The strange case of Jim Larkin, J. Edgar Hoover and Charlie Chaplin


To carry on his fiery cross mission among labouring men, who, as everybody knows, are shockingly abused in this country, and underpaid, is the idea of Mr. Larkin…James is unique in his line, the most conspicuous and noisiest disturber of the public peace. He is no imitator. He is an original

New York Times’ editorial reacting to news of Larkin’s proposed trip to America,

 December 26, 1913


On May 21st, 1916, Jim Larkin, by then resident in Chicago, organised a rally at George M. Cohan’s Grand Opera House on Clark Street to commemorate those who had died in the Easter Rising the previous month. Several guest speakers were invited along, representing the various radical, nationalist and socialist groups from around the city.  Dr. K.A. Zurawski came to the podium, wearing the colours of the Polish Federation, a group whose aspirations for independence were in tune with Ireland’s own.

“The English certainly murdered the Irish in true Russian style,” said Zurawski. The crowd of nearly 1500 erupted with applause at the line, one put-upon ethnicity empathizing with another. As the clapping and the cheering died down, Matthew Thomas Newman, described by journalists present as “a dapper young men with a broad English accent”, stood up in his seat and began to speak.

“I am as good an Irishman as any here today,” said Newman. “I have lived in Ireland and my mother is from a long line of Ireland’s best. But such ballybunk makes me ill. I say, why do you put over such ridiculous drivel?”

Larkin was seated at the back of the stage but he was near enough to hear every word. He stood up out of his chair with rage, sprinted towards the footlights, hurdled the orchestra pit and jumped another brass railing before landing in the aisle. As he closed on Newman, Elisabeth Larkin shrieked at the back of the auditorium and started to walk down toward her husband. By then, he had reached his quarry and she beseeched him to see sense through the red mist descending.

“Be careful what you do to him!” shouted Elizabeth. “Jim, Jim! Think!”

He wasn’t thinking. He was too busy attacking the heckler. He had his hands gripped around Newman’s throat and seemed bent on choking him to death. Perhaps finally affected by his wife’s intervention, he stopped the attempted asphyxiation but he wasn’t letting Newman off lightly. He pulled him from the row of seats and shook him with such ferocity that he ended up tearing his collar away. Then, he dragged Newman up the aisle and through the doors before depositing him in the lobby.

The show over, his face flushed with rage, his blood boiling and sweat forming on his brow, Larkin made his way back to the stage. He still had a job to do. In his mind, that job was to educate those present about the complexity of the rebellion in which his friends and colleagues had died. When he came to the microphone himself later in the evening, Larkin informed the crowd, amongst other things, that the Rising had been aided by English people. To hammer home this particular point, he picked up one of three rifles which had been placed on the stage, and held it above his head.

“Perhaps you don’t know who brought this kind of rifle into Ireland,” he said. “Of course you don’t because the press has never told you. Well, it was Angela Spring-Rice, sister of Ambassador Spring-Rice (London’s man in Washington). It was she who smuggled them to us.”

That cameo in Chicago came 18 months after Liverpool-born Larkin had left Ireland for New York with the fall-out from the 1913 Lock-out still resounding. The impact of the Dublin agitation and the coverage of it in American papers meant he arrived in the United States already a well-known name. Indeed, the New York Times had first talked about him coming to the city 11 months before he actually landed. Originally intending to stay for a few months, he remained for eight and a half years, during which time he became more infamous than famous after his involvement in a succession of high-profile controversies, court cases, and a stint in Sing Sing Prison.

Just three days after he walked off the St Louis in New York Harbour in November, 1914, Larkin spoke before a crowd of 15,000 at a rally in Madison Square Garden, an honored guest at a celebration of the election of Meyer London, a socialist, to US Congress. Quite a debut.

“If it’s men you are fighting for, your movement is damned,” said Larkin that night, “but if it’s a great principle, you will triumph. The task before you is great. You must realise the great responsibility that faces you. It takes great men and women to stand up and say ‘We’re Socialists’. You are fighting to abolish this system of exploitation.”

He went down a storm with that sympathetic audience, most of whom knew his reputation and regarded him as a hero from what they’d read about him in the left-wing press. The rest of New York and America came to know the name pretty quickly too due to Larkin throwing himself into various socialist and radical causes, from workers’ rights to the anti-war movement. The Bureau of Investigation (forerunner of the modern FBI) file on Larkin would eventually run to nearly 500 pages as the government struggled to keep up with his every move, crisscrossing the continent.

One minute he was headlining an Irish Independence rally, flanked by Irish Volunteers on one side of the stage and German Uhlans on the other, the next he was chairing a meeting where 500 Americans pledged themselves to communism as a police stenographer sat in the crowd taking copious notes. He lived in great poverty for much of the time, almost dying from a leaky gas cooker in his Greenwich Village apartment, Yet, when he went down to Mexico to meet with German spies anxious to get him to try to create havoc on the American docks and to hamper the war effort, he was travelling by power boat and staying in the best hotels.

“There are 20m German-Americans and 13m Irish-Americans in the United States,” roared Larkin at an event in Philadelphia where the Irish and German diasporas shared common cause. “And if you act together, you can make the United States and the newspapers do as you like. I am not a citizen of the United States and if they want to deport me tomorrow they can do it.”

This type of stuff ensured he was avidly watched throughout his stay and, inevitably, he fell foul of the authorities. As might be expected from an outsized character loose in America at a tumultuous time in that nation’s history, there was espionage and intrigue (he was assiduously courted by both the Germans and the Russians), double-dealing, assassination attempts, courtroom drama and prison stays. 

At various times, he plotted with the Germans in San Francisco, urged anarchists to throw bombs in New York, attracted death threats for organising miners in Butte, Montana, and published a socialist newspaper out of Chicago. In a seminal moment in American trade union history, he delivered one of the orations at the funeral of the trade union martyr Joe Hill (immortalised in song by, amongst others, The Dubliners). His high-profile role that day, coupled with his clandestine associations with everyone from Russian revolutionaries to Italian anarchists meant he was all over the American government’s radar.

When they responded to the growing “red scare” in November, 1919 by arresting 2000 dissidents over the course of one day, Larkin was among them. He was charged with “criminal anarchy”, his crime being involvement in the Socialist Party of America’s newspaper “The Revolutionary Age”. Released on bail, he didn’t temper his words any and the government didn’t ease off on the surveillance either.

 “I take pleasure in enclosing herewith a memorandum prepared by me upon a speech made by Jim Larkin at Yorkville Casino, New York, April 6th, 1920 which contains certain statements pertinent to his activities,” wrote J Edgar Hoover in a memo to the Department of Labor, as he sought to bring deportation pressure on Larkin.

Over time, Hoover, then in charge of the Bureau’s Intelligence Division, became a little obsessed with Larkin. Even after his trial culminated in him being sentenced to “five to ten” in Sing Sing prison, the future director of the FBI was trying to manufacture fresh charges against him.

“I have just come across the enclosed clipping dealing with James Larkin whose pernicious influences you so successfully curbed,” wrote Hoover to the state prosecutor. “However, he seems to be engaging again from behind prison walls in his usual propaganda. I thought the same might be of special interest to you.”

The Hoover correspondence is contained in the FBI file. It shows how some in power regarded him as a serious threat. Indeed, the chief magistrate at his trial in New York described him as a “positively dangerous” man. It says much for his celebrity too that Sean O’Casey headed up one of the committees established to get him released, the Soviet Union offered to do a prisoner swap of Americans in return for Larkin, and Charlie Chaplin was among those who visited him in prison.

The best-known actor of the age was so moved by his plight he sent on a package to Larkin’s wife Elisabeth, including a gift of some slippers. Truth be told though, the marriage had become more and more estranged even after his wife had joined him in New York. This wasn’t the least of his problems either. At one point, Irish Republicans were planning to poison him because they feared what effect he might have on the situation back home should he return to Dublin. Their bizarre plot included a lookalike they had ready to send to Ireland in his stead.

Then there’s the court case. With his usual obstinacy, Larkin opted to defend himself and used the opportunity to deliver his manifesto to an even wider audience.

“Gentlemen, some day you in America will be told the truth,” he lectured the court. “In the meantime, we who have been on the housetops telling the truth have to suffer. We have to go down the dark days and the dark nights but we go there with the truth in our eyes and our hearts, and no lie upon our lips.”

Even after his eventual release from jail in 1923, pardoned by Governor Al Smith, Hoover remained on his trail.

“You will have noted the report that Jim Larkin has been released from prison in New York by Governor Smith,” wrote Hoover in a letter to his superior William J Burns on February 7th, 1923. “It is very likely that a deportation case could be made upon Larkin and I am calling it to your attention in order that you may indicate if it is your wish to proceed with the preparation of this case and present the same to the Department of Labor. I understand there was a warrant issued for Larkin when he was convicted under the New York State laws, and this warrant of course will still hold good.”

Within two months, Hoover got his wish. Larkin was deported aboard the White Star Line’s Majestic back to England, telling one of the agents asking after his luggage as they sent him on his way, “Everything I own is on my back.”

Terence MacSwiney and the Hunger Strike that Rocked an Empire


Early on 20 October, Day 69 of his hunger strike, Terence MacSwiney received Holy Communion from Father Dominic. He complained again to his chaplain about the prison physician Dr Griffiths threatening to make him take food, and thereafter drifted in and out of consciousness. Annie MacSwiney was alone with her brother for a while that morning and the silence inside the room was such it was possible to hear some distant banging and clashing from the prison yard. Suddenly, her brother grew alert and animated.

“Do you hear that knocking: Do you hear it?” he asked. “That’s Griffiths’ new treatment, that’s what he was talking about now. You stay now and watch, listen, do you hear? What’s the time?”

“Quarter past ten,” she replied.

“Show me the watch, I can tell the time more accurately than you – look it is only 13 and a half minutes past ten (it was). And today is Wednesday?”


“Now, you think I am muddle-headed, but I am not.”

“No you are muddle-headed if you think that.”


He grew still and stopped speaking for a few minutes though he kept looking at her, as if trying to focus on her face. Then he was off again.

“Now you are my witness I’m a soldier dying for the Republic. Say this after me: ‘I, Annie MacSwiney, do hereby affirm that I am a soldier dying for the Republic.’ Now we will swear that, have you anything we could kiss?”

Annie held up the cross of her Rosary beads. She kissed it herself and then gently pressed it on his lips as he lay still on the bed. Just then, she was called out of the room to take a phone call. Upon returning, her brother admonished her for leaving and failing to take note of the knocking as he’d asked.

“That’s valuable evidence. It is of international importance – do not let a thing escape you – note it down.”

Dutifully, she took her pencil and inscribed upon his copy of the Gospels: “10.13 and half, Wednesday knocking”. When she stopped, he noticed and told her to keep going. She scribbled some more and then he lost concentration and succumbed to fresh delirium, throwing his arms up to hug her, talking wildly and making no sense. A nurse came over to intervene, a warder was called, and the doctor was sent for. He lapsed in and out of clarity all that Wednesday, his fleeting and brief cameos of sense given over to poignant statements that would later have to be re-classified as goodbyes.

“Muriel, you have always stuck by me,” he said to his wife that afternoon. “This is awful for you because you have to stay here.”

“It’s a better time than we have had since we were married or since you have been Lord Mayor, because I can be with you all the time,” she said with a smile. And they both laughed.

Later, he turned to Mary, and called his sister by his own pet name for her. “Min, you are always loyal to Ireland. Stay by me and see what they do to me.” Ever-vigilant, Mary MacSwiney wasn’t likely to fail him in that regard.

She complained to the authorities that his rapidly deteriorating mental state was a consequence of their threat to force-feed him playing upon his mind. Whatever the validity of that theory, there’s no question his brain was now succumbing after so long without sustenance. Early in the evening, she supervised the writing of wires from the family to Edward Shortt at the Home Office, and to several MPs in the Commons.

“Following Dr Griffiths’ threat to force the Lord Mayor of Cork to take lime juice, delirium has set in today,” went the message to Shortt. “The Lord Mayor has been bad all day owing to excitement caused by the threat in his prostrate condition after 70 days’ fast. Tonight at 6.30, Dr Griffiths announced to his sister he was going to forcibly feed the Lord Mayor. Will the representatives of the British people uphold this refinement of cruelty in prolonging the Lord Mayor’s torture? After 10 days’ hunger strike, one prison doctor considered it dangerous to attempt forcible feeding. Dr Griffiths announces he will begin it on the 70th.”

Before Shortt had a chance to read the telegram, the substance of it was being raised in the House of Commons by Lieutenant-Commander Kenworthy, the Liberal MP for Hull who had accompanied Mary to the Trade Unions Congress the previous month. At the adjournment for the evening, Kenworthy asked the Home Secretary about the government’s intention to force-feed the prisoner lime juice and other substances, and the dangers inherent in such a move.

“I can only say in perfectly general terms that the doctors will do, as they have done consistently, what they consider to be the best in the prisoner’s interest,” answered Shortt. “Their business is to try to keep him alive. They have done everything possible. He has had every possible consideration and care, and the best of nursing and everything has been done for him; but eat he will not. If the doctors think lime juice would ease him, help him to live, and give him another chance of seeing sense, they will be perfectly justified in trying to persuade him to take it, and, indeed, if necessary, in forcing it upon him.

“Whether they are doing so or not, I have not had an opportunity of ascertaining. I know that he has taken certain light medicines, like Eno’s Fruit Salt from time to time, but whether he has taken lime juice or not, I have not had an opportunity of asking. I am satisfied that whatever the doctors have been doing has been done from a sense of pure mercy and consideration, and in what they consider to be the best possible interests of the prisoner himself.”

By the time Shortt delivered that response, the question was moot. During a lengthy bout of unconsciousness that Wednesday night, MacSwiney was forcibly fed with Brand’s beef essence and drops of brandy. Upon awakening, he immediately tasted the food in his mouth and called his sister Mary, still standing sentry inside the room, to his side.

“I am afraid they have tricked me, have they?” he asked.

“I am afraid they have.”

“What did they give me?”

“Meat juice.”

“Wait a minute, we will have to keep cool now.”

At this juncture the nurse on duty came across and asked Mary to leave her brother be. He was aware enough to be angered by this.

“Go away nurse; I must speak to my sister.”

“You must not speak to her,” said the nurse.

“Go away, go away, go away, go away.”

“Nurse, please go away for a minute,” asked Mary. The nurse stepped away from the bed and she tried to calm her brother. “It is all right now.”

“Wait a minute,” he said desperately. “Wait a minute. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait.” He couldn’t get anything else out of his mouth except “wait” and then he lost his train of thought completely and descended into delirium once more.

That night, Mary and Father Dominic stayed over in the prison as the feeling grew that the end was now truly at hand. Dr Griffiths warned them that MacSwiney might not last more than 12 hours.

He endured to disprove that prognosis but on 21 October, Day 70, he was, for the first time since his chaplain arrived in London, too weak even to receive Communion. He was unable to recognise his wife either when she arrived. Indeed, he couldn’t make out anybody at all, the sight problems compounded now by the ongoing and more serious manic episodes. The vigil had reached its most painful point, the visitors agonising as they watched his mouth opening and closing as if in slow motion, his limbs twitching beneath the sheets, and the pain etched upon his face.

The body and the mind seemed to revolt against the food administered the previous day. He vomited copious amounts of green liquid and occasionally thrashed his arms around in the bed with anger and frustration. When he lapsed into unconsciousness again however, he was fed once more: Brand’s beef essence, drops of brandy, and Benger’s Food (a liquid type of Complan from that era which was usually given to the sick). Two spoonfuls of Benger’s were swallowed involuntarily but as soon as he awoke the trouble started. Ever hopeful that he might relinquish the struggle now that his fast had, by whatever means, been broken, a nurse placed a cupful at his lips.

“Will you have a little more now,” she asked, the question sending the watching Peter MacSwiney, his brother, into a fury.

“It is a shame for you to ask an unconscious man that,” said Peter angrily. “You know that if he were conscious he would say no. It is a mean thing to take advantage of a man in his condition. You had him here for seventy days and he would not take it from you. Why do you ask him a question like that now?”

Muriel MacSwiney was sitting in the room during the incident and she calmed her brother-in-law down.

In recognition of the increasing gravity of the situation, the bulletins to those waiting outside the gates of the jail were now being given every two hours.

4.30 – The Lord Mayor is still delirious and he looks much worse.

6.30 – The Lord Mayor had a violent fit of vomiting. His condition generally remains unchanged. He is now in a semi-conscious state and does not recognise anyone.

8.30 – Although his mouth, feet and hands are still subject to spasmodic working, the Lord Mayor has been calmer since the issue of the last bulletins. The vomiting has ceased but he is still retching.

10.30 – Condition is generally the same as at time of last bulletin.

Father Dominic, Annie and Sean MacSwiney all stayed in the prison Thursday night, fearing for and preparing for the worst. They waited in the corridor outside his room, from where they took turns peeking through the keyhole to try to see what was happening inside. At three o’clock in the morning, the mayor became violent but soon fell back to sleep. He woke shortly before five when Annie, her ears to the door, overheard the following conversation.

“What is the time?” he asked the nurse by his bedside.

“A quarter to five.”

“A quarter to five in the morning or evening?”

“A quarter to five in the morning.”

“Where am I?”

When the nurse offered him a drink, he snapped at her.

“What’s that?”

“Hot water.”

“Oh, hot water.” Satisfied with the answer, he sipped it down. He closed his eyes then and at 7.30am, Annie was invited in to sit by the bed. No sooner had she sat down than her brother woke and stared back at her.

“Do you know me?” asked Annie.

“Yes,” he replied, the voice just audible.

“Who am I?”

“Annie,” he said. She paused then and he came back with questions of his own.

“What month is it?”


“What year?”


“Have I been here all the summer?”


“And have you been in England all the year?”

“No, only for two months.”

“But what are you all doing here?”

“Muriel, Maire and I are at the hotel.”

“What hotel?”

“The Germyn Court Hotel,” said Annie, “and Peter too.”

“Peter?” he repeated the name in a puzzled tone, “Peter?” He seemed to be struggling to comprehend how his brother from America was in London. After a pause, he quizzed her some more.

“But what is it all for, what are we here for?” he asked.

“Don’t you remember you’re in Brixton?”

He stared back at his sister as if trying to figure out exactly where he was.

“What count have they got me here for?”

“For the Irish Republic.” That answer brought something approaching a bright smile to his wan face.

“So it is established?”

“Yes,” said Annie.

“Is it in alliance with the Allies?” he asked.

Annie wasn’t sure how to play this, worrying over what response might impact on a man in such a fragile state. She gave the one she thought he’d like best. “Yes!” she declared.

At that, he stared some more before going into a soliloquy.

“Oh we did grand marching in the night,” he said, “and they marched too, we made them march, but we marched better!” That was the point when he stopped making sense and began rambling again, his eyes flitting around the room as if searching for something he couldn’t find.

So began 22 October, Day 71. Within three mornings, he would be dead.

Extract from Terence MacSwiney: The Hunger Strike that Rocked an Empire by Dave Hannigan, published by O’Brien Press, priced at EUR14.99.


God’s linebacker one game from salvation


In one of the three different Old Spice television commercials starring Ray Lewis, the Baltimore Ravens’ linebacker emerges from the shower with his body lathered strategically with foam and explains to the audience that he plays “for-real” football rather than fantasy football. “It takes a lot of hard work, a pinch of luck, body muscles, some salt and this – Old Spice Swagger Body Wash,” says Lewis before he clambers aboard a mechanical Raven waiting at his window, heads off into the night sky, and, for no reason in particular, zaps a planet out of his way.

Aside from demonstrating that some people will do anything for a buck, the ad also illustrates how Lewis has undergone a rehabilitation quite unlike any athlete in recent American history. When he leads the Ravens into their clash with the New England Patriots this Sunday in what may be his last ever game, he does so as one of the true faces of the league.

Over the course of 17 seasons in a sport where the average career lasts just three campaigns, Lewis had proven himself to be one of the greatest linebackers of all time and among the best players ever. That kind of standing brings with it a whole portfolio of commercial opportunities. However, unlike all the other past and present stars drawing down millions of dollars from endorsement deals, Lewis was once charged with two counts of murder following his involvement in a double homicide.

On the night of Super Bowl XXXIV in Atlanta in 2000, he and his friends got into an altercation with another group of men outside a club called the Cobalt Lounge. In the ensuing fracas, Jacinth Baker and Richard Lollar were stabbed to death and, afterwards, Lewis and his entourage fled the scene in the NFL star’s hired stretch limo. Inside that car, Lewis instructed everybody else present to forget what they’d just seen and, in subsequent interviews, with police he supplied false accounts of what exactly happened.

Even against that incriminating background, Lewis was, somehow, eventually found guilty only of a single count of misdemeanour obstruction of justice and sentenced to one year’s probation for his role in the debacle. Nobody has ever been successfully prosecuted for the murders of Baker and Lollar, but in 2004, Lewis paid millions of dollars to their families to settle civil wrongful death lawsuits. If involvement in that kind of incident usually tarnishes a reputation and damages the commercial appeal of an athlete forever, it has proven to be merely a blip in this case.

Since that awful night, Lewis has changed his ways and turned his past transgressions into his calling card. We know this because in every interview he sings the same redemption song about a man learning from his own costly mistakes while all the time maintaining he was only arrested in Atlanta because he was famous. Predictably enough for this narrative, he found religion on his road back to respectability. Indeed, he became so devout that more than one media outlet dubbed him ‘God’s Linebacker’. Quite a title yet hardly a stretch given that he’s been known to bless some of his teammates with holy water before they take the field on Sundays.

“God has done something in my life – and not just for me to see it,” said Lewis in the course of one of his church sermons on his travails. “See, I had to face, face-to-face, my four-year-old child, who couldn’t understand why his father was in shackles. I had to face that I couldn’t touch my mother for the first time in my life. And God asked me a question. I was in jail 15 days, and He asked me: ‘How long are you gonna cry?'”

Spiels like that have turned Lewis into a revered figure, somebody his peers on opposing teams regularly text for advice and counsel during their own times of trouble, and he is the only Raven ever to have a street in Baltimore named in his honour. All of this at least in part explains why, at several points in today’s broadcast, the cameras will cut to Lewis and linger on him in a way normally reserved for quarterbacks or coaches.

Aside from the fact he is about to retire, they will do this too because he is the team leader and the most vocal character on the field. Nothing better for the television crowd than catching the forever-animated Lewis shouting and roaring at teammates and opponents, as he sets about terrorising the other team’s quarterback. Which he does a lot.

Of course, that he hasn’t quite been the most influential member of the Ravens’ defence for a few seasons now is conveniently ignored. Lewis is bigger box office, more famous than all the rest so he must still get the spotlight. Whether they win or lose, the microphones will be thrust under his chin faster than anybody else’s too. That’s because he’s also guaranteed to give good quotes. They might not necessarily make a lot of sense but they will be entertaining. Witness his eulogy at the funeral of his former teammate Steve McNair a couple of years back.

“He left a legacy,” said Lewis when addressing McNair’s sons from the altar. “The same way when Jesus left, because he had to sacrifice for all of us. Y’all father put out one heck of a sacrifice, young men. Every time y’all walk out the door, hold your head up high. Because he left something that a lot of men can’t father.”

McNair was shot dead while blind drunk by his jealous 20-year-old lover in a secret apartment he used to rendezvous with her, just six miles from the palatial family home where he was raising four boys with his wife. His death prompted a slew of tawdry revelations of the double life he led. Comparing one more cheating athlete to Jesus Christ? Only Lewis, a father of six children by four different women, could do it and get away it. Nothing sums up his bizarre standing in American sport better than that.

For the love of so many different games


Maybe it was because his 11-year-old son Peter played on the team that Rudy Mastrocinque took his role as coach of the King’s Park Celtic Under-12s so seriously. The morning of September 11, 2001, he forced himself out of bed half an hour earlier than usual so he could leave work that evening in time for a goalkeeping clinic he had organised for his charges. Vice-president for property claims at Marsh and McLennan Securities on the 100th floor of the World Trade Centre’s North Tower, he was at his desk by 8:30 a.m., 15 minutes before Flight 11 from Boston sliced through the building. Rudy was 43.

Mark Ludvigsen played second row, served as chairman and operated as chief recruitment officer for the New York Athletic Club rugby team. If any scrum-half ever fancied spending some time in America, Ludvigsen was the man to sort out the visa application and find him a day job. At his memorial service that October, former team-mates came from as far away as London, Australia and South Africa to collectively eulogise his knack for strengthening the side with canny imports. A bond salesman with Keefe, Bruyette and Woods on the 89th floor of the South Tower, just above where Flight 175 hit, his friends knew him only as “Lud.” He was 32.

Growing up in Georgetown, the capital of Guyana, Nezam A. Hafiz’ boyhood dream was to play cricket for the West Indies. An excellent batsman, he captained the Guyana Under-19s, and the sport remained a huge part of his life long after he moved to New York. In 2000, he scored 33 for the United States’ national team in a celebrated one-day victory over the MCC and just like at the end of every other season, he donated his equipment to charity in the hope some other immigrant could use them. A devout Muslim, he worked as a computer analyst with Marsh and McLennan on the 94th floor of the North Tower, from where he spoke by phone to his girlfriend at 8:30 a.m. that day. Nezam was also 32.

After the initial shock subsided, Americans wrestled with many issues of importance: one minute wondering why a group of people could hate them this much, the next pondering the place of ordinary things in a world thieved of normality. With lower Manhattan still smoldering and thousands unaccounted for, how soon would it be okay to laugh aloud at something funny and not sound insensitive? Or pick up the remote and watch a show other than news on the television? Or start a day at the office by mocking a long-suffering Mets fan about the superiority of the Yankees? When would it be all right to care about the stuff people used to care about?

The 2001 Ryder Cup was the first international sporting casualty of those debates. Sure, there were legitimate security concerns about a dozen high-profile American athletes traveling abroad but there was also the matter of taste. As it had evolved over the previous decade, with gaudy uniforms and wives / cheerleaders, this golf tournament had become sport at its most jingoistic. At a time when, as John Hawkins wrote in Golfworld magazine, “playing for Uncle Sam meant lacing up a pair of combat boots, not Footjoys,” neither team could have celebrated victory like this was just another golf match.

It would have been interesting to hear John J. Doherty’s take on that argument. He had the golf bug bad. So bad that at weekends, he would set the alarm clock for some time between three and four in the morning, drive to one of the public courses that dot Westchester County and get in line for a prized tee-time. No matter that he spent the other five days of the week commuting to his job as vice-president with Aon Insurance in the South Tower. This 56-year-old needed his fix of 18 holes. From what we read of him since his death, the only thing we can say for certain is that Doherty would have envied the Ryder Cup players their three successive days of free golf.

For all the grandiloquent discussions about the pointlessness of sport, the obituaries of the victims which were published in the New York Times each day in the months after the attacks showed us how important a factor it was in so many of these truncated lives. Apart from the thousands who were devotees of the city’s baseball, hockey, basketball and grid-iron franchises, there were soccer nuts, Gaelic footballers, cricketers, fishing nuts and rugby players. Sportsmen and women who probably would have understood why, within a couple of weeks of the attacks, touchdowns were being celebrated with just as much fervor as before in the end zones of the NFL. And at least the Mets fans among them would surely have enjoyed President George W. Bush admitting he was rooting against the Yankees in the World Series.

Just because life returned to some sort of normalcy, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t stop now and marvel at the diversity and magnitude of their sporting interests. Twenty years removed from Yorkshire, soccer still ruled Howard Selwyn’s life. He coached the team his son played for, kept goal for an over-40s outfit known as the Blue Baldies, and spent every other minute maintaining a long-distance love affair with Leeds United. When he couldn’t get their game on pay-per-view, he made do with whatever Primera Liga or South American game was on the Spanish-language channel. A broker with Eurobrokers in the South Tower, he opened a shop called Soccer Central near his Long Island home on August 30th.

From a small town in Ecuador, 23-year-old Henry Fernandez had the same affliction as Selwyn. A pastry chef in Windows on the World, the restaurant on the 107th floor of the North Tower, his free time was spent playing endless games of soccer at Flushing Park in Queens. If none of his pals were around, he fell in with whoever he could find. Anything to get a game and retain a link with home. Like every other immigrant who ever arrived in a foreign field, Fernandez wanted to cling to a vestige of his old life and discovered sport is very often the easiest and most convenient way to do that.

It certainly worked for Michael Stewart. He arrived in New York in 1981 and joined the Old Blue rugby club. Born in Belfast, he represented the Scottish Universities team while studying at the University of Stirling although his new team-mates found it hard to believe this man in black, wearing earrings, hirsute sideburns and a goatee could possibly play the game at all. Within two years of arriving, he was captaining one of America’s better teams from wing-forward, a position he held down for the next eight years. A father of three, he was vice-president of Carr Futures in the North Tower.

With a mother from Aughavass, County Leitrim, and a father from Garrymore, County Mayo, 34-year-old Dennis McHugh was one of those second-generation children who embraced their Irish heritage with gusto. A prominent member of the Rockland County GAA club, he played center-back for the New York City Fire Department in a charity Gaelic football match against the NYPD at Gaelic Park in the Bronx in July, 2001. Having started out in the financial services industry, McHugh joined Ladder Company 13 three and a half years earlier because, like so many Irish-Americans, he felt a vocation for it. He is survived by a wife and three children.

If sport was a passion in the lives of Dennis McHugh and so many others, there were some among the dead for whom it was a job. After a few years playing in hockey’s minor leagues, Mark Bavis worked as a talent scout for the Los Angeles Kings of the NHL. On September 11th, he boarded United Airlines flight 175 at Logan Airport in Boston. He was on his way to California to link up with the team for a training camp where he could assess the progress of some players he had personally recommended. An excellent prospect during his student days at Boston University, he narrowly failed to make it to the NHL. Like him, there were plenty others who might, had their sporting lives yielded one more lucky break, have been somewhere else that day.

After graduating from Delaware State with a business degree in 1985, Keith Glascoe chased his dream of playing in the NFL and twice made it as far as the New York Jets’ pre-season training camp. Second time around, things were going well for the defensive lineman until a shoulder injury hindered his chances of making it to the regular squad. He spent a season playing professionally for a club in Italy but realised that fate was conspiring against him on this one. A few years working as a bit-part actor made him yearn for a more regulated existence and in 1998, he joined Ladder Company 21 in New York. As his unit answered the call that morning, he rang his mother to tell him he was on his way. In death, he achieved heroism beyond any grid-iron player.

Martin Boryczewski was another talent whose athletic gifts just didn’t stretch quite far enough in the end. Out of college, he gave himself four years to make it into Major League baseball. In that time, he rose through the ranks and was playing Class AA for the Detroit Tigers, two levels below the big time, when he decided financial trading offered a better chance of long-term security. He became a trader with Cantor Fitzgerald in the North Tower and sated his competitive instincts by taking up and quickly mastering fly-fishing. A few weeks before his death, he had bought his sister the tackle necessary to fish and promised to teach her all he knew.

Men like Boryczewski and Glascoe got closer than most to fulfilling their boyhood fantasies. For so many of the deceased however, sport was just an enjoyable hobby, a release from the pressures of their working lives. In the evenings, Lorenzo Ramzey liked to forget about his job as a casualty broker for Aon Insurance and played internet chess against relatives in Florida for hours on end. Originally from Panama, his children called him Grandmaster and his workmates dreaded his lunchtime challenges for a quick game.

Thomas Palazzo’s daily ritual began at four a.m. when he would head to the gym and, if weather permitted, go fishing or water-skiing on Long Island Sound before arriving at Cantor Fitzgerald for an 8:30 a.m. start. Alan Merdinger, an accountant for the same firm — an outfit that lost 658 people that morning — indulged himself with a couple of hours of Tae Kwon Do each night to relieve stress.

Stephen Tighe went even further than that, leaving Fitzgerald’s at three every afternoon to coach soccer teams around Rockville Center, a task he enjoyed so much that, at 41, he was considering quitting the world of finance altogether. Another colleague, Glenn Kirwin, liked to wind down with an hour in the driveway each evening shooting baskets or playing catch with his two young sons.

From scuba-diving to wrestling, weightlifting to lacrosse, it is impossible to find a sport that didn’t feature in the life of one of the people who died in New York that brightest of September mornings. Some were fitness fanatics who ran triathlons and thrived on adrenalin rushes, more were couch potatoes who cheered their heroes on from a seat in front of the television. A few were exceptional athletes who, but for providence, might have made their livings away from the offices of a high rise building in New York city. Whatever their interest, however minimal their level of proficiency, sport coursed through so many of them in so many different ways.

“It might reasonably be maintained that the true object of all human life is play,” wrote GK Chesterton. “Earth is a taskgarden; heaven is a playground.”

Heaven is a playground? There’s a thought.

(This article originally appeared in Ireland’s Sunday Tribune newspaper in 2001.)


Irish football needs a Spanish Inquisition


At the start of this season, there was talk that this was the year Robbie Brady was all set to become a first-teamer at Manchester United. That was in high summer. By November, he was on loan to Hull City and last week his temporary move to the KC Stadium became permanent. There is no shame in not making it at Old Trafford and there is certainly plenty of time for somebody of Brady’s age to try to make Alex Ferguson regret his decision to allow him to move on. But, his departure now means that since Johnny Giles, John O’Shea is the only Irish player in half a century to come through the youth ranks at United and become a starter there.

That statistic should be making people in authority in Ireland ask themselves a rather important question. What is wrong with the way we are developing our best and brightest that they can’t make the break through at the biggest clubs anymore? Citing the increased presence of foreign youngsters in the English academies is a fair enough excuse up to a point. That should certainly affect the numbers of Irish. But we should surely still have at least one or two capable of cutting it with the very best every few seasons. Not one every fifty years.

Brady’s presumed emergence at Old Trafford was one of the positive stories of the pre-season yet now he becomes more evidence that something is not right in Irish football. When was the last time an Irish youngster broke through at Highbury? Was it Niall Quinn in the 1980s? Who was the last one at Liverpool? Steve Staunton, the same decade? Perhaps the really galling part about this is nobody sees it as indicative of a larger malaise within the Irish game.

I first came across Brady during the 2008 European Under-17 Championships in Turkey. I watched that tournament online because my first cousin, Gearoid Morrissey, then on his way from Ringmahon Rangers to Blackburn Rovers, now a stalwart with Cork City, was playing. And, our family was inordinately proud of this fact. Ireland didn’t get out of the group but the odds were stacked against them, having been drawn in the same foursome as France and Spain. When news broke of Brady’s move to Hull the other day, I revisited the team-sheets from four and a half years ago.

Of the Irish XI that started in the 3-1 defeat to Spain (Brady was sub that day), the numbers haven’t been good so far. Aaron Doran made three cameos for Blackburn Rovers towards the end of the 2009 Premier League campaign but now plies his trade with Inverness up in Scotland. Greg Cunningham came off the bench for Manchester City twice in recent seasons before eventually moving to Bristol City. Sunderland’s Conor Hourihane had to go to Plymouth Argyle for first-team football and Chelsea’s Conor Clifford, forever out on loan from Stamford Bridge, will have to drop the divisions to do likewise.

Others from the squad are scattered around the foothills of the English game. Some are in the League of Ireland, and one is in America on a soccer scholarship. All are still young enough and hopefully good enough to get back to the top but the return so far hasn’t been promising, has it?

What of the Spanish though? They went on to win the event, beating France in the final. What happened to their players? Where do they stand almost five years on from their trip to Turkey? Well, you might know some of them. Thiago, the always-impressive midfielder who would play more at Barcelona if some of the greatest players ever weren’t in front of him, might be the most successful. He’s already won senior caps for Spain and is tipped for great things. And anybody who followed his progress at U-17 would have expected as much.

Of course, we know that underage potential doesn’t always translate. But even with this being Spain during what has been the most productive period in its history, it’s stunning to see 12 of their squad have played first-team games in La Primera Liga.  Not just with lesser lights either. Martin Montoya has started  20-odd times for Barcelona and Sergi Roberto came off the bench for the club in a Champions’ League semi-final against Real Madrid. Impressive stuff.  Alvaro Morata recently scored his first goal for Real Madrid while Sergio Canales has dropped back a bit with Valencia after initially making a bright start at the Bernabeau.

Keko moved to Catania in Serie A after failing to nail down a starting spot at Athletico Madrid where Jorge Pulido, a central defender from the Turkish adventure, also broke through. Oriol Romeu played just once for Barcelona before Chelsea paid 5m pounds for him in 2011, the Spaniards thinking highly enough of his prospects that they insisted on putting an automatic buy-back clause in the contract. He’s started 22 Premier League matches for the Londoners.

Between Oreu and Ruben Rochina, who moved from Barcelona to Blackburn Rovers in 2011, the Spanish U17s have played more Premier League games than the entire Irish squad they took on that day. This, despite the fact most of the Irish players were then at or on their way to English clubs. Why does all this matter? Because it shows that there is something fundamentally not right with the way we are producing young players.

By reaching the finals of that tournament, Sean McCaffrey’s team had proven themselves to be among the top eight in Europe. Quite a boast. And they weren’t embarrassed either, despite running into some of the best countries in the international game. Yet, since that May the Spanish have travelled in one direction whereas our boys have almost all travelled in another. Whose fault is that? Is it down to the mindset and ability of the individual players? Or has it more to do with the culture that produces them? Just asking.

In America, sorry never seems to be the hardest word


The summer before Lance Armstrong won his first Tour de France, Mark McGwire was the biggest star in American sport. As he closed in on Roger Maris’ single-season record of 61 home runs, the St. Louis Cardinals’ slugger captivated a nation. Each day of the 1998 campaign fans watched to see if this outsized character who looked like a corn-fed farm boy straight out of the Midwest could break one of the landmark records in the game. Three years after a divisive baseball strike, McGwire and his rival Sammy Sosa were credited with helping America fall back in love with the national pastime.

When it emerged that McGwire (and Sosa) needed a little chemical help to shatter Maris’ record, the bloom suddenly went off the rose. As frauds go, it was one of the biggest ever perpetrated in any sport and was made much worse by the player’s subsequent unrepentant attitude towards revelations his feats had been steroid-fuelled. After making a fool of himself with an evasive and tongue-tied performance in front of a Congressional committee in 2005, McGwire went completely off the grid for a few years. During that time in exile, he was often held up by PR people as an example of how not to handle a drugs scandal.

Then something amazing happened that explains exactly why Lance Armstrong may be going into full-on mea culpa mode with Oprah Winfrey next Thursday. Just before emerging from hiding to start a job as hitting coach with the Cardinals, McGwire gave a kinda, sorta, not quite apology during a teary interview with Bob Costas, the doyen of baseball broadcasters. At his first home game a few weeks later, the Cardinals’ fans cheered him to the rafters and after three hugely successful seasons during which he returned seamlessly to the sport, the Los Angeles Dodgers recently signed McGwire to do the same job for them.

The lesson is that if you say sorry, even without going into much detail, many Americans are willing to forgive and forget. Quite readily in fact, judging by the numbers lining up to get McGwire’s autograph at stadiums all across this country over the past three years. This is what Armstrong and his people were counting on when they laid the groundwork by leaking the news he was considering a tell-all a couple of weeks back. Aside from the fact this was the only real play he had left, they know he isn’t breaking new ground here. Long is the list of American athletes who have discovered the benefit of confessing, repenting and returning.

It will help Armstrong’s cause immeasurably that some fans in these parts will readily accept his explanation because they view sport as just another branch of the entertainment industry anyway. Much like when they are watching stunts in action movies, they don’t care what sleights of hand are involved as long as they get to see something wondrous produced. Whether you took EPO to ride your bike faster or to hit the ball farther doesn’t bother a large section of the population. This much was brought home again this past week listening to baseball fans expressing outrage that “sanctimonious” journalists were keeping proven steroid cheats/their heroes out of the game’s Hall of Fame.

These are the same people who will listen to Armstrong talking to Winfrey and conclude that everybody else was at it too so he did nothing wrong. Indeed, this demographic will vouchsafe that since all other cyclists had access to the same pharmaceuticals, he was still the best of a bad bunch. Plenty others have counted on and capitalised on this type of ignorance and moral equivocation in recent years. A pitcher called Andy Pettite remains one of the most popular New York Yankees even though he was caught using HGH. The same fan base forgave Alex Rodriguez his lengthier steroid use the moment he starred in a World Series victory.

When it comes to this particular topic, it’s always been difficult for people in Europe to understand that there is very little stigma attached to steroid use in America. Perhaps it’s the presence of so many performance-enhancing substances in a lot of local gyms. Maybe it’s to do with “if you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’” being one of the first truisms children learn when they take up competitive sport.  Whatever the reason, getting caught using hardly ever does long-term damage.

Bill Romanowski was an NFL linebacker, most notably with the Denver Broncos, who featured prominently in the BALCO investigation that brought down Marion Jones and shattered the myth of Barry Bonds. Famously, Romanowski was once sued by a team-mate who accused him of assault while suffering from ‘roid rage during a training ground fight. Eventually, he came clean about the extent of his steroid use during his career and, yes, you may guess where this is going, he’s now all over radio and TV analysing grid-iron. No stigma required.

Across the Atlantic, that type of horrific resume would have doomed somebody to a life on the fringes of sport. Over here, as Armstrong well knows, it was a mere bump in the road, an unedifying chapter in a larger life story. Jones herself may have alienated the athletics world but having taken the Oprah Winfrey confessional option she was welcomed into the WNBA with open arms when she picked up a basketball again in 2010. That she had conspired to spectacularly cheat in another code wasn’t even an issue as parents brought their little girls to line up for her autograph at Tulsa Shock games.

Of all the major baseball players associated with steroids, Barry Bonds remains the one most obviously in the wilderness. Why? Because he has never offered a full and frank account of why he did what he did, preferring to stick to the lame, tired, old “I didn’t know what I was taking” excuse. In a sport which cherishes its former players like no other, Bonds currently has no role to play in baseball and probably won’t until he performs some sort of public act of contrition. Don’t think for a minute that Armstrong hasn’t seen the contrast between where Bonds and McGwire stand today, and decided which one he wants to be.


(This piece first appeared in the Irish Mail on Sunday on January 13th, 2013)

Triumph, tragedy and the United Irishmen


As the British European Airways twin-engine Elizabethan RMA readied itself for a third attempt to take off from Munich Airport, it was Johnny Berry who articulated the fears that up to then had remained largely unspoken among the Manchester United players. A fearless winger by reputation, Berry offered the opinion that the way things were looking, they might all die here on this German airstrip. Liam Whelan, such a religious man it was once rumoured he might leave football for the priesthood, remained stoic at the suggestion.

“If that’s going to happen,” said the Dubliner, “I’m ready for it, I hope we all are.”

That February night in 1958, three of the first-team squad were Irish. Harry Gregg proved the hero of that darkest hour, dragging some of his friends from the burning wreckage, Jackie Blanchflower suffered injuries that prematurely ended a promising career, and Whelan, well, he was one of the eight players who in death turned a mere football club into something much more important than that.

As the 55th anniversary of the tragedy looms next month, the date also marks the point in history when the relationship between United and Ireland was changed forever. Irish supporters of a certain age have always invested the demise of the Busby Babes with the same significance others accord the assassination five years later of President John F. Kennedy.

That the mercurial midfielder Whelan, cut down in his prime at 23, was among the dead, only added to the poignancy in Ireland. The outpouring of grief during his funeral on the northside of Dublin was the defining moment for a pre-pubescent Bertie Ahern. The future Taoiseach was brought along to watch the cortege make its way towards Glasnevin Cemetery. After that, there could be no other club for him, nor for so many thousands more of a similar age.

“My affection for United dates back to my earliest days, when as a young lad kicking a ball around on the streets of Drumcondra, I used to pretend to be Liam Whelan,” Ahern wrote some years ago. “There always seemed to be an Irish connection at United. I was always impressed by Matt Busby. He was a charismatic and dignified figure, a devout Catholic, and United were considered to be a Catholic club, which is another reason Irish people identified with them.”

Other English clubs have had fond and lengthy associations with Ireland, but none has endured and grown quite like this one. The first Irishman to play professional soccer anywhere was a Belfast-born left-winger by the name of Jack Peden. A petulant type, he plied his trade in Manchester in the 1890s, when the team that would be called United was still known as plain old Newton Heath. Seventy years later, an even more gifted left-winger from the same town as Peden, a kid by the name of George Best, would encounter success and excess in almost equal measure.

Between those two eras came Munich, and after that everything was different. The powerful symbolism of the catastrophe and its impossibly tragic storyline, stretching all the way to Whelan’s native Cabra, meant Irish people were inexorably and romantically drawn to United. Decades before Ryanair made cheap day-trips such an intrinsic part of the modern supporters culture, the Friday night boat trip to Old Trafford was already a type of hardcore pilgrimage for fans from all over the island.

Protestants and Catholics. From the North and South. Even in the worst of times, United provided a church where every Irish denomination found common ground and, to its credit, the club has always acknowledged this rabid constituency far across the sea. It’s difficult to think of any other English outfit asking a Dubliner to parade his freshly won World Snooker Championship trophy at half-time on the pitch as United did with Ken Doherty (a devout red) back in 1997.

Of A different timbre, the monetary value of the link can be gauged by the match programme a few years back containing a Mastercard advertisement urging Irish fans to get a credit card with the slogan Ar aghaidh libh, lads. Way before the intrusion of slick marketing, however, this bond went deep.

“Matt Busby loved Ireland and I think he felt that Manchester United should go over there at least once a year,” said Paddy Crerand, a Scot of Irish descent. “Our first game after winning the European Cup was friendly in Dublin, a testimonial for Liam Whelan’s brother. You have to remember that one in three people in Manchester claim some sort of Irishness. Matt was honorary president the Irish club in Chorlton, and he didnt hold the position just for the sake of it.”

That the city had long-standing historical ties with Ireland no doubt helped in the strengthening of the union. Even before the Great Famine struck, one in ten Manchester residents were Irish-born, and today the city hosts Britain’s largest annual Irish festival. That a preponderance of Irishmen have worn red at crucial junctures through the decades also explains the intensity of the rapport. While every United fan has his or her own personal epiphany, there are games that remain landmarks for all, and nearly every one of those came with Dubliners, Corkonians or Belfast boys operating in key roles.

Ten years after Munich, more than a quarter of the first XI that defeated Benfica in the European Cup Final were Irish, and one of them, the peerless Best, was the hero of the hour. Thirty-one years later, Roy Keane sat out the Champions League triumph over Bayern Munich through suspension, but his outsized heroics and Denis Irwin’s quiet brand of excellence made such a contribution to the treble season that somewhere along the way Sir Alex Ferguson picked up an impressive knowledge of Cork geography.

“Denis says Roy is from the rough part of Cork, and Roy says Denis is from the rough part of Cork,” said Ferguson. “I don’t know exactly who to believe here, but there is obviously a little bit of competition in the parts of Cork they come from.”

Funny as it may seem to hear him discussing the merits of Keane’s Mayfield and Irwin’s Togher, there was a time Irish fans worried about Ferguson. In the years after the departures in quick succession of Frank Stapleton, Kevin Moran, Paul McGrath and Norman Whiteside, before the arrival of the Cork duo, a bizarre legend grew up that Ferguson had something against the Irish. Ignoring the obvious fact that Whiteside was a Protestant from east Belfast, the ludicrous notion was predicated on Fergusons perceived anti-Catholicism.

In its way, this was as misguided and wrong-headed as the belief in a different time that Busby’s faith caused him to discriminate in favour of the Catholics in his charge. Busby’s staunch personal Catholicism, and his closeness during his formative years to his maternal grandfather, an Irish immigrant by the name of Jimmy Greer, formed the unwieldy premise for that fallacy. In practice, Busby, like Ferguson, picked the best players, regardless of affiliation.

As with any long-standing affair, there have been some rocky spells. When JP McManus and John Magnier began buying up shares in United through their company Cubic Expression, it looked for a time as if the Irish were finally, officially, going to take over Old Trafford. Unfortunately, that whole episode degenerated instead into an unseemly and drawn-out soap opera involving Ferguson, the fertility rights to a horse, myriad protests, and the eventual selling-on of the stake to American Malcolm Glazer, a final act that didn’t exactly endear the Irish investors to the United faithful.

If having so many Irish stars has always provided a lineage to which supporters could lovingly adhere, there is also a sense of genuine comradeship between the players themselves too. Despite coming from very different backgrounds, Whiteside and McGrath became fast friends once they met at Old Trafford, and Eamon Dunphy tells a wonderful story about himself as a young apprentice being taken into the confidence of the veteran Cork centre-half Noel Cantwell for no other reason than they shared a nationality.

The different eras tend to interact. Thirty years or so after making his United debut in a friendly against Bolton Wanderers in Cork in 1963, Crerand was introduced to a man who claimed to have lost his job because he took a half day from work to go to that game at Flower Lodge. The man’s name was Mossie Keane. His son Roy ended up with his face plastered on to the white part of the Irish tricolours that vendors sold outside the ground on match days.

From Peden to Best, from Cantwell to Keane, the line is drawn and somewhere in the middle stands Liam Whelan. Back when he first arrived at the club, the 18-year-old neophyte met Johnny Carey, another Home Farm alumnus, and the then club captain asked the kid his name.

“Liam, is it?” enquired Carey. “Well hold on to it for as long as you can. They’re sure to take it away from you here.” The boy who had been christened William but was known as Liam became Billy Whelan by the time he died. And that’s the name they etched on the memorial plaque at Old Trafford, the one that remembers the tragic day when United and Ireland were changed forever.