They were know, collectively, as the ‘Irish Whales’ John J. Flanagan, Matt McGrath, Jim Mitchell, Patrick J.Ryan and Con Walsh. In the early years of the 20th century these Irishmen, all domiciled in the USA, ruled the world of hammer throwing, winning five Olympic gold medals . But it was Flanagan, born in Kilbreedy, near Kilmallock, Co.Limerick, in 1873, who was primus inter pares.
Flanagan, who, for a successful field athlete, stood a relatively modest 5’10” tall, was something of an all-rounder who had already established his reputation in field sports before he emigrated to the USA in 1896. There he began to specialise in the hammer event which, in 1900, was included in the programme for the Paris Olympic Games. Flanagan, the world record holder, representing the USA, beat two other American throwers to take the first hammer gold with a throw of just over 51 metres. He was the only non-college American to win a medal at those games. Both the silver and bronze medallists in his event, Truxton Hare and Josiah McCracken were, for example, college football players.
He repeated the feat in the St.Louis games in 1904, taking gold, once again, from two Americans. His third and final gold medal, at the London Olympics in 1908, must have given him a great deal of satisfaction. An element in the crowd appeared to dislike the idea of an Irishman competing for the USA at the Olympic games, and made their feelings clear, vocally, by booing the Limerickman. Flanagan defied their disapproval to take the laurels with a throw of almost 52 metres. Fellow Irishman, Matt McGrath, took the silver, which must really have pleased the home crowd. There cup must have run over entirely when the bronze was hung around the neck of Con Walsh, competing for Canada.
Flanagan and McGrath (who won Olympic gold in 1912) were both members of the New York Police Department. Flanagan’s first posting was something of a sinecure. He worked in the Bureau of Licences where he had a lot of time on his hands which was mostly used for training at the Irish American Athletic Club in Queens.
Flanagan was a committed competitor no matter what the occasion. In 1905, for example, in a police sports meeting in New York he dominated the throwing events as expected. That, however, wasn’t enough for him, and to demonstrate that he possessed a turn of speed as well he entered and won the inelegantly titled Fat Man’s Race.
In 1910 he ended his career as one of New York’s finest after he was transferred to West 68th street and forced to walk a beat near Central Park.
In all Flanagan, in addition to his three Olympic golds, won 9 US championships and set thirteen world records. In 1911 he returned to Ireland and a few years later took over the family farm on the death of his father. He died, aged 75, on 4 June 1938 in his native Limerick.
Inspired, no doubt, by his superhuman achievements there is a belief that Flanagan’s middle name was ‘Jesus’. This is how he appears on, for example, the Olympic.org website. But it seems his middle name was, in fact, the far humbler and more mundane, Joseph.
The first occasion on which the hammer event at the Olympic games was NOT won by an athlete competing for the USA was in 1928, when Pat O’Callaghan, throwing for Ireland, took the gold. That would have been an immensely satisfying moment for Flanagan, as he was O’Callaghan’s coach.
Irish-born Olympian, John J.Flanagan was born 141 years ago, on this day.