A few years ago, there was a certain GAA official in East Clare who had a unique way of refereeing. Not only did he never tog out, he often wore his overcoat.
The poor man was far from the first flush of youth and not very mobile, so he simply stood in the middle of the field and conducted his business from there.
We thought this would never be seen anywhere else but it seems it could occasionally happen.
Noel Purcell captained Lansdowne Rugby Club, played for the Barbarians and won four caps with Ireland in the 1921. When his playing days ended, he took up refereeing and was eventually named as an international referee.
As a referee, he was not as fast around the field as he had been as a player. Nevertheless, he was named in charge for the 1927 Calcutta Cup match between England and Scotland.
He cannot have exerted himself because The Times summed up his performance in a simple sentence, “NM Purcell from Ireland refereed casually and from a great distance.” He gave up refereeing shortly afterwards but continued his involvement in the administrative side of the game and served as an Irish selector.
Noel Purcell should not be remembered simply as an unfit referee. He was an all–round sportsman. He was Irish half–mile swimming champion for a number of years, won his first Irish cap for water polo in 1912 and went on to represent the country until 1930.
This sport and the Olympics are his main claim to fame. He possibly has a unique place in the annals of Olympic history as he is more than likely the first person ever to represent two different countries at the summer Olympic Games.
We only had our own Olympic team from the 1924 Games onwards. Prior to the formation of the State, Irishmen had won numerous Olympic medals but under the flags of other countries.
We were still part of the United Kingdom and home–based athletes competed on the British team.
In actual fact, at the special anniversary games in 1906, two athletes, Patrick O’Connor and Con Leahy, objected to the British flag being flown during their medal ceremonies and waved their own green flag. O’Connor went as far as climbing the flagpole in the centre of the arena.
Purcell had been a member of the United Kingdom team in 1920. With the formation of the Olympic Council of Ireland, he represented Ireland in 1924.
In 1920, seven English swimmers were selected for the United Kingdom water polo team. In their final match before the games an ‘others’ team made up of swimmers from Ireland, Scotland and Wales defeated the English team on a 6– 0 scoreline.
The selectors were forced to make some changes and one of those brought into the team was 28–year–old Dublin solicitor Noel Purcell.
The improved team was a huge success and won gold at the games in Paris. Two years later, the Olympic Council of Ireland was formed and then in 1924 Purcell captained his country.
Noel Mary Joseph Purcell, a man who captained Ireland at the 1924 Olympic Games having previously won a gold medal with Britain, died in Dublin on January 31, 1962 – 50 years ago this week.