A gold for Donegal at the Paris 1900 Olympics


HOLD THE BACK PAGE:It’s unlikely that there are all that many people out there who know that the captain of the 1924 Irish Olympic water polo team was the uncle of Samuel Beckett.

Dr Tom Hunt, a sports historian from Waterford, is one of them, but being the uncle of Irish football internationals Stephen and Noel, he’s not unfamiliar with distinguished nephews.

Armed with that level of knowledge, Hunt was commissioned to write the official history of the Olympic Council of Ireland, a project he hopes to complete in the next few months.

Just when he thought his work was nearly done, though, and he had written about every Irish-born medallist through the years, regardless of which country they represented, Hunt came upon a reference to a rower who was a member of the United States team that won gold in the eights at the 1900 Paris Olympics.

Born in Donegal

The place of birth given for William John Carr was Donegal.

Time, then, for some sleuthing, and with the help of journalist Cronan Scanlon, who wrote about the story in the Donegal News earlier this month, Hunt was able to confirm that Carr was, indeed, a Donegal man, born in Gortnagrace, near Castlefin, in June 1876, and died in March 1942 in Philadelphia.

Another Irish gold medal, then – even if it was won for the United States.

“The direct response to the Donegal News article and a bit of work by Cronan, who sent out the initial SOS for me, provided the definite confirmation that he was Donegal-born,” Hunt told us when we asked him for an update on his detective work this week.

Carr was a member of the famous Vesper Boat Club in Philadelphia, as were all his 1900 team-mates, the club’s most well known member John B Kelly, father of Princess Grace of Monaco and a triple Olympic gold medal winner.

“The New York Times reported that ‘members of the 1900 crew had taken on considerable flesh during the journey’,” said Hunt, “and the coach was Patrick Dempsey – who was hardly unfamiliar with Ireland.

Regardless of the excess flesh, the American crew had an easy victory in Paris.

In Philadelphia

“I don’t think I’m going to find out much more about Bill Carr. I spoke to his grandson in Philadelphia, who remembered him, but he didn’t know much about his background. His occupation was a carpenter, he told me.”

With the assistance of Scanlon and ancestry.com, Hunt established that Carr was the son of Robert Edmund McIlcar of Gortnagrace and Jane Doran of Alt, also near Castlefin.

And more sleuthing, with the help of our old friend Google, takes you to Ulsterancestry.comwhere a descendant of McIlcar says he “anglicised his name to Carr in 1875 and emigrated to Philadelphia by 1881”, when William was just five.

So, from Gortnagrace to Olympic gold in Paris via Philadelphia – it’s an extraordinary tale.

There’s more

And Hunt has found another one: “A Mike Kelly from Galway who won two gold medals with the USA team in 1920 in rapid fire pistol shooting! There are a few ‘undocumented’ Irish-born medal winners out there,” he said.

Hunt is trying to get more information on Kelly’s story, so if you know anything you can contact him at tomhunt94@gmail.com.

At the rate his sleuthing is going, we could be top of the Olympic medals table yet.

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