Sheridan, Martin Joseph (1881–1918), Olympic athlete, was born 28 March 1881 in Bohola, Co. Mayo, the second youngest of five sons and one surviving daughter of Martin Sheridan, a farmer of Bohola and a rural district councillor, and his wife Jane (née Durkan). His uncle, P. J. Sheridan, was a member of the Invincibles, a militant splinter group of the Irish Republican Brotherhood; P. J. fled to the USA in 1882 after the Invincibles assassinated two senior government officials in the Phoenix Park, Dublin.
Martin attended Bohola national school and helped on the family farm. In 1897 he joined two of his brothers, Richard and Patrick, in New York City, where he worked as a streetcar driver. His brother Richard was a leading discus and weight thrower in New York, inspiring Martin to follow him; both brothers competed for the Pastime Athletic Club. A group of Irish athletes, known as the ‘Irish Whales’ on account of their impressive physique, then dominated US weight-throwing events, with Martin emerging as their finest exponent. He was renowned for his gargantuan appetite and, when in serious training, his dinner would consist of two plates of soup, one whole chicken, one steak, hash brown potatoes, three cups of tea, two pieces of pie and cheese, one loaf of bread, and an order of celery. Standing 6ft 3in (1.9m) and weighing 13st 6lb (85.275kg), his combination of power, speed and agility made him the leading all-round athlete of his generation.
Within a month of his first appearance at an athletics event, he broke the world discus record in September 1901 with a throw of 120ft 7.75in (37.77m) at a meet in Paterson, New Jersey. He would improve on this with regularity over the next ten years, breaking the world record with three consecutive throws at an event in October 1902. By the end of 1911, his last year as a serious athlete, he had advanced the discus record to 141ft 8.5in (43.19m). The chaotic state of athletics officiating meant that many of these records were not officially recognised. He is credited with up to sixteen world bests, mostly for the discus throw and the all-round event (an early version of the decathlon). He won eleven US titles, including four in the discus (1904, 1906–07, 1911), three in the all-round event (1905, 1907, 1909), two in the pole vault for distance (1906–07), and one each in the shot (1904) and Greek style discus (1907).
In 1904 he and Richard joined the Irish-American Athletic Club (IAAC), as it became the powerhouse of US athletics. Founded in 1897 in opposition to the elitist and strictly amateur New York Athletic Club, the IAAC was more welcoming towards athletes of immigrant origins. (Sheridan would exemplify his club’s tolerant attitude in 1907 by successfully proposing an African-American runner, John Baxter Taylor, for membership.) In 1904 he began working at the Pelham Bay Park athletics ground, prompting a formal protest from the New York Athletic Club, which claimed that he was being paid as a fitness instructor. He maintained that he was a foreman at Pelham Bay Park and had nothing to do with the athletics track. The protest was eventually found to be groundless, though his job did allow him to train as he worked. In 1906 he joined the New York Police Department (NYPD). One of many successful Irish-American athletes then employed by the NYPD, he was transferred to the licence squad – considered the easiest detail in the NYPD – for a period from 1908. He continued to be dogged by suspicions of covert professionalism and was accused in 1909 of accepting $500 plus expenses for competing in an athletics meet.
He represented the USA in three Olympic games. At the Olympic games in St Louis, Missouri, in 1904 he came fourth in the shot-put and claimed gold in the discus after tying for first and winning a throw-off. Due to the charges of professionalism hanging over him, he was not chosen at first for the US team sent to compete in the 1906 Intercalated Olympic Games at Athens, but his omission provoked such criticism that the selectors relented. (Although the 1906 Athens games were treated contemporaneously as a full-fledged Olympics, these games retroactively lost that status.) He entered seven events, winning gold in the discus and the shot-put, and silver in the stone throw, the standing high jump and the standing long jump. A knee injury prevented him from claiming the pentathlon championship. King George of Greece was so impressed that he gave Sheridan a gold goblet and ordered that a statue of a discus thrower be put up outside the Olympic stadium in his honour.
At the 1908 games in London, he won gold medals in the discus throw and the Greek-style discus throw, and a bronze in the standing long jump. An outspoken Irish nationalist, he publicly criticised Irish athletes who competed for Britain and was primarily responsible for the bad blood that developed between the US and British athletes at the 1908 games. He almost certainly influenced the refusal of the American flag-bearer at the opening ceremony, Ralph Rose, to dip the US flag to King Edward VII, though accounts that have Sheridan telling Rose ‘This flag dips to no earthly king’ are probably apocryphal. He stirred the pot further by accusing the British team of sharp practice after their victory over the US in the tug-of-war.
Following the 1908 Olympics, he spent six weeks in Ireland, where he was hailed as a conquering hero, associated closely with the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) and Sinn Féin, and gave exhibitions in Dublin, Dungarvan, Dundalk and Ballina. Alone among the prominent Irish-American athletes then visiting Ireland, Sheridan refused to partake in the athletic competition staged by the Irish Amateur Athletic Association (IAAA) in Ballsbridge, Dublin, in August 1908. The IAAA was then vying acrimoniously with the GAA for the right to regulate Irish athletics.
After nearly dying from contracting blood poisoning and mastoiditis in 1912, he retired from athletics but remained involved as a coach. He showed conspicuous courage in performing his duties with the NYPD and was promoted from patrolman to first-grade detective in 1913. Latterly he lived on 141 West 97th Street. His health was never the same after 1912, and he died 27 March 1918 in St Vincent’s hospital, New York City, having contracted pneumonia.
Members of the police department and the Irish-American community erected a memorial Celtic cross in Calvary cemetery, where he is buried, and the Martin Sheridan Award for Valour was awarded yearly to members of the police department for acts of bravery. At Bohola, a bronze bust of him was unveiled in 1966, and the Martin Sheridan Memorial Community Centre, which includes a museum to his memory, was opened in 1994. In December 1988 Sheridan was inducted into the Track and Field Hall of Fame in Indiana. His total of nine Olympic medals – five gold, three silver, one bronze – makes him the leading Irish Olympian to date, though those won in 1906 are not recognised by the International Olympic Committee.