A Notorious Irish Prison
In touring the infamous prison known as the Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin, Ireland recently, I immediately understood the real reason why England in 1920 refused to allow the great American rower, John B. Kelly Sr. to compete at Henley.
Reveals the True Kelly Story
Sure, Kelly had been a bricklayer, and the British amateur rules barred rowers who had worked with their hands. That was one theory that was floated. And, yes, the Vesper Boat Club had also broken amateur rules decades before when its crew accepted money to travel the continent: Henley had barred Vesper from ever coming back.
But the truth lies elsewhere.
Only four years before Kelly’s Henley application, Ireland had plunged into a brutal era of its history, the “1916 Rising.” That Easter, a group of Irish nationalists issued a proclamation of independence, and occupied a number of important buildings in Dublin. The British quickly sent in 20,000 troops who captured their leaders, locked them up in the Kilmainham Gaol, and then summarily executed each one in its courtyard. One of the 15 men, Joseph Plunkett, was granted permisson to marry his fiancée in the prison the day before his execution.
Another, Joseph Maillin, left behind a toddler son. As he awaited death, he wrote, “I cannot keep the tears back when I think that he will rest in my arms no more.” The martyrdom of these men ignited Ireland’s determination to break free of British rule. The Irish Republican Army was formed and the so-called Anglo-Irish war started.
On March 20, 1920, just as Kelly was gearing up to participate in the most important sculling event in the world – the Champion Diamond Sculls, at Henley – the newly elected mayor of Cork, who was also an officer of the IRA, was shot dead on his 36th birthday in front of his wife and son. The masked assailants proved to be members of the pro-British Irish police. An inquest blamed British Prime Minister Lloyd George.
Just over two months later, Kelly, in Philadelphia, would receive the telegram rejecting his application to row at Henley. “I see no reason for the refusal of my entry,” he said on hearing the news. For decades afterwards, Philadelphia newspapers and Kelly himself – blamed strict British amateur rowing rules as reasons for barring him from the race.
But as the jail and the violent and bitter years following the Easter Rising make clear, there was no way that England was going to allow America’s most famous rower – an Irishman – to trounce a Brit in 1920. A ceasefire was finally declared in 1921 and a free Ireland created, but not until after “Bloody Sunday” of November 1920, when the Irish Republican Army, led by Michael Collins, killed a team of British undercover agents believed responsible for the Cork mayor’s death the previous spring.
By then, Kelly had defeated Jack Beresford in the 1920 summer Olympics – the same English sculler he would have faced had he been allowed to row at Henley.
For the full story of Kelly’s importance to Boathouse Row and the theories around the 1920 Henley games, see my chapter on him in Boathouse Row.