A tale of two Sams – both Uncle Sam and Sam Maguire have a bit of mystery attached to them

“Mayo for Sam!”

“Mayo for Sam!” Those were US president Joe Biden’s declamatory final words to his audience in Ballina on the penultimate night of his state visit to Ireland. Everyone who was there on the banks of the Moy knew what he meant, but the sudden three-word shout may have been quite puzzling to many Americans who chanced to hear them.

What was he trying to say? Few of them would have guessed that he was talking about football.

His political enemies at home, especially those who constantly claim that he is bumbling and incoherent (despite ample evidence to the contrary) were probably on the internet within minutes, spreading their own interpretations, each one more imaginative than the last, maybe even suggesting that he had suddenly seen a hot dog van on the far side of the river and decided to shout an order for mayonnaise for an imaginary friend called Sam.

His supporters, equally baffled at first by this gnomic utterance, may then have taken it to be a declaration that this entire county called Mayo – a place seemingly filled to the brim with his cousins – was a uniquely enthusiastic supporter of good ol’ Uncle Sam, aka the United States of America. Who knows, he may even have been proposing the place for statehood!


We, of course, know that he was talking about Sam Maguire, or at least the trophy that bears his name.

Both Sams have a bit of mystery attached to them.

Who was the original avuncular Samuel who became the human personification of the United States of America? He is usually portrayed as a goatee-bearded white-haired white gent flamboyantly attired in top hat and tails incorporating the red, white and blue colours of the American flag – an image popularised in a recruiting poster during the first World War. The poster was created by the appropriately named James Montgomery Flagg.

Or – as one argument has it – was the name just based on the initials US for the United States being given human form?

Nobody knows for sure, but the most popular contention alleges that it originated with a Sam Wilson from New York who was referred to locally as “Uncle Sam”. He was a meat supplier to the US army during the War of 1812 against Britain. The barrels of supplies were stamped “U.S.” and soldiers joked that it meant the food had been sent by Uncle Sam.

That explanation is not universally accepted, but a resolution passed by the US Congress in 1961 recognised Samuel Wilson as the originator of the national symbol – whether he knew anything about it or not. He was, according to one source a man of great fairness, reliability and honesty who was devoted to his country.

There is also one other suggested origin for the name Uncle Sam, but we’ll come back to that later.

Every one of the qualities attributed to Sam Wilson could no doubt also be used to describe Sam Maguire. A son of a popular Protestant farming family in West Cork, he excelled as a Gaelic footballer, and when he went to London in 1897 to work in the Post Office, he soon got involved with the GAA there. His organising abilities were recognised and he eventually became chairman of the London branch. (The man who preceded him in that post was none other than Liam MacCarthy – he of the All-Ireland hurling trophy).

But Sam Maguire was also active in another sphere: he was a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood – and among those he recruited to its secret circles was fellow post office employee Michael Collins.

Sam returned to Ireland in 1923 and joined the Civil Service – working again in the post office. And this is where we come to the mystery that’s still attached to the man who is best known today because of the GAA trophy named after him.

The mystery is this: why was he summarily sacked from his job on December 29th, 1924, and left with no pension (despite having had his British entitlement transferred to Ireland). The story is examined in considerable detail in a book entitled “Sam Maguire - The Enigmatic Man Behind Ireland’s Most Prestigious Trophy” by Kilkenny-born Margaret Walsh who now lives in West Cork.

Despite Sam’s appeals for a hearing, and questions being asked in the Dáil, no reason was ever made public. There remained persistent conjecture surrounding the abortive Army Mutiny that occurred in March 1924. The possible involvement of the IRB and Sam Maguire’s presence at certain meetings may have sealed his fate. He was never given a reason.

He died in February 1927 in his native Dunmanway, and, according to one witness quoted by Margaret Walsh, his funeral hearse was followed by a cortege six miles long.

Meanwhile, back to the origins of the mythical Uncle Sam – here’s another theory to play with: he could have been given his name by Irish-speaking emigrants. What’s the Irish for U.S.A? It’s S.A.M.

If you doubt that, just look up at the signage the next time you pass through Dublin Airport. Our American visitors must get a nice warm feeling when they see “US pre-clearance” – and just above are the words in Irish, concluding in large capitals: ”Réamh-imréiteach SAM”.