2009-04-01 / Front Page

Greater Astoria Historical Society Adopts Winged Fist

Greater Astoria Historical Society Adopts Winged Fist


By Thomas Cogan
Celtic Park, an apartment house complex on 48th Avenue between 42nd and 44th Streets in Sunnyside, gets its name from an athletic field and wooden stadium that was also called Celtic Park and which once stood in the same place. Celtic Park was owned by the Irish-American Athletic Club, a group that existed in Queens and Manhattan from the end of the 19th century until the end of the 1920s and had a great influence on the early Olympic Games. At a late March meeting of the Greater Astoria Historical Society, Ian McGowan, a student of what he calls the Irish Diaspora in the Americas, presented a lecture and exhibition of old photographs showing many of the stellar athletes of the IAAC. They were famous a century ago and deserving of a better remembrance than is accorded them now, McGowan said. While time almost always renders the famous obscure, the fate of the IAAC and several of its artifacts has been a misfortune that can be corrected, according to McGowan. He made his presentation and proposed a few steps to restore some of the IAAC’s glory. One such step would be to mount a commemorative plaque on a wall at the Celtic Park apartments, where McGowan has lived for several years.

McGowan calls his campaign the Winged Fist Project. The IAAC was formed in early 1898 because many Irish-American athletes, especially those native to Ireland, were excluded from the New York Athletic Club and formed a club of their own, locating it not far from the NYAC.

The older club had, and still has, a Winged Foot as its symbol, so the IAAC created a similar logotype, featuring a fist between two wings, a couple of Old Glories, some shamrocks and a cloud formation emblazoned with the Gaelic words, Láim Láidir Abú, or Strong Hands Forever. Queens having lots of vacant land in those days, the newly formed group found an expanse of Long Island City, laid out an athletic field, put up wooden stands and named the grounds Celtic Park.

While the club had member athletes in several sports, the IAAC goes down in history for its feats in track and field. Between the turn of the century and World War I, its runners, jumpers and weight men excelled in many track meets and in four or five Olympic Games between 1900 and 1912. By day they were employees such as New York City policemen or Bloomingdale’s clerks, but in their off hours they were trackmen who were so effective that in their peak year, 1908, the IAAC had 20 competitors on the United States team at the Olympics in London and took 10 of the 26 gold medals the team won. In those years, their luminaries were named John Jesus Flanagan, Pat McDonald, Johnny Hayes, Martin Sheridan, Mel Sheppard and Matt McGrath, among others. Their ranks, however, also included Jewish and African-American medal winners Abel Kiviat and John Baxter Taylor Jr. When Sheridan, who excelled in events from the discus throw to the broad jump and pole vaulting, died in the flu epidemic of 1918, the New York Times obituary writer called him “one of the finest athletes this country has ever known” . But by then, the fortunes of the IACC were in decline, as their aging athletes were not being replaced by comparable younger ones. By the late 1920s, Celtic Park, at that time used as a greyhound track, was often a resort for bootleggers and the scene of criminal disturbances. In 1930, with the IAAC moribund, the land was sold and the stadium pulled down. Construction was then begun on the apartment houses that are there today.

McGowan told his GAHS audience that many of the trophies and cups belonging to the IAAC and its members were picked up by the American Irish Historical Society, where he discovered them standing neglected in a display case at the society’s 991 Fifth Ave. headquarters. He was able to borrow a few and show them at his lectures.

He was bemused by the AIHS’s lack of interest in these dusty awards or the stories behind them, and began to do his own investigation. In the process, he formed the Winged Fist Organization. He found there were many documents and records available for examination, but much came to light only through lots of digging and drawing conclusions from evidence both weak and strong. One fine discovery was a series of color cards that came in packs of Hassan and Mecca cigarettes, circa 1910. In addition to cards for baseball players and boxers, there were cards featuring track and field athletes, many of them IAAC stars at the height of their fame. After McGowan and the Greater Astoria Historical Society agreed that the Winged Fist Project would be a formal GAHS program, many of these cards were put on display at GAHS headquarters, with reproductions available to the public either singly or in a set of 20.

In addition to putting up a plaque at the Celtic Park apartments and acquiring original mementos and IAAC material, Winged Fist/GAHS would like to publish a book relating the history of the IAAC and Celtic Park. And they would like to bring back the Martin J. Sheridan Medal for Valor. This was created by the Police Department to honor the officer and athlete who died too early, but was discontinued a half-century or so later when it was evidently decided his name had become meaningless. McGowan believes Sheridan’s name has meaning, as do all the names of the men that used to constitute the Irish-American Athletic Club, and he’s trying to bring those names to everyone’s attention.

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