Certain robust gentlemen with a bit of a brogue about them were the talk of the American sporting world at the turn of the century, for at that time Irish-American athletes dominated a large section of the sports world. But in none were they stronger than in track and field. Here they broke one another's records with light-hearted abandon. They ran, jumped and threw each other ragged and exhausted. After the dust had more or less settled in 1915, a startling fact emerged: for the preceding 20 years Irish or Irish-Americans held world records in about a dozen standard track and field events.
Mike Sweeney developed the high-jumping form which later was modified into the Eastern style. With it he set a world record of 6 feet 5‚Öù inches which was not beaten until 16 years later, when the extreme layout of the Western roll was introduced.
In the sprints the Irish-Americans had their own swift way from about 1895 to 1915. Bernie Wefers of Georgetown became the first consistent 9.8 man (or 9% as it was then listed). Another great Georgetown lad, Arthur Duffey, in 1902 made an unquestioned 9.6 at the Intercollegiates in New York. Duffey's record was erased when it was reported that he had professionalized himself prior to making it. But his time was unbeaten for 27 years—until 10th-second watches were put in use and 9.5 became a possibility.
Half-mile competition produced a star in Charles H. Kilpatrick of Union College, who set a world mark of 1:53.4 in 1895 that stood until 1909. On the day that Kilpatrick made his mark, Tommy Conneff, an Irish-born Bostonian, set the world amateur mile mark at 4:15.6. (No one bettered 4:15 until 19 years later.)
Starring in the hop, step and jump were Irish-born American brothers, Tim and Dan Ahearne. Tim won in the 1908 Olympics and Dan set the world record at 50 feet, 11 inches in 1911.
The Irish really excelled when it came to hurling assorted hardware. The genial Whales of the Irish-American A.C. included such huge ones as John Flanagan, Matt McGrath, Pat Ryan and Pat (Babe) McDonald plus a streamlined specimen, Martin Sheridan. The Whales held scores of American and world records in the weight events. Flanagan and McGrath took turns upping the hammer throw record until McGrath reached 187 feet, 4 inches in 1911. Two years later Ryan made a throw of 189 feet, 6½ inches which stood as a world record for 25 years and as an American record until 1953—one of the oldest in the books.
The Whales also made sport of the 56-pound weight, which they alternately tossed for record distances. Flanagan, McGrath, McDonald and Ryan all made marks of over 38 feet in AAU championships and McGrath set the world record at 40 feet, 6 inches in 1911. McDonald won his first 56-pound championship in 1911—and his last in 1933. He switched to the shot-put to win the 1912 Olympics.
Sheridan, the streamlined Whale, was the first man in the world to throw the discus more than 130 feet. And a little fellow named Johnny Hayes further distinguished the Irish-American A.C. by winning the marathon in the 1908 Olympics.
The annals of track and field were never greener than during these great days of the Irish.