Casey, Stephen (‘Steve’; ‘Crusher’) (1908–87), world all-in wrestling champion, rower and tug-of-war champion, was born 4 December 1908 in Loughane, near Sneem, Co. Kerry, eldest among seven sons and three daughters of Michael Casey, stonemason, and Bridget Casey (née Sullivan) of Ballaugh, Sneem, Co. Kerry. His father, who had returned to Ireland after twenty years in Montana, USA, had reputedly been a sparring partner of the legendary world heavyweight boxing champion, John L. Sullivan, and had been a champion rower in a team of Sneem men in the US funded by the Vanderbilt family. His mother had been a highly proficient oarswoman in her own right, and the daughter of another prominent local athlete, Johnny ‘Mountain’ Sullivan. The Caseys supplemented their farm income with fishing, and, living on Ballaugh, accessible only by boat, it is no surprise that all the family were expert rowers. Although he is most famous as a professional wrestler, Casey initially emigrated to London in 1933 to pursue his rowing ambitions. Working as a hotel porter, he was spotted by a wrestling promoter and manager when he twice threw out of the ring a wrestler who had issued a challenge to all comers.
After 201 European professional victories, he moved to the US in October 1936. Wrestling at this time was becoming as much theatre as sport, and there was a proliferation of ‘world’ titles on offer, which were often little more than US regional titles. However, after 316 victories in sixteen months, Casey fought and defeated Louis Thesz, one of the greatest wrestlers of all time, for the undisputed world title on 11 February 1938 in Boston. The National Wrestling Association stripped him of their version of the title later that year, but he won the American Wrestling Association version on six subsequent occasions in the 1939–45 period, before finally losing it to Frank Sexton on 27 June 1945. Casey's rivalry with another Irishman, Dan O'Mahony (qv) – popularly known as ‘Danno Mahony’ – was one of the features of wrestling at that time. They fought twice on Irish soil: in Dublin on 26 August 1938, where before an estimated 16,000 spectators there was no winner, and in a bout advertised as a world title fight at Mallow racecourse on 18 September 1938, when Casey defeated O'Mahony in the last of twenty rounds before a crowd of 3,500. The disappointing crowd at Mallow was probably due to an instruction by the bishop of Ross that catholics should not attend, as the contest was on a Sunday. Casey was never beaten in any of his four meetings with O'Mahony, winning twice and drawing on the other two occasions. Although he was never as popular with Irish people or technically as proficient a wrestler as ‘Danno’, Casey – at well over six feet tall (reports vary between 6 ft 2 in. and 6 ft 4 in.; 1.88–1.93 m) and weighing seventeen stone (107.95 kg) – was considered to have had the most powerful hands of any wrestler, and a particularly effective crab hold. He also introduced his own particular move, the ‘Killarney flip’, to wrestling.
Finding little opposition in wrestling, in 1940 he turned his attention to boxing. A master of publicity, Casey challenged the then world heavyweight boxing champion, Joe Louis, to a fight, with $50,000 to the winner. It was reputedly the only fight that Louis ever refused, and resulted in the New York Post running the headline ‘Even the Greatest Run Scared of the Sneem Machine’ (Ir. Independent, 17 May 2000). Serving on a US minesweeper during the second world war, Casey's wrestling career was effectively ended when he injured his back while rescuing a shipmate, and this undoubtedly contributed to his ultimate defeat by Sexton in 1945. After he retired from wrestling, much of his free time was devoted to coaching his first sporting love – rowing. Casey and one of his brothers opened a sports bar and restaurant in Boston in 1947, and in 1968 he was shot three times in an armed robbery in which one of his patrons was fatally injured. Casey survived, spending almost a year in hospital, but only two of the bullets could be removed. He died at Cohasset, Massachusetts, on 10 January 1987, leaving behind a wife, Mary (née Neiter), two sons and a daughter. In 2000 a statue was erected to his memory in his home village of Sneem.
Steve Casey was a member of a famous Irish sporting family dubbed ‘the toughest family on earth’ by the Daily Mirror in 1937. The Casey brothers won national and international titles in wrestling, boxing, tug-of-war, and rowing. Over the years the ‘Legend of the Caseys from Sneem’ has become exactly that, and it is not always easy to separate fact from fiction. The Casey brothers specialised in four- and six-oar racing and were virtually unbeatable at local regattas both in Ireland and in Britain. Steve and his brothers Pat (1910–2002), Jim (1912–2000) and Mick (1913–99) won the prestigious Salter Challenge Cup at the Killarney regatta outright, recording victories in 1930, 1932, and 1933. Later, in London, Steve, Pat, Jim, and Tom Casey (1914–c.1985) won thirty-eight races out of thirty-eight for Hammersmith RC in the early 1930s. Another combination of Caseys – Steve, Pat, Tom, and Mick – were unbeatable in the four-oar sweep with Ace RC. Reports that the Caseys were deprived of an opportunity to represent Britain at the 1936 Olympics are wide of the mark, however. Olympic selection for the British team was in the gift of the Oxbridge-dominated Amateur Rowing Association (ARA), whose strict – some would say elitist – definition of amateurism would have precluded ‘artisans’ like the Caseys, even if Steve and Pat's wrestling activities were not deemed to make them professional sportsmen. In addition, the Caseys never rowed in the showpiece rowing events, such as the Henley regatta. The Caseys competed in heavier, fixed-seat craft, and not the lightweight racing boats favoured by Olympic competitors. Nonetheless, Pat and Steve always maintained that had the Casey family been able to compete en bloc (an impossibility in any case), they would have won all six Olympic rowing events in 1936.
In 1940 Steve, Jim, and Tom Casey competed against Boston sculler Russell Codman for a cup donated by Leverett Saltonstall, governor of Massachusetts, in a race that caught the imagination of the Boston public, watched by a crowd estimated at between 40,000 and 250,000, depending on reports. Although one version of the story suggests that Codman issued a challenge to the Caseys, promising $10,000 to any of them who could beat him in a race on the Charles river, a more likely version is that Codman, a well-known amateur sportsman and a silver medallist in the US single sculls, responded to a challenge issued by the Caseys. In any event, Jim, Steve, and Tom all finished ahead of Codman. In tug-of-war, another sport in which they excelled, the Caseys won both Munster and All-Ireland titles in the early 1930s.
Jim Casey won Texas, Canadian, Southern US, and Pacific coast heavyweight wrestling titles, with the latter title regarded as second in prestige only to that of world champion. However, neither he nor Steve would ever agree to fight each other for a world title. The wrestling career of Pat Casey came to an end when he broke his back in 1938 and he became a successful businessman, running dance halls in London. His son, Patrick, was a member of the Vesta RC Four that won the Britannia Cup at Henley in 1981. Mick Casey retired from wrestling undefeated in Ireland and Britain and returned to Sneem to open a hostelry. Tom Casey became a boxer and a promising professional in America till a hand injury finished his career. Michael Noel Casey, a son of another brother, Jack Casey (1911–90), was a coach to the Great Britain Women's Eight at the 1984 Olympic games, and his daughters, Bernie and Caroline, won British junior and senior championship titles and competed for Britain at the world championships in 1979 and 1981. In 1982 the Casey family was inducted into the Irish Sports Hall of Fame, the first family to be so honoured, and in 2001 the family were given the Kerry Sports Stars Hall of Fame award. The last surviving brother, Pat, died in London on 16 February 2002 aged 92.