A portrait of legendary bare-knuckle boxer Dan Donnelly.
Ye sons of proud Britannia, your boasting now give o’er,
Since by our hero Donnelly, your hero is no more;
Eleven rounds he got nine knocks down, broke his jawbone,
Shake hands, says she, brave Donnelly, the battle is our own.
(from the ballad “Donnelly and Cooper,” words here.)
Irish history is rich in stories of playwrights and poets whose characters matched if not outshone their talent with a pen. When it comes to sports people, we are arguably equally rich in those characters. When it comes to boxing, one name that comes to my mind (and in honesty, only because I saw an excellent documentary on TG4 about the man) is Dan Donnelly, beknighted (though that tale behind this is a story in itself) prize fighter who won the hearts and minds of Irish men and women in the early 19th Century.
With Ireland still under British rule, and with ten years yet to pass until the uprising of 1798, Dan Donnelly was born into poverty and a house already full of children (eight before him, with another eight to come after him) in the heart of Dublin’s Docklands. He trained as a carpenter at early age, but it was with his fighting prowess that he excelled, garnering a reputation as a man “handy” with his fists with a few pints in him; what wages he had left after he had provided for his family, he spent on drink, or on some occasions, the other way around. He grew to be a formidable beast of a man, standing six foot and one half inch tall and weighing fourteen stone. His arms were said to be unnaturally long (a fact since proven false) giving him a reach to worry opponents. But as scary as he looked, he was said to be a man of manners, and on more than one occasion stepped in to stop muggings or assaults around the area of Townsend Street where it is said he lived. (His introduction to boxing came from fighting, and beating, a bullying English sailor in a bar close to his home.)
Dan’s infamy as a bareknuckle boxer grew, and he soon progressed from drunken brawls outside taverns to organised fights, with a purse to be taken home by the winner; and though it is said he only ever took part in three of these bouts, it is the manner of the victories and the opposition he faced and defeated that ensure his place in history.
The fight he is remembered for was his second and took place on December 13th, 1815 in The Curragh of Co. Kildare. Now called Donnellys Hollow, the area was a natural amphitheatre with sloping hillsides surrounding a flat area of ground where the fight took place. It is said that over 30, 000 people made the trek to Kildare for the fight by foot and carriage, with the upper classes mixing with slum dwellers, as each had a stake on the outcome.
The fight itself was said to be a dour affair, with the favourite Cooper (1/ 10 to win) using dirty tactics and falling to his knees on a couple of occasions in order to get a round to be stopped. Donnelly put paid to the Englishmans arrogance when he broke his jaw with a right hook in the eleventh round, taking the fight in the process.
A victory against English opponents these days is greeted with a cheer, so it’s hardly suprising that Donnellys victory against Cooper was seen as a national event. His trip back to Dublin is said to have taken over two weeks, so many were his stops, doing his best to spend the £60 purse he earned from the fight in taverns along the way. His footsteps from the Hollow itself are still there to be seen, as supporters, keen to follow in his footsteps, did so physically, marking out the steps on the landscape, as people still do to this day- as can be seen from the photograph above.
The stone obilisk surrounded by an iron fence below marks the spot where the fight took place, bearing the inscription “Dan Donnelly beat Cooper on this spot 13th Dec. 1815.”
Donnelly decided to make his way to England where he became parlour entertainment for the wealthy upper classes who welcomed him at their parties, no doubt as a lumpen Irishman with extraordinary strength. it was at one of these parties that Donnelly (according to legend as there is no documentation to prove so) knelt before the Prince Regent, George IV and was granted knighthood with a sword tap on each shoulder- an Irish pugilist who once worked with the brother of Anne Devlin, a figure central to Robert Emmets revolt of 1803 receiving knighthood from the future King of England. Implausible, but apparently true.
He moved back to Ireland and with the money he had earned from his fights (and with his reputation still intact,) he decided to go into business, opening four bars in succesion. But, as is often the case, he was often the bars best customer and this was eventually his undoing. Of all the bars, Fallons Capstan Bar is the only one that remains in business today. He died broke and lonely on February 18th, 1920 at the young age of thirty two. The procession that followed his coffin numbered in the tens of thousands and he was buried in Bullys Acre- a paupers graveyard and one of Dublin’s oldest. Within days, his body was stolen by grave robbers; Riots broke out in Dublin upon the news and Surgeon Hall, who had purchased the body, returned Donnelly to his grave in Bully’s Acre- minus his right arm. The arm was transported to Edinburgh University where it was used in anatomy lessons, was taken around England by a travelling circus, was brought back to Ireland and displayed in several pubs throughout the twentieth century, and went to New York and back before it found its resting place in The Hideout Bar, Kilcullen where it remained on show until 2006 before being removed from public viewing.
While undoubtedly, it’s Dan’s arm that garners most interest in him, its his story that gets me most. Maybe I’m just a sucker for social history but the thought of 30, 000 people making the trek out to the Curragh in the days before Bus Eireann to see what equates to an amateur bare- knuckle fight, the image of the streets lined on his victorious return, and the 70, 000 that showed up at his funeral, and yet I only know about him because of a chance viewing of a documentary on TG4 makes you think how many other stories like Dan’s have gone beneath the radar.
Underneath this pillar high,
Lies Sir Dan Donnelly;
He was a stout and handy man,
And people called him buffing Dan.
Knighthood he took from George’s sword,
And well he wore it by my word!
He died at last from forty seven
Tumblers of punch he drank one even.
O’erthrown by punch, unharmed by fist,
He died an unbeaten pugilist.
Such a buffer as Dan Donnelly,
Ireland never again will see.
Links used for research on the above piece: