Who We Were
Sportsmen with Roots in the Emerald Isle Reshaped the Image of the Shantytown Ruffian
In his 1888 book The Ethics of Boxing and Manly Sport, a high-minded treatise on the ennobling effect of sports, the journalist, poet, and Irish exile John Boyle O’Reilly wrote that “there is no branch of athletics in which Irishmen, or the sons of Irishmen, do not hold first place in all the world.” The boast was closer to true than many would realize. By the turn of the 20th century, America’s professional sports were bursting at the seams with Irish athletes. And for all its bombast, O’Reilly’s lofty embrace of their athleticism bespoke a genuine concern about the image of his fellow Irish Americans.
The very idea behind O’Reilly’s book was ironic, even farcical. He was the most respected Irishman in Boston, ...