Many people leave a lasting impact on Dublin, becoming a part of its very fabric and remembered as characters of the city. Recently I stumbled upon one very interesting Dublin character of old, remembered for posterity with a brief mention in Me Jewel and Darlin’ Dublin by Éamonn MacThomáis, but otherwise largely forgotten. This character is the black boxer Joseph Warren, who was widely known as ‘Cyclone’ Billy Warren in the first half of the twentieth century. In the words of MacThomáis, Warren “came to Dublin, fell in love with the city and its people and never left.” He was a very familiar face at the General Post Office on O’Connell Street, where he tended to spend his time engaging people in conversation. Warren, who retired in this city, also appeared on screen as an actor and he may have even been painted by Sir William Orpen.
Who was this black boxer who landed in Dublin in the early twentieth century, and what was his background? Information on him is scarce and often seemingly inaccurate, but I’ve tried to piece together the various bits of information out there. There is even disagreement over his nation of origin, with some claiming that Warren was born in Australia, while others insist he was American.The Irish Digest in 1959 wrote of Warren as “Billy Warren, whose father had been born in slavery on a cotton plantation”, yet others would refer to him as Australian in the Irish media. Regardless of origins, it appears Warren would box in Australia, the United States and right across Europe over the course of his career. According to the Irish Independent at the time of his death in March 1951, the “negro boxer, who had been a familiar figure to O’Connell Street crowds for nearly half a century” was 74 years old. It was stated that before settling in Dublin he had married a “Wolverhampton girl” and that they lived in a small one-roomed home on Nelson Street, from which he would emerge and walk down to O’Connell Street daily. His seemingly exotic past and career in the boxing ring, coupled with the relatively unusual fact that Warren was a black man in the Dublin of his time, made him stand out from the crowd.
In a June 1946 interview with the Irish Independent, Warren gave some detail of his life and career, claiming that as a 27 year old in 1907 he had boxed with the famous Jack Johnson, the first African American world heavyweight boxing champion. “I was pretty green myself then”, he told the paper. “I didn’t know much about covering up and defence, but I could take a good beating without swallowing the anchor.” However Box Rec, dedicated to recording the histories of boxers who have stepped into the ring, casts some doubt on Warren’s tale of fighting Johnson, noting that:
Claims he made after his career of fighting both Jack Johnson and Peter Jackson have not been proven, and may just be exaggerations by the “Cyclone.” But Warren did square off with Sam McVey, a great black fighter of the era, losing by a second round knockout. “
The Box Rec website has also attempted to correlate a list of Warren’s appearances in the ring, though like with all aspects of his story details are sketchy in places. References to Warren boxing in this city begin to appear towards the end of the first decade of the twentieth century and continue from there. In 1910 for example he was advertised as boxing in the Theatre Royal:
Even earlier, in August 1909, there is reference to Warren fighting Wexford man Jem Roche for the Championship of Ireland in Belfast and later in Dublin. Warren would succeed in beating Roche in Belfast. Interestingly, the Australian Auckland Star heralded this event, praising “the Australian boxer” for his talents. Not long after this success, Warren would lose the title in Dublin to Roche. Some argued that as a non-national he should never have been allowed compete for the Irish Championship at all. Warren spent some time boxing in France and England, something the records can verify. Anthropologist William A. Shack draws on a letter from Warren to a U.S newspaper in his book Harlem in Montmartre: A Paris Jazz Story Between the Great Wars, in which he claimed that in Britain there existed strong racial prejudice against black people, and that “only one in a hundred in Great Britain would put up a Race man for lodgings and board.” It’s possible this feeling of alienation may have encouraged the boxer to settle in Ireland. Warren seems to have made his living in a variety of ways outside of the ring.In 1915 for example he was in trouble in Limerick when he “appeared at Templemore Fair” selling shirt studs, and refused to give his name and address to a police officer. He was taken in under the Defence of the Realm Act according to the Irish Independent. Writing of Warren in the later years of his life, MacThomáis claimed “at one time he used to advertise Nugget boot polish. He used to stand on a piece of black wood that looked like black marble. Written on it were the words Nugget Polish.” In 1920 he appeared on screen here, featuring in a work called In the Days of Saint Patrick, described in The Story of Irish Film as an “ambitious production” which featured “pirate galleys and chariot races” among other things. Warren played the role of a slave in the production. The film was warmly received in Ireland and Britain. Was Warren the first black man to appear in an Irish film production? Vinne Caprani, the Dublin poet, wrote of Warren in the 1960s for the Irish Independent. Caprani was tasked with writing a series of articles on another boxer entirely, in the form of Mike Farrell, but Warren entered the narrative. In the articles Caprani claimed that Irishman Farrell had fought Warren in the U.S, and adds:
Warren was a cagey battler, who had come up the hard way, having served his ring apprenticeship in what was then known as the “battle-royals.” These events were an unusual feature of the American ring at that time. The idea of the “battle-royal” was to put four coloured fighters in the ring at the same time blindfolded and at the sound of the bell all four would leave their corners and start whaling into each other. This went on round after round, until only one remained on his feet, and be he collected the purse.
This may well have been a story Warren himself told, and it is unclear if there is truth to it. Caprani would also write that “Warren settled down in the Irish capital and Mike tells me that years later, after his return to Ireland, he frequently met Warren. Over a pint the two veterans would often discuss their various contests in the rough old days.”
Did the celebrated artist Sir William Orpen paint ‘Cyclone’ Billy Warren? It seems somewhat likely. The below artwork recently came up for auction. This 1913 painting, showing a victorious boxer, is sometimes said to show the mysterious character. As noted in the catalogue description to go with the piece:
By far the most likely contender is Cyclone Billy Warren (c.1876/1877-1951). Certainly in the latter part of his life Warren became a familiar Dublin character, with his bowler hat, cane and faded crombie overcoat as he stood every day outside the GPO in O’Connell Street right up to the time of his death. Here he would tell of his boxing exploits to anyone prepared to listen.
Cyclone Billy Warren’s story is a confusing one, and it certainly appears that he himself was capable of adding layers to it. Still, he was a colourful character all the same, and a familiar face to generations of Dubliners. We would certainly welcome comments from people who can untangle the story a bit more. While his origins are unclear, his final resting place is certain. Today, he rests in Mount Jerome Cemetery here in Dublin.