Hong Kong’s record-breaking Olympic swimmer Siobhan Haughey making waves in Ireland as they discover she is related to former prime minister

Could the land of her father move in with a ‘transfer bid’ ahead of Tokyo 2020?

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 10 August, 2016, 11:15am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 10 August, 2016, 10:00pm

Charles James ‘Charlie’ Haughey is a huge figure in modern Irish history. He was taoiseach (prime minister) three times from 1979 to 1992 and leader of Fianna Fail, one of the country’s main political parties, for that period.

I was born in 1979 and grew up in Ireland; his voice, image and something of his reputation were well known to me even as a child.

He was married to the daughter of the previous taoiseach and his father fought during the Irish War of Independence. And he earned a magnificent reputation for being able to shrug off all manner of scandal, earning the nickname ‘the great houdini’.

So when Irish Olympics fans tuned in to Rio de Janeiro to see a young woman called Siobhan Bernadette Haughey representing Hong Kong of all places, their thoughts turned to the former leader, with off-colour gags like “Charlie must have been on tour over there back in the day” doing the rounds on social media.

Actually it turns out the internet japesters weren’t too far off – apparently Haughey is related.

Dublin TD (member of parliament) Sean Haughey was cheering Siobhan on as she raced in the 200 metres freestyle heats and semi-final.

He is the son of Charlie, and according to Irish reporters, the cousin of Siobhan’s father Darach.

Siobhan, just 18, made history for Hong Kong by becoming our first female swimmer ever to qualify for an Olympic semi-final, smashing her own Hong Kong record in the heats.

She will surely be a contender for a final – maybe a medal – if she continues to progress at the same rate as she has since winning World Junior Championship gold in the 100m freestyle in 2013.

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But Ireland quite like Olympic medals, too.

They’ve only had one successful swimmer, Michelle Smith, who won three golds and a bronze in Atlanta ’96, but later had her reputation ruined by a doping ban.

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They’d surely quite like another swim medal or two (the 1:56.91 Haughey swam in her heat is way faster than Smith’s admittedly near 20-year-old Irish record, 1:59.93).

Could the Irish be set to move in with a ‘transfer bid’ for our Siobhan?

Haughey’s heat was on at tea time for Ireland TV, though her semi-final was on at 2am Irish time, which meant it went under the radar somewhat.

Siobhan Haughey makes history by becoming Hong Kong’s first swimmer in modern era to reach Olympic semi

But as the country woke up and caught up with the results from Rio, her name seemed to be becoming a big point of interest again.

The Times’ Irish edition carried a story titled ‘Hong Kong swimmer is Ireland’s new hero’, while state broadcaster RTE got in touch with me first thing in the morning Rio time, desperate to get her contact details to put her on their drive-time flagship radio show. Unable to track her down, they had to settle for me.

“There was a sort of bafflement that someone with that name was competing for Hong Kong,” the writer of the Times’ story, Aaron Rogan, told me. “The reaction has been good, her race was broadcast on RTE so people were all wondering if there was a connection to Charlie.

“[But] her semi was at 2am which sort of took the wind out of it.

“People were supportive and there were a few jokes about seeing if we could have got her under the ‘granny rule’,” added Rogan, referring to former Ireland football manager Jack Charlton’s famous – and successful – policy in the 80s and 90s of selecting any and every half-decent player with a tenuous family link to the country.

Born and raised in Hong Kong with a Chinese mum, Haughey proudly displayed a Bauhinia flag delicately painted on her nails.

And as she spoke to Chinese media in fluent Cantonese, it was obvious she was a Hongkonger and proud.

“I’m happy that I could represent Hong Kong, I could represent Ireland but I choose to represent Hong Kong because I was born there, I was raised there, I feel connected to Hong Kong and I’m proud of representing Hong Kong,” she said.

But she did reveal that officials from Ireland had been in contact with a view to seeing if she would ever consider flying the green, white and gold tricolour instead of the Bauhinia – and didn’t rule it out as a possibility.

“Yeah that did happen, but we looked at the rules and it says if I want to represent Ireland I have to live there for at least a year and that’s not possible for this Olympics,” she said.

Many of the reports in Hong Kong’s Chinese media insist on referring to Haughey as ‘wan hyut’ – a word rendered in English by some uncomfortable sounding terms, ranging from ‘mixed’ at the better end of the spectrum to the likes of ‘half-breed’ or ‘mulatto’ at the other.

“It’s not meant maliciously,” said Yuen Chan, senior lecturer at Chinese University of Hong Kong’s School of Journalism and Communication.

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“The term is really just a indication of an overall lack of awareness of race issues in Hong Kong in general that extends to the media.”

As Chan pointed out, the “coverage and reaction to [Haughey] is overwhelmingly positive”. Hongkongers are proud of her, ‘mixed’ or not.

But what is Hong Kong if not the ultimate ‘mixed’ city, its melting-pot status key to its greatness?

Haughey is extremely proud of her Hong Kong half, and just as proud of her Irish side – let’s just hope she continues to represent the former in Tokyo in 2020.