The Glory Days of Celtic Park
By Ian McGowan, Contributor
June / July 2012
One of the premier track- and-field training facilities in the world in its time, Celtic Park produced more than two dozen Olympic medalists who collectively won more than 50 medals for the U.S. Olympic team, and more than a dozen for other countries.
In the early 20th century, amateur athletics were viewed as a rich man’s leisure activity, a notion largely influenced by Victorian and Edwardian perceptions of athleticism.
At the time, amateur athletics in New York were dominated by the then almost entirely Protestant New York Athletic Club, the oldest private athletic club in the United States, founded in 1868. But then, in 1887, a group of Irish immigrants formed a social club whose members were largely working class and devoted to athletics.
The Greater New York Irish-American Association, which adopted as its emblem a winged fist adorned with American flags and shamrocks and the Irish motto “Láim Láidir Abú” or “Strong Hand Forever,” purchased approximately seven acres of land in the suburban farming community of Long Island known as Laurel Hill for $9,000. On this land they built an athletic complex they named Celtic Park that would become a venue for Gaelic football, hurling and track-and-field events, a meeting place for Irish immigrants in New York, and a training ground for some of the best athletes the world has ever seen.
The inaugural track meet was held on May 30, 1898 with New York City Magistrate Henry Brann, a native of Ireland, delivering the dedication speech, but it wasn’t until 1901 that Celtic Park was completely finished and, according to the New York Times, “emerged as one of the most completely equipped places of the kind about the city.”
The clubhouse, a two-story building, included a dining room that could seat 1,000, and a basement with 12-foot-high ceilings, and bowling lanes. On the second floor, there was a café, as well as dressing rooms, reception rooms, a private dining hall, and piazzas with views of the track-and-field and the Manhattan skyline. The west side of the grounds held an enclosed grandstand with a seating capacity of 2,500.
Another feature of the park was its accessibility. The founding members had intentionally built the park close to the trolley line to Calvary Cemetery, making it convenient for Irish immigrants to visit their dearly departed in the city’s largest Catholic burial place before taking in a Sunday game.
The Athletes of Celtic Park
Though largely Irish in composition, the Irish-American Athletic Club (I-AAC), as it was renamed in 1904, quickly became one of the most ethnically diverse organizations of its day. In an era of segregation and discrimination, it served as a workingman’s athletic club – regardless of race or religion. The two head coaches were Ernie Hjertberg (Swedish) and Lawson Robertson (Scottish), and the membership included German, Finns, Swedes, Italians, and Hispanics.
The club boasted the first Irish athlete to win a gold medal for the U.S. – the Limerick-born John Joseph Flanagan, a three-time Olympic gold medalist who is considered the father of modern hammer throwing. Myer Prinstein (the first Jewish-American Olympic gold medalist) was a member, as was Dr. John Baxter Taylor, Jr., (the first African-American to win an Olympic gold medal for the U.S.)
Taylor’s decision to join the I-AAC was noted in several national newspapers at the time. The New York Times ran the headline “Taylor to Run as an Irish-American,” while The Washington Post reported, “It may be said that there is no athlete more popular with the Celtic Park crowd than Taylor. . . And every man of the Irish contingent around the track roots himself hoarse to see Taylor win.”
Numerous national and world records were frequently set or broken at Celtic Park at events governed by the rules of the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU).
The park hosted six AAU All-Around Championships (the predecessor of the modern decathlon). Today the decathlon is conducted over two days of competitions, back then the 10-event all-around meet was held in a single afternoon.
Martin John Sheridan, a five-time Olympic medalist, who was heralded by the New York Times as the greatest all-round athlete of his day, won the championship in 1907 and again in 1909. The final All-Around Championship held at Celtic Park in 1912, was won by Jim Thorpe, who was of Native American and Irish ancestry.
Sheridan, a New York City police officer who had been born in Co. Mayo, was present to watch his record being broken by Thorpe. Reports show that he shook Thorpe’s hand saying, “Jim my boy, you’re a great man. I never expect to look upon a finer athlete.”
In the seven Olympic Games held from 1900 to 1924, members of the I-AAC won a total of twenty-six Gold, twenty-two Silver and eight Bronze medals for the U.S. Olympic Team. While these men were not all members of the I-AAC when they won their Olympic medals, all of them wore the Winged Fist insignia of the Irish-American Athletic Club at some point in their athletic careers.
Celtic Park and the Irish-American Community
A record of the role that Celtic Park played in the New York Irish community can be found in a 1908 front-page article that appeared in The Gaelic American newspaper entitled “Irish Athletes Made Splendid Records.”
“Irishmen are responsible in a large degree for the healthy athletic influences now prevalent in American cities. The first centenary of the Irish Revolution of 1798 was remarkable as being the year which saw the birth of the Irish-Ireland Movement and the sweeping of the last vestige of an old world tyranny from the American main. The Spanish War was insignificant compared to the foundation of the athletic America, which can honestly be claimed by the men who conceived Celtic Park. … The formation of the Public Schools’ Athletic League, the Catholic Athletic League, the Military Athletic League and the Irish Counties Athletic Union can be traced directly to Celtic Park.”
In addition to being the home of the Irish-American Athletic Club and its celebrated Winged Fist-wearing world-class athletes, Celtic Park played a critical role as the meeting place for Irish fraternal, social and political organizations.
The Irish Counties Athletic Union (predecessor of the United Irish Counties Association), the Gaelic Athletic Assoc-iation (G.A.A) and the Irish Volunteers all regularly held events, meetings and fundraisers at Celtic Park. Some of these activities attracted crowds of more than fifteen thousand.
From as early as 1905, until at least 1921, the political organization Clan-na-Gael held fundraisers, picnics and athletic events at Celtic Park. At these events that attracted thousands of Irish exiles and Irish-Americans, Clan-na-Gael publicly advocated armed resistance to British occupation of Ireland well over a decade before the Easter Rising. It appears that a significant portion of the money that the Clan-na-Gael raised to finance the Easter Rising came from the 25-cent admission charged at the gate of Celtic Park.
The Decline of Celtic Park
There were a few major factors that contributed to the decline of the Irish-American Athletic Club and Celtic Park. The initial factor was the advent of World War I. “We decided to give up athletics for its duration,” P.J. Conway, founding member of the I-AAC and its president for 27 years said, commenting on the impact of the Great War. “We wrote to President Wilson and offered Celtic Park to the nation for any purpose he saw fit. He thanked us for our patriotism but said that he had to decline the offer. After the war it was impossible to gather the old crowds together.”
The decline of Celtic Park was also hastened by Prohibition’s thirteen-year ban on the sale of alcohol, beginning in 1920. The park quickly became a high-profile target for law enforcement scrutiny and the object of unflattering media reports.
“For more than six months alleged bootleggers have been arrested at the park every Sunday, sometimes as many as a dozen men being taken into custody. These men have been doing a retail business from bottles of whiskey carried in their pockets,” the New York Times reported on July 25, 1922.
Prohibition was just one of the factors in sounding the death knell for Celtic Park. The new, more modern facilities that were being built in the New York City area and the growing urbanization of the area around the park also contributed.
The decline in popularity of the park as a venue for athletic competitions forced the club to find other income-producing events. From 1928-30, on the same track where Olympic gold medalists had once performed before thousands of cheering spectators, greyhound races were held. And in tribute to a bygone era, track promoters included a race where the winning dog’s owner received the “Martin J. Sheridan Trophy,” named in honor of the I-AAC’s great Olympic champion. But greyhound racing at Celtic Park didn’t last long, in large part due to pressure from the growing residential community.
The New York Times reported on September 21, 1928 that the Laurel Hill Improvement Association had united with the Thomson Hill Taxpayers’ Association in an effort to prevent the holding of greyhound races in Celtic Park. George W. Morton Jr., President of the Laurel Hill association, said that “the races would be a detriment to the community, since only a gambling and ‘riff-raff’ element would be attracted by them.”
Sold for Housing
In 1930, after more than thirty years as a meeting place for the Irish in New York and a training ground for world-class athletes, Celtic Park was sold to the City and Suburban Homes Company for the construction of apartments for working-class families.
Nearly eighty years after construction of the Celtic Park apartments, there are just a handful of reminders of the neighborhood’s history. To the south of Celtic Park, Laurel Hill Boulevard remains; and to the north is a small city park called Thomson Hill Park – named after the man the land was purchased from in 1897. The only reminder of the glorious history of the athletes who trained there is the one-block-long Celtic Avenue, and, of course, the housing complex that got its name from the Irish-American Athletic Club’s track & field stadium – Celtic Park.
In July of 2011, the New York City Council passed a bill introduced by Queens Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, and signed into law by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, co-naming the street that runs through Celtic Park “Winged Fist Way,” in honor of the athletes of the Irish-American Athletic Club. The street sign was unveiled in March of 2012.
Olympic Medalists of the Irish–American Athletic Club
Matthew John “Matt” McGrath
Born: December 18, 1876 – Nenagh, Co. Tipperary, Ireland
Died: January 29, 1941 – New York City
New York City Police Department 1902-1941
Inspector, Traffic Division – Two NYPD Medals for Valor
As a youngster in Co. Tipperary, Matt McGrath developed exceptional strength and endurance working alongside his father and brothers plowing fields, reaping harvests and tending to livestock. As Matt grew to full manhood, an array of athletic skills began to emerge and he became known throughout the region for his prowess as a wrestler, boxer, runner, and weight man.And although he excelled at every sport he tried, it was the hammer throw that drew him the most attention.
At 19, McGrath left his Co. Tipperary home to seek a better life in the United States. Seven years later – at the urging of his father-in-law, a captain with the New York City Police Department – he became a police officer, and twice during his distinguished career was recipient of the NYPD’s Medal for Valor.
Beginning as a beat cop in 1902, Matt advanced steadily through the ranks: sergeant in 1917, lieutenant in 1918, captain in 1927, deputy inspector in 1930, and inspector in 1936. Six feet tall and nearly 250 pounds in his prime, McGrath made an imposing figure in his NYPD blues.
Although a lifelong member of the New York Athletic Club, Matt was also a lifetime honorary and briefly active member of the Irish-American Athletic Club. He counted members of the I-AAC (including archrival John Flanagan) among his closest friends and was a familiar face at Celtic Park.
In addition to hundreds of ribbons, medals and trophies from regional and national track-and-field meets – as well as several national and world records to his credit – Matt McGrath won one Olympic gold medal in the hammer throw (1912), and two silver medals (1908 and 1924).
The farm boy from Nenagh was one of the greatest weight men ever, and for nearly forty years was a decorated member of the NYPD. In the fall of 1940, suffering with a serious liver ailment, Matt was hospitalized. And although he was soon released and recuperating at his Bronx home while on sick leave from his police duties, McGrath had a relapse and died on January 29, 1941.
Despite having left behind an athletic and law enforcement legacy matched by few, Matt McGrath is buried in an unmarked grave at Calvary Cemetery in Queens, New York. In 2002 a statue of McGrath was unveiled in the town square in Nenagh.
Patrick Joseph “Babe” McDonald
Born: July 29, 1878 – Doonbeg, Co. Clare, Ireland
Died: May 16, 1954 – New York City
New York City Police Department 1905-1946
Captain, Traffic Division – “The Times Square Cop”
An error at Ellis Island resulted in Pat McDonnell becoming Pat McDonald, but in his native Co. Clare the great Olympic champion is remembered by his baptismal name at a memorial erected near his birthplace at Doonbeg. And if a monument to Pat is ever erected in the United States, it would logically stand at Times Square – his beat as a traffic cop from 1905-20.
It was said of Pat (known to friends and foes as “Babe”) that his Falstaffian figure, Irish brogue and friendly banter were as familiar to New Yorkers as the best hotels, restaurants and landmarks of the era. George M. Cohan, noticing one afternoon that Officer McDonald was not on duty at Broadway and 43rd Street, made a point of going up to him the next day to ask about his health.
McDonald, who left Ireland in 1899 and six years later had a NYPD badge pinned on an extra-large uniform, started his career with a rookie’s $66.59 monthly salary and held down the Times Square beat for fifteen years. In early 1921 he became a plainclothes sergeant, was promoted to lieutenant in 1926, and ten years later became a captain.
The 6’4” Irish-American Athletic Club stalwart, who competed at over 260 pounds throughout most of his career, won an amazing sixteen national championships throwing the 56-lbs weight – the first in 1907 and last in 1933, at the age of 55. He also won an Olympic gold medal in 1912 for the shot put and another in 1920 for the 56-lbs weight throw.
In addition to several commendations for heroism and valor as a member of the NYPD, Pat was given the honor of being the flag bearer at the Opening Ceremonies of both the 1920 and 1924 Olympic Games. Coupled with distance runner George Bonhag – who carried the American flag in the Opening Ceremony at the1912 Games – members of the I-AAC were United States flag bearers at three Olympics.
When the 75-year-old retired police captain and Olympic champion died in 1954, New York Times columnist Arthur Daley remembered how McDonald had gone through life, “with a song in his heart, a twinkle in his eye and laughter ever bubbling within him.”
Pat “Babe” McDonald was buried at the Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Mt. Pleasant, NY, and the only Irish Whale to outlive him was I-AAC teammate Paddy Ryan – also an Olympic gold medalist in 1920 – who died in Limerick, Ireland in 1964, a month past his 83rd birthday.
Martin John Sheridan
Born: March 28, 1881 – Bohola, Co. Mayo, Ireland
Died: March 27, 1918 – New York City
New York City Police Department 1905-1918
Sergeant Attached to the Detective Bureau
When Martin Sheridan died, the New York Times called him, “Without question the greatest all-around athlete this country has ever known.” In addition, he was a decorated New York City police officer – in recognition of which his fellow officers and friends established the Martin J. Sheridan Medal for Valor, awarded from 1922 through 1974.
Sheridan began his track-andfield career with the Pastimes A.C. in 1901 then soon joined the Irish-American Athletic Club. In 1904, at St. Louis, he won his first Olympic medal – a gold in the discus. In all, Sheridan won nine Olympic medals: five gold, three silver and one bronze, and to date, he stands as the New York City police officer and Irishman to have won the most Olympic medals.
At 6’3” and under 200 pounds, he was the lightest of the vaunted Irish Whales, but his combination of speed and strength resulted in three All-Around titles (precursor of the Decathlon). On a single afternoon, men competed in ten grueling track-and-field events, culminating with the mile run. Sheridan won the 1905, 1907 and 1909 All-Around meets – setting new world records at each competition. His record held until 1912, when it was surpassed by legendary Native American athlete Jim Thorpe.
As captain of the 1908 U.S. Olympic team, Sheridan and his Winged Fist teammates accounted for nearly half of all medals won by the U. S. at London. After the 1908 Olympic Games, he traveled to Ireland for a triumphant tour that took him back to his home in Co. Mayo. It was the first and only time since sailing for America in 1897 that he walked on Irish soil.
Although he retired from athletic competition prior to the 1912 Olympics, Sheridan kept active with the I-AAC, mentoring younger competitors. And as a member of the NYPD, he organized an annual track meet and picnic at Celtic Park where proceeds were placed in a fund to assist widows and orphans of fallen New York City police officers.
Forty-eight years after his sudden death from pneumonia – and formal police burial under a Celtic Cross at Calvary Cemetery in Queens, New York – a monument honoring native son Martin Sheridan was dedicated at the Bohola village square, across the green from P.J. Clarke’s Pub.
Among those in attendance at the 1966 Bohola monument dedication was Andrew “Andy” Sheridan, Martin’s younger brother. Although Andy spent much of his professional life in Chicago, he also threw the weights as a member of the I-AAC. But among the Sheridan boys, it was brother Richard – 1901 national discus champion – whose career most paralleled Martin’s. Deputy Inspector Dick Sheridan served with the NYPD from 1901-1937, then spent four years as Deputy Chief of Police with the special World’s Fair police unit.