‘Winged Fist Way’ commemorates Irish-American Olympic greats

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 4 (July/August 2012), News, Volume 20

Winged-Fist-Way-commemorates-Irish-American-Olympic-greats-1In 1897 the Greater New York Irish Athletic Association purchased approximately seven acres of land in the suburban farming community then known as Laurel Hill, Long Island, for $9,000. Soon an athletic complex—Celtic Park—was built. For the first two decades of the twentieth century, athletes were nurtured and trained by the Irish-American Athletic Club (as they became known in 1904), making Celtic Park one of the premier track and field training facilities in the world. The club produced more than two dozen Olympic medallists, who collectively won more than 50 medals for the US Olympic team, chiefly in 1908 at London (and more than a dozen for other countries).The park was intentionally built on the trolley line running to Calvary Cemetery, making it convenient to access for Irish immigrants already visiting their dear departed in the city’s largest Catholic cemetery. The clubhouse was a two-storey building that included a dining room that could seat 1,000 and a basement with 12ft-high ceilings and bowling lanes. On the second floor there was a café, dressing rooms, a reception room and a private dining hall, and piazzas with views of the track and field and the Manhattan skyline. On the west side, an enclosed grandstand seated 2,500 people.Up to the 1890s, amateur athletics in New York were dominated by the almost entirely WASP New York Athletic Club, the oldest private athletic club in the United States, founded in 1868. Amateur athletics then were viewed as a rich man’s leisure activity, largely influenced by Victorian and Edwardian perceptions of athleticism. The Irish-American Athletic Club would ultimately redefine this notion, by forming a successful club that was dominated by working-class athletes.Several I-AAC athletes were members of the New York Police Department, including Detective Martin Sheridan of Mayo and Manhattan’s first branch bureau, who won ‘1,000 cups and as many medals’ in his thirteen years of competition, according to a 1916 New York Times article. ‘It was not uncommon for him to win . . . eight or a dozen cups’ during one athletic meet. Other members of both the I-AAC and NYPD included patrolman Matt McGrath of Tipperary and the Oak Street station—‘an Olympic champion, and [who held] the world’s record for [throwing a] 56-pound weight’—and fellow patrolman Patrick ‘Babe’ MacDonald, a traffic cop from County Clare whose post at one time was 43rd Street and Broadway, who won ‘more than 1,000 prizes putting the 16-pound shot’. All three, plus fellow policeman John Flanagan from Limerick, were multiple Olympic medallists, headed by Sheridan, with nine medals in all.In addition to being the home of the I-AAC and its celebrated world-class athletes, Celtic Park played a critical role as the meeting place for Irish fraternal, social and political organisations. The Irish Counties Athletic Union (predecessor of the United Irish Counties), Irish benevolent associations, the GAA and the Irish Volunteers all regularly held events, meetings and fund-raisers at Celtic Park. Some of these activities attracted crowds of more than 15,000.

New York, May 2012—President Michael D. Higgins is presented with an enlarged replica of a cigarette card of triple Olympic hammer champion John J. Flanagan by Ian McGowan, director of the Winged Fist Organisation. (James Higgins)

New York, May 2012—President Michael D. Higgins is presented with an enlarged replica of a cigarette card of triple Olympic hammer champion John J. Flanagan by Ian McGowan, director of the Winged Fist Organisation. (James Higgins)

From as early as 1905 until at least 1921 Clan na Gael held fund-raisers, picnics and athletic events at Celtic Park. At these events, which attracted thousands of Irish exiles and Irish-Americans, Clan na Gael publicly advocated armed resistance to British rule in Ireland well over a decade before the Easter Rising. The Gaelic American, published by John Devoy and owned by Daniel F. Cohalan, was the unofficial newspaper of Clan na Gael and also covered Celtic Park events with great enthusiasm. Cohalan was a lawyer, a jurist, and in effect the in-house counsel for Clan na Gael. He also served as a member of the board of directors of the I-AAC as early as 1903, and was the attorney who eventually handled the sale of Celtic Park in 1930.For nearly 30 years Daniel Cohalan was intimately involved with Celtic Park and the I-AAC, and for most of this time he was also involved with the clandestine operations of Clan na Gael. The historian B.L. Reid wrote of Cohalan and Devoy that ‘there was little doubt that they were the American sponsors of the Dublin Rising, [and] that Roger Casement was in effect their agent’. Who says that sport and politics don’t mix?Anyone wandering the streets of Queens and what used to be Long Island City should look out for ‘Winged Fist Way’ and the apartment block there which stands on the site of Celtic Park, one of the most historic venues in American sport and, indeed, in the history of Irish involvement in sport.  HI
Ian McGowan is founder and director of the Winged Fist Organisation.

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