The arse-kicking history of Irish Superstars
WWE.com raises a pint to those Superstars who proudly represented the people of Ireland in the squared circle. May the road rise up to meet them.
The Irish impact on sports-entertainment began long before Sheamus arrived in WWE.
At the height of the American Civil War in the 1860s, Irish immigrants introduced the “collar and elbow” style of grappling to fellow soldiers, giving rise to a competitive sport that would soon evolve into professional wrestling.
As Irish immigrants populated major U.S. cities in the 1920s and ’30s, keen sports-entertainment promoters positioned Irish-bred grapplers as their top stars. In the 1970s, Mr. McMahon, a proud Irish-American, followed suit when he touted Superstars of Irish descent like “Irish” Pat Barrett and Davey O’Hannon. But it wasn’t until 2010 that an Irish-born Superstar finally became WWE Champion when Sheamus won the title.
In celebration of St. Patrick’s Day, WWE.com raised a pint to those Superstars who proudly represented the people of Ireland in the squared circle. May the road rise up to meet them.
The pioneers: Danno O'Mahony & Steve "Crusher" Casey
Ever wonder why an Irish Whip is called an Irish Whip? Look to Danno O’Mahony, the fighting pride of Ballydehob in Ireland’s County Cork who used the maneuver to win multiple major titles in the 1930s.
Advertised as the strongest man on Earth when he was introduced to American wrestling fans by promoter Paul Bowser in ’34, O’Mahony had previously served in the Irish National Army where his muscle made him a local legend. As an Irish gentleman, Danno became a hero to the immigrant populations of cities like New York and Boston — just as Bowser had intended — and defeated stars of the era like Man Mountain Dean and Ed “Strangler” Lewis in front of record crowds.
O’Mahony’s career peaked on June 27, 1935, when he beat the great Jim Londos in front of more than 25,000 fans in Fenway Park to win the NWA World Heavyweight Title. Amazingly, O’Mahony continued to perform in front of packed houses even as most Americans suffered financial strife from The Great Depression.
When O’Mahony’s popularity dipped as the 1930s drew on, a new Irish hero was introduced by Bowser. Hailing from County Kerry on the southwest tip of Ireland, Steve “Crusher” Casey was one of the seven sons of a bare-knuckle boxer. The rowdy family — each champions in rowing, wrestling and even tug-of-war — proudly claimed to be the toughest clan on the planet.
A far more skilled grappler than O’Mahony, “Crusher” won the same NWA World Title as his fellow countryman when he beat Lou Thesz — widely considered to be the best pro wrestler ever — in Boston on Feb. 11, 1938. Casey’s legend grew from there as he became a world-class boxer seemingly overnight and once grappled with a wrestler named The Shadow for nearly three hours before both men collapsed in the ring, resulting in a draw.
With his “Killarney Flip” routinely guaranteeing him victory, Casey received a hero’s welcome whenever he returned to the old country — as he did on Sept. 18, 1938, when he bested none other than Danno O’Mahony in Dublin. In a testament to the popularity of both men, life-size statues of O'Mahony and Casey were erected in their respective hometowns after they passed and their legends still loom large in Ireland as two of the nation’s great sportsmen.
The bad men: Danny McShain & Skull Murphy
While grapplers like Steve Casey and Danno O’Mahony made their reputations as Eire’s heroes, Danny McShain was an Irishman that crowds queued up to hate.
Although not from Ireland proper like his predecessors, the Little Rock, Ark., native wore his roots proudly and often dubbed himself “Irish” Danny McShain. An NWA Light Heavyweight Champion in 1937, the stocky troublemaker puffed on cigars and spit tobacco juice on opponents while scoring victories over WWE Hall of Famers like Antonino Rocca and Verne Gagne.
Unapologetically gruff, the boisterous McShain wore the injuries of his ring wars proudly, often boasting about the cauliflower ears, broken bones and gory wounds he’d suffered in the squared circle.
Another Irish competitor who gave his opponents — and audiences — fits was Skull Murphy. Billed from County Cork, Ireland, Murphy dropped opponents across the United States, Canada, Japan and Australia with his paralyzing Heart Punch.
The bald-headed thug challenged Bruno Sammartino for the WWE Championship in 1963, a few months after the Italian Superstar won the title. He also garnered great success in tag team competition with his partner Brute Bernard as they won the WWE United States Tag Team Championship in 1966.
The unsung heroes: "Irish" Pat Barrett, Pete Doherty & Davey O'Hannon
In the days before WWE’s national expansion, the company’s strongest presence was in Northeastern cities with strong Irish-American populations like New York, Boston and Philadelphia. Little surprise then that Superstars with Irish backgrounds emerged as local heroes.
A smooth and steady competitor throughout the 1970s and early ’80s, Davey O’Hannon was considered to be vastly underrated by many wrestling pundits. After appearing in a number of regional territories, O’Hannon found himself a lasting home in WWE rings. Always resplendent in Kelly green, the tireless brawler, who was known for his spinning neckbreaker, took on everyone from Bruno Sammartino to Chief Jay Strongbow.
At the same time, a tenacious competitor from the hard-knock city of Belfast, Northern Ireland, was battling WWE’s best. Joining WWE in 1975, Pat Barrett became a favorite of New York City fans as he defended the World Tag Team Titles alongside Dominic DeNucci against tough teams like The Valiants and The Blackjacks. Often seen carrying a shillelagh to the squared circle, Barrett was the epitome of vim and vigor and usually notched his wins with his “Irish Cannonball” maneuver.
A few years later, WWE fans would meet a real original in “The Duke of Dorchester” Pete Doherty. His smile was missing a couple of teeth, which Doherty was proud of, chalking that up to “occupational hazards.” Although Doherty’s overall win-loss record was on the south side of .500, it certainly was not for a lack of effort. If a competitor was able to defeat The Duke, they knew that they had been in a battle, and that victory was a hard-earned one, due to the wild mannerisms that Doherty exhibited. ( WATCH)
The first lady: Velvet McIntyre
In the 1980s, one of the top female competitors in North America was Irish-born grappler Velvet McIntyre. Trained by the legendary Sandy Barr, McIntyre competed in WWE, Vancouver All-Star Wrestling, Stampede Wrestling and NWA, where she formed a dominant tag team with Princess Victoria.
The first WWE Women’s Tag Team Champions, the pair held the titles for 574 days before Victoria suffered a career-ending injury. On her own, McIntyre proved to be the top Irish-born female wrestler by defeating WWE Hall of Famer Fabulous Moolah for the WWE Women’s Championship in 1986. McIntyre also battled Moolah at WrestleMania 2 and was embroiled in a bitter rivalry with Sherri Martel. ( WATCH) When WWE’s Women’s division went on hiatus in 1990, McIntyre competed on the independent scene before retiring in 1998.
The Belfast Bruiser: Finlay
As a third-generation competitor with deep roots in Northern Ireland, Finlay always took a great deal of pride in both his craft and his hometown of Belfast. Debuting on WCW Saturday Night on Jan. 27, 1996, after a successful career in the United Kingdom, the gruff Superstar immediately set his sights on British grappler Lord Steven Regal. Wearing jeans and a Northern Ireland jacket, Finlay wasted no time making his motives clear — the long struggle between Great Britain and Northern Ireland had spilled over into WCW. ( WATCH)
Following the demise of WCW, the aggressive Irishman spent a number of years training future WWE Superstars and Divas before returning to the squared circle. With shillelagh in hand, Finlay’s penchant for fighting continued and earned him a reputation as one of the toughest competitors in WWE. A former WCW TV Champion and United States Champion, Finlay was a true fighting Irishman.
The Celtic Warrior: Sheamus
Channeling the warrior spirit of his Celtic ancestors, Sheamus has become one of the most popular and dominant WWE Superstars in modern history. Hailing from Ireland’s capital of Dublin, WWE’s first-ever Irish-born champion is never afraid to fight and never backs down from a challenge. Making his debut in 2009 on ECW, The Celtic Warrior quickly moved to Raw and set his sights on the WWE Championship. In one of the most shocking upsets in WWE history, Sheamus sent John Cena crashing through a table to win his first world title at WWE TLC 2009.
The Irish Superstar’s early success was no fluke as he became a two-time WWE Champion, World Heavyweight Champion, U.S. Champion, 2010 King of the Ring and the winner of the 2012 Royal Rumble Match. Sheamus’ resilience can be credited to either his upbringing or his birthright as he proved himself a true Celtic Warrior when he became the first Superstar to come back from Big Show’s devastating KO Punch.
The next generation: Finn Bálor & Becky Lynch
Ireland’s influence on sports-entertainment continues today with two of WWE NXT’s most promising young talents — Finn Bálor and Becky Lynch.
A native of Bray, County Wicklow, Ireland, Bálor first gained a following in New Japan Pro Wrestling where his smash mouth style, innovative entrances and a band of cronies dubbed Bullet Club earned him repute as sports-entertainment’s hottest prospect. He's making good on that promise in WWE NXT where his considerable presence and show stealing clashes against the likes of Adrian Neville and Tyson Kidd have already made him a Full Sail favorite.
Dublin’s Becky Lynch has been carving a path of her own in WWE NXT. Although she scaled back the considerable Emerald Isle influences she displayed in her debut, Lynch’s aggressive, hammer and tongs fighting style is unmistakably Irish. This Dublin scrapper just might have what it takes to become the first Irish-born Divas Champion. Good luck to anyone standing in her path.