As you enter Sneem from Killarney you are met with the imposing lifesize monument erected in memory of Steve Casey, a world champion from a family of champions. Weeshie Fogarty did a fine Terrace Talk programme on Steve and on his six other brothers, also world champions. Thirty years ago this summer, the Sneem Regatta in Kerry hosted a final reunion on home water of what was arguably the greatest Irish sporting family of all time.
They were called the Casey brothers. There were seven of them in total: Steve, Paddy, Jack, Jim, Mick, Tom and Dan. And to suggest they were Ireland’s greatest sporting siblings may, if anything, be an understatement. They were also once dubbed, not without justification, “the toughest family on earth”.
Sheer size was one of their main attributes, and it was hereditary on both sides. Their father was Big Mick Casey, a bare-knuckle boxer who in his youth had sparred with John L Sullivan. Their mother was Brigid Sullivan, from a family known around Sneem as The Mountains.
But the seven sons had finesse as well as physique. The 1983 reunion (of the five who could still travel) was in a rowing boat, the stage on which they most excelled as a group. They were among the greatest oarsmen of their generation, although that sport was also the source of their greatest disappointment.
As a collective, they also excelled in tug-of-war. But it was in the individual discipline of wrestling, perhaps, that they reached their highest level. And the brother who scaled the final summit was Steve, or as he was known in a sport where nicknames were obligatory, Crusher Casey.
For several years from the late 1930s, Steve Casey – 6’4” and 17 stone – held the most authentic version of the world heavyweight wrestling championship, thanks partly to his trademark move, the Killarney Flip.
Among his rivals, incidentally, was a fellow countryman Danno O’Mahoney whose signature was the Irish Whip. Their first meeting was a draw. But, in a rematch-to-the-finish, the Flip outmanoeuvred the Whip after an epic 18 rounds and 97 minutes.
Not content with wrestling supremacy, however, Casey was also a formidable boxer. He beat the US champion, then challenged Joe Louis for the world title. When Louis didn’t pick up the gauntlet, the New York Post taunted: “Even the greatest run scared of the Sneem Machine”.
Crusher was not the only Casey to excel at wrestling. His younger brother Paddy was a three-time All-Ireland champion and probably destined for greater things when he broke his back during a bout in 1938.
He won that fight anyway, but the injury curtailed further ambitions and he was better known in later years for operating a string of Irish clubs in London: the Glocamorra, the Shamrock, and the Inisfree. Another Casey, Mick, fought 200 wrestling bouts, despite being the only brother never to leave Sneem.
But back to rowing, the sport in which the family first established their legend in the early 1930s. A measure of their collective talents was when five of them combined to win the Lakes of Killarney Salters Cup, in perpetuity, somewhat to the chagrin of the organisers.
The rule was that if you won three years running, the trophy was yours. After they triumphed in 1930 and 1931, however, there was no 1932 competition. So when they won again in 1933, they were first told that the victories had to be consecutive. Not surprisingly, the brothers won the argument and kept the cup, despite the organisers offering £60 to buy it back.