Ireland’s Forgotten Olympians – The Irish Whales

The Irish Whales at the 1904 Olympics.

As the 2012 Olympics approaches, Cathal Brennan tells the story of a group of Irish immigrants to America who became titans of the early Olympic games.

You’d be forgiven for believing that Irish Olympic success began with Dr. Pat O’Callaghan’s gold medal at the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam.  This ignores almost thirty years of Irish Olympic history and excludes some of the greatest athletes Ireland has ever produced.

The Irish Whales were a group of athletes who became internationally famous for their exploits at the Olympic Games.  They have, unfortunately, been largely forgotten in the public consciousness but during their heyday, this group of Irish–born athletes, who competed for the United States and Canada, were the most famous and successful sportsmen in the world and the first modern sporting superstars.

Seven Irishmen dominated the throwing events -especially the hammer throw and the shot put – at the Olympics from 1896 to 1924.

The Irish Whales dominated the track and field, particularly throwing events, at the Olympics between 1896 and 1924 and their story touches on many issues that affected Irish – Americans in the late 19th and early 20th century; emigration, assimilation, national identity, antipathy towards England and Irish nationalism.

As Irish immigrants arrived in North America in the mid and late nineteenth century they brought with them a love of sport.  Sports such as fishing, hunting and shooting were popular among the landed gentry but for the vast majority of Irish people athletic meetings at county fairs, fields and rural roads were the sporting activities of choice and attracted huge crowds and interest.[1]  Success in the sporting world was one way that immigrants could gain acceptance in the United States and by the end of the nineteenth century Irish Americans were dominating the sports of boxing and baseball.  Victory in the sporting arena also meant socioeconomic advancement which was a powerful motivator for poor immigrants.[2]

In the late 19th century, athletes from ethnic and working class backgrounds were often prevented from joining established athletic clubs.  The difficulties Irish athletes had in trying to gain acceptance into the New York Athletic Club led them to set up their own organisation.[3]  The Greater New York Irish Athletic Association received its charter from the city ofNew York in 1897 and opened the following year.  The name of the club was shortened to the Irish American Athletic Club in1904.

P.J. Conway, a native of Limerick, is credited with the creation of the club and served as president for all but one term until the 1908 Olympics.[4]  The club purchased land in Queens and built a state of the art athletic facility called Celtic Park.  It hosted some of the greatest athletes of the period until it was finally sold for housing in 1930.  The Irish American Athletic Club crest was a winged fist adorned with American flags and shamrocks and underneath was the motto Láimh Láidir Abú (Strong hands forever).[5]


Although the membership of the club was primarily Irish American, from its inception the club had an open door policy to athletes from all races and religions.  It was home to some of the top Jewish athletes, such as Able Kiviat and Myer Prinstein, and the first African American to win an Olympic gold medal, John Baxter Taylor Jr.[6]

All seven of the Irish Whales were officers in the New York Police Department at one point.

The Irish Whales were; John Flanagan, Simon Gillis, Pat McDonald, Paddy Ryan, Martin Sheridan, Matt McGrath and Con Walsh.  Gillis was the only Whale not born inIreland, he was born in Nova Scotia of Irish parents.  Walsh was the only one who didn’t represent the US at the Olympic Games, instead representing Canada.  They were all at one stage members of the New York Police Department apart from Walsh who ended up as an inspector in the Seattle Police Department.

John Flanagan

John J. Flanagan was born in 1873 in Kilbreedy, Co. Limerick. He played inter – provincial hurling for Munster and won Irish and British titles at hammer throwing before moving to New York in 1896.  He joined the NYPD and went on to head the world rankings until 1910.  Over the course of his career he set seventeen world records and also won the American shot-put title five times.  He was the first athlete to win three succesive gold medals at the Olympics (Hammer 1900, 1904 and 1908).  He left the NYPD in 1911 and returned to the family farm in Limerick.  He won the Irish hammer championship in 1911 and 1912.  Flanagan became coach to the hammer thrower Pat O’Callaghan, the Irish Free State’s first gold medal winner.[7]

Simon Gillis

Simon Gillis was born in Nova Scotia in 1875.  He emigrated to New York and joined the NYPD.  Gillis career was interrupted by tragedy and his athletic form was never to recover.  In 1904 Gillis accidentally killed a child while practicing his hammer throw on a vacant lot in Harlem.  According to the New York Times, ‘just as he had let the 16 pound hammer go for an extra-long throw, Christian Koehler, a fourteen-year old boy, climbed the fence in pursuit of a baseball. Gillis and several boys shouted a warning, but Koehler did not hear. The hammer struck him in the head and he was instantly killed.’[8]  Gillis was said to be heartbroken by the accident.  He competed at the 1904, 1908 and 1912 Olympic Games but failed to win any medals.

Pat McDonald

Pat McDonnell was born in 1878 in Co. Clare.  He emigrated to New York in 1901 where his surname was mistakenly rendered as McDonald at Ellis Island.  In 1905 he joined the NYPD.  At 6ft 5in and over 300 lbs he earned the ironic nickname ‘Babe’ from his fellow athletes.  He started off as a hammer and discus thrower but it wasn’t until he embraced the shot-put that he started to see real success.  In 1911 he won the American national title and retained it the following year.  He won gold and silver medals at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm.  He again won gold at the 1920 Olympic Games and continued to win American National titles until 1933.  In 1926 he saved two children from drowning while on duty and he retired from the NYPD in 1946 as a captain.[9]

Matthew McGrath

Matthew McGrath was born in 1875, one of eleven children of a tenant farmer in Nenagh Co. Tipperary.  As a youth he was known to walk ten miles to see his sporting hero John Flanagan compete and dreamed of becoming a champion hammer thrower.[10]  He emigrated to the United States in 1897 where he worked at a variety of jobs including blacksmith and barman before joining the NYPD in 1902.

Proving his sporting prowess with the Irish American Athletic Club and the New York Police Athletic League he was chosen to represent the United States at the bad tempered 1908 Olympic Games in London.  Despite winning a silver medal, where he finished second to his friend and rival John Flanagan, it is for the flag incident at the opening ceremony that he got most attention for .   The etiquette for the game’s opening ceremony was that the flag bearer for each national team would dip their nation’s flag as they passed the King of England.  There was uproar in the stadium as the American flag bearer, Ralph Rose, failed to dip the stars and stripes.  This was interpreted as a grave insult to the King.  Reports of the incident claimed that McGrath threatened to hospitalise Rose if he dipped the flag but this seems unlikely as Rose was a member of the Irish American Athletic Club and a good friend of the Whales.  McGrath was prominent though in defending the decision not to dip the flag to the press.


The Irish athletes representing America refused to salute the King of England at the 1908 Olympics in London, causing a major stir in the press.

McGrath went on to win gold at the 1912 Olympics, setting a record that would stand for the next twenty four years.  He took silver at the 1924 Olympics and was chosen to represent the US at the 1924 games at the age of forty eight.

He was twice decorated for valour by the NYPD and was promoted to the third highest rank of the force in 1936.  In 1989 Congressman Thomas J. Manton paid tribute to McGrath on the floor of the US House of Representatives for his sporting triumphs and his role in refusing to allow the American flag to be dipped to a foreign head of state.[11]

James Mitchell

James Mitchell was born in 1864 in Bartoose, Co.Tipperary.  From 1886 onwards he dominated hammer and weight throwing events inIreland and Britain capturing a host of titles and smashing national records.   Mitchell joined the GAA ‘Invasion’ tour of the United States in 1888 during which he won every weight throwing contest he entered and broke most American records.  After the tour he decided to stay in New York and joined the NYPD.

Paddy Ryan at Celtic Park, New York.

He took the bronze medal at the 1904 Olympics in St. Louisin the 35lb throw.  Unfortunately, during the sea voyage to Greece for the 1906 Intercalated Olympic Games in Athens a freak wave hit the ship and Mitchell dislocated his shoulder after falling down the stairs.  During his career Mitchell held seventy six national titles and broke the world hammer record four times.  He became a sports journalist and photographer before producing several successful training manuals for the shot put and hammer.[12]

Paddy Ryan

Paddy Ryan was born in 1882 in Pallasgreen, Co. Limerick.  He won eleven All – Irelandhammer titles under the auspices of the GAA and the Irish Amateur Athletic Association.  In 1910 he emigrated to the United Statesand later joined the NYPD.  He did not compete at the 1912 Olympics.  During the First World War he joined the US Army and served in France.  At the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp he won gold in the hammer throw and silver in the 56lb weight throw.  In 1924 he returned to Irelandto take over the family farm.[13]

Martin Sheridan

Martin Sheridan was born in Bohola, Co. Mayo in 1881.  Sheridan and two of his brothers emigrated to theUnited Statesin 1897. Sheridanis considered the greatest all – round athlete of his generation and one of the greatest competitors in Olympic history. Sheridanwon a total of nine Olympic medals; One Gold (1904), two gold and three silver (1906) and two gold and one bronze (1908).  In the aftermath of the Flag incident at the 1908 London Olympics (see above),Sheridanwas quoted as saying, ‘This flag bows to no earthly King.’

Sheridan was a member of the NYPD and served as the Governor of New York’s personal bodyguard when the Governor was in New York City.  Sheridanfell victim to pneumonia, (possibly one of the first casualties of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic) one day before his 37th birthday on March 27, 1918.[14]

Con Walsh

Con was born in Clondrohid, Co.Corkin 1881.  He was a member of theCorkteams that lost the 1901 and 1903 All -Ireland football finals.  He won the GAA place kicking title in 1901, 1905 and again in 1906, setting a distance record that remains to this day.  In 1906 he also captured five titles at the GAA national athletics championship.

In 1907 he emigrated to New York before moving on to Toronto.  Representing Canada, he won bronze in the hammer event at 1908 Olympics behind John Flanagan and Matt McGrath.  This was the first time three athletes of the same nationality had finished first, second and third at an Olympic event.  He captured several American and Canadian titles before abandoning athletics in 1911 to pursue an unsuccessful attempt to become a professional boxer.  He eventually settled in Seattleand joined the local police force.[15]


The Whales lived the fairy tale for many Irish people of their generation by finding fame and success in theUnited States.  Their exploits were a cause of celebration amongst Irish-Americans and their disputes at the 1908 London Olympics delighted separatists inIrelandand Irish communities in theUS.  Their sporting achievements for the American Olympic teams led to their enormous popularity throughout theUnited Statesand helped Irish – Americans to become more assimilated in a country where Nativist and anti-Irish feelings, while not as strong as they once were, were still a significant current in American culture.

Some sections of the American press resented the fact that the Irish – American athletes had embroiled the American team in an Anglo – Irish argument and questioned whether their first loyalty was to theUnited States or Ireland.  Despite this, they truly were some of the first modern sporting superstars.  When they would return to Ireland to compete at sporting events they would draw crowds in the tens of thousands.

They are commemorated in statues and plaques in their hometowns but with the 2012 Olympics in London this year isn’t it time we remembered some of the greatest athletes this country has ever produced?


[1] Wilcox, Ralph, Irish Americans in Sport – The Nineteenth Century, Casey, Marion R., Lee, Joseph (Ed.s), Making the Irish American (New York, 2006), p. 443.
[2] Ibid.
[3] McCarthy, Kevin, Gold, Silver and Green (Cork, 2010), p. 83.
[4] Shaefer, John, The Irish Athletic Club: Redefining Americanism at the 1908 Olympic Games (New York, 2001) (retrieved 5th June 2012)
[5] (Retrieved 14th June 2012).
[7] Rouse, Paul, John J. Flanagan, Dictionary of Irish Biography,
[8] New York Times, 1st Oct 1904.
[9] Geoghegan, Patrick M., Patrick Joseph (Babe) McDonald, Irish Dictionary of National Biography
[11] Geoghegan, Patrick M., Matthew J. McGrath, Irish Dictionary of National Biography
[12] McCabe, Desmond, James Mitchell, Irish Dictionary of National Biography
[13] Murphy, William, Patrick J. Ryan, Irish Dictionary of National Biography
[14] Rouse, Paul, Martin J. Sheridan, Irish Dictionary of National Biography
[15] Shanahan, Jim, Cornelius (Con) Walsh, Irish Dictionary of National Biography.

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