And so with the 2016 Rio Olympics entering its final couple of days before the Olympic torch is, quite literally, passed over to Tokyo, I thought it would be a good idea to conclude my recent fascination with the extraordinary “Irish Whales”. Having already discussed John Flanagan, Matt McGrath and Martin Sheridan in greater detail, I will be focusing on the lesser-known members of the group. Before that, however, one burning question needs to be addressed first; how did the “Irish Whales” come to be known by their moniker?

“Irish Whales”

It was not until as late as 1937, a good two decades after their exploits at the Olympic Games, that the term “Irish Whales” first appeared in print in a New York Times column. Further columns in the newspaper brought the term to greater prominence. A 1942 piece by Arthur Daley, a Pulitzer Prize-winning sportswriter, features a tale from Dan Ferris, an Irish-American sprinter and contemporary of the “Whales”:

It was on the Olympic trip of 1912 that the ‘whale’ nickname took hold. Dan Ferris, then a cherubic little boy, recalls it with relish. ‘Those big fellows,’ he related, ‘all sat at the same table and their waiter was a small chap. Before we reached Stockholm he had lost twenty pounds, worn down by bringing them food. Once as he passed me he muttered under his breath, ‘It’s whales they are, not men.’

Another Arthur Daley piece, this time from 1964, further elaborated on the gargantuan appetites of the “Whales”:

Some of their more prodigious feats were at the table. The Irish American A.C. was competing in Baltimore when (Simon) Gillis placed an order for a post-match snack with the headwaiter at a local restaurant. He ordered 27 dozen oysters and six huge t-bone steaks. Slight miscalculation – the waiter was ready when Gillis, (Pat) McDonald and (Matt) McGrath arrived. The table had been set for a party of 33. ‘Do you want to wait for the rest of your group?’ asked the headwaiter. He turned pale as he watched three whales devour 27 dozen oysters and six huge t-bone steaks.

Regardless of the validity of these anecdotes, they are amusing nonetheless and make for a convincing basis for the nickname. Matt McGrath was over six feet tall and weighed nearly 250 pounds. John Flanagan was a similar build. Simon Gillis was 6’2″ and 240 lbs. While Paddy Ryan and Pat McDonald were simply gargantuan; both were 6’5″ tall and weighed 296 lbs and 300 lbs respectively.

Irish American Athletic Club

If there is one trait that links all the athletes, apart from stereotypically high employment at the New York Police Department, it was their membership of the Irish American Athletic Club.

The club was founded in January 1898 and was based in the New York borough of Queens. After purchasing a plot of farmland at Laurel Hill, Long Island, the club built a state-of-the-art athletic facility, Celtic Park which opened on 9 May 1901 and remained a hub for the greatest athletes of the age until 1930, when it was sold for housing. The club adopted a winged fist, adorned with U.S. flags and shamrocks, as its emblem. Its motto was as GaeilgeLáim Láidir Abú, which translates as “a strong hand will be victorious”.

Although the club was largely made up of Irish-born and first-generation Irish-Americans, this was not a criterion for eligibility. Many athletes with no Irish heritage competed for them, including John Baxter Taylor, Jr., the first African-American athlete to win an Olympic gold medal (in the 1908 medley relay).

The club was outrageously successful. Between 1904 and 1916, they only failed to win the Amateur Athletic Union national championships three times. This dominance was not just confined to within the United States. At the 1908 Olympics in London, 10 of the 23 gold medals won by the U.S. team were won by its members, as many as France, Germany and Italy combined. The club continued to win titles until 1917, when it was disbanded after the United States entered the First World War as a combatant.

Simon Gillis

Simon Gillis is the only “Whale” to have been born outside Ireland, instead been born in Nova Scotia to Irish parents.

Growing up in Nova Scotia, he moved to New York as a teenager to join his brother. What shouldn’t be any surprise at this stage, Gillis joined the NYPD.

Gillis participated in the hammer throw at three Olympic Games, St. Louis 1904, Paris 1908 and Stockholm 1912. However he did not win a medal during any of his three appearances.

Gillis’s career is a case of ‘what might have been’. In 1904, Gillis accidentally killed a teenage boy whilst practicing the hammer in a vacant lot on Park Avenue. Having thrown a 16 lb hammer, a 14-year-old boy Christian Koehler climbed a fence in search of a baseball. Gillis shouted a warning but in vain as “the hammer struck him in the head and he was instantly killed”, according to the New York Times. It is thought that this adversely affected his career.

Pat McDonald

Pat McDonald
Two-time Olympic gold medallist, Pat McDonald.

After the big three, Pat McDonald is the most successful of the “Whales”, winning two Olympic gold medals and one silver.

Born in Doonbeg, Co. Clare in July 1878, he was actually born Patrick McDonnell but, as was often the case, his surname was mistakenly recorded at Ellis Island and thus, he became known as Pat McDonald for the rest of his life.

McDonald was a giant of a man. At 6 feet 5 inches tall and weighing over 300 lbs, he was worthy of the term “Irish Whale”. His fellow athletes affectionately called him “Babe”. Despite limited success in the hammer and discus, it wasn’t until he embraced the shot put that McDonald found his niche.

He won the U.S. national title for the shot put in 1911 and retained his title the following year. At that year’s Olympics in Stockholm he won a gold medal in the shot put and a silver in the two-handed shot put (the first and only time the event was part of the Olympic programme). Eight years later, after World War I disrupted proceedings, McDonald won another gold medal in Antwerp in the 56 lb weight throw.

Such was the esteem in which he was held, McDonald was selected to be the U.S. flagbearer at two consecutive Olympics, for the 1920 and 1924 Paris Games. Only one other American athlete, Norman Armitage, has enjoyed such an honour at the summer Games.

Like Matt McGrath, McDonald’s career longevity was remarkable. He continued to win U.S. national titles for the shot put until 1922, when he was 44 years old.

James “Jim” Sarsfield Mitchel

Flanagan, Sheridan & Mitchell - Copy
James Mitchel alongside John Flanagan and Martin Sheridan in St. Louis in 1904. 

James Mitchel was born in Bartoose, Co. Tipperary on 30 January 1864. From his early twenties, Mitchel dominated the hammer and weight-throwing events in Britain and Ireland, winning a number of national titles and smashing records.

Mitchel’s pathway to the United States was actually through the Gaelic Athletic Association. Mitchel was a member of the infamous 1888 American ‘Invasion Tour’. He won every event he was entered in and broke most of the previous American records. After the tour ended, Mitchel decided to stay in the United States and later joined the NYPD.

Mitchel won his only Olympic medal in St. Louis; bronze in the 56 lb weight throw. Not bad for a man making his Olympic debut at the grand old age of 40. Mitchel may well have added to this at the 1906 Intercalated Games but a freak accident en route put paid to this. On the voyage over to Greece, a severe storm hit the boat. Violent waves rocked the boat which caused Mitchel to fall down some stairs and dislocate his shoulder.

During his career, Mitchel won a total of 76 national hammer titles between Britain, Ireland, Canada and the United States, and set the world record 11 times between 1886 and 1892. Upon retiring from athletics, Mitchel became a well-known sportswriter in New York and authored a number of respected books on the hammer and shot put.

Paddy Ryan

Paddy Ryan
Two-time Olympic gold medallist, Pat McDonald.

Hailing from Old Pallas, Co. Limerick, Paddy Ryan immigrated to the United States in 1910 and, of course, eventually joined the NYPD. Before going to America, Ryan had already won 11 All-Ireland hammer titles.

Ryan was unable to compete for the United States at the 1912 Stockholm Games as his citizenship had not been established in time. His Olympic debut would come in Antwerp eight years later. He won gold in the hammer throw in what still remains the widest winning margin between first and second in the history of the event, beating the Swede Carl Lind by nearly 15′. Ryan also won silver in the 56 lb weight throw, finishing behind fellow “Whale” Pat McDonald.

Although he could not represent his adopted country in Stockholm, Ryan made up for this by serving in France with the U.S. army during the First World War.

Ryan retired from athletics in 1921 and three years later left America and, like John Flanagan, returned home to Ireland. He took over the family farm in Limerick, and remained there until his death in February 1964.

Cornelius “Con” Walsh

Con Walsh, born in Carriganimmy in Co. Cork, is the only of the “Irish Whales” not to have competed for the United States. His achievements came in the red of Canada.

Before immigrating to first New York and then finally settling in Toronto, Walsh was an adept Gaelic footballer. He was a losing All-Ireland football finalist with the Cork senior team in both 1901 and 1903.

Walsh’s only appearance at the Olympic Games came at the heated 1908 London Games. He won a bronze medal in the hammer throw which meant for the first and only time in Olympic history, the podium saw three Irish-born athletes atop it with John Flanagan in first and Matt McGrath in second.

Walsh won a number of American and Canadian national titles before giving up the sport in 1911 in order to pursue a professional boxing career which was not as successful as his athletics career.

Achievements in context

U.S. national championship hammer throw wins: 
James Mitchel (1889-96, 1903) [9 titles]
John Flanagan (1897-99, 1901-02, 1906-07) [7]
Matt McGrath (1908, 1910, 1912, 1918, 1922, 1925-26) [7]
Pat Ryan (1913-17, 1919-21) [7]
Con Walsh (1911) [1]

U.S. national championship shot put wins:
Pat McDonald (1911-12, 1914, 1919-20, 1922) [6]
Martin Sheridan (1904) [1]

U.S. national championship discus throw wins:
Martin Sheridan (1904, 1906-07, 1911) [4]

Olympic medals won by featured “Irish Whales”:
1900 – 1 gold
1904 – 2 gold, 1 silver & 1 bronze
1906 – 2 gold & 3 silver
1908 – 3 gold, 1 silver & 2 bronze*
1912 – 2 gold & 1 silver
1920 – 2 gold & 1 silver
1924 – 1 silver
Total: 10 gold, 5 silver & 3 bronze (12, 8 & 3 when Intercalated Games are included)

Total number of Olympic medals won by Ireland since independence:
9 gold, 10 silver & 12 bronze**

* Ireland’s best-ever Olympics was London 2012: 1 gold, 1 silver & 4 bronze
** These includes Michelle Smith’s three golds and one bronze at Atlanta 1996.

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