The Irish Whales: The First Olympic Superstars

As the delayed 2020 Toyko Olympics finally get underway this weekend, our senior curator Nathan Mannion looks back over a century to a time when Ireland’s diaspora athletes competing in the USA team became the world’s first global superstar athletes.

In the early days of the modern Olympic Games the virtues of amateur athletic pursuits formed the cornerstone of the entire Olympic movement . The idea that amateur athletes could achieve any level of international fame ran contradictory to that the ethos. So how then did The Irish Whales, a group of emigrants living in New York go on to become the first global superstars of the Olympics Games?

The Whales were all members of the Irish American Athletic Club (IAAC). They dominated throwing events at the Amateur Athletic Union national championships and at the Olympics between 1896 and 1924.

P.J. Conway, from Limerick, is attributed with the creation of the Irish American Athletic Club (IAAC) and served as president for a term until the 1908 Olympics. The IAAC was setup as they had experienced difficulties in joining the existing sporting clubs and associations of the time. The club purchased land in Queens and built a facility called ‘Celtic Park’. The crest of the club was a winged fist adorned with American flags and shamrocks and underneath was the motto: ‘Láimh Láidir Abú’, which translates as ‘Strong hands forever’.

Although the membership of the club was primarily Irish American, 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.

The men left the shores of Ireland in search of economic opportunity. At that time entry into 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 had gained recognition for themselves and their communities by competing and excelling in several sports, including baseball, the most popular sport in the US at the time.

The IAAC played an important part in helping migrants fight the stigma and discrimination that came with being an immigrant. However the club was always keen to play up its connections with the United States, and in particular with New York, which was made up of so many distinct ethnicities and nationalities.

The men were nicknamed ‘The Whales’ because of their stature and their reputation for having an enormous appetite. Allegedly the men ate a dozen whole boiled eggs with the shell still on, oysters by the hundreds and were partial to eating 3 T-bone steaks each, all at one sitting! It is said that the nickname came about after a waiter on their voyage by boat to the 1912 Games in Stockholm commented “it’s whales they are, not men”. The poor waiter is said to have lost 20 pounds in weight by the end of voyage, due to the vast amount of food he was having to bring to them.

Some of the Whales most famous members included: John Flanagan, Simon Gillis, James Mitchell, Pat McDonald, Paddy Ryan, Martin Sheridan, Matt McGrath, Con Walsh and honorary member Pat O’Callaghan.

Irish Whales Athletics Club (7 male athletes) at 1908 Olympic Games

Irish Whales at 1904 Olympic Games

John J. Flannagan (1873-1938) was from Kilbreedy, County Limerick. Flannagan won three consecutive Olympic gold medals in the hammer throw in 1900, 1904, and 1908 when he threw for an Olympic record 170′ 4-1/4″ on his last throw. Between 1896 and 1909, Flanagan broke the world record 15 times. His last record in 1909 was 184′ 4″, more than 37′ longer than his first record. This made him the oldest world record breaker in the history of athletics at 41 years and 196 days old. Flanagan returned to Ireland in 1911, and would have a role to play in helping Ireland win its first Olympic gold medal.

Martin J. Sheridan (1881-1918) was the smallest in stature of all the Whales. Sheridan won 9 Olympic medals, including five Gold medals in jumping and discus events in 1904, 1906, and 1908. Sheridan also set the Amateur Athletic Union U.S. all round record.

Matthew J. McGrath (1878-1941) was from Nenagh County Tipperary. He set his second world record in 1911 at 187′ 4″. He won silver in the hammer in 1908. In 1920, he finished fifth after injuring his knee and then took another silver in 1924 becoming the oldest American medallist ever at age 47.

Pat “Babe” McDonald (1878-1954) was from Doonbeg in County Clare. McDonald was 6′ 5″ and 300lb. He won a gold medal in the shot put with a throw of 50′ 4″ and a silver medal in the two-handed competition with a total of 87′ 2″ in 1912. At the 1920 Antwerp Games, he won the 56-pound weight toss (36′ 11″).

Patrick J. “Paddy” Ryan (1887-1964) was from Pallasgreen in County Limerick. In 1912, he set the official IAAF world record with a hammer throw of 189′ 6-1/2″. This mark stood as the world record for 25 years and as the U.S. record for 40 years until 1953. In 1920 at age 33, he stood 6′ 3″ and weighed 265lbs. He won the Olympic hammer throw “with a toss of 173′ 5-3/4″ with the largest margin of victory ever (14-1/2′ over Swede Carl Lindh).

James Sarsfield “Jim” Mitchell (1864-1921) was from Tipperary. He won bronze in the 56-lb weight throw at the 1904 St. Louis Games.

Cornelius E. Walsh (April 24, 1881-1942) was born in County Cork, Ireland. He was an Irish Canadian athlete who represented Canada at the 1908 Summer Olympics. He won a bronze medal in the hammer throw.

Simon Gillis was the only ‘Whale’ not born in Ireland. He was born in Nova Scotia of Irish parents.

In the 1908 Olympic Games in London, members of the Irish American Athletic Club won 11 gold medals, 3 of which were won by the Whales alone.

The Whales won a total of 23 medals in 5 Olympic Games under the flags of the USA and Canada. This success, coupled with the legendary stories away from the track, captured the hearts of the American public. Many of the Whales gained endorsement deals on the back of their success, something that up until then was reserved for professional athletes.

The Whales all had an NYPD connection apart from Walsh, who ended up as an inspector in the Seattle Police Department. They set the bar with their records living on for 50 years. Unusually for most Irish emigrants of the time, a lot of the Whales would return to live in Ireland later in life.

Ireland’s first Olympic gold medal was won by Dr. Pat O’Callaghan in hammer throwing in 1928 in Amsterdam at the Summer Olympics. He won with a throw of 168′ 7”. He retained his title and won his second gold at the 1932 Games in Los Angeles. O’Callaghan was trained by former Irish Whale and 3-time Olympic gold medallist John J. Flanagan.

As for the IAAC, the club disbanded in 1917 after America’s entry to the First World War. This was a year after holding its biggest ever track meet, with tens of thousands in attendance. Celtic Park was sold for housing in 1930, which were named the Celtic Apartments. In 2012, part of 43rd Street in Sunnyside, Queens, is now co-named Winged Fist Way, in honour of the IAAC and its iconic emblem.

Over a century later, this year’s Games will see many Irish-born athletes represent other nations, continuing to highlight how Ireland’s diaspora and emigration continue to play a role in our world.