When “Bricklayer Bill” Won the 1917 Boston Marathon, It Was a Victory For All Irish Americans

Bricklayer bill

From Smithsonian Magazine by Patrick L. Kennedy author of The Untold Story of the Workingman’s Boston Marathon:

When I was a kid, my Dad would take me to Heartbreak Hill, rain or shine, to watch the Boston Marathon. For our family, the race held special meaning, because our “Uncle Bill”—William J. Kennedy, my paternal grandfather’s uncle—had won the event in 1917.

Though he had been dead for eight years by the time I was born, we still cherished the legend of “Bricklayer Bill,” as he was known. The Kennedys had plied the mason’s trade since at least the 1840s, when the first of us landed on these shores, during Ireland’s Great Famine. And according to the family lore, Bill, then an itinerant worker, rode the rails to Boston and slept on a pool table the night before the race. He triumphed in the marathon while wearing a homemade Stars-and-Stripes bandana and enlisted in the Army not long after his victory.

The story was that pride in the United States spurred Bill to beat the favored Finnish runners, lest the world see the Yanks as weaklings as they entered the Great War. But there was more to my uncle’s triumph than national pride. Bill, it turned out, held a rich and sweeping definition of Americanness that embraced all creeds and colors, and his feat helped convince the country that Irishmen could be loyal Americans. Sometimes, I think his victory could have been the moment when Irish Americans lost their hyphen.

Read the rest of the article at Smithsonian Magazine


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