Willie Morris is one of Ireland’s greatest runners and became a legend in his own lifetime. He was born in Newcastle, Athenry on 6 December 1919. His parents were Thomas and Catherine Morris and he was the eldest of 15 children. Willie attended the local national school at Newcastle. He played junior and intermediate hurling with Newcastle and Athenry. He was on the team that won the junior north board championship in 1948. That same year, Willie also captured a medal in 7-A-Side Hurling tournament beating Liam Mellows in the final. Also with Newcastle he won a county intermediate title in 1960. However, it was in running that Willie Morris became a household name. Given his great achievements it seems incredible that he only began running seriously in 1949 at 30 years of age. This was after Athenry set up a new running club and Morris decided to change his sporting career. Other clubs he represented include Kilconieron, Derrydonnell and Galway City Harriers. Over the years, Willie won four All-Ireland Individual Cross-Country Championships. The first of these was in Belfield in 1953; followed by Clonmel in 1956; Athenry in 1958 and in 1959 he won the championship in Dunleer. He was second in the 1957 championship. In fact, he took part in every All-Ireland senior championship between 1950 and 1971 and won a number of them. He won twenty-one county medals in a row in team and individual events. Willie won the national marathon in 1960 at Belfield. In 1969, he represented Ireland and travelled to Utrecht, Holland to take part in the European Veterans Championships. It was a proud moment for the country when he captured gold in 10 km cross-country and added a silver in 5 km cross-country event the following day. He feels that these were his greatest achievements.
Willie always ran cross-country races barefoot and believes that one can run much faster in this manner once you become accustomed to it. It was difficult to adapt to running shoes for Willie and many others like him. There was also a problem when trying to acquire running shoes as they were not easily available in the early days and runners had to send away for them. Some of his friends at that time were Tommy Madden, Kevin Ryan, Bernie Ruane, Mick Molloy and George Moran, also great runners. Willie worked for the Forestry Department and would run from his home at Newcastle to his place of work in Monivea most mornings, covering a distance of about 4 miles. He completed this distance pushing his bike along-side him and only used the bike to cycle home in the evening. This was all part of his training and he also used his lunch breaks to run circuits of the forest. He cut turf during the emergency war years. Willie always brought his own flask of tea and a sandwich and this was the same at the cross-country races. He joined FCA during its early years and this qualified him to take part in the All-Army Senior Championships. He won a number of them during the 1950s. The late Sergeant Mick McGowen of Renmore Barracks always told the following story when talking about Willie Morris. Mick said that he remembered one particular race in the Curragh when all the young officers were preparing themselves just prior to the race. He said that they were there in the latest running gear, shoes, shorts and vests all stretching and exercising. Willie arrived at the starting line barefoot in a ‘Bull’s Wool’ overcoat. He took off the coat and assumed his position with the other runners. On starters orders Willie was away like lighting and the only view of him the other competitors saw was his back.
He was awarded three Irish Independent Sports Star Awards and a number of Connaught top 10 awards during the 1950s and 60s. His past achievements earned him the Galway Hall of Fame award in 1983, Galway Bay FM Hall of Fame Sport award in 2005 and numerous other awards. These were earned hard and well deserved.
The following is an account of just one All-Ireland Cross Country Championship race taken from an excellent book, ‘In Their Bare Feet’ by Mick Rice. This report also gives a graphic description of the harshness of cross country running in deplorable conditions:
‘March 25, 1956 dawned a damp and windy day in Tipperary. The Galway team that travelled to Clonmel for the All-Ireland Cross Country Championships were both hopeful and ambitious but the weight of history was against them. …The two battling teams headed out into the country one more time, running into the teeth of a howling gale, with seven-and-a-half hard miles already completed. The lead runners disappeared from view momentarily to complete the last, crucial yards of the race and when they came into view again, on the final hill leading to the finish, Willie Morris was clear of Seán Hayden (Tipperary), while Tommy Madden (Galway) had caught and passed an exhausted Scott (Tipperary). Both sets of supporters waited anxiously for the scores to be totalled and the result announced. Willie had undoubtedly claimed his second senior title, but the question was: had Galway broken Tipperary’s stranglehold on the team championship? The answer was yes. Galway had won by 18 clear points’.
The newspapers of that period are full of testaments to the accomplishments of the great runner with headings such as ‘Willie Morris Showed The Way Again’. Willie moved to Galway city during the early 1960s and worked in St. Mary’s College. The late Jack Mahon remembered him racing against the students attending the college in a pair of wellingtons and beating them every time. Willie married Winifred Walsh and they had one son, Liam. He was also employed by the Western Health Board at the Regional Hospital (UCHG) in Galway. Even as he got older, he continued to train and compete in competitions. In 2003, at 84 years of age he ran his last race; it was the national veterans championships in Tullamore that year. He won four events and an old friend William O’Hanlon from Lackagh attended the race to support him. It was a very hot day and in between each event, William made his way to the dressing rooms to advise Willie to stay out of the sun and to conserve his energy. On January 2005, Willie had a fall which severed the muscles in his legs and finished an outstanding career.
His achievements in sports are almost immeasurable with countless successes over a long and dedicated running career. However, Willie is also an extremely modest and unassuming man who enjoyed extraordinary success with a smile and great humility. Oliver Geraghty, on behalf of Galway City Harriers, presented Willie and an excellent drawing of him being carried shoulder high after winning his third of four NACA Cross-Country titles in 1958. It was presented on his 90th birthday as an acknowledgment of his years of service to running. The legend of Willie Morris will never be forgotten and today he still resides at his home in Renmore with his wife Winifred. Congratulations Willie and continued health to you and your family.