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Original Issue

Mr. McDonough's Magic Shovel

How SPORTS ILLUSTRATED'S description of Miler Ronnie Delany's welcome home to Ireland inspired a certain telephone call and set off a whole series of adventures involving people, shovels, aircraft and the fate of old Erin

For the second time in six months, thanks to the great Irish miler, Ronnie Delany, I found myself high over the Atlantic, staring out the plane window, looking down on the clouds that hid the sea below. I had tried to sleep in a berth forward, but I couldn't. There was too much to think about: large, wonderful thoughts that grew in the mystical beauty of the night. Suspended in space and time, I gave myself freely to a dream. The son of a County Clare man, I felt that I was returning to the Old Country in the vanguard of a crusade to rescue modern Ireland from the troubles that sorely beset her. Savoring the fancy, I thought back over the way in which it had all come about.

One day I received a telephone call from a man who introduced himself as Bernard P. McDonough of Parkersburg, West Virginia. He said he had read SPORTS ILLUSTRATED'S account of Ronnie Delany's welcome home to Ireland last December (A New Irish Hero Goes Home, SI, Jan. 21, 1957). He was calling me, he went on, as one who had recently visited over there and, presumably, had more up-to-date impressions of the country than his own.

Mr. McDonough said that, as the grandson of a County Galway man, he was distressed by reports that he read about Ireland's economic plight. He understood that young people were leaving the country in great numbers because of lack of employment opportunities. He had thought about the problem so much, Mr. McDonough said, that now he was seriously considering starting some kind of business in Ireland in order to give jobs and perhaps set an example that other American businessmen might follow.

I asked Mr. McDonough what his business interests were.

He said he had a number of interests, including the largest shovel factory in the world.

I asked him to repeat that.

Mr. McDonough did and explained that the largest shovel factory in the world was the O. Ames Company of Parkersburg, founded in 1774, presently turning out 10,000 shovels (1,800 varieties) every day.

Did that mean, I asked, that he proposed to start a shovel factory in Ireland?

Possibly so, he said.

We chatted on and discovered we had a lot in common. My mother, Margaret O'Connor, was born in West Virginia, not 60 miles from where Mr. McDonough was now speaking. Moreover, it developed, both Mr. McDonough's grandfather and mine had helped to build the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad through West Virginia, and, we agreed, had almost certainly done so with Ames shovels.

Abruptly, Mr. McDonough asked me the question that was the real reason for his call.

"Tell me frankly out of what you have observed," he said. "Will the Irish in Ireland work?"

I asked him to hold the phone. I got up and closed the office door. Returning to my desk, I picked up the phone and said:

"Mr. McDonough, that is a question I would not care to discuss over the long distance wire. It is a very delicate question. Let me say simply that there is a lot of Guinness Stout brewed in Ireland, for one thing, and somebody must I have to work to brew it."

Mr. McDonough agreed that the question could not be answered offhand. We came to a decision: on Mr. McDonough's next visit to New York, we would have lunch and confer further. Or if, by chance, I was ever in the vicinity of Parkersburg, I would call him.

Events moved swiftly. Not long after my first talk with Mr. McDonough, a fortuitous circumstance sent me to West Virginia, and I found myself being ushered into Mr. McDonough's office. As I entered, he was talking through a box on his desk to a ship's captain who was in the Gulf of Mexico bound for Venezuela, where Mr. McDonough has a marine business. As I waited for the conversation to be concluded, I observed Mr. McDonough out of the corner of my eye and judged him (correctly) to be in his early 50s, a man of average height, with thinning, but still brown hair, the suspicion of an Irish twinkle in his eyes, a habit of raising his eyebrows and tightening his lips when he was listening and half smiling when he was speaking. When the ship-to-shore talk ended, Mr. McDonough jumped up, shook hands and announced that he was taking the rest of the day off to show me around.

Where shovels rule

It was a great day. We toured a number of plants, but the most astonishing was the O. Ames Company, the shovel factory. In my city man's ignorance, I had believed the shovel to be obsolete. Now, standing on the floor of the Ames main plant, I had the feeling that shovels rule the world. There were shovels everywhere amid the din and clatter of the machinery; there was every kind of shovel imaginable: shovels to dig holes for telephone poles; wide shovels, narrow shovels, long-handled and short-handled shovels, even a shovel to shovel fish. Shovels were being molded, hammered, pounded, stamped, shined; everything that can be done to a shovel was being done.

I stopped at one assembly line to watch a man whose job it was to stand before a parade of shovels, and as each one reached him to take a nail in his left hand and hit it a single blow with the hammer he held in his right. He had one chance and one blow before the shovel moved on. If he missed, the whole operation would be thrown off. In secret dismay, I thought of a cousin of mine over in Ireland and how he might, given just such a job, exclaim at precisely the wrong instant: "Now wait till I spit on me hands!" Chaos would surely result.

I moved along and watched another man. He faced a battery of machines arranged in a semicircle. One machine delivered a molten shovel which the man took and, whirling and posturing like José Greco, the Spanish dancer, he thrust it in the other machines, one after the other, to stamp and shape it. His final act was to fling the shovel from him in a gesture as graceful as a ballet figure; then, without pause, he started all over again. I could hear my Irish cousin as he went through this procedure just once: "Ah, life's too short! T'hell with it!"

As we started for the executive dining room, Mr. McDonough pointed to a spot on the factory floor where he had worked as a boy for 15¢ an hour.

At lunch with the production men and some of the sales people, Mr. McDonough raised the question of manufacturing shovels in Ireland. He mentioned that he knew of a factory in Galway that might be acquired and modernized. The production men said it was possible to manufacture shovels in Ireland, all right, but pointed out that both wood and metal would have to be imported and the finished product would have to be exported, the Irish domestic market being inadequate for a profitable operation. The place to build a shovel factory outside the United States, said one production man, was Puerto Rico. Mr. McDonough nodded and the subject was dropped.

A great depression came over me at the mention of Puerto Rico, and I could not shake it even after we drove out to the Ohio River and went for a cruise on one of the tugboats operated by a sand and gravel company Mr. McDonough owns. As I stood at the rail of the tug, looking at the green banks of the historic Ohio of Lincoln and Boone, I was reminded suddenly of the River Shannon. I turned to my host:

"Mr. McDonough," I said, "coming to Parkersburg has been a most rewarding experience. I have been fascinated by the shovel manufacturing process, and I have always wanted to ride on a tugboat. This is one of the great days of my life."

Mr. McDonough appeared to be mildly embarrassed by the intensity of my gratitude.

"But, sir," I went on, "I have just been thinking. To whom do I owe thanks for this delightful adventure? To you, of course, but other than you, to whom? To some Puerto Rican sprinter? To some Puerto Rican putter of the shot, some pole vaulter, hurdler, jumper?"

Mr. McDonough took off his hat and waved it to the captain at the wheel, signaling a return to the sand and gravel company dock.

"We are here together at the rail of this tugboat," I said firmly, "thanks to no Puerto Rican, but thanks to the greatest runner of the mile in all Ireland's history, Ronald Michael Delany. Had he not won in the Olympics, I would not have written the story about him and had I not written the story about him you would not have called me in the first place."

"What are you driving at?" asked Mr. McDonough.

"The talk at lunch about starting a factory in Puerto Rico," I said. "I hope it will not divert you from your plan to help Ireland."

Mr. McDonough raised a hand to shield his eyes as the tugboat turned into the sun.

"We'll see," he said. "We'll see."

Back at the dock we got into Mr. McDonough's car and drove to a sandlot where his son, Bernard Jr., 15, was pitching in a pickup game. We watched for a while, then drove to Mr. McDonough's home and met his daughter, Mary, who is 14. As we sat on a side porch with some refreshments, Mrs. McDonough, blonde and slender, a former schoolteacher in Parkersburg, drove up and joined us. She had been out at the country club practicing the Ben Hogan golf lessons. Mr. McDonough proposed that the three of us go back to the club for dinner.

The proper thing to do

After dinner we sat for a long time discussing Ireland. Mr. McDonough said that, seriously speaking, the proper way to go about starting an enterprise in Ireland was to send a team of experts in to survey the manufacturing possibilities and then to study their recommendations. "However," said Mr. McDonough as we parted at the end of the evening, "it might be useful to fly over there some weekend and talk to a few people and get the feel of the place again. I'll give you a call one of these days, and we'll run over for two or three days."

Back in New York, heartland of doubletalk, where "Let's lunch one day" may well mean "I hope I never see your face again," I decided to close the books on a pleasant adventure. I reported to my superior for assignment and was promptly sent to New Jersey to cover a luncheon at which the guest of honor was a dog, an English setter named Rock Falls Colonel (The Colonel Retires, EVENTS & DISCOVERIES, SI, June 3).

Two days later I received an airmail special delivery from Mr. McDonough in which he said that he found himself free for the coming weekend and had taken the liberty of making two reservations for Ireland on TWA Flight No. 862 leaving Idlewild Airport in New York at 2:30 p.m. on Thursday. He said he would fly to New York in his own plane, a twin-engine Cessna. "If convenient," wrote Mr. McDonough, "meet me at the TWA check-in counter one hour before departure time."

I picked up the telephone and called the New York law firm of Satterlee, Warfield & Stephens and asked to speak to one of the partners, Mr. Francis W. H. Adams. I was calling Mr. Adams for two reasons: 1) he is a member of the board of directors of the American Irish Historical Society and so has certain contacts with the Old Country; 2) as former Police Commissioner of New York City, he is a hard man to startle.

Happily, Mr. Adams was free for lunch. I waited until we had finished our fricassee of chicken to bring him up to date on what had been happening. I showed him Mr. McDonough's letter. Mr. Adams blanched, but the color returned to his face almost immediately. He cleared his throat.

"This project," he said, "strikes me as being eminently sensible. I will confess that, at first impact, the teaming up of an American industrialist and a sportswriter for the purpose you describe does seem a trifle irregular. However, upon reflection, I can see that your recent trip to Ireland with Ronnie Delany may have equipped you with certain information and contacts that will assist Mr. McDonough in his larger plan. Suffice it to say, I shall be happy to support the enterprise in any way I can. I think, first of all, the Irish government should be alerted. I'll get off an airmail letter this afternoon and send you a copy."

Mr. Adams was as good as his word. At 4:10 p.m. a Verifax copy of his letter was laid on my desk. It was addressed to the Irish Industrial Authority, a government agency in Dublin. It described the purpose of our visit and identified Mr. McDonough as "an important American industrialist and a man of substance," and mentioned that I was a sportswriter. Mr. Adams concluded his letter by saying that we would be available at the Gresham Hotel in Dublin on the following Saturday.

On Thursday, the day of our scheduled take-off for Ireland, I was up at 5 a.m. although the plane did not leave until 2:30 in the afternoon. I was thinking hard. Being realistic about it, I had to admit that the weekend in Ireland, by itself, could have no lasting benefits to the Irish economy. But I felt that even a weekend could be turned to Ireland's advantage if somehow it could be made symbolic of greater things to come. I chewed the word symbolic and reduced it to symbol. If a symbol could be found....

Suddenly struck, I hurried to my file of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED and turned to the January 21 issue with the story of Ronnie Delany's homecoming after his Olympic victory. Feverishly I searched for the paragraph I only half remembered. And there it was: Ronnie himself addressed a meeting of Dublin's leading citizens, a meeting that had been called by Ireland's foremost promoter of amateur athletics, Billy Morton.

"My Lord Mayor and gentlemen [said Ronnie]. Naturally, I am very pleased at the interest my victory in the Olympics has aroused here at home. But, gentlemen, while it's all very well for people to be interested and be clapping me on the back and shaking my hand, what I would really like them to do to show their appreciation for my little part at Melbourne is something constructive, and the constructive thing I want to see is the building of a cinder track.... Billy Morton has taken a wonderful step in acquiring a site that I believe to be the finest in the world.... Gentlemen, I have found to my own detriment that I cannot train on grass alone.... This cinder track is not something for me personally, it isn't for Billy Morton personally. This is something for all Ireland, something for our capital city of Dublin to be proud of—our own cinder track."

I had my idea. I hurried to the telephone (it was now 9:30 a.m.) and called TWA headquarters at Idlewild and asked for Mr. James Cahill, a young man whose forebears came from County Clare. He was free for lunch.

In the Brass Rail restaurant at the airport, I waited until we had finished our pastrami sandwiches before saying to Mr. Cahill:

"Jim, I wonder if you would be good enough to consult with your people and sound them out on their willingness to cooperate in a project aimed at promoting understanding and friendship between two nations."

Mr. Cahill took a sip of coffee.

"What two nations?" he said.

"The U.S.," I said, "and Free Ireland."

Mr. Cahill fumbled for a cigaret. I held out a match for him. He took a deep drag and blew the smoke at the ceiling.

"I don't have to consult with my people," he said, "to answer your question in general terms. Of course my company is always ready and eager to promote friendship and understanding between the two countries you have named. What, specifically, would you ask us to do?"

I waited until the waitress had taken our plates away. Then I leaned forward.

"Jim," I said lowering my voice, "the details of this matter have not been settled as yet. But what I might ask you to do is fly a shovel to Ireland."

Some smoke from Mr. Cahill's cigaret caught in his throat at that moment, and he took a fit of coughing. I raised up in my chair and signaled the waitress for a refill of the water glasses. The waitress hurried over with a pitcher and, after taking a sip, Mr. Cahill recovered his composure.

"Excuse me," he said.

"As I was saying, Jim," I went on. "This matter would involve flying a shovel to Ireland. I don't mean air express or anything like that. I mean that the shovel would have to be handed over to the steward or purser of the plane and handled by him personally. Then, at Shannon Airport, there would have to be somebody waiting with a fast motorcar to take the shovel to Dublin, where your man there would take it and deliver it to Mr. Billy Morton at No. 10 Berkeley Street. Or maybe it should be delivered to the Lord Mayor's mansion, I'll let you know."

I leaned back in my chair.

"Am I making sense, James?" I asked.

Mr. Cahill nodded, staring at his hands. Then he looked up and said:

"Would it be out of order for me to ask what flying a shovel to Ireland has to do with promoting understanding and friendship between the two nations?"

I shook my head.

"I cannot tell you any more at this present time, Jim," I said. "What it boils down to is this: if a shovel is delivered to you here at Idlewild in the next few days, you just hold on to it until you hear from me. Clear?"

"Well," said Mr. Cahill, "no. But I'll go along with this thing in the hope that it will become clear later on."

"Believe me, it will, James," I said.

I called for the check and we walked out of the Brass Rail and over to the TWA check-in counter. Mr. McDonough was there waiting. In a little while our flight was announced and we went aboard the plane and soon were out over the sea, flying nonstop to Ireland.

Thinking back over all this on the plane, I had fallen asleep in my seat. Now I felt myself being shaken. I opened my eyes and there was Mr. McDonough, dressed and shaved.

"We're landing at Shannon," he said.

I looked out the window and there it was rushing up at me: the wonderful green of the Old Country. The Irish Adventure was beginning.







After reading this report of Ron Delany's homecoming, Bernard McDonough picked up telephone.

Writer of Delany story made a pilgrimage to West Virginia to discuss plans to help Ireland.

Meeting with writer, he proposed a weekend visit to Ireland for a preliminary study of conditions.

Ex-Police Commissioner of New York, he alerted Irish government to the landing at Shannon.

TWA man at Idlewild airport in New York, he pledged help in flying a shovel across to Ireland.

Promoter of amateur athletics in Dublin, he was cast for an important role in glorious shovel plan.

The then Lord Mayor of Dublin was also marked to play a part in the weekend survey of Ireland.


In Part II Gerald Holland tells how McDonough searched out his answers, and what Billy Morton and the Lord Mayor said and what they did, and of the great blessing the shovel brought to Erin.