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Insight Q&A: Kevin Martin, author of "The Irish Whales"

These Irish Olympians of Old New York deserve to be remembered.

Three athletes from the cover of the book "The Irish Whales: Olympians of Old New York"

"The Irish Whales: Olympians of Old New York" is a fascinating history. It tells the story of a group of eight men, all from Ireland, who came to dominate American track and field sports for years after settling in New York. It details not just the the role Irish athletes played in an American sport, but it's rich in information about Irish history, immigration to the US, the history of the Olympics, New York City in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, American identity and so much more. 

We spoke to author Kevin Martin, who lives in County Mayo, Ireland, about the book and the men who once loomed so large. 

Q. What inspired you to write about the Irish Whales?

I have always had a huge interest in Irish-America. The emigration of Irish people to the United States has, without doubt, been a defining theme of Ireland. New York City has been a huge part of this fascinating story. I have a specific interest in sports history and thought that the role of Irish emigrants in American sport was worthy of greater study. I had heard of the Irish Whales but was not fully aware of their remarkable achievements when I set about researching this book. That their story was a part of the great city of New York social and cultural history added to my interest in the subject matter.

Q. Who were the Irish Whales how did they get their colorful nickname? 

The Irish Whales, reputedly given their name because of their immense size, completely dominated the throwing events in track and field on the national and world stage between 1896 and 1924. All but one of them were members of the New York Police Department. James 'Jim' Mitchell, John Flanagan, Pat McDonald, Martin Sheridan, Paddy Ryan, Matt McGrath and Con Walsh were all born in Ireland and emigrated to New York. With the exception of Con Walsh they were NYPD Officers and members of the United States Olympic Games team at different stages of their career. Walsh competed for Canada at the 1908 Olympic Games in London where he took a bronze medal in the hammer throw.

Their name, whatever of its origin, was well deserved. Pat McDonald, for example, was 6'5'' and weighed over 300 lbs. He worked as a traffic cop on Times Square for many years and was known as the 'Statue of Liberty of Times Square'. Matt McGrath from Tipperary was a fantastic hammer thrower and was frequently described as being built like a 'wedge'.

Q. Can you tell us a few highlights of the sporting achievements of these men?

The Irish Whales left behind a remarkable set of sporting achievements including a total of 23 Olympic medals.

Perhaps their greatest hour came when they took all three medals in the hammer throw at the 1908 Olympic Games in London at a time when the competition between the United States and Great Britain was at boiling point because of fractious international relationships.

Two years earlier, Martin Sheridan's achievement of winning four gold medals in field events at the Intercalated Olympic Games of 1906 in Athens will never be equaled and many authorities consider the Mayo man to be the greatest all-round athlete to ever represent the United States in international sport. Tragically, he died a few days before his thirty seventh birthday, one of the first victims of the Spanish Flu. 

The formidable Matt McGrath took a silver medal in the hammer throw at the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris at the remarkable age of 47, still the oldest ever athlete to take a medal in a field event and a record never likely to be beaten.

All in all, their athletic achievements were immense, just like their size.

Q. The story of the Irish Whales had been largely forgotten before your book – why do you think that was?

That's a very good question. Perhaps it has something to do with the remarkable achievements of Irish people across all walks of American life. The Irish in America have been so successful in political and economic domains, for example, that the great  achievements of these men in sports have been relegated to a historical footnote. Additionally their achievements were in a minority sport. If they had been baseball players, for example, they would command a greater place in the public imagination. But while the public don’t tend to follow track and field as much anymore, they were immensely popular sports when the Irish Whales were competing.

Q. What do you think is the legacy of the Irish Whales?

Another interesting question. I think their sporting achievements demonstrate how an ethnic group could come to the forefront in a discipline requiring perseverance and single mindedness. The same can be seen with Latin and South American boxers, for example. Achievement in sport also helps the process of acculturation and assimilation.

The Irish Whales became heroes among Irish American communities in the United States - and they wound up becoming role models, showing how it was possible to become part of the great melting pot.

Interested in reading the book? You can order it on the publisher's website or through any bookshop.


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