Irish Cross Memorial New Orleans

Irish Cross Memorial New Orleans
The Celtic Cross Memorial in New Orleans, Louisiana. Photo by Adrian McGrath. Click the image for the story about the cross.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Irish Whales and an American Flag Never Dipped

An Irish Whale, Matt McGrath
A weight thrower at the Olympic Games
1912 photo from Wikimedia Commons

By Adrian McGrath

The American flag is never dipped during the Parade of Nations in the opening ceremony at the international Olympic Games. Why not?

Visiting nations parade their teams in the host nation’s sports stadium and briefly lower or dip their national flags as a sign of respect to the host country. Almost every nation on Earth does this except one -- the United States of America. The Star Spangled Banner is never dipped. It is not dipped -- according to either the best historical evidence or apocryphal legend, depending on your point of view -- because of the Irish Whales.

What? Yes, strangely enough, because of the Irish Whales. But who or what were the Irish Whales? And why were they adamantly against lowering the American flag?

The story begins in 1908. The summer Olympic Games were taking place in Great Britain in London and would be witnessed by the King of England himself, Edward VII. Among the American team was a small group of very, very, very large men who were “weight throwers;” they hurled heavy weighs in events such as the hammer throw, discus throw, and javelin throw. These men were big and strong and had tremendous appetites for food. (Three of them alone reportedly once ate 27 dozen oysters and six huge beef steaks plus all the sides at a restaurant.) All were of Irish descent (either born in Ireland or were Irish Americans), as were many other members on that 1908 US Olympic team.

Because of their tremendous size -- well over six feet tall and over 200 pounds, and one was 300 pounds -- they called themselves the “Irish Whales.” They were Cornelius Walsh (who actually was Canadian), Matt McGrath from Tipperary (and no direct relation to me), Martin Sheridan, Paddy Ryan, Pat McDonald (the largest of the bunch at 6’ 5” and over 300 lbs), James Mitchell, John Flanagan, and Simon Gillis. Almost all were at one point police officers with the New York City Police Department and members of a noteworthy sports club in New York called the Irish American Athletic Club.

Irish American shot putter,
Ralph Rose, American flag carrier
in 1908 Olympics in London
Photo from Wikimedia Commons

The flag carrier for the whole American team was not one of the Irish Whales, but he was of Irish descent. He was Ralph Rose. Because of the historical animosity between the Irish and the British government (not the British people, but the British government), the Irish Whales decided that the American flag which they greatly respected should not now or ever in the future be dipped to a foreign “Earthly king” -- especially to the English king in London while the Whales were present.

According to the story, the Irish Whales encouraged Rose not to dip the American flag when passing by the king during the parade but keep the flag straight up, flying proudly for all the world -- and especially for the King of England -- to see. Whether this encouragement was polite or not is hard to tell. But it was probably polite -- well, as polite as a group of very, very, very large Irish American weigh throwers who are over six feet tall and weigh over 200 pounds can attempt to do.

Rose, taking the “advice” of the Irish Whales, indeed did not lower or dip the American flag. He kept Old Glory flying straight up and high to the shock of the British king and government. Supposedly, upon seeing this “insult” to the King of England, a loud murmur arose from the spectator-filled English stadium.

The Parade of Nations at the 1908
Olympic Games in London, England
Photo from Wikimedia Commons

This did not deter Rose who kept the American flag flying high.

There are a number of unsubstantiated stories surrounding this. One is that the Irish Whale Martin Sheridan later said, with words to this effect, “The American flag bows to no Earthly king.”  This quote reportedly did not first appear until many years after the event, however. So, it is hard to say if it happened.

Another story is that another Irish Whale, Matt McGrath who was a New York City police officer, said to Rose before the parade, something like, “If you dip that flag, you’re in the hospital tonight.” No one knows if this was actually said, but McGrath definitely publicly supported not dipping the flag.

McGrath and Ralph Rose were, however, good friends and members of the Irish American Athletic Club. So if the expression actually had been said, most likely it was done with some humor and merely to emphasize McGrath’s firm position on keeping the flag raised and to encourage Rose to defy the British king.

Some people speculate that the English Olympic judges took a rather prejudicial attitude against the American team as a result in rulings on sports events later in the games. But who knows?

Whatever the case, the American flag was not dipped; and the Irish Whales were probably either directly or indirectly responsible for it.  

In the end John Flanagan won the gold medal for hammer throw. Matt McGrath won the silver. (There is today, by the way, a statue of Matt McGrath in Nenagh, County Tipperary, the place of his birth.) And Cornelius Walsh (who represented Canada but was considered a part of the Irish Whales) received the bronze. Martin Sheridan won the gold for discus and Greek discus.

Three of the very, very, very large Irish Whales --
L-R John Flanagan, Martin Sheridan, James Mitchell
Photo from Wikimedia Commons

The American flag still flew upright at the Olympic Games thereafter -- most of the time, although it did dip a couple of times after the famous 1908 incident.

However, Douglas MacArthur, who supervised the American team in 1928 and later became famous as the great leader of the American Army in World War II and the Korean War, made certain the flag did not dip on his watch.

But one thing is for sure, whenever the Irish Whales were around, the American flag did not dip before an English king. And thus the Irish Whales become a part of the grand tale of Irish American history and folklore.

Sources and Further Reading:

Article from “Irish America” called "Running Rings Around the Empire"; Wikipedia on Irish Whales; photo 1908 Olympic Parade of Nations; Photo of Ralph Rose in 1908 Olympics; Photo of three Irish Whales, Martn, Sheridan, Mitchell; Telegraph article, “Having a Whale of a Time” by Brendan Gallagher, 2012; Los Angeles Times article “America’s Refusal to Dip the Flag Has Complicated Olympic History” by David Wharton, 2012; Wikimedia article on Matt McGrath; Photo of Matt McGrath;


  1. Any idea whether the same no-flag-dipping tradition applies in the Special Olympics?

  2. Thanks for your comment. That is a very good question. But I do not know the answer. I suggest you contact the Special Olympics and see what they say. Here is a link to their website.

  3. Was Ralph Rose Irish American? Some of the American newspapers saw him as a true blue American who would take the mantle of the Irish Whales.