Remembering Martin Sheridan - The greatest athlete of his generation

It’s Swinford Railway Station on Friday, 31 July 1908. 

Remembering Martin Sheridan - The greatest athlete of his generation

A young Irish emigrant jumps down onto the platform carrying a case with his clothes in it. He is back in Mayo and intent on travelling to his father’s farm outside the nearby village of Bohola.

His name is Martin Sheridan — he had emigrated at the age of 18 to America and now, nine years later, he works for the New York Police.

This is no typical emigrant journey home, however.

When the train carrying Sheridan pulls into the town, the Swinford Band begin playing ‘See The Conquering Hero Comes’ — and all the approach roads to the train station are thronged with people.

Sheridan wants to slip quietly home to see his family — but that’s not easy when you have just won two gold medals in discus throwing and one long jump bronze at an Olympic Games.

Those medals — won at the London Olympics — proved the crowning glory of Sheridan’s career. By the time he retired from athletics he had won five gold, three silver and one bronze medal at Olympic Games. He had also created 16 world records in various track and field disciplines, as well winning multiple US championships.

It was joked that he could play pitch-and-toss with his medals and never be concerned at losing a couple.

Put simply: Martin Sheridan was the greatest all-round athlete of the age.

Now, though, his great challenge would be to make it through Swinford. He had told nobody he was coming home, but news of his presence on the train had been wired from Dublin to Swinford. The news then spread like a prairie fire across that town — and out into the countryside.

A public meeting, a banquet in the Commercial Hotel, and a reception were immediately organized. Photographs were taken of him holding the discus at various places, including at the back of Lambe’s pub.

And, of course, he had to make a speech. That speech is still wonderful to read. It was laced with modesty and humour and even politics. The fact that Ireland was not an independent country, he said, was an injustice which had to end. There was also the bitter regret that he had emigrated because there was no future before him in Ireland – and that there seemed to be no future for any lad his age to stay.

Mostly, though, his words are a celebration of pride in coming from a rural area in Co Mayo and conquering the world.

“I am once more with my own,” he said, “and I don’t think there are 20 people in this room who are not related to me in some way or other. In many a hard-fought contest, when only inches lay between me and the prize, I have often thought of you, and these thoughts never failed to make me gird my energies and drive my Swinford blood coursing madly through my veins in my efforts to achieve victory.”

The wild applause in Swinford was at nothing compared to the reception in Bohola, where a magnificent open-air meeting was staged.

His parents — Joe and Kitty — were there to hear Martin feted by, among others, the schoolteacher who had taught him his ABCs.

And the rest of August 1908 was a whirl. He did get moments of relaxation around home — he shot rabbits and wild ducks, and swan regularly in the River Moy, but there was no longterm escape from his new celebrity.

Everywhere that Sheridan went, he was met by huge crowds.

The trains he took were stopped at every station to allow local people meet him and sing to him.

In Dublin, he was carried shoulder high from Broadstone Train Station to the Lord Mayor’s Carriage and on to a reception at the Gresham Hotel.

He went down to Dungarvan in Co Waterford to meet another outstanding Irish all-round athlete from those years: Tom Kiely from Tipperary. Kiely had won an Olympic medal as All-Round Champion (a sort of forerunner of the modern decathlon) in St. Louis in 1904. He had returned to America in 1906 and won the All-Round World Championship in 1906.

He had done so without defeating Sheridan, who won the title in 1905, 1907 and 1909, but was injured in 1906 and could not compete against Kiely.

By 1908 Kiely was well into his 30s and was a ferocious competitor. He and Sheridan competed against each other across five events in Dungarvan. The contest was a brilliant one which enthralled the crowd for an afternoon, before ending in a draw.

The men shook hands and resolved to resolve the battle for superiority on another day.

Later in August Martin Sheridan also competed at a sports event in Dundalk and, using the discus he had won with in London, broke the world record.

His final sporting activity in Ireland came a few weeks later when he competed back in Mayo in the Ballina Sports.

So great was the crush at the gate that the men who were attempting to collect the entrance fee simply abandoned their posts.

As one observer noted: “One might as well seek to keep the tide out with a proverbial fork.”

Kiely had travelled up from Dungarvan, but was unable to compete against Sheridan due to a back injury. The highpoint of the sports was a pole vaulting exhibition which Sheridan gave to thunderous applause.

Three days later on 8 September 1908 hundreds of people returned to Swinford Train Station to see Sheridan off from his hometown.

He headed to Queenstown (now Cobh) in Co Cork and took a Cunard Line ferry to New York where he returned to work in the police department.

He retired from athletics in 1911 at the age of 30, but progressed through the police ranks, becoming a detective and serving as special bodyguard to the Governor of New York. On Saturday, March 23, 1918, a group of his friends organized a surprise party for him to celebrate his 37th birthday.

The party never happened. Sheridan had been admitted to hospital the previous day, suffering from pneumonia.

He rallied and slipped and rallied again. Until, five days later, his condition deteriorated rapidly and he died on March 27th, 1918.

A huge crowd attended his funeral — the men he worked with and played with wept openly on the street.

In the months and years that followed medals and cups were named in his honour, monuments were erected in America and in Ireland, and his memory remained alive in song and verse. He was – as the inscription on his gravestone reads –

An Intrepid American,

An ardent lover of his motherland;

A Peerless athlete;

Devoted to the institutions of his country

And to the ideals and aspirations of his race.

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