How the Irish defeated the best of Britain at 1908 London Olympics


Out of the 23 individual championships in track and field, Americans won 13; of those, members of the Irish American Athletic Club of New York City won eight. Britain won seven individual championships, but Irishmen, Robert Kerr of Canada and Timothy Ahern of Ireland, won two of those and a South African won another. Englishmen accounted for exactly four victories, and one of those was Wyndham Halswelle’s solo run in the 400 meters, another two came in walking events in which the English were virtually the only participants.

The crushing American victory in track and field was especially satisfying considering the inhospitable treatment the Americans had received. Said high-jump champion Harry Porter, “In nearly every event the boys had to compete not only against their competitors but against prejudiced judges. The judges may not have been intentionally unfair, but they could not control their feelings, which were antagonistic to the Americans. This was especially true in the field events, where the boys came in closer contact with the judges. The Americans were continually nagged at and made uncomfortable. The officials were discourteous to our men and further, by their encouragement of the other men, tried to beat us.”

While acting mayor Patrick F. McGowan of New York City and Patrick J. Conway, the president of the Irish American Athletic Club, were formulating plans for “an immense civil parade” to honor the American team, the athletes boarded ships for the voyage home. The Irishmen on the team had a stop to make, though. On July 30 they arrived in Dublin and were greeted like conquering heroes.

“The greeting accorded them,” reported a correspondent for the New York Times, “was all the more remarkable because it was entirely spontaneous, the mere announcement of the hour of their arrival bringing many thousands of persons to the station to meet the athletes. The streets along the route to their hotel were completely blocked by Dublinites, and the enthusiasm displayed recalled the triumphant entries into the city of Parnell when he was at the height of his popularity.”

Editor’s Note:  A version of this story first appeared in Irish America in September 1988.