Thursday, July 06, 2006

Dan Donnelly, 1788-1820: The Short Story

Born into a Dublin of the 18th century where there was a wide gap between rich and poor, the son of a carpenter, Dan learned to fight early in the tough part of the city where he was raised.

dandonnellyBut he was said to be a quiet man as he grew up, following the same carpentry trade as his father. Still, when his dad was insulted by a sailor in a pub one evening, he eventually had to fight the other man to get an apology. Locally he became a hero.

However, the 'gunslinger syndrome' set in then, and he found himself at the receiving end of challenges from various 'wannabee' champion fighters. Eventually he had beaten the best, and Dan was regarded as the Champion of Dublin.

A Captain William Kelly, one of 'the Fancy' -- as the aristcratic pugilism enthusiasts were known -- heard about Donnelly and knew that there was money to be made if he could be promoted as the Champion of Ireland. He persuaded Dan to work with one of the best fight trainers of the day, a Captain Barclay of Calverstown, near Kilcullen and close to the Curragh where there was a natural ampitheatre which was regularly used for fights.

This was Belcher's Hollow, and there on September 14 1814 Dan beat English pugilist Tom Hall in a fight that lasted 15 rounds. It was an unexpected defeat from the perspective of the Englishman's followers, and now Captain Kelly's dream of his man having an international reputation was accomplished.

This resulted, on December 13 1815, in a match with the fighter then regarded as the English champion, George Cooper. Again it was in Belcher's Hollow, and after a gruelling 22 minutes of often brutal combat, Donnelly was declared the winner.

He walked to the top of the hollow to acknowledge the cheers from the crowd, which according to contemporary reports numbered some 20,000 people. To this day, his footprints are cut into the grass, maintained there by the thousands of people who walk in them each year when they picnic at what has ever since the victory been known as Donnelly's Hollow.

Now a national hero, especially in his native Dublin, Dan went into the pub business in the city, but was a signal failure. Mainly because he was himself too fond of the drink he sold. Broke, he eventually went on tour in England, and succeeded in beating George Cooper's successor as champion of England, Tom Oliver. He died suddenly in Dublin on February 18 1820, while yet again trying to regain his fortunes in the pub business.

Poor he may have been, but he got a rich man's funeral according to accounts from the time. They report how an 'immense crowd' vied to pull his hearse, ahead of which were carried on a cushion his gloves.

He was buried in the grounds of the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham, though there is nothing there today that marks his grave. But a few days after he was buried, grave-robbers dug up his body and brought it to a Surgeon Hall, who bought such cadavers for study.

Hall is said to have recognised the body, being a member of 'the Fancy' himself, and ordered it to be returned. But not before taking off the right arm as a keepsake. The arm, suitably preserved and lacquered, subsequently spent time in the medical college of Edinburgh University, where it was used in anatomy lessons. Eventually in 1904, after a period when it was part of a travelling show of curiosities, it was bought by Belfast bookmaker and publican 'Texas' McAlevey for display in his Duncairn Arms.

It disappeared for a time after that, apparently into the McAlevey family's attic, before being bought by a wine merchant named Donnelly who presented it to Kilcullen publican Jim Byrne in the early fifties, in recognition of the local connection. For four decades it occupied pride of place over the mantlepiece in the Hideout, becoming an internationally-known attraction in the sleepy little village.

Jim's son Des and his wife Josephine retired from the business a decade ago, but retained the arm as a family heirloom. Des always had a plan to bring it to America for exhibition, as there had always been tremendous interest in it from across the Atlantic. Unfortunately Des passed away last December.

The arrival of the arm for temporary exhibition in the Irish Arts Centre is due to the good offices of Jim Houlihan, a realty adviser in New York. The relic is one of a number of exhibits which will comprise the 'Fighting Irishmen: a celebration of the Celtic Warrior' event, due to be opened officially on September 19 2006 by the actor Liam Neeson.

Dan Donnelly was elected to the Boxing Hall of Fame in 1960.

— Brian Byrne.

NOTE: Here's a link to my memories of the An Tostal Donnelly's Hollow pageants of the early fifties.

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