The Irish Whales: Living the American Immigrant and Olympic Dream at the Turn of the Century

Irish_Whales_team in 1904

They were tall and big. They were voracious eaters. They were cops. And they were Olympians.

The Irish Whales. You wouldn’t call them that to their faces because they were almost all over 6 feet tall, ranging in weight from 250 to 300 pounds…and they didn’t like the name. But they were achievers, winning well over 20 medals in Olympics between 1900 and 1924, dominating in the hammer throw, the discus throw, the shot put and what was common then, the 56lb weight throw.

Abel Kiviat 1912
Abel Kiviat in 1912

Abel Kiviat was a member of the Irish-American Club even though he wasn’t Irish, nor a very large person. He was a runner, winning gold for the US in the Team 3000 meter race, and silver in the 1500 meters race at the Stockholm Olympics in 1912. He wrote about his Irish-American teammates in the book “Tales of Gold An Oral History of the Summer Olympic Games Told by America’s Gold Medal Winners“.

The best-known members of the Irish-American Club were the so-called New York Whales. They were all Irish cops. I remember Pat McDonald. He weighed 350 pounds and won the shot put at Stockholm. For 30 years he was the traffic cop at 43rd Street and Broadway, right at Times Square. Matt McGrath was another of the Whales. He won the hammer throw in 1912 after coming in second in London in 1908. Ralph Rose was another but he was from out west someplace.

He was the biggest one of them all – six feet, seven inches or so. He won the shot put in 1908 and the two-handed shot put in 1912. He was the flag bearer in 1908 who refused to dip the flag in the opening ceremony when he passed by the British king. Rose weighed 365 pounds, a pound for each day. You know, those big Irishmen protected me, the only Jew in the Irish-American Club. I remember I had a little run-in with the discus thrower, Jim Duncan, on the boat going over to Stockholm. He was a fresh mutt, about 225 pounds and ugly looking. He started calling me names and annoying me, so Matt McGrath and Pat McDonald grabbed ahold of him and dragged him to a porthole and threatened to push him through if he called me any more names. And then they made me track captain.

Irish_Whales_McDonald_and_McGrath
Pat McDonald and Matt McGrath of the Irish Whales

According to Arthur Daly in a June 12, 1942 New York Times article, this team got their moniker because they were prodigious eaters.

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.’ They used to take five plates of soup as a starter and then gulp down three or four steaks with trimmings.

The Irish-American Club and the famous group of individuals known as the “Irish Whales” or “The New York Whales” were in some ways the story of America in the 19th and early 20th century. The Irish left Ireland for America and a better life, one in which they could break class and economic shackles and have an opportunity to achieve. Here is a historical description of the Irish Whales from TheIrishHistory.com.

The Irish Whales dominated the track and field, particularly throwing events, at the Olympics between 1896 and 1924 and their story touches on many issues that affected Irish-Americans in the late 19th and early 20th century; emigration, assimilation, national identity, antipathy towards England and Irish nationalism.

As Irish immigrants arrived in North America in the mid and late nineteenth century they brought with them a love of sport. Sports such as fishing, hunting and shooting were popular among the landed gentry but for the vast majority of Irish people athletic meetings at county fairs, fields and rural roads were the sporting activities of choice and attracted huge crowds and interest. Success in the sporting world was one way that immigrants could gain acceptance in the United States and by the end of the nineteenth century Irish Americans were dominating the sports of boxing and baseball. Victory in the sporting arena also meant socioeconomic advancement which was a powerful motivator for poor immigrants.

These are Emma Lazarus’ words etched on The Statue of Liberty in New York

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, he homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

They meant something powerful then. They still mean something today.