Martin Sheridan (1881 - 1918)

One of the greatest contributions to the world of sport at the start of the century was the amazing string of records set by a young Bohola man named Martin J. Sheridan.

The Sheridan homestead is the only existing one in the townland of Bohola today, situated to the left on the Swinford/Castlebar road, just beyond the Treenduff junction.

Martin Sheridan was without a doubt one of Bohola's most renowned and illustrious sons, several times Olympic Champion in the early 1900's, but all of the family were successful in various fields. Born in Bohola on March 28, 1881, he was the youngest of six children and he left for America in 1899, along with two of his brothers.

Shortly after reaching America, Richard and Martin Jr. took their civil service examinations and joined the police force in New York. Andrew started training in the hotel and catering business.

They were all interested in sports and took advantage of the elaborate Irish/American clubs available to them at the time.

The brothers took part in various competitions and always created a sensation on the field, usually walking away with the first three places. It became obvious as time went on that Martin was destined to become a number one all-round athlete. Spectators marvelled at his unique strength, speed, and accuracy.

Martin continued to do well in the police force and reached the rank of First Grade Detective in the New York Police Department. But all attention was on his sporting achievements.

This young Bohola man, who stood 6 feet 1 inch, and weighed 191 pounds, had the world at his feet.

One of the few track and field athletes of the past generation who was as good as unbeatable within a fourteen year span, he won hundreds of athletic contests, including five Olympic, twelve National and more than thirty Canadian, Metropolitan and Regional Championships.

The early victories

Martin Sheridan won his first event, a discus throw, in 1901, with a handicap, at the Pastime A.C. in New York in 1902, in his third competition he created a new world record in this event.

In 1904, Martin took the American title with 119' 1.5'' and also took the shotput at 40'9.5''. On the strength of these performances, he was selected to represent America in both events at the St. Louis games.

The St Louis Olympics (1904)

Martin Sheridan was just 23 when he made his debut into Olympic competition at St Louis in 1904, and his first Olympic victory was in the discus.

Instead of the anticipated easy victory, he found himself in third place before the final three rounds and faced with a far more difficult battle than he had expected.

The fighter in him refused to give up, however, and he struck back with 125' in his fourth throw, moving into second place. His fifth throw was even better. He sent the discus spinning out to 128'10. 5''. He did not improve in his last throw but neither did his nearest competitor Ralph Rose, and so the competition ended in the first and only tie in the history of Olympic discus throwing.

Three weeks after his win in St Louis, Martin Sheridan took back the sole ownership of the world record with a throw of 133'6. 5'', and this was still the worlds best mark when he left, with the first official American Olympic team, for the Intercalated Olympic Games at Athens in 1906.

One writer at the time described him:"He was the most handsome of the athletes and although he was a giant in size he could run the hundred yards in a little more that ten seconds".

One of New York's 'finest'

Martin attained first place on an eligible list for the NYPD and was appointed a member of the 'finest' in 1906. He helped organise the Police Carnival and Games for the benefit of the welfare fund of the Department which, for many years, was an outstanding athletic event in New York.

The Athens Olympics (1906)

At Athens, Martin had no trouble in winning the discus freestyle. He went over 130' with his first throw, and eventually won with a fraction over 136'.

All during this time, he was very much aware of the troubles in his native country and it grieved him to see the Irish people suffering so much.

He created quite a stir when he rebelled slightly against protocol in Athens. It was customary for athletes partaking in the games to dip the flag of his country while passing the king's stand, but Martin held his aloft in protest at what was happening in his native land.

When questioned at his arrogance, he stated that Ireland had bowed too often, but not anymore. The Greek king was so impressed with the Irishman that he had a statute erected in his honour in Athens, and he also presented him with a gold goblet and vaulting pole.

His second gold medal at Athens came in the shotput. He also won Olympic silver medals in the standing long jump, the standing high jump and stone-throwing, and then a leg injury prevented him from taking an almost certain gold medal in the pentathlon. On his return to New York, sportswriters acclaimed him as the greatest track and field athlete of all time.

Other Achievements

In addition to the ten events of the all-round championship, which he won three times with a new world record on each occasion, Martin Sheridan also won championships in the discus throw (free and Greek style), the 56lb. weight for height, the pole vault for distance, the three standing-broad jumps, the standing high jump, and the javelin throw. In his victories, he created sixteen world records.

In 1907, this great Bohola man raised the world discus record to 136'10''. The climax of his athletic career came in 1908 in the Old Madison Square Garden, where he won five firsts, two seconds, and a third place in the national indoor championships, thereby scoring 32 points and creating a new record in two events, a feat unparalleled in the history of track and field competition.

In June 1908, at the American trials for the Olympic Games, he brought a discus throw of 140' in sight with a further world record of 139'6. 5''. Because of his tremendous all-round display in these trials, he was nominated to represent America in every field event at the 1908 Games in London.

The London Olympics (1908)

The great Bohola athlete took three Olympic medals at the games in Shepherd's Bush Stadium - two gold and one bronze. A number of people travelled to London from Bohola for the games to see their champion compete for America.

A return to his roots

Martin visited Ireland in 1908 after the London Olympics. He gave exhibitions at Dundalk, Dungarvan, Dublin, and Ballina, at which 20 coach loads of people from Bohola travelled to see him. He competed at the Ballina athletic sports, breaking the British record for the pole jump, and he also broke other such records at Jones' Road, Dungarvan, and Dundalk.

Following the exhibition, a banquet was held in the Imperial Hotel, where Martin presented a bamboo vaulting pole to his fellow Bohola man and cousin, P.J. Clarke.

This was the very pole with which he had won the world vaulting championships in 1907 at Milan, and the 1908 London Olympics, and it is still a prizes possession today of P.J.'s grandson Micksey. During his visit to Bohola, the priest and people of the community got together and presented him with a scroll, welcoming him back to Bohola.

To our greatest athlete Martin Sheridan

From priest and people of his native parish of Bohola

Breathe there a man with a soul so dead Who never to himself had said This is my own, my native land

The Irish exile may climb the ladder of fame. Irish prowess may win a name that will evoke the admiration of all nations, but the Celtic heart ever fondly clings to the dear old land of the harp and shamrock. So today may your feelings be interpreted, and we the people of your native parish of Bohola welcome you back to this historic County Mayo. Greece had her Seander, Rome her Spartacus and Scotland her Wallace but it remained for Ireland to turn out the greatest athlete of them all. From your entrance into the athletic world your efforts have been crowned with success. Your first attempt in Celtic Park in 1901 was signalised by your winning the discus prize. And from that time your career is marked by a long series of victories and record-breaking feats. From then till now we have watched and rejoiced in your many magnificent successes. We have been with you in spirit to the world famous Olympic Games at Athens and London and awaited with confidence the news of your triumphs. Apart from your prowess, you have many admirable qualities which command our respect and esteem. A true patriot, always interested in the welfare and honour of the land that gave you birth and coming amongst us surrounded by the halo of your glorious achievements, it is no wonder that we, your fellow parishioners, should receive you with unbounded delight. With all your athletic triumphs we feel that you have not yet arrived at the zenith of your athletic success and we hope in the future to hear of victories still greater than you have already achieved. We again extend you a hearty Cead Mile Failte on your return home from the land of Stars and Stripes and tenser you our warmest congratulations on your splendid athletic achievements.

This scroll was presented to the O'Dwyer Cheshire home in 1986, along with his medals, and they are on display in the museum corner there.

Martin Sheridan continued in athletics for another three years during which time he won the all-round championship of America for the third time and took the world's discus record to 140'6. 5'' in 1909, and to 141'4. 5'' in 1911.

His last American championship appearance was in 1911 when he won the discus title for the fourth time with a throw of 133'9. 5''. His discus record has since been beaten, but his all round successive performances have never been approached.

Tragic end to a brilliant athlete

In March 1918, Martin contracted pneumonia while working a double shift for a sick colleague and he passed away on March 25 at the age of thirty-seven.

A copy of the 'Western People' of the time described him as 'a splendid type of manhood' and says 'his modesty of manner was not the least of the charms of a very engaging personality taken in all'.

The members of the Police Department and the public showed their great admiration and affection for him by erecting a magnificent Celtic cross as a memorial to him in Calvary Cemetery.

To perpetuate his name for the future generations the Martin J. Sheridan Award for Valour was established, and given each year to a member of the Police Department for bravery above and beyond the call of duty.

An inscription on the Celtic cross reads:

Martin J. Sheridan 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.

The Martin J. Sheridan Memorial Monument

In 1932, the Mayomen's Association of New York presented what was called the Sheridan Trophy for a competition between the New York and Mayo Gaelic football teams. The statute was solid silver and represented Martin Sheridan throwing the discus. The New York team won the match, but the trophy was cared for in the O'Dwyer home in Lismirrane.

On a dripping wet day in Bohola on May 22, 1966, a memorial to Martin Sheridan was unveiled in the village. The work of New York artist Paul Fjelde, the memorial weighs 3 tons and cost £13,000. It consists of a bronze bust of Martin mounted on a pedestal of Irish limestone, the work of Corkman Seamus Murphy and Bill Jones of Top Quarries, Ballinasloe.

The site was donated by local man Miko Clarke. Walshe's Monumental Sculptures in Swinford, along with several local people, were involved in erecting the monument and putting the finishing touches to the display.

A special mass was concelebrated for the occasion, by Dr. Fergus, Bishop of Achonry, and several local priests, including Canon Durkin, P.P. The mass was followed by the unveiling ceremony, dinner and sports events in Aitken's field.

Several of Bohola's famous sons were present for the auspicious occasion, including Bill Keary, President of the Empire State Building; Andrew Sheridan, Martins brother, then 84 years old and a retired Attache of the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court; Paul O'Dwyer, New York attorney; Gene Tunney Jr., US Congressman and son of famous Kiltimagh Boxer Gene Tunney Sr., who was a good friend of Martin.

The Martin Sheridan Memorial Sports were held at 2.30 p.m. that day, and some of the events on the programme included the 100 yards sprint, 880 yards, 2 mile race, long jump, donkey derby, inter-club road race from Castlebar and a 7-a-side football tournament.

There was also a dancing exhibition by the Redmond School of Dancing from Castlebar, and admission for the afternoon was 2s.6d for adults and 1s for children. On December 2, 1988, Martin J. Sheridan was inducted into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame in Indianapolis, Indiana.

He is the first Irishman in history to be inducted in this prestigious institute, an achievement of the type which has been referred to many times as 'Bohola spirit'. Martin Sheridan was surely Ireland's greatest Olympian and several sports writers called him the greatest all-round performer of all time.

Extract from “Bohola: Its history and its people”. Reproduced by kind permission of its publishers, Sheridan Memorial Community Centre Committee. “Bohola: Its history and its people” was published in 1992 under the auspices of Bohola Community Centre Committee which was established in 1988.