Olympic sensation to NYPD: The tale of Mayo’s Martin Sheridan
Not much was known about strongman from Bohola who was a sporting superstar
Martin Sheridan throws the discus on his way to winning the event at the 1908 London Olympics. Photo: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
In April 1910, the heavyweight boxer Jack Johnson was arrested in New York by the warrant officer of the West Side police court following an alleged altercation with an actress named Emily Cooper.
Breathless accounts of the event were carried in publications as diverse as the Minneapolis Journal and the Salt Lake Tribune. But it was the arresting officer, rather than the flamboyant boxer, who was the star of the reports.
As well as being a beat NYPD officer, Martin Sheridan, from Bohola in Co Mayo, was one of the most famous sports stars in America following his exploits at the 1904, ’06 and ’08 Olympics.
Stories of his police-keeping escapades were habitually carried not just in the Gotham dailies but the LA Times and Baltimore Sun: now Sheridan saving “scores of children” by wrestling and controlling a runaway horse “and with his powerful throwing arm tried to cut off the animal’s breath”; now buying a would-be bank burglar lunch at Mouquin’s restaurant before booking him; now chasing and subduing three armed robbers who had held up local bars at gunpoint and now accepting a ride in Johnson’s grey racing car after the charges against the boxer had been dismissed.
Sheridan found Johnson’s driving style so hair-raising that he asked to get off and finished his journey in a trolley car. That meeting was a brief intersection between two athletic lives that could not have been more different: both men were hugely famous at that time but Johnson’s singularity bold and uncompromising life ensured that he was a seminal figure in American sports and social history when he died in a car crash in 1946.
Sheridan, meanwhile, had been struck down in 1918, one of the millions of victims of Spanish Influenza and memories of his fame faded with him.
It was the realisation that the centenary of his death was approaching that spurred Margaret Molloy, the Ballina author and librarian, to begin researching and chronicling Sheridan’s brief, hectic life. She managed to publish the 550-page biography with days left in 2018. Because she lives in Bohola, she was aware of the vague outline of Sheridan’s life.
“I knew he came from a big political family and that his brother Joe was married to Kitty Collins, a sister of Michael Collins,” said Molloy this week.
“His uncle CJ Sheridan was one of the founders of the Land League with Davitt and Parnell. But as for the man himself, I knew nothing about him. He was never married and had no direct family himself but had nieces and grand nieces.
“I did come across before the 1908 Olympics that he was making wedding preparations but couldn’t find anything after that despite many exhaustive days. You could say that he had about 12 years of an athletic life. His first performance was in 1902 and he retired from sport in 1913 – there was never anything written about him.”
Through exceptional archiving, Molloy has managed to flesh to the bare bones of the Bohola man’s story. His emigration was, she believes, circumstantial: he followed his brother Richard to New York and joined the police, where he soon began to distinguish himself in athletic events.
It was in the 1906 games in Greece that he was revealed as a sensation, taking gold in the discus and the shot, silver in the 14lb stone throw, the high jump and long jump. He was heavily fancied to win the pentathlon event as well but despite withdrawing with an injury, he still scored more points than any other individual athlete and was feted by the hosts: King George had a statue erected in his honour and sent Sheridan a gold goblet while the Greeks carried the Irish man shoulder high when he was spotted on the streets.
“Nineteen points were scored by the prowess of and agility of this wonderful man single-handed. Many of the other countries of Europe represented by a generous number of competitors failed to tally even a third of what Sheridan did alone,” trumpeted the New York Times.
In between Olympics, Sheridan melted back into his civilian and law enforcement life so successfully that he virtually disowned his public persona. The newspaper carried reports of his feats simply because the public was interested in this super heroic Olympian.
He was a true enigma: determinedly low-key, immersed in the Irish nationalistic movement and seemingly disinterested in parlaying his athletic reputation into fame or money.
And yet when he represented the USA at the London Olympics in 1908, he was overt in his anti-imperialism. “It is cruel to think of it, after all these hundreds of years to find some Irish men still so slavish,” he said witheringly of the Irish athletes who representing Great Britain at the games – conveniently forgetting that he, too, was representing a country other than his native land.
“I think he was aware of that but it seems he felt it was the better of two evils: at least he wasn’t competing for England,” said Molloy.
“All of that nationalism would have been instilled in the house when he was growing up in Bohola. At the London games, he was operating for a reporter, too, for the Times-Dispatch and he sent back daily reports that were peppered with references to the English and he did use it as a vehicle to air his grievances.”
One of the big controversies of the London Olympics revolved around the refusal of the American team to ‘dip their flag’ while passing King Edward in the royal enclosure. Years afterwards, it became folklore that Sheridan had instructed Ralph Rose, the flag-bearer, to keep the flagpole raised with the words: ‘This flag dips to no earthly king.’ The quote lived on for decades but was never authenticated: what is on the record is Sheridan’s strident pro-nationalism.
After the 1908 Games, he tried to return to Mayo for a low-key visit but was recognised at Claremorris railway station: by the time his carriage stopped at Swinford, he was met by a crowd, the local brass band and forced to say a few words.
After that, he had no choice but to swim in the acclaim. A civic reception in Bohola was followed by public appearances and exhibitions across the country. The New York Times covered his arrival in Dublin: 2,000 members of the GAA met him and took him by torchlight procession to his hotel.
In August, he got to enjoy a quiet month at home and allowed TS Moclair of the Western People to visit him for breakfast at his aunt’s house.
“The Olympic winner does not believe in the conventionalities of appearance and of dress,” Moclair told his readers. “He hates display and loves to knock about with the same freedom of appearance that he did before he crossed the Atlantic . . . is the idol of the countryside; everywhere he goes his hand is gripped in friendship and pleasure . . . ”
Two years later, Sheridan contracted mastoiditis and didn’t compete in the Stockholm games of 1912. The illness weakened his immune system and his bout with flu in March of 1918 proved fatal.
The funeral was low key but that didn’t prevent huge crowds from gathering along Lexington Avenue – 722 was his address. The event was covered by all the major newspapers and publications as diverse as the Muncie Evening Press, the Topeka Daily Capital and the Arkansas Gazette: all speak of Sheridan as a household name and all referred to him as the greatest all-round athlete of the young century. Sheridan himself, when pressed had always insisted that the accolade belonged to Jim Thorpe.
“I don’t think he ever realised just how good he was,” Molloy says. “But either way, he took his talent in his stride and he didn’t want the limelight that went with it. But I do feel that if he had been born a little bit later he would have been acclaimed in a more permanent way. The time lapse of 100 years is significant.”
Her book places Sheridan’s role and profile in the first two decades of the American century in a more permanent context and breathes life into a man who crowded so much into the two decades after he left Mayo. He is buried in Calvary cemetery in New York, his grave marked by a simple Celtic cross headstone. Margaret Molloy hasn’t visited yet but hopes to over the coming year.
“And to see where he lived and worked. That fact that he went away so young and represented America as he did . . . communication being what it was then, I think people didn’t know a lot about him or all that he achieved at the age of 37.”
A century on, Martin Sheridan has been given a fitting tribute.