Pub quiz question: who was Ireland’s first-ever Olympic medallist? The answer, more often than not, is Dr Pat O’Callaghan, who won the hammer throw at the 1928 Amsterdam Games. While it is true O’Callaghan was our country’s first Olympic medallist, he was not the first Irishman to win an Olympic medal.* That honour belongs to another, Limerick’s John Flanagan, who competed under the banner of the United States of America, and is the subject of today’s “Great Irish sportspeople abroad”.

Strange as it may sound, from the beginning of the modern Olympics in 1896 until the 1920 Games, the last before our independence, Irish and Irish-American athletes completely dominated the throwing events at the Olympic Games. These athletes were known as “The Irish Whales”, owing to their athletic prowess and physically-imposing sizes. I intend on writing about “the Whales” in further detail in subsequent posts but today’s will focus primarily on John Flanagan, a hammer thrower just like O’Callaghan.

John Flanagan was born in Kilbreedy, Co. Limerick on 9 January 1873. It was clear from an early age that Flanagan was destined to be a top-class athlete. By the time he immigrated to the United States in 1896, Flanagan was already an Irish and British-champion hammer thrower, and held the world record.

Within four years of arriving in America, Flanagan was representing his adopted nation at the 1900 Olympic Games in Paris. He finished in first-place for the U.S. in the hammer throw, the first of three consecutive titles. What was impressive about Flanagan’s achievement was that he was the only U.S. athlete not from a college or university background to win a medal at the 1900 Games. Flanagan also competed in the discus, finishing in a respectable seventh-place.

Flanagan, Sheridan & Mitchell - Copy
John Flanagan (left) alongside fellow “Irish Whales”, Martin Sheridan (centre) and James Mitchell (right) at the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis, Missouri.

After winning another gold in the hammer throw at the St. Louis Games in 1904, Flanagan was back again for the 1908 Games in London. There, he created history, becoming the first-ever Olympian to win the same event at three consecutive Games. It is an achievement that few have managed in athletics, putting Flanagan among such exalted company as Carl Lewis and Al Oerter. There was also a cherry on top for Flanagan as he beat his own world record in the process, throwing 170 feet, 4.5 inches. Silver in the event went to a fellow “Whale” and Munster man, Matt McGrath, who will be covered in a future post.

In 1910 Flanagan quit the NYPD. Flanagan had joined the New York Police Department in 1903. As he was placed in the Bureau of Licenses, his workload was considerably light and he had plenty of free time to hone his skills and compete at athletic meets. He decided to leave the force after he was transferred to another station and was tasked with walking a beat along Central Park. This would have seen him with little free time to compete, let alone practice. In 1911 he left the United States, returning to his homeland.

John Flanagan - Copy
John Flanagan makes a strong case for being the greatest-ever Olympian from these shores.

Flanagan was arguably the greatest Olympian Ireland ever produced. He completely dominated his sport for over a decade. In 1897, a year after arriving in America, he threw 150″ 8′. Flanagan went on to subsequently break the 160″, 170″, and 180″ barriers. He was 36 years old when he set the last of his 17 world records at New Haven, Connecticut in 1909, throwing a massive 184″ 4′. His jump-turn technique and method of throwing became the blueprint for the sport for the next generation of throwers.

Upon the death of his father in 1924, Flanagan returned to the family farm in Kilmallock, Co. Limerick to take up the reins. He lived out the remainder of his days there until his death on 3 June 1938, but not before playing an influential role in our first-ever Olympic medal as an independent Ireland. Flanagan was, at one point, Pat O’Callaghan’s coach and clearly passed on his Herculean skills. Fittingly, O’Callaghan was the first winner of the hammer not competing for the United States, but by no means the first Irishman.

* The custom of awarding gold, silver and bronze medals for the first three places first began at the 1904 Olympics. Winners in 1900 received cups and trophies instead of medals but the IOC has retroactively assigned gold, silver and bronze medals to winning athletes from the 1896 and 1900 Games. Therefore John Flanagan’s position as the first-ever Irish medallist can be debated, given that he would only have received his first medal in St. Louis, where other “Irish Whales” were successful.