his heart, the one he tried his absolute hardest to win. It was his first marathon after those Olympics, in 1987, when he ran into trouble on Heartbreak Hill and pulled up with a crippling tight hamstring.

He was back again in 1988, running on short notice and breaking everyone except the African duo of Ibrahim Hussein and Juma Ikangaa, finishing third in 2:09.15, before finishing third again in 1989, after fervently giving his all.


So it was that when Treacy lined up for that fourth time, in 1991, his hopes of victory ended in that moment directly in front of us. After closing in on the lead group, he suddenly sat down on the kerb outside Boston College, clutching his right hamstring with one hand, covering his face with the other.

Treacy knew full well the honour and glory that comes with winning in Boston. Especially for an Irish winner. The world’s oldest annual marathon, it’s been running since 1897, the olive wreath placed on the winner’s head a direct link to the original Olympic marathon, in 1896, which inspired that first race the following year.

There’s timely reminder of all that around this Monday’s race, with Neil Cusack, the last Irish winner of the Boston Marathon in 1974, invited back to act as the official race starter for the now 30,000 runners – strictly limited! – to mark the 50th anniversary of his victory.

Cusack’s win in 1974 is one of the many legendary tales of Boston, the then 22-year-old from Limerick a student at East Tennessee State University, part of the famed Irish Brigade that were dominating US collegiate distance running at the time.

In November of 1972, Cusack won the NCAA cross country title in Houston, Texas, helping the East Tennessee team – which also consisted of Irish runners Eddie and PJ Leddy, Ray McBride, Kevin Breen and Frank Greally – to finish second.

Cusack was, by all accounts, a machine when training, never letting up. The harder the run, the better, and his thin frame, fleshed out only by his bushy hair and trim beard, was naturally built for the marathon.

During his final year at East Tennessee, he decided he would try Boston, in part to help earn his selection for the European Championships in Rome that June. Despite his young age, it wasn’t his debut at the classic distance. At 19 he flew down to Atlanta to race in the Peach Tree Marathon, “for the craic”, finishing in 2:16, a then world record for a teenager.

The college paid his way to Boston and that was it. There was no appearance fee in those days, certainly no prize money either. No one had great expectations from Cusack, except for himself, and for good luck, he spent the night before the race sewing a green shamrock to the front of his St Bernard-brand vest.

After just six miles he found himself in front, and by halfway was already running a minute clear of the rest. Surviving the infamous Heartbreak Hill, Cusack arrived home a comfortable winner in 2:13.39 – the second fastest time in the then 78th running of Boston. The picture of him crossing the finish line guarded by Boston Police motorcycles remains suitably iconic.

The 22-year-old was immediately feted as a local hero, as well he should, and given that legendary status when famed American broadcaster Walter Cronkite asked Cusack live on CBS Evening News how he proposed to celebrate his victory, to which he replied: “By drinking lashings of porter.”

That in turn gave the New York Daily News tabloid their perfect headline for the following day: “Irishman wins Boston, trains on beer.”

Word of this celebratory method promptly spread, and before Cusack left Boston he later recalled members of the strong Irish community there stuffing $10 and $20 bills into his pockets, telling him to have another beer on them.

Cusack went on to achieve plenty more in distance running. A two-time Olympian, he ran the World Cross Country 13 times, and in 1981 became the second winner of the Dublin Marathon.

He also returned to run Boston a few times, finishing 20th as recently as 1986, running 2:21:24, when Rob de Castella won in 2:07.51. For all that, his 1974 victory remains his crowning moment, even if he missed on the big paydays of recent editions. The first man and woman home this Monday each get €150,000, from the total Boston prize pot of $1.2 million.

Part of his legend is that he remains “the only champion from Ireland in race history”, according to the Boston Marathon’s own race programme, although that is not strictly true.

Not taking anything from his achievement, Cusack was the third Irish runner to win Boston. John Lordan, born in Bandon in 1884 before emigrating to Boston and living in Cambridge, won the 1903 race (and there’s a monument in Bandon to mark that achievement).

Honourable mention must also go to Boston’s first winner John McDermott, whose parents were Irish, as were the parents of John Caffrey, who won in 1900 and 1901, and Thomas Morrissey, who won in 1908.

Then in 1914, the race was won by Jimmy Duffy, who was born in Sligo in 1890, raised in Scotland, before moving to Canada. Duffy briefly ran as a professional, losing his first race to Édouard Fabre, also from Canada.

He then enlisted in the Canadian army at the outbreak of the first World War, joined the 91st Argyll Regiment and subsequently transferred to the 16th Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force.

Duffy was killed in a charge against the Germans in the Second Battle of Ypres on April 23rd, 1915, eight days before his 25th birthday and four days after Fabre won the 1915 Boston Marathon.

And that’s the truth of it all.