The most traditional narrative about the links between sport and the 1916 Rising has been the GAA one, with debatable accuracy, but there is another story.
The GAA, at least in Ireland, imposed bans on its members participating in non-GAA competitions, or where members of the British army might also participate.
The association, therefore, did not really see the potential gain for Irish identity which participation at the largest global sports event, the Olympic Games, offered.
With Ireland under British rule, and an Olympic movement dominated by conservative aristocrats, it was extremely difficult for Irish Olympians to be accepted as representing Ireland.
Many Irish competitors tried, including Dublin’s 1896 tennis champion, John Boland. He only realised after he had come home that his two victories were being ascribed to Britain . Tom Kiely reputedly entered the St Louis Games in 1904 “for Tipperary and Ireland” and won gold in the equivalent of the decathlon.
Waterford’s Peter O’Connor won two jumping medals at the 1906 Athens Games but protested against being classed as British, climbing a flagpole and waving an ‘Erin go Bragh’ flag.
The Walker brothers, Michael and John, competed on an Irish cycling team in Stockholm, having slipped under the radar at the British Olympic Association and been permitted to compete by kindly Swedish administrators at the 1912 Games. They subsequently fought as rebels in the 1916 Rising.
There was also a deepening understanding of how Olympic success could promote an Irish nationalist agenda. In 1907, Roger Casement wrote to Bulmer Hobson, advocating the establishment of an Irish Olympic Council to achieve recognition internationally.
The Irish cycling team in 1912 was lauded by Arthur Griffith in the pages of his newspaper for having completed their event on Irish-made Lucania bicycles, thus reinforcing Sinn Féin’s ‘buy Irish’ campaign.
The most important links between the Olympic Games and the 1916 Rising were forged far away from Ireland, in the area of New York at that time called Long Island City. Here, the famous Irish-American Athletic Club (IAAC) operated, from its Celtic Park base in Sunnyside and was, for possibly 20 years, the most successful athletic club at the Olympics.
As America welcomed its tired, poor, and huddled masses through Ellis Island, the IAAC did the same for those with athletic prowess. It became a haven to the dozens of world-class athletes who emigrated from Ireland to the US.
As a largely working-class and immigrant organisation, it also attracted quite a few non-Irish members. In fact, the IAAC provided the US with its first Jewish Olympic champion (Meyer Prinstein, 1900) and the first African-American champion (John Baxter Taylor, 1908).
Ned Broy’s witness statement to the Bureau of Military History shows the importance of the IAAC in shaping an awareness of Irish identity and sporting prowess, even back in Ireland.
“The American papers sent to us by relatives at that time were full of the achievements of great Irish athletes in the USA,” said Broy. “These great men kept the Irish prestige high before the nations of the world. While Ireland, unfree, could not participate in world competition, her athletic ‘patron saints’ in America did the next best thing by putting up the Stars and Stripes at the Olympic Games and leaving nobody in doubt as to the land of their birth.”
In a US which came increasingly to see itself as the new rival to British imperial and economic might, heavily populated by Anglophobic immigrants from Ireland and Germany, the IAAC inevitably became a political organ as well as a sporting one. The old Fenian leader John Devoy ran the most staunchly Irish newspaper in New York, the Gaelic American. Ably aided by Tom Clarke, Devoy used his newspaper to promote the athletic meetings and activities of the Irish American Athletic Club. Tom Clarke’s IAAC membership card is still extant.
Many editions of the Gaelic American from 1904 onwards cover the IAAC’s athletic meetings, run by overtly Irish nationalist organisations such as the Clan na Gael of New York or the First Regiment of the Irish Volunteers (no connection with the body later founded in Ireland). Invariably, household names and the USA’s Olympic champions of the IAAC, such as Martin Sheridan, John Flanagan, or Matt McGrath, were the headline performers on days when family events, picnics, music recitals, and hurling matches were all part of the fun.
There is no doubt that these so-called IAAC picnics were central in keeping the Irish separatist message alive in the US. The coverage of the IAAC activities in the Gaelic American also shows us that club this was a serious fundraising institution for Irish separatism. The club’s poster boy was ardent separatist Martin Sheridan, nine times an Olympic medal winner for the US between 1904 and 1908. Sheridan’s brother, coincidentally, was married to Michael Collins’ sister.
Devoy’s paper regularly reported crowds of 10,000 or 15,000 attending the picnics, with an admission charge of 25 cents a head. It was also part of the Clan na Gael plan that some of the thousands who attended these events would return to Ireland when the time for rebellion dawned. Devoy even advertised free rifles to groups of Gaelic American subscribers, declaring: “In Ireland the people can’t practice rifle shooting. In America, every man can have a rifle and learn how to use it. The riflemen that will free Ireland must be trained here.”
This Irish-American invasion never happened in 1916, of course. However, we know that Tom Clarke returned to Ireland in 1907, undoubtedly taking some of the funds raised by the IAAC with him and setting up channels for later funds. We may never know the full extent of the funding for 1916 which derived from the IAAC, but it is no coincidence that the only time John Devoy visited Ireland after the 1916 Rising was, in fact, to attend the revived Tailteann Games in 1924 — the IAAC had already revived them in New York back in 1903!
Kevin McCarthy is a senior inspector of history with the Department of Education, and author of Gold, Silver and Green: The Irish Olympic Journey 1896-1924