Continuing with the theme of the Olympic Games, today’s “Great Irish sportspeople abroad” will focus on another of the extraordinary “Irish Whales”, Matt McGrath. McGrath was the successor to John Flanagan, the subject of yesterday’s post, as the world’s leading hammer thrower. A fellow Munster man, McGrath remained in the top ten in the sport until the age of 50. A three-time Olympic medallist, McGrath was perhaps the most colourful and influential of the “Irish Whales”.
Matthew John McGrath was born on 18 December 1875 as one of 11 children to a tenant farmer in Nenagh, Co. Tipperary. McGrath’s interest in the hammer began at an early age, often walking ten miles to watch his hero, John Flanagan compete. Clearly inspired, McGrath would later battle with Flanagan for the world record.
McGrath immigrated to the United States in 1897. He worked a number of jobs including as a blacksmith before joining, as so many of the “Irish Whales” did, the New York Police Department, in 1902. As well as being a champion hammer thrower, McGrath excelled at his job; rising to the rank of Inspector, the third-highest rank within the force, by the time of his retirement in 1940. He was also awarded with the NYPD’s medal of valor in 1905 for rescuing someone who had attempted suicide by jumping into the Harlem River.
It was not until he was 27 that McGrath achieved success as a hammer thrower. Despite being a slow starter, McGrath would remain amongst the top ten in the world until the grand old age of 50, and was still throwing upwards of 170 feet at 46.
McGrath’s Olympic debut came at the 1908 Games in London. He entered as a pre-favourite, having wrested the world record from Flanagan earlier that year (albeit unofficially). McGrath duelled with his boyhood idol, with the lead going back and forth between the two. McGrath made a valiant attempt to usurp him despite an injured leg. Flanagan eventually broke the Olympic record and McGrath had to settle for silver. Bronze went to another Irish-born athlete representing an adopted nation, Carriganimmy-born Con Walsh for Canada. This remains the only time in Olympic history that athletes born and raised in Ireland secured all three medals in an event.
McGrath’s greatest contribution to the Olympic Games that year may or may not actually have happened but still makes for an enthralling tale. At the opening ceremony, the U.S. Olympic team was assigned a position just in front of the British colonies; a clear show of arrogance from a host nation during the height of its imperial might. The American flag was also conspicuously absent from those of the other competing nations hanging around the stadium. It seems one could not be located, according to the British. As if that wasn’t enough, etiquette demanded that each competing nation dip their flag when passing King Edward VII in the royal box. The legend is that when the U.S. team were passing by the king, McGrath stepped beside the flag bearer, Ralph Rose, and threatened, “Dip that banner and you’re in the hospital tonight”. The Stars & Stripes remained unbowed.
Such a statement of “intent” from McGrath seems unlikely given Rose was a fellow member of the Irish American Athletic Club. What was certainly not debatable was the English outrage. Seeing the gesture as an affront to the royal family, newspapers all over London called for an apology from the U.S. team. McGrath was vocal in his defence of Rose for not dipping the American flag to Edward. This “diplomatic incident” fuelled a fierce American and British rivalry at the Games.
Again it is debatable if McGrath’s motivations were influenced by Britain’s refusal to allow Ireland field its own team, stating “Ireland is not a nation”. Despite this, a precedent was set. To this day, the United States never dips its flag at Olympic ceremonies. What could be now viewed as American arrogance or exceptionalism may have actually began as Irish defiance towards the figurehead of an alien occupation.
At the 1912 Olympics, a year after ending Flanagan’s 16-year stranglehold on the world record with a throw of 187″ 4′, McGrath won gold in the hammer. Such was his dominance in the event; the shortest of his six throws was over 13″ further than his nearest competitor’s best. The Olympic record he set in Stockholm that day would stand for 24 years.
Eight years later, after the First World War interrupted proceedings, McGrath was back in Antwerp as the favourite to retain his Olympic title. However a knee injury sustained during his second throw meant he had to withdraw. Remarkably this was enough to secure him fifth place. Four years later in Paris, McGrath was back, winning his third and final Olympic medal, a silver. McGrath also set a record in Paris that has yet to be bettered or matched. He remains to this day the oldest American track-and-field Olympic medallist.
He could well have extended this unique distinction by another four years but an off day at the U.S. trials for the 1924 Games meant he missed out on the team for the first time in his career. Although he did travel with the team to Amsterdam, after public outcry at his omission, he was not allowed compete in the hammer.
In September 2002, McGrath’s hometown of Nenagh erected a statue of him, alongside the town’s other famous Olympians Bob Tisdall and Johnny Hayes, in front of the county courthouse to honour his Olympic achievements.
McGrath died in January 1941 at the age of 65.