Day 16, June 3
The Olympic torch passes from Belfast to Portrush today on its way to London. Irish athletes have qualified for events in track, gymnastics, judo, and cycling for 2012, but one hundred years ago, when Belfast was the world’s center of shipbuilding, Ireland produced a crop of athletes of unparalleled ability and appetite.
The “Irish Whales” ruled Olympic throwing events for more than twenty years—this group of enormous men with enormous hungers threw hammers, shot, and weights. They dominated the sport—their biggest competition was each other. Big in all ways: they stood 6 feet (1.8 m) or more, weighing 195 pounds (88 kg) to as much as 300 pounds (136 kg), and they heaved heavy objects far enough to take as many as 9 medals each.
John Flanagan , Simon Gillis, James Mitchell, Pat McDonald, Paddy Ryan, Martin Sheridan, Matt McGrath , and Con Walsh were all born in Ireland, but they competed on behalf of the United States. They had day jobs as New York City cops—this was the era of the amateur Olympic athlete. Several arrived in the United States as small children, coming away from the hungry land that bore them—most were born slightly before, or slightly after An Gorta Beag, the “small famine” of 1879. Many of them continued to honor the country they left behind by wearing the winged fist of the Irish-American Athletic Club in competitions.
Every throwing event from 1904 to 1924 lists one or more of these athletes in the top three. Pat McDonald’s Olympic record throw for the 56 pound weight (11.265 meters, set in 1920) will stand forever unless the event is reinstated and another leviathan can better it. That seems unlikely: the Athletics Ireland record, set in 1998, is 9.16 meters.
The hammer thrown by the Whales would be useless for driving nails. The modern throwing hammer is a 16 pound ball at the end of a 4 foot handle, though early events did feature a sledge hammer on a cane handle. Pat Ryan’s record throw of 57.77 meters stood for thirty years.
As much as for their athletic prowess and their enormous good humor, these men were known for their appetites. The Whales wore their shipboard waiter to a frazzle on the trip to Stockholm for the 1912 Olympics, requiring dinners with four or five bowls of soup and four steaks plus trimmings for each man. The Whales proceeded to win gold and silver: the waiter allegedly lost twenty pounds. Another legendary meal took place when Simon Gillis called ahead for a meal, ordering 6 T-bone steaks and 27 dozen oysters. The waiters set the table for 33, and watched, aghast, as Gillis, Pat McDonald, and Matt McGrath ate it all.
Although the Irish Whales’ medals counted for the United States, they never lost their identification with the country of their birth. Some, like John Flanagan and Patrick Ryan, returned to Ireland at the end of their working lives. Others stayed in the United States, and only monuments erected by their home towns remain in Ireland.
Irish boxers have done well in the last several Games, taking at least one medal in every game as far back as 1956. Swimmer Michelle Smith did Ireland proud with her three golds and a bronze in 1996, and all the other competitors have given their best to their sports. Fine athletes all, but for sheer exuberance, accomplishments, and voraciousness, the Irish Whales will never be outdone.
In 1912, the year the athletes exhausted their waiter, travel by ship was the only way to cross the ocean. Sources do not record which liner carried the US Olympic team to Stockholm, but it could well have been fabricated in Belfast, where Harland and Wolff built hundreds of ships, including the Olympic, the Britannic, and the Titanic. Jimmy and Donal might have helped build that Norway-bound vessel, and would surely have cheered for the expatriate champions.
The best jobs in 1911 Belfast are in the shipyards, but Donal Gallagher’s pay packet at Harland and Wolff doesn’t stretch far enough. He needs to find someone to share his rented room; fellow ship-builder Jimmy Healy’s bright smile and need for lodgings inspire Donal to offer. But how will he sleep, lying scant feet away from Jimmy? It seems Jimmy’s a restless sleeper, too, lying so near to Donal…
In a volatile political climate, building marine boilers and armed insurrection are strangely connected. Jimmy faces an uneasy choice: flee to America or risk turning gunrunner for Home Rule activists. He thinks he’s found the perfect answer to keep himself and his Donal safe, but shoveling coal on a luxury liner is an invitation to fate.