The Irish in New Brunswick

Sporting Tradition


By Bruce Driscoll

Every culture has its competitive side, and sporting events designed to match wits and display feats of strength and endurance have existed since the early days of civilization. Some sports are common across different cultures, varying only by degrees of local flavour, while others develop in ways unique to a particular heritage. Certainly, by the time wholesale emigration began from Ireland to the new world, in the 1700s, and in every wave of immigration that took place after that, there were well-established sporting activities accompanying those movements.

Ireland has at least 2 relatively unique sports, hurling (resembling lacrosse and hockey, but greatly predating both) and Gaelic football (a close relative of rugby, with elements of English football, or soccer). Hurling is actually referred to in historical documents going back to the 13th and 15th centuries, and there are references to Gaelic football in the 14th and 16th centuries.

Wikipedia provides a good outline of these two sports in a North American context:


“References to hurling on the North American continent date from the 1780s in modern-day Canada concerning immigrants from County Waterford and County Kilkenny, and also, in New York City. After the end of the American Revolution, references to hurling cease in American newspapers until the aftermath of the Potato Famine when Irish people moved to America in huge numbers, bringing the game with them.

Newspaper reports from the 1850s refer to occasional matches played in San Francisco, Hoboken, and New York City. The first game of hurling played under GAA rules outside of Ireland was played on Boston Common in June 1886.

hurling1 300x251

In 1888, there was an American tour by fifty Gaelic athletes from Ireland, known as the ‘American Invasion.’ This created enough interest among Irish Americans to lay the groundwork for the North American GAA. By the end of 1889, almost a dozen GAA clubs existed in America, many of them in and around New York City, Philadelphia, and Chicago. Later, clubs were formed in Boston, Cleveland, and many other centers of Irish America.
In 1910, twenty-two hurlers, composed of an equal number from Chicago and New York, conducted a tour of Ireland, where they played against the County teams from Kilkenny, Tipperary, Limerick, Dublin, and Wexford.

Traditionally, hurling was a game played by Irish immigrants and discarded by their children. Many American hurling teams took to raising money to import players directly from Ireland. In recent years, this has changed considerably with the advent of the Internet. Outside of the traditional North American GAA Gaelic football cities of New York, Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco, clubs are springing up in other places where they consist of predominantly American-born players who bring a new dimension to the game and actively seek to promote it as a mainstream sport, especially Joe Maher, a leading expert at the sport in Boston. Currently, the Milwaukee Hurling Club is the largest North American Hurling club, which is made of all Americans and very few Irish immigrants.”

Gaelic football

“Gaelic Football (Irish: Peil, Peil Gaelach or Caid), commonly referred to as ‘football‘, or ‘Gaelic’, is a form of football played mainly in Ireland. It, along with Hurling, is the most popular spectator sport in Ireland. cities of New York, Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco, clubs are springing up in other places where they consist of predominantly American-born players who bring a new dimension to the game and actively seek to promote it as a mainstream sport, especially Joe Maher, a leading expert at the sport in Boston. Currently, the Milwaukee Hurling Club is the largest North American Hurling club, which is made of all Americans and very few Irish immigrants.”

kerry football 298x300

Gaelic football is played by teams of 15 on a rectangular grass pitch with H-shaped goals at each end. The primary object is to score by kicking/striking the ball with your hand and getting it through the goals. The team with the highest score at the end of the match wins.

Players advance the ball up the field with a combination of carrying, soloing (dropping and then toe-kicking the ball upward into the hands), kicking, and hand-passing to their team-mates: “.. The game is believed to have descended from ancient Irish football known as “caid” which dates back to medieval times, although the modern rules were not set down until 1887.”

Gaelic football tended to be replaced with English rugby or English football (soccer) when immigrants arrived in North America, and of course by the late 1800s, Canadian and American football had started to develop as further offshoots of rugby.

roadbowling2 300x261

Another Irish sport was road bowling, first noted as far back as the 17th century. This sport had its counterparts in many other counties, including Holland, Germany and Italy. It is not widely practiced these days, and yet is gaining some adherents in the US, New Zealand and Canada.

Wikipedia offers this brief summary of road bowling:

“The basic premise is similar to golf. Participants, usually single opponents, throw a 28 ounce (800 g) bowl or “bullet” along a country road course, up to 4 km long, and the fewest throws to traverse the distance wins the contest.

Participants in or from Ireland traditionally bet during the contest. Those who have bet on a player will follow him/her around the course, giving advice. It is a sport which suits all ages, although serious participants acquire styles and distances that casual bowlers can only imagine.

road bowling

A history of the game has been written by the Irish academic, Dr Fintan Lane. Titled Long Bullets: A History of Road Bowling in Ireland (Cork: Galley Head Press, 2005), his book traces the sport to the 17th century and suggests that it was once far more widespread that it is today. Until the 19th century, the game was also played in Scotland, the north of England and in North America.”

Irish sports that were also common to other nationalities included golf, boxing, rowing and sporting activities involving horses.

All of these sports, along with the more traditional one-on-one sports, like running, jumping, wrestling, lifting of heavy objects; events which often began as school activities, would have been known to immigrants when they arrived. The question of whether or not sports events actually took place likely depended more on spare time, money and good health, none of which were necessarily in ready supply for people just trying to make a new home. Indeed, in many cases, these would have been activities far from the minds of poor families.

So, in New Brunswick, how did this history of sports, both unique and common, fit with the settling of Irish immigrants, and perhaps just as important, how did the Irish fit into the developing North American sports of hockey, football, baseball, and basketball just to name the four (4) most prominent?

Finding information related to sports in the late 1700s or throughout the 1800s is very difficult. By the 1900s, articles and reserch materials begin to show up. And very often, it has to be remembered, the decision to link Irishness to sports may only come about as a result of a name that is Irish in origin, or considered Irish in society at large.

In the Daniel F. Johnson Papers in the Provincial Archives, there is an article on Cornelius Driscoll, dated January 29, 1887, in The Daily Telegraph of Saint John, recognizing his 100th birthday, which states in part:

“..Mr. Driscoll was born in Baltimore, Ireland only three miles from Cape Clear. His grandfather died at the age of 104 and his father passed beyond the limit of three score and ten. Our centenarian was a fisherman during his youth and early manhood and in that occupation stored up the physical vigour which sustains him now. He was known far and wide as the strongest man in the neighbourhood. In rowing races, which was a favourite amusement of the Baltimore fishermen, he was accustomed to row with one man on the side of the boat, while on the other side were three oarsmen. He was a prosperous man in the old country and it was not until he had passed fifty that he resolved to try his fortune in America. He came to St. John, and with the exception of three months spent in Boston, here he has remained.”[1]

Marion Gilchrist Reicker wrote an exceptional book, Time There Was, chronicling much of the history of the abandoned communities of Queens County from 1815-1953, including those that now form part of CFB Gagetown. In her article on the community of Jerusalem, she writes the following: “The community had three churches, one Methodist and two Baptist. In 1914, a baseball team was started after Harry Machum and Percy Inch had canvassed the community for potential players. Among the players were John Elder and Frank Machum, and they played on Saturday nights. There was an up-road team and a down-road team in Jerusalem and a team from Olinville would come over and play against them. However, the baseball team went down during World War I and after the war a softball team was set up.” [2]

She also mentions the following in speaking about Summer Hill community in the early 1900s.  “In the summer there were ball games, with both boys and girls on the teams.” [3]
Peter D. Murphy, a well-known New Brunswick researcher and historian, provided the following articles from Saint John papers of the late 1800s.March 16, 1877
Daily News, Saint JohnA $500 match foot race is to take place tomorrow at Lynn, Mass., Baseball grounds. The contestants will be Edward F. McAVOY of Lynn and Hugh FARREN of Cambridge, better known as the Fort Howe Boy of St. John, N.B. Farren a short time ago was the champion 100 yard ‘ped’ in the United States.September 17, 1895
Saint John Globe, Saint John

James CAMPBELL, brother of Hugh CAMPBELL, and in his time a well known athlete, died at his residence, Elm Street, Portland (St. John), Tuesday after a lengthy illness. Mr. Campbell was a famous pitcher and short stop in the Invincible baseball team that used to play against the Shamrocks and Mutuals. He was an oarsman and a runner, indeed an all round athlete. The funeral will take place tomorrow.

March 11, 1889
The Daily Sun, Saint John

The readers of the ‘Sun’ will learn with regret of the death of Edward WARLOCK which occurred yesterday morn. at his residence Summer Street, Portland (St. John). Mr. Warlock had been in the employ of Harris & Co. for ten years as cashier. He was well known in skating, baseball and athletic circles generally. He was at one time captain of the Nationals. Mr. Warlock was married to a daughter of John CUMMINGS who survives him. The deceased was the youngest s/o D.O.L. WARLOCK, well known jeweller.

pariscrew1 300x210

Certainly the most famous group of Irish sportsmen of the 19th century were The Paris Crew of the Saint John area, immortalized forever in story and song, and anointed as members of the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame in 1956. They were among the second group of Hall inductees, clearly indicating their high standing in Canadian sports history. Their biography in the Hall has this tale to tell:

“The Paris Crew was the first rowing team to bring international glory to Canada. The ink on the papers of Confederation had barely dried when these rowers took Europe by storm and claimed the world rowing title for our newly-established nation.

Before they were dubbed the “Paris Crew,” Robert Fulton, Samuel Hutton, George Price, and Elijah Ross made up what was more simply called the Saint John Four. These men made their living on the waters of New Brunswick, three as fishermen, and one as a lighthouse keeper. They won their first race in 1863 and remained undefeated until 1876, with the exception of one race, which they lost due to a flooded boat.

In 1865, the Saint John Four claimed the provincial title, making them heroes in their home town. Rowing was such a highly-valued sport in the Maritimes that when the chance came for the four to compete at the 1867 Paris Exhibition, the provincial government and the people of St. John were quick to provide the $6,000 needed to cover the cost of the trip.

When the Saint John Four arrived in Paris, they felt and looked like fish out of water. As one newspaper remarked, “with their flesh-coloured jerseys, dark cloth trousers, leather braces and bright pink caps, they were in striking contrast to their neat competitors.” Their homemade boat, which weighed a good 50kg more than one of the elegant European vessels, was described as a “Chinese puzzle painted green.” The English criticized their rowing style, while all opponents were taken aback when they discovered that the Canadian team rowed without a coxswain.

pariscrew2 300x205

Those who scoffed, however, were put to shame when they saw what the crew from New Brunswick could do in competition. Though it was a close race, the Saint John Four came out victorious over Paris’s own Gesling Crew. The following day, they crossed the finish line a full minute ahead of the nearest English team and claimed the world championship title. The Saint John Four were thereafter dubbed the Paris Crew for their superb victories on the Seine River. Their title as world champions, however, was not acknowledged by everyone. The Americans were quick to point out the United States had not sent a team to compete in Paris, and if they had, they surely could have beaten the Canadians.

A challenge was soon issued, and the Paris Crew took on the Ward brothers, America’s best crew, in 1868. True to form, the Canadians beat them in a six-mile course, reinforcing their titles as rowing champions of the world. The four rowers returned to Canada where they were hailed as heroes. In bringing international renown and respect to our country in its infancy, the Paris Crew stirred feelings of national pride, connected citizens of this new nation from coast to coast, and helped forge a collective identity for Canadians.” [4]

CharlesGorman1 238x300

Another great Saint John athlete enshrined in the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame is speedskater Charles Gorman. Born in Saint John on July 6, 1897, he was among the group of 53 athletes enshrined in the Hall in 1955, the first year it opened. His biography in the Hall outlines his career:

“Charles Gorman dominated the North American speed skating scene during the mid-1920s, earning him such titles as the “Man with the Million Dollar Legs” and the “Human Dynamo.”

Gorman was a local baseball star in his native New Brunswick but turned down an offer from the New York Yankees in order to pursue speed skating. He won his first Canadian outdoor championship in 1924 and went on to take the North American outdoor title at Sarnac Lake.

Unfortunately, Gorman did not fare too well at the Olympics that year. The Games employed the European style of speed skating in which contestants skate two at a time against a clock. In North America, all skaters compete at once; therefore, the race becomes more about strategically maneuvering around opponents. Though Gorman was as fast as a bullet on skates, the more combative North American system was much more suited to his pugnacious style.

Gorman came back with a vengeance in 1926. After winning the national outdoor and the North American indoor titles, Gorman beat Olympic champion Clas Thunberg of Finland to claim the World Championship.

The following year, Gorman proved that his legs truly were worth a million dollars when he claimed the mid-Atlantic championship, the U.S. national outdoor championship, the Canadian indoor championship, the international outdoor championship, and the international indoor championship. In the process, he retained his world title, broke the record for the 1/6 mile event, and shaved a second off his own mark for 440 yards.

Gorman returned to the Olympics in 1928 but his hopes of a better performance were shattered when a competitor fell in his path during the 500m competition. Officials denied that there had been any interference and his pleas for a second chance fell on deaf ears. Gorman left the Games immediately, refusing to compete in the 5,000m event.

In the eyes of his Canadian fans, however, Gorman’s outstanding achievements outshone his grave Olympic disappointment. The North American records he set in the 220-yard indoor, the 440-yard indoor, the 440-yard outdoor, and the 1/6 mile events still stand.”[5]

Using another reference point, it is interesting to take a look at the New Brunswick Sports Hall of Fame, and the two categories they have to recognize their athletes and athletic contributors. There is a list of ‘Honoured Members’ (198) which can be teams, individual athletes, or builders, and a select list of 16 ‘Sports Pioneers’ of which the Hall’s website says:Thirteen individuals and three teams were designated as Sports Pioneers in February, 2000, in a special millennium project undertaken by the New Brunswick Sports Hall of Fame to recognize those from an earlier era whose achievements and contributions to sport in this province must not be forgotten.

The selections were made by the Board of Governors , in consultation with an 18-member Selection Committee, from names submitted and extensive research carried out by the Sports Hall of Fame. Only those whose careers ended before 1940 were eligible for consideration.[6]

Now, using the criteria of Irish name origin only (drawing on the research done by Terrance Punch in his recent publication Erin‘s Sons: Irish Arrivals in Atlantic Canada, 1761-1853,) it appears that of the 198 current members, a reasonably reliable case could be made that 75 have Irish roots. The ‘Sports Pioneers’ group is even more interesting. There is the team called the ‘Moncton Colleens,’ a highly respected women’s basketball team from 1925-30. While this says nothing about the individual members, it speaks volumes about the roots of the community they came from. There are also a total of 10 Irish names in the list of 13 individual ‘Pioneers.’  Researcher and historian Peter D. Murphy also provides the following list of early Irish New Brunswickers who played Major League baseball:

  • Daley, Thomas “Tom”, born New Brunswick, 12 December 1891, played 1913-1921
  • Jones, William, born 8 April 1887, Hartland, played 1911-1912
  • McGovern, Arthur John, born 27 February 1882, Saint John, played 1905
  • McKeever, Jim, born 19 April 1861, New Brunswick, played 1884
  • McLean, John Bannerman “Larry”, born 18 July 1881, Fredericton, played 1901-1915 [Possibly not Irish]
  • Riley, James Norman, born 25 May 1895, Bayfield, New Brunswick, played 1921-1923
  • Phillips, William “Bill”, born Saint John, 1 May 1857, played 1879-1888 (Cleveland) (First Canadian to Play in Majors)
  • Shields, Vincent William, born 18 November 1900, Fredericton, played 1924

This has been but a starting point for the participation in sports of New Brunswick citizens with Irish heritage, and is meant to give an historical perspective for the early years of the Province.

– Bruce Driscoll, Spring 2007

[1] Volume 66 Number 2994, Daniel F. Johnson’s New Brunswick Newspaper Vital Statistics, PANB
[2] Marion Gilchrist Reicker ‘A Time There Was, Petersville and Other Abandoned Settlements in Queens County, N.B. 1815-1953,’ Page 57.
[3] Ibid, Page 70
[4] Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame
[5] Ibid
[6] New Brunswick Sports Hall of Fame
WIKIPEDIA, The Free Enclyopedia, hosted by The Wikimedia Foundation, at